From the pages of the past! FMV games of yesteryear – Dracula Unleashed

Dracula Unleashed 1993

What’s this? An actual FMV game that isn’t terrible? Well, aside from the gameplay, Dracula Unleashed seems to have been one of the FMV adventure genre’s better offerings with a lower average of cheese per scene.

Created by ICOM Productions and published by Viacom New Media in 1993, this CD-ROM gem appeared on both DOS and Macintosh PCs. Sega would also snag the rights to publish it for their Sega CD in the same year.

This was during the early years of the “interactive movie” medium, but for ICOM Simulations, it was another walk in their horror-filled portfolio of fear which included 1986’s Uninvited and 1987’s Shadowgate for Macs. In 1991, they broke FMV ground with Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective which would become the template for Dracula Unleashed.

Unlike the FMV games that have given this approach to game design a bad rap, Dracula Unleashed was one of those stand-out titles that boasted solid production values, decent acting, and well scripted scenes. Their experience with Sherlock Holmes had undoubtedly helped and critics at the time took note of that in looking at their latest offering in ’93.

Taking place in 1899’s London ten years after Dracula’s demise and playing Alexander Morris, brother of Quincy Morris who died in the original story, you’re called back to the city to research the circumstances surrounding what happened to him. Before long, the player is caught up in the truth surrounding Quincy’s death as part of the original troupe that destroyed the infamous vampire. And it turns out that Dracula isn’t quite dead yet.

One of the critical points that reviewers had pointed out about this game was that it’s quite linear, even for an adventure, which was a major problem in their view. For example, if you didn’t have a particular item in your inventory and visited a specific locale, chances are, you might even die because you lack the required item to proceed. There wasn’t much “puzzle solving” as there was in just trying to figure out the right “path” through the game instead.

Modern adventure games, and even those back in the day, were a bit more forgiving — you could revisit scenes and locations without certain items and learned that way on what you might have to do next. Although a number WOULD kill you anyway for making a mistake, there was at least the sense that you still had control over whether you met that fate or not with some prescience. Not so much with Dracula Unleashed which gave its scenes a distinctly on-rails feeling of not being able to do anything more than watch things play out depending on your inventory.

That’s not to say that the game was a total wash play-wise. It challenged players with a real-time schedule as events moved along on their own, much like what Smoking Car Productions’ The Last Express would do years later in 1997. So it was entirely possible to miss certain events by wasting time doing something else. You’re not restricted from traveling around London via horse and carriage, though there’s also travel time worked into every destination. Unfortunately, this also had the habit of killing the player even if they had no idea what they might have missed out on.

The system, then, seemed to create a kind of one-way street for players to figure out — which scenes to visit first, what items to pick up where, and when to use them in order to make the most out of their time. The impression that I would get from reading these impressions was of a pressure-cooker situation that could be brutal requiring an almost Pavlovian need to wash, rinse, and repeat playing out sections of the game at a time to get to the end. While save games helped mitigate this, it also sounds a bit frustrating.

But the FMV bits were actually decent with more than one reviewer mentioning “B-grade horror” that fans may appreciate regardless of the dodgy gameplay elements. The Sega CD version was even given a rating of MA-13 for the gothic horror and blood that would emerge from chasing the Prince of Darkness.

The Sega CD version also proved to be a cult favorite of sorts, though the hardware limitations made the the game look worse on the platform due to its limited color palette of 64 simultaneous colors onscreen versus the PC’s VGA max of 256. It didn’t stop the love, however.

In 2003, Infinite Ventures, who were now the owners of ICOM’s IP, re-released Dracula Unleashed in DVD format with cosmetic improvements such as playing the FMV scenes in full screen as opposed to sharing it with the interface. That you could also play it in a DVD player also removed the need to play it on a specialized device making it accessible to anyone that had one. Unfortunately, Infinite Ventures “disappeared” in 2007 though copies of the DVD version of the game are still floating around out there.

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