Explore secret societies in Esoterica America

Review of Esoterica America on XBLIG: Try
This adventure game has a complex storyline, but is light on gameplay.

I found it hard to pin down this game’s genre in the 8 minute trial. Initially I thought it was a role-playing game or a King’s Quest– or Maniac Mansion-style adventure game, but it’s more of an interactive story punctuated with mini-games. Sam, the game’s protagonist, is given an empty notebook for his 21st birthday, and is sent off on a quest to determine what really happened to his supposedly-dead father. It turns out that his father was involved in various secret societies, so Sam must investigate these and fill his notebook with facts.

The story is told in a minimal black-and-white comic art style. Cutscenes consist of zooming and panning layers of static images. Most cutscenes are voice acted, although the quality of the voice acting varies. Still, the overall presentation is compelling.

The game’s main selling point is the story, but I suspect it may be polarizing. The initial tease of secret societies reminded me of pulp-fiction games like Call of Cthulhu or 7th Sea where societies are played up larger than life. Instead, this is more a straightforward presentation with a New Age or real-world conspiracy-theorist feel. As I’m somewhat skeptical about such things, it didn’t grab me.

However, if you’re into that sort of thing, this game does a great job. The 16 pages of information that Sam collects covers the history and practices of societies such as the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, the Eastern Star, and the Illuminati. The story itself is short, but the cliffhanger ending and the credits imply this is going to be an ongoing tale.

Gameplay ties the story together, but I found it lacking. Much of the game revolves around exploring a room and clicking on any interesting items—this either adds new pages to Sam’s notebook or progresses the story forward. In addition, each of the four lodges requires Sam to undertake a series of challenges to progress. This starts with a meditation minigame, where Sam must dodge distracting thoughts and nullify them with his color-coded mantras. After that, Sam must solve a problem for the lodge’s leader by completing a puzzle.

Progression through the four lodges is completely linear. To travel to the next lodge, Sam must finish his quest at the current location and talk to the right person or click on the right object. Even though all four lodges are shown on the map, Sam can only travel to the next lodge in the sequence. If Sam misses a notebook entry, there’s no way to go back and collect it. Completionists can take heart in the fact that, by skipping the text and cutscenes, the game can be completed in less than an hour.

Overall, I give Esoterica America a Try. There is a complex story as well as loads of supporting content. It’s not the sort of fantasy or sci-fi you’d expect to find in an adventure game, and I applaud the developers for thinking outside the box. However, from my experience, if the story doesn’t grab you in the trial period, the gameplay probably won’t be enough to make you stick around.


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