The decline of the adventure genre saw the demise of many promising careers, but it wasn't the freefall of the point-and-click market that took out Access Software. On the contrary, the Utah-based fixture was a victim of its own success. When Microsoft purchased the studio it seemed like a new beginning for Access, but Puff Daddy said it best when he said "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Their new corporate benefactors may have opened their deep wallets, but they also robbed the studio of their creative control, limiting them to sports titles like Amped, Links, and Top Spin. They were lucky enough to be making games at all, but looking the whole time for a way to do something more.
Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, the director and writer of the Tex Murphy games respectively, have been trying to stage their comeback for some time, but funding is hard to come by, and their ambitions never came to be. Now with Access/Indie Built closed for good, the newly independent ex-employees have an opportunity to do things on their own terms, without having to justify it to anyone.
Aaron and Chris aren't working alone, of course. Composer Matt Heider (Tex Murphy: Overseer, Amped 3), artists Brian Johnson and Doug Vandegrift (Under a Killing Moon, Pandora Directive), and many other veterans of Access/Indie Built join their ranks to form a new company that looks eerily like the old one. Of course, there are limitations to what even these vets can do working in their spare time with no money, but it's clear that Big Finish Games isn't the new kid they might first appear to be.
While Under a Killing Moon was one of the most ambitious games of its time, Three Cards to Midnight arrives with its goals squarely in check. Nostalgic fans might be disappointed to learn that this is not an adventure game in any classic sense of the word, but the fact that Three Cards is actually out makes it more fun than all the planned Tex sequels by default. Instead we have a game with the thick story, atmosphere, and intrigue of a great adventure game, and accessible puzzle gameplay that will appeal to the more casual crowd.
Three Cards may be a simple puzzle game for the casual audience, but it's clear that a lot of passion went into it.
The story is built around a simple frame narrative where Jess Silloway, the story's protagonist, is struggling to regain her lost memories of the last few days with the help of a tarot card reader. To jog her memory, Jess enters locations in her memory with key words in mind. These words appear at the bottom of the screen, and can be paired with objects in the scene to form compound words. For instance, if the keyword "house" is selected, clicking a bird in the scene (to form "birdhouse") will clear one item. Finding all the combinations for a word will trigger a memory, and each stage generally has several to complete.
It's a pretty simple word association scavenger hunt that just about anyone can understand, but some of the connections can get a bit devious. A limited number of hints are available for each stage, and completing most levels without any help can prove to be a serious challenge. Adjustable difficulty levels help to balance things out for those who want an easier ride. It's clear that Big Finish wanted to reach as broad of an audience as possible – an ideology expressed in some of their older Tex games as well, which also boasted hint systems and different play modes.
Each stage works exactly the same way, but many stages also have separate puzzles to unlock. These brain teasers will immediately bring back memories of Pandora Directive or Myst, ranging from word puzzles to math problems. They're fun and some can prove to be real head scratchers, but they can also be bypassed at the cost of your score rating if you're really stuck – even I found myself completely stumped by one particular cipher puzzle.
What really drives this title is the story. While the premise of a woman recovering her memory might sound trite, it's really just a framework to allow the designers to tell the story in short, non-linear snippets. The tone is dark and moody, with a dash of film noir and a sprinkle of Lovecraftian fantasy. There's quite a bit of narrative in the seven hour game, and at times it can even feel a bit hurried. A bit more time to let the character's personalities breathe would have helped, but it's a strong story that will leave you hungry for the next plot twist.
This strength helps to make up for the game's visual shortcomings. The art direction, menus, and interface look great, with an art deco aesthetic that once again conjures up the golden age of cinema that the developers so revere, but the pre-rendered scenes look a bit dated, reminiscent of mid-90s CGI more than today's. To make matters worse, they've been scaled up from a lower resolution, leaving them chunky and distorted. Objects placed in the scene aren't well integrated, looking a bit like Colorforms placed over top of the screen. None of these issues terribly wound the game, but they serve as constant reminders of the constrained budget.
The audio, on the other hand, is surprisingly top-notch. The moody, creepy soundtrack is appropriately melodramatic and retro, and contributes tremendously to the atmosphere. The voice acting is likewise above average, and features a memorable part by Chris Jones, once again playing the role of a world-weary private eye, fitting right into his fedora as if he never took it off. While there are a few questionable actors in the bunch, if you closed your eyes, you'd think this was a much bigger production.
It's easy to look back on the multi-million dollar budgets, high-end 3D graphics, and sprawling adventures boasted by Access Software's '90s output and feel some pangs of nostalgia that might overshadow the reality of this very small, limited production. It's understandable, but the important question is always will always be, "Am I having fun?" And for all of Three Cards' limitations in scope and production, the answer is still "yes."
It's the same question that developers have to ask themselves when making a game, and I'm sure their answer is the same. I'm reminded of cult director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), who recently started making his movies for less than $200,000 rather than fighting through the studio system. After completing one film this way, he's said that he's never had more fun directing films, because he's no longer accountable to anyone's vision but his own, and that's worth the sacrifice in visual quality, big name stars, and special effects. He's right, and it's good to see others coming to the same conclusion. Three Cards may be a simple puzzle game for the casual audience, but it's clear that a lot of passion went into it, and that enthusiasm shows up in the work itself. They've created an accessible game with broad appeal, and while the casual audience can be a fickle mistress, this is an effort that refuses to underestimate the masses.