Madness for most of us lies just a few synaptic misfires away. Life--at least among most people I know--is a random walk along the razor's edge dividing reality and insanity, redemption and damnation, light and darkness.
That uneasy balance drives "Light and Darkness: The Prophecy," an engrossing and disturbing real-time PC adventure that wraps players in ethereal carnivals where evil and despair lurk just beneath the surface. Few games create the kind of atmosphere and suspense that "Light and Darkness" makes appear so easy.
From the first instant, "Light and Darkness" embarks aggressively on a fantastic story that draws from biblical prophecy, Olmec mythology, Druid legend, tabloid headlines, Greek tragedies and the predictions of a prophetic stripper named Angel.
Only in video games. Or the rantings of a psychotic.
Tied together neatly with innovative game play, rendered beautifully by artist Gil Bruvel and pulled off convincingly by the voices of James Woods and Lolita Davidovich, "Light and Darkness" is truly a work of dark genius.
Players awake somewhere between heaven and hell in a surreal bachelor pad--complete with killer stereo, oversized gum ball machine and demonic jack-in-the-box. These are the end times, when thousands of years of human carelessness have finally taken their toll on the planet. An unseen court commands the Chosen One to embark on a mission of redeeming the apparitions who herald impending doom.
But essentially, "Light and Darkness" is a treasure hunt.
The Village of the Damned is inhabited by the souls of famous madmen, perverts, egomaniacs and other rogues. They are the minions of the dark lord Gar Hob, who plans to toss the world into 1,000 years of darkness, and each was damned for one of the seven deadly sins.
Ivan the Terrible, for instance, was proud. Clown-painting serial killer John Wayne Gacy was angry. Armaments maker Alfred Krupp was greedy. Each apparition has a related artifact, which connects them to their sins. Ivan, for instance, has a sword. Gacy has a clown face. Krupp has a cannon.
In addition, each apparition falls under one of six different-colored stars. By collecting blue, green and red light orbs around the village, players can combine them to create flashes of different colors. Mix green and red, for instance, to create yellow.
Finally, each sin has its own room. The Hall of Lust looks like a sadomasochistic massage parlor. The Hall of Pride is a small theater. Is it just coincidence that the Hall of Anger sits adjacent to the Office?
Players collect artifacts and then figure out who owns them, what color star they fall under and what sin they represent. This sleuthing takes up most of the game. Once players know who belongs to what and where, it's a simple matter of combining artifacts and light in the right room to redeem an apparition.
Simple enough, but this is a real-time adventure and the clock ticks away the whole time. Waste too much time and the world ends. That means you--and about 5 billion other people--lose.
Along the way, players are treated to revelations about the stripper prophet, voiced by Davidovich, and Gar Hob, voiced by Woods. What's her sin? Can she be redeemed? It's actually fairly interesting, not at all the slop that generally passes for cinematic interludes in most games.
Where "Light and Darkness" excels, though, is in its visuals. Bruvel's Village of the Damned looks like a psychotic Disneyland. The portrayal of realms beyond death usually gets simplified into two extremes: happy, cloudy pony land or steaming caves staffed by demons. Bruvel's vision is not nearly so easy.
Bright lights drown a dark sky. Gay music masks worries about automobile emissions. Smiles hide self-loathing. The game's humor--both visual and aural--only heighten the odd sense that, despite what we see and hear, nothing is right.
But in "Light and Darkness," that feeling is what makes everything right as it leads players through a world where madness and sanity are indistinguishable.
The game requires a Pentium 90 running Windows 95 with 16 megabytes of RAM, but runs better on a Pentium 133 or higher with 32mb of RAM. I played on a Pentium II 333 with 64mb of RAM and it screamed. On my Pentium 100 with 16mb of RAM, it was pretty sluggish.
'Azure Dreams': In all the right ways, "Azure Dreams" for Sony PlayStation is a traditional adventure game. Players access inventory, trade items with friendly townspeople, fight bad guys and become stronger with each battle.
But "Azure Dreams" is also a nontraditional adventure game--again, in all the right ways. Players train monsters to do their bidding, wind through mazes that change with each visit, save money to make municipal improvements and woo members of the opposite sex.
The combination makes for a surprisingly good time, although some of the on-screen dialogue rambles on a little. Players can capture monster eggs and raise them to be fierce warriors or sell them to raise money for municipal improvements such as recreation centers or casinos.
It's no easy task. The Monster Tower sits under a spell that changes its layout with every visit. Doors, elevators, corridors--everything is fresh with every game, providing the kind of long-term playability absent from most adventure games.
'Shining Force III': It would probably be more efficient to simply e-mail my review of "Shining Force III" to the players who still use their Sega Saturns. But since I don't know both of their e-mail addresses, here goes--briefly.
This third--and, obviously, final--installment of Saturn's best adventure series lives up to its reputation. Everything moves and works as it should as players explore huge environments. Nicest feature: the ability to spin the screen in every direction to get a better view of the action.
Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in The Cutting Edge. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Light and Darkness: The Prophecy
* Platform: PC
* Publisher: Interplay
* ESRB* rating: Teen
* Price: $44.95
* Bottom line: Toes the line between madness and sanity
* Platform: Sony PlayStation
* Publisher: Konami
* ESRB rating: Everyone
* Price: $39.95
* Bottom line: A new challenge every time
Shining Force III
* Platform: Sega Saturn
* Publisher: Sega
* ESRB rating: Everyone
* Price: $49.99
* Bottom line: A solid adventure
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