Secrets of Da Vinci

Most games are mediocre.

This isn’t, I think, a huge surprise to anyone, but it does at least offer one great hope: that you’ll start playing a game and find that it’s better than you expected it to be. This happened to me recently with Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript. Not to be confused with the book, movie, and game The Da Vinci Code.

As I believe I’ve let slip before, I’m a sucker for the Myst series of games. Da Vinci is very Myst-like in interface and presentation, with elements of the old LucasArts adventures in the way you interact with objects. One problem I’ve always had with Myst and its ilk is just how abstract the puzzles are. “Pressing this button causes these oblong shapes to roll down a tube and fly into the air. If you’ve aligned these Three Mysterious Dials just right, the oblongs will smash against the Big Machine With The Levers. If you had previously set the levers right, the Big Machine With The Levers will let out a blast of steam. That will disturb the nest of pterodactyls who live in the Big Stripey Rock Thing, who will fly out and accidentally trigger the Blue Glowy Thing That I Guess Must Be A Big Stripey Rock Thing Key, which causes the Big Stripey Rock Thing to open, revealing the next world.

Yes, I realize that the reason the puzzles in this sort of game are this way is because figuring out what these mysterious things are is as much fun as figuring out how to advance in the game. And when it’s done well, it’s great: mysterious, enigmatic, yet compelling. But sometimes, when done poorly, “mysterious and enigmatic” isn’t compelling, it’s just pretentious and irritating.

The puzzles in Secrets of Da Vinci, contrariwise, are refreshingly concrete, while still being challenging. To take just one example, you find a metal plate, and a printing press, but no paper or ink. So, you need to make paper. Also, ink. As well as figuring out, along the way, how to repair and operate a watermill and a printing press.

All of this takes place in a well-fleshed out storyline: it is shortly after Leonardo Da Vinci has died. You’re a disgraced and discharged apprentice of Count Francesco Melzi, who has been hired by an anonymous benefactor. He has sent you to Da Vinci’s chateau, Clos Lucé in Amboise, France, shortly after his death. Your mission is to find Da Vinci’s notebooks. Seducing the Countess along the way is strongly encouraged.

Secrets of Da Vinci was originally a European game, and there are a few very small localization bugs. But they’re truly minor. The puzzles are engaging, clever, plausible, and the subject matter is entrancing. The exterior of the mansion is that of Clos Lucé; I can’t say how authentic the interiors are, but they certainly feel right.

As your character progresses through the game you will make choices that will influence your moral standing. Your morality, in turn, will allow or disallow certain other actions. This adds a little more depth to a game which, if it simply had the puzzles, plot, and scripting that it already had, was already quite deep.

I didn’t seek out this game. It came to me. But I like it a lot, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has been wondering “where have all the good adventure games gone?”

The game is published by Tri- Synergy, and is Windows-only. It retails for $29.99, and is available from Amazon.com for a bit less. Disclosure statement: the publisher graciously provided me with a review copy of this game.