Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel

More a funeral hymn than a ballad.

Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel

This is not Doctor Who. If you were expecting my view on Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who era, sorry to disappoint. I’ve had a quite crazy start to the year and many of my plans had to be scrapped for one reason or another. Don’t worry, Doctor Who is coming, just… give me more time, okay?

So what have I been doing in the meantime? Well, with a new computer purchased, I could finally return to one of my passions: hidden object games. They’re sort of adventure games but for casual gamers so… mostly a lot easier. You find objects, use said objects in other places to gain more objects until you’ve completed the game. In the past the gameplay consisted mostly of being presented with a cluttered screen of objects and having to find 10 or 12 specific objects in this mess. Sprinkled in between this were little bits of story, some puzzles and a whole lot of inching your mouse cursor around every screen in the game to find all the interactive bits.

As of late, however, there’s a whole lot more adventure in these games than there are hidden objects. Many retailers simply file them under “Adventure” games now and I can’t really blame them. There seems to be an industry wide effort to move away from the hidden object roots and I’m not quite sure why. I’m all for innovation but making it more like adventure games, a genre of games that practically imploded and died in the past, doesn’t seem like it’ll benefit us fans in the long run.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m here today. If you read the title of the post and saw the picture at the top you’ve probably figured out that this has something to do with something called “Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel“. And you’d be right.

“Ballad of Rapunzel” is the seventh entry in the Dark Parables franchise and tells the story of Rapunzel, a princess locked away in a tower. With a dark twist. This Rapunzel is forced against her will to help spread a poisonous pollen across the lands. You, the Fairy Tale Detective, must embark on a journey to Czechoslovakia where the ruins of the ancient kingdom Floralia lies hidden.

Dark Parables’ whole unique selling point is that they take fairy tales and tell them again with even darker themes. Hence the name of the franchise. Other stories they’ve treated and twisted include Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. And I’ve been a fan for quite some time now, the first one I played was the second one, “The Exiled Prince“, and just the idea itself was enough to make me go back and play the first followed by the then existing titles which sadly only consisted of two more.

But now we’re up to seven and… well, it pains me to say it but the franchise is really starting to show some wear and tear. What I once found charming and enjoyable today turn to dust in my proverbial mouth. The game falls under the subgenre of “FROG” which stands for “FRagmented Object Game” and rather than getting a list of different items to find, you’re instead tasked to find pieces of a singular object that’s been fragmented. Once you find all pieces the object reforms and is deposited in your inventory.Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel - Fragmented Object Scene

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with this take on the standard formula, at times I greatly prefer it over the standard hidden object scenes. But where the previous Dark Parables games shone with creativity, this comes across as almost simple. And that boils down to pretty much one single thing: flowers.

Not the concept of flowers themselves, I like flowers as much as the next guy… okay, bad thing to say. My point is, I have nothing against flowers. Some look and smell really nice but I’m not gonna go out of my way to get any flowers for my table either. No, the problem here lies with the abundance of flowers and how it permeates EVERYTHING.

Their presence quickly becomes overbearing and dull to look at. What could be a stunning scene quickly becomes spoiled by flowers cluttering the screen up. And they clutter everything up from beginning to end. There’s themes and then there’s smothering something in pointless imagery. Whatever beautiful art there is quickly diminishes in the face of seeing more flowers.

Even the objects you’re piecing together have flowers covering them. The puzzles are often plant or nature based and the biggest threat the world has ever seen is a flower, apparently. There is no good contrast to weigh it up, you can’t tell a “good” flower from a “bad” one because they all look virtually the same. And then there’s a golem made out of trees or something? And carnivorous plant tentacles?

With nothing to break the theme up it becomes monotonous and eventually I just started seeing flowers as big blobs of color rather than any sort bouquet or bush. And let me tell you, when a theme becomes so tedious you actively ignore it, something’s gone horribly wrong.

And they desperately need to come up with better items to collect than medallions or emblems… or candles… or shields. With flowers friggin’ EVERYWHERE. I mean that, even the swords have ornamental flowers on them. There’s not a piece of jewelry in this kingdom that does not have a flower on it. All the statues have flowers in their hair! The final boss… IS A FLOWER!

I’m pretty sure there were flowers… that had flowers.

Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel - Scenery 1

And I know they can do better graphics than this. Because they have done before. Hell, Blue Tea Games was my go to guys for good looking HOGs (wow, does that sound wrong) but here the art isn’t just not great… it’s below par. There are immediate quality issues that sets them well behind contemporary HOGs but more importantly there’s no great art design flowing through the game. Where previous entries in the series weaved a gorgeous tapestry blending almost horror with colorful fairy tales, here it’s just… run of the mill, standard fantasy with nothing to differentiate it from other titles such as Nearwood or the Awakening franchise.¬†It lacks an identity which is never a problem the Dark Parables games have had before so it’s honestly sort of surprising.

Where’s the dark atmosphere that drew me in in “The Exiled Prince”? Where’s the horror? It’s Dark Parables… DARK… not Flower Parables. That’s a shitty name and even worse idea.

It’s the same, insipid fantasy stuff we’ve been seeing the last few years from a lot of HOG developers and it shows a serious lack of insight into who’s buying this particular franchise. Awakening has its core audience clear in mind with its princess and magic themes but the core of Dark Parables has and always should be… the twisting of the fairy tales.

But this story is barely a twist on the Rapunzel tale. How can you have Rapunzel in a dark fairy tale and not focus on the hair-aspects of the original tale? She has long hair, that’s the one thing everybody remembers and yet that aspect is strangely gone from the game. It was more prevalent in the previous game, “Jack and the Sky Kingdom“, than here and that was a teaser.

Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel - Puzzle
Tilting leaves is not a puzzle. Its a menial task.

And there’s not a lot that saves the game anywhere else. The music is similar the visuals in that it’s… tasteless, no identity. It’s not bad but it just doesn’t do anything for you either. Puzzles are bland and repetitive, a few puzzles return but the difficulty never truly increases with the iterations, quite the contrary in some cases.

Never are you punished for making a mistake and never did I have to use the skip function to get past a puzzle and I can honestly say there are casual games out there that has beaten me to hell and back with their puzzles. But it’s the challenge that I want, if you’re not gonna put the effort into your hidden object scenes then your puzzles better be up to scratch. And here I found them disappointingly lacking. Truthfully, puzzles have never been Dark Parables strongest suit but they’ve never felt this dull before. Or perhaps since playing the previous entry, I’ve gotten smarter or perhaps less forgiving.

And if you can’t deliver in neither puzzles nor hidden objects then the rest of your package better be blowing the competition out of the water and… not to sound like a broken record, man, did they just not reach the previously set bar.

Ultimately I just find so much wrong with this game that it’s almost painful. I love the Dark Parables but whether this game just wasn’t up to par or I’ve fallen out of love with them is something I can’t quite say. But brushing aside the dull art, simple puzzles and forgettable music, where the game really fails me is in the story department. For one, I just don’t understand how you go from a fairy tale about a girl trapped in a tower with really long hair to a story about an evil twin sister and tons and tons of flowers. Where did the flower motif come from here? In “The Exiled Prince” there were a lot of frogs which made sense. In “Red Riding Hood Sisters” a major theme was wolves and the predominant color was red. In “Final Cinderella” it was shoes and in “Jack and the Sky Kingdom” it was… what else, beans. These things make sense because they take elements of the fairy tale and it incorporates it both on the surface and twisting it for the core story.

But flowers? In Rapunzel? Have I forgotten some aspect of the age old tale here? A darker twin sister? What? Why? It feels like they took a generic fantasy story and just named the generic princess “Rapunzel” and then headed down to the pub.

Secondly, I get that they might not have had a plan from the beginning, four years ago. It was one game that happened to turn into one of the biggest HOG franchises. But you’d think by the seventh game they might have a general idea of where they wanted to go with it but they seem to change the story as they go along. Now all of a sudden all the damsels in distress were chosen by the goddess Flora as her apostles or something? Where did THIS come from? I assume, perhaps rather naively, that if you start having a franchise-spanning plot then you plan for it and don’t make shit up as you go along.

The fourth game reinvented the Red Riding Hood as a sisterhood of werewolf hunters. Sixth game portrayed Jack as a dashing, Indiana Jones-type adventurer. Each game populated with strong, positive characters that you loved to get to know but this game is… Rapunzel sings and flowers puke poisonous pollen or something. I just think that SOMEHOW you could do something better with Rapunzel than this. I mean, off the top of my head: Rapunzel is a noblewoman¬†from a hidden civilization where hair is a huge status icon. Someone evil cut Rapunzel’s hair off to shame her but instead she took her hair, made it into a whip and became a wandering warrior.

Done. Next time, just ask me, Blue Tea Games.

What this game lacks isn’t just creativity but energy as well. You can tell that the franchise is running on steam at this point so it’s probably a good thing that another studio has stepped in to take the reins on this franchise while Blue Tea Games focus more on free-to-play mobile games. At first I was deeply disappointed to hear that BTG wasn’t gonna continue working on one of my favorite franchises but having played this, I’m definitely glad they’re letting another studio have a go. That it happens to be a studio I recently discovered and fell in love with only helps the fact.

I did play the Bonus Chapter included with the Collector’s Edition and the puzzles definitely increased in difficulty but that doesn’t change the fact that the core game is easy as hell. The Bonus Chapter also has the better story but obviously it’s very brief, not even taking me an hour to get through, so that might have something to do with it. But the game can’t stand or fall based on whether you forked out the extra dollars to get the Collector’s Edition. If the main feature isn’t good then it doesn’t matter how many extra bits you included for a higher price.

I still highly recommend Dark Parables as a franchise even if it’s gotten a bit shaky as of late. Start from the beginning or with The Exiled Prince and you’re in for a good although possibly short ride. I do intend to play the next game in the series, “The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide” very soon so here’s to hoping it’s better.

Dark Parables: The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide

It already looks a million times more appealing than “Ballad of Rapunzel”…

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