Just when it seemed traditional graphic adventures were going the way of the afro and bell-bottom jeans, we’ve see a recent resurgence in the genre with Toonstruck, Sherlock Holmes, and even Leisure Suit Larry, bringing back the excitement of narrow escapes, gathering unrelated objects to solve puzzles, and studio quality animation to the PC screen. Virgin’s Circle of Blood is among the best of this renaissance, with its thrilling blend of quality puzzling, sumptuous graphics, and intelligent story line.
Like classic adventures of the past, Circle of Blood builds a convincing story from diverse elements and lays interesting groundwork for exploration, puzzling, and surprise. The game starts with a scene of a quaint Parisian cafe as the main character, George Stobbart, flirts harmlessly with an attractive waitress, and an old man walks in with a briefcase. An obnoxious clown saunters into the cafe with an accordion, snags the briefcase, and leaves his accordion behind, which explodes, killing the old man and destroying the cafe. George, unharmed but shaken by the explosion, starts looking for clues to the bombing, the death of the old man, and the identity of the clown. The trail leads him to the mysterious Knights Templar -- a medieval sect believed to be the protectors of the Holy Grail -- and the location of their secret treasure, still missing after centuries.
As you progress through the game you’ll grow ever-closer to this mysterious sect and face countless dangers as you talk to deceitful characters, test your wits against ingenious puzzles and explore strange new locations. Thankfully, getting around in Circle of Blood is a breeze because of the fairly standard graphic adventure interface. The mouse icon changes to indicate any hotspots or areas of interest, and a right-click of the mouse will deliver information, while a left-click performs an appropriate action. Even with the no-fault nature of the interface, the puzzles are surprisingly inventive and challenging. However, some require a specific location to activate, and thus some puzzles become a mine-sweeping exercise as you have to move the cursor everywhere to make sure you’re not missing a hot-spot only a few pixels wide.
Conversations with other characters are carried out by selecting topics or choosing an item to ask about. The method is simple enough, but somewhat limiting. Although you can always ask about any object you’re carrying, you can only ask about topics presented to you, rather than choosing exactly what you want to say. You may not need to ask the assassin hunting you about an old lady you met in a hotel, but it would be nice if you could.
Visually, the game is stunning. The animated graphics are crisp and clear, and the artwork is simply beautiful. At the highest setting, the background and foreground scroll separately, delivering a sense of depth you don’t see in many graphic adventures. For slower machines, you can turn this off, but it won’t make a huge difference in speed. Even the atmosphere of each of the areas you explore, such as Spain, Paris, Ireland, and Syria, fit the locale: in Paris you hear the constant noise of the roads and highways, whereas Syria is draped in carpets and merchandise, with vendors constantly clamoring in the background.
But despite all the wonderful touches that make the game look and feel like a big-budget Disney epic, the weakest part of the game is the voice acting, which saps some of the excitement. Although the actor portraying the main character does a good job, the other characters are a bit lacking. Some of the accents are just plain awful, as is the case with Sergeant Moue. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was infrequent in the game, but many of the characters are so completely off the mark -- and, at times, so annoying -- that you’ll probably switch the text subtitles on and turn the speech off.
As a whole, though, Circle of Blood is a fun graphic adventure. The story is compelling, the puzzles are varied, and the interface becomes second nature very quickly. Aside from only a few shortcomings, it’s an entertaining game that may not blow everyone away, but if you’re a traditional adventure fan that yearns for the days of old, it’s an adventure you can rely on.
-- Mike Wolf