It's almost enough to make you wish you'd saved your money and gone to Disneyland instead: George Stobbard, a young Californian on holiday in Paris, is soaking up the ambience at a sidewalk cafe when a man dressed as a clown barges past. A moment later, BOOM!...the place is blown to smithereens, leaving a man inside dead. While the French probably have some sort of law against the obstruction of justice, especially by foreigners, George gets a load of the Clouseau-like French detective attempting to investigate the bombing--and decides to take matters into his own hands.
So begins CIRCLE OF BLOOD, an adventure game from UK developer Revolution, published by Virgin Interactive. The story revolves around the legend of the Knights Templar, an order of knights founded by a French nobleman in the 1100s to protect travelers to Jerusalem during the Crusades. Despite taking vows of poverty and generally conducting themselves in a monklike manner, the Knights managed to amass significant wealth over the next two centuries. Their flair for matters financial attracted the attention of King Philip IV, who had been casting about for ways to fund his war against England. Needing a way to discredit the Knights and seize their gold, Philip resorted to the ever-popular accusation of devil worship, and before the order was officially dissolved in 1312, the Knights were subjected to torture and persecution.
By The Sword
That much is historical fact, but in CIRCLE OF BLOOD this is where the story takes off. Legend holds that the Knights were far wealthier than anyone guessed, and their treasure still lies buried somewhere, awaiting discovery, along with a supernatural sword believed to be the apex of their power. It seems that a medieval document that might be a map of the Knights' hidden secrets has recently been discovered, and lots of dangerous types--including a guy who dresses in funny costumes to murder his victims--are after it. Throw in a rival group that models itself after the bloodthirsty Assassin sect, and a beautiful photojournalist who may or may not be what she seems, and George can kiss his plans for a quiet vacation goodbye.
Gameplay is typical adventure fare. George checks out likely locations for clues, talks to everyone he can, pieces together bits of the story and gets himself into messy situations. CIRCLE has one of the cleanest interfaces I've ever seen in an adventure game. Using the now-familiar hotspot routine, the cursor changes when it passes over objects or people with which he can interact. If he can pick up an object, he puts it in his pocket for later use, and it appears in a drop-down bar at the top of the screen. When he talks to someone, the subjects he can bring up for discussion are displayed as icons across the bottom of the screen.
I'm Talking And I Can't Shut Up
CIRCLE is at its best when George is talking with one of the many supporting characters. The script is witty (though uneven in places), peppered with comical types eager to use George as a straight man for their sly repartee. Especially memorable are a young Arab street trader who picked up his command of the English language from P. G. Wodehouse, and a janitor with a special fondness for his floor polisher. Don't get me wrong: this game is hardly a TOONSTRUCK or a SAM 'N' MAX. The humor is not the focus, but it provides a nice counterpoint to the often lengthy and involved lectures about Knights Templar lore that reveal further clues.
In fact, most of the game's riddles are solved through conversation, sometimes in surprising ways, so it pays to click on most, if not all, of the icons that appear during a discussion, even though it might seem ridiculous at first to broach a particular subject with a given character. Abundant save game slots make it easy to restore and try again if saying the wrong thing prompts a dead end...literally.
George gets around through a map interface very similar to the one used in Sierra's GABRIEL KNIGHT 2: THE BEAST WITHIN. When someone mentions someplace new, it appears on the map and George can travel there. When he's done everything he can at that location, it becomes grayed-out on the map.
CIRCLE's designers deserve applause for displaying restraint in the puzzle department. Most of the puzzles are plot-based (the sole exception being a single, not-at-all-difficult chess problem), with nary a maze nor an arcade game in sight to artificially lengthen play. The sometimes endless conversations take up quite enough time by themselves. Granted, there are a couple of instances where George needs to be nimble on his feet, but they're not so frustrating as to bring the game to a standstill. If there is anything wrong with the puzzles at all, it's that they're too easy. Veteran gamers won't find much to challenge them and may even get frustrated by the lack of depth.
The designers also deserve kudos for CIRCLE's very elegant look. Following the current trend away from live actors and full-motion video, CIRCLE wisely opts for lush, layered animation and hand-drawn backgrounds by artists formerly with Don Bluth Studios (An American Tale). The game also features a conceit from animated films that works well in the context of a computer game, that of drawing the main characters realistically, while taking more cartoonish liberties with the secondary characters. The music, too, is reminiscent of animated features, often swelling triumphantly when George solves a puzzle and is back off in hot pursuit of the bad guys.
Though things start off a little slowly at first, CIRCLE OF BLOOD's story is engaging--reminiscent of a Jane Jensen (GABRIEL KNIGHT) game in its historic detail or a good Tintin comic in its globe-trotting adventurousness. I would have liked to see Nico, George's romantic interest, get involved more often--it doesn't make sense that he would trust her so completely right off the bat--and a few other plot points don't hold up well under close examination. But overall, CIRCLE OF BLOOD is a classy, entertaining adventure--perfect for whiling away a few dark winter evenings.
By Kate Hedstrom