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Lora's Game Reviews: Fun Computer Games For Busy People

Being a CRPG/adventure game aficianado whose gaming time has been cut drastically short over the past few years by the arrival of my two children, I find myself losing patience with a game more and more frequently these days. I just don't have hours to spend trying every item in my inventory on a mysterious column anymore, nor is the tedium of that really what I buy computer games for. Basically, I like plot, I like characters, and I like role-playability, as much as a computer game can deliver such things; I like puzzles with satisfying rather than random solutions, and I like building up characters, exploring a rich environment, and finding interesting things.

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I don't like repetitive and unrewarding tasks like inventory management or walking back and forth across large empty screens, I don't like long combats with pointless wandering monsters, I don't like having to make a daybook about which NPCs are in which building at 2 PM on a weekday, and I don't like mapping out frustrating 3D mazes by hand. I'm indifferent to fancy graphics, and realtime play is a huge pain in the ass anymore.

Though there aren't really any computer games out there targeting that particular mix of desires, there are several that come delightfully close. So here, for the benefit of my game-playing friends and anyone else who might be interested, is my personal list of top role-playing and adventuring favorites--complete with game reviews, advice about how to get around bugs and inconveniences in the games, and, in many cases, low-spoiler walkthrough guides. I've found that a nice compendium of subtle hints and tips can help turn a game that's partially what I'm looking for into a fun experience, but most walkthroughs ruin the experience by providing me with unwanted plot and puzzle spoilers, precisely the parts I don't want spoiled. My own walkthroughs are written with that in mind, letting you know whether you've missed any cool quests or things to do in any of the game areas without spilling the beans on what happens when you do them. If you're looking for a more explicit puzzle solution, I recommend the Ultimate Hint System pages, which are uniquely set up to reveal only one hint at a time.

One final note about genres: computer role-playing games generally include tactical combat and gradual development of your characters' abilities as major gameplay components (think Ultima, or Wizardry), while computer adventure games generally do not (think Zork, or Myst). As with any other attempt at defining genres, this one is inexact, and excellent games from either tradition will share many of the same traits: an overarching storyline, many smaller quests to be completed, puzzles of differing styles, areas to be explored, an inventory to be used, and characters (NPC's) to interact with. As long as a game contains all these elements, I've reviewed it here without prejudice as to whether it's more of a "role-playing game" or more of an "adventure game." Although I also enjoy playing other genres of computer games, particularly strategy wargames (think Civilization) and building games (think SimCity), gameplay is so different for those puppies that there's almost no sense reviewing them on the same page. Maybe someday I'll put up a new site with all my favorite strategy games on it, but for now... well, let the adventures begin!

Good Computer Games for Busy People

Anything with a rating of 5 or more is worth playing, anything with a 7 or more is worth a special trip to the software store. (-: You can find my general gaming philosophy and review criteria at the Backseat Game Designer, if you're curious. Happy gaming!

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (Release Date: 2000)
Baldur's Gate 2 is an AD&D-based, six-character epic role-playing adventure of expansive scope, and it is the closest a game has come yet to matching my criteria: fantastic quests with multiple solutions, a rich and detailed gameworld, and deeply interactive subplots with NPCs who remember reactions you had to them five conversations ago. Surprisingly good voice acting is another highlight.

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Planescape: Torment (Release Date: 1999)
Created by the same team who made the Baldur's Gate series, Planescape Torment is more experimental in style and highly dependent on atmosphere--luckily for us, the atmosphere is excellent. Memorable characters, a dark, gothic mood, and an engrossing musical score carry a plot which is more philosophical than heroic.

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The Longest Journey (Release Date: 2000)
The Longest Journey is an absorbing fantasy-adventure epic light on action but brimming with rich characters, a meaningful plot, and more interactivity than most adventure games offer. That and the profound sense of wonder evoked by the gameworld make it my choice for best graphic adventure ever.

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The Witcher (Release Date: 2007)
Based on a Polish series of fantasy-adventure novels, this is the most visually breathtakingly CRPG I've ever played. Normally that isn't my main criterion for gaming excellence, but luckily The Witcher is also a complex, morally ambiguous epic full of intricate quests that can be solved in multiple ways, each of which will still be having ramifications three chapters later. My only real complaint is that you have no choice but to play the main character from the novel as your PC, which limits the game's replayability.

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Sanitarium (Release Date: 1999)
A little gem of a horror game, following the surreal travels of a man who may be amnesiac, may be insane, may be dreaming, or may be the victim of a deadly medical conspiracy... or perhaps more than one of the above. A puzzle-based adventure game in the tradition of Zork, but with sumptuous graphics and an eerie plot whose baffling twists and turns really do all make sense in the end.

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Grim Fandango (Release Date: 1998)
One of the most original 3D adventure games ever, Grim Fandango features a good plot overflowing with creative puzzles and a funky film-noir/magical realism ambience. (The stylized skeletons are straight out of Mexican folk tradition.) Unfortunately the gameplay suffers from frustrating interface flaws, but none of them are insurmountable; and this clever, offbeat game is well worth the trouble.

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Oblivion (Release Date: 2006)
This action-adventure CRPG offers incredible detail, gorgeous graphics, interesting story arcs including some that are highly interactive, and by far the most customizable main character available in a PC game to date. The only downside is a rather low ratio of meaningful and challenging plot developments to mundane occurences, which can give the game a somewhat sterile feel in places.

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Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (Release Date: 2001)
This is really just an add-on for the excellent Shadows of Amn; it does not stand well on its own. It puts a strong finish to the Baldur's Gate saga, however, with everything from high-level combat feats and new artifacts through satisfying resolutions to long-running dramatic subplots. Anyone who enjoyed Shadows of Amn will appreciate this final chapter of the epic.

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Wizardry 8 (Release Date: 2001)
Wizardry 8 has one of the most wonderfully intuitive and convenient interfaces I've seen in a CRPG, though there's little that's innovative in the game itself. Basic plot and par-for-the-course quests buoyed by satisfying character development, pleasant 3D navigation, and entertaining voicesets. If you're looking to recreate that classic six-character CRPG feel without dealing with annoying archaic graphics and interfaces, this is definitely the game for you.

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The Black Mirror (Release Date: 2003)
This Czech adventure game scared the crap out of me on more than one occasion, which is probably the best compliment I could pay to a murder mystery. Black Mirror's gameplay is slow in places and it's difficult to identify with the main character, over whom you have little control. Despite these flaws, the absorbing storyline, stunning graphics, and wonderfully menacing ambience put this high on my list of games not to miss.

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Syberia (Release Date: 2002)
Syberia feels like a cross between playing Myst and watching an Ingmar Bergman movie. The gameworld is engrossing, the story is lyrical and moving, the scenery is beautiful, and the mechanical contraptions that make up the game's puzzles are original and convey an odd sense of industrial wistfulness. This French adventure game has a rigidly linear plot and its puzzles are very easy to solve, but the delicately haunting plot and fascinating characters make it fun to play just the same.

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Syberia 2 (Release Date: 2004)
This isn't a sequel so much as it is the second half of a single game, and so it shares nearly all the strengths, weaknesses, and beauties of the original to a tee. If you've already played the original Syberia and enjoyed the experience, then by all means get Syberia 2; it's just as good, and has a slightly improved interface. If you haven't played the original Syberia yet, though, you really should play that one first.

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Morrowind (Release Date: 2002)
Morrowind starts off slow, with a long, boring, aimless-feeling early game in which delivering a letter seems to be the highlight of your character's life. If you can wait that part out, though, there's a terrific game waiting for you on the other side. Excellent character development, quests with more than one solution, and open-ended gameplay help compensate for the terrible pacing and mediocre interface of this first-person CRPG.

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Ultima VII (Release Date: 1992)
One of the best CRPG's of all time, Ultima VII features memorable characters, a richly interactive setting, and a plot that burns from the first beat. Unfortunately, the game does not work with Windows 2000, XP, or most modern sound cards, and it requires special software and a boot disk to run even on older systems. The most difficult puzzle in Ultima VII can be getting the thing to start. A clunky interface and lack of customizability also interfere with the entertainment value somewhat.

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Return to Krondor (Release Date: 1997)
Return to Krondor is the sequel to the fine old DOS game Betrayal at Krondor, and like its predecessor, this game foists pre-assigned characters on you and frequently rearranges your party to suit its rather linear plot. If you can get past that, though, Return to Krondor does a good job combining some of the better features of CRPG's and graphic adventure games, offering up an excellent story, memorable gameplay, interactive quests, surprisingly well-written dialogue, and fun skill-based character development.

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Gothic 2 (Release Date: 2003)
Gothic II is a solid CRPG with an interactive gameworld and excellent open-ended problem-solving. Its luster is somewhat diminished by a clumsy interface and a main character over whom you have little control, but it's still easy to lose yourself in this game's deeply immersive play.

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Siege of Avalon (Release Date: 2000)
It's rare that a computer game I pick out of the bargain bin turns out to be worth the effort, but this low-budget CRPG was a pleasant surprise. Siege of Avalon is a well-written and capably executed game, marred by excessive travel time and some problems with combat balance, but overall a fun and satisfying epic.

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Realms of Arkania Trilogy (Release Date: 1997)
These were originally German releases, and for some reason they never really caught on in the US (despite Wizardry developer SirTech picking up the titles). Our loss; they're good games. The first two suffer from the clunkiness you'd expect from games their age ("Blade of Destiny" was released in 1993), but there's much to enjoy in them anyway, especially the cool dungeons; the third and final game, Shadows Over Riva, is an all-around winner.

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Icewind Dale (Release Date: 2000)
Another offering from Black Isle Studios, who brought us the spectacular Baldur's Gate series. Icewind Dale is an old-school AD&D hack-and-slash adventure, so don't buy it hoping for another BG2--Icewind Dale is linear, has little plot or character interaction, and very few puzzles. It's a good solid dungeon romp, though, with fun character advancement, interesting combat sequences, and a soundtrack that's worth the price of the game on its own.

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Myst (Release Date: 1993)
Myst didn't deserve its reputation as the best puzzle-adventure game of all time, in my opinion--I solved more of its puzzles through trial and error than a satisfying use of logic. The absorbing mood of this classic game is rightly acclaimed, however, and despite the interface limitations and obvious datedness of the graphics, Myst's haunting and interactive gameworld still feels more immersive than most games on the market today.

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Arcanum: of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (Release Date: 2001)
This one is really a mixed bag. The steampunk concept is wonderfully original, character development is fun, and the game features a large number of very flexible quests with multiple solutions. Unfortunately there's no customizability, little interactivity, the NPCs are two-dimensional and annoying, and the gameplay is buggy and wretchedly slow. It's still worth playing through once to unpack the clever quests and steampunky goodness, but this is only a game for dedicated CRPG fans with plenty of patience to spare.

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Exile (Release Date: 2002)
The third in the "Myst" series of puzzle-adventure games, Exile has an interesting storyline, good puzzles, and fantastic visuals (the still shot here simply does not do the graphics justice), but the plot has little to do with the player and the gameworld rarely evokes the same sense of wonder the original Myst did.

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Dark Fall (Release Date: 2003)
I have to take my hat off to a game that can make itself this frightening without any blood or gore whatsoever. The spooky ambience and suspensefulness in Dark Fall are truly impressive. If only the puzzles in this game had been less simplistic, it could have been another Myst. As is, this is more of an interactive novella than a puzzle game; but just the same, it's fun to play.

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The Curse of Monkey Island (Release Date: 1997)
This cartoon adventure features a smooth interface, good voice acting, and lots of humor; unfortunately the puzzles are a little simplistic, and the plot is very cliched. If you're fond of puns, repartee, and one-liners about piracy and pop culture, this game makes a quick but fun romp.

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And Then There Were None (Release Date: 2005)
This point-and-click adventure is based on the classic Agatha Christie mystery novel and play, but even if you've read the book, it still won't spoil the game; the identity of the murderer has been changed (something the mystery's plot was written to easily accomodate.) It's a fun playthrough, hampered somewhat by a time-wasting interface and a dearth of interesting puzzles.

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Nancy Drew Series (Release Date: 2000-2010)
This modern adventure game franchise is up to 21 games by now, and except for the awkward first game, the quality is very consistent. Though the Nancy Drew games are aimed at young teens, their interesting plots, evocative settings, and well-written dialogue make them fun for adult players as well; downsides include their repetitive, simplistic gameplay and very small scope (only four NPCs and 10-15 rooms to explore per game, with a play time of no more than 10 hours apiece.)

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Return to Mysterious Island (Release Date: 2004)
This is a fun little adventure game lacking in depth and breadth (it takes only six hours to complete and ends very abruptly), but notable for its flexible and creative problem-solving, offering multiple possible solutions to most obstacles.

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Keepsake (Release Date: 2006)
If you enjoy puzzles and have a lot of patience, this can be a great game-- the quality and variety of puzzles is excellent, and the plot is interesting enough to keep you involved. Unfortunately Keepsake also has some of the slowest and most passive gameplay I've ever encountered before, and since animations and lines of dialogue are unskippable, there's no respite from it. If you can get past that, this game is a diamond in the rough.

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Nibiru (Release Date: 2005)
This supernatural thriller is the re-release of a 1999 graphic adventure game from Europe, and though the updated graphics and interface are state-of-the-art, the mediocre writing and rudimentary gameplay make it feel somewhat dated and clunky despite itself. Still, Nibiru gets your adrenaline rushing in places, and there are some memorably intriguing puzzles in here making it an overall pleasant playing experience.

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Wizards and Warriors (Release Date: 2000)
From its standard plot through its just-barely-tweaked roster of classic Wizardry races, this game strives to recreate the feel of early-90's games like Might and Magic IV and V and Wizardry 6 and 7--and it succeeds, but unfortunately, it also recreates all the gameplay and interface aggravations of that era that other computer games have since improved on. If you're already a fan of classic games, you're likely to enjoy Wizards and Warriors in spite of these irritations, but if you're used to the flexibility and interactivity of modern CRPG's, you may be disappointed.

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Might and Magic 9 (Release Date: 2002)
Decent but non-compelling old-school CRPG. The main plot's pretty good but has no flexibility; there are tons of quests, but most of them just involve ferrying objects back and forth; the graphics are nice enough but the interface isn't. The Might and Magic game system has been substantially improved for this edition, but the game itself feels mailed in.

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Myst 4: Revelation (Release Date: 2004)
The fourth installment in the "Myst" saga, Revelation features beautiful graphics, clever puzzles, and a convenient interface; unfortunately, none of this can mask the fact that it is largely a stale retread of previous Myst games.

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Secret Files: Tunguska (Release Date: 2006)
This conspiracy adventure game is serviceable but overly formulaic, featuring a smooth interface and nice graphics but not much in the way of originality.

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Worlds of Xeen Trilogy (Release Date: 1994)
This trilogy of classic CRPG's shows its age in its chunky isometric graphics and turn-based combat, but oddly enough it's still fun a decade later--and unlike many classic games, it plays straight out of the box (no MoSlo or painstaking reconfigurations of your computer necessary). The main plot is dull and most of the quests are fed-ex style, but there are several memorable exceptions (including building your own castle), and it's all in all a fun playthrough.

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Schizm (Release Date: 2001)
One of the better Myst-like adventure games, Schizm compensates for its formulaic gameplay and aggravating interface with an engaging sci-fi storyline, a bevy of challenging puzzles, and the ability to switch back and forth between protagonists, Zak McKracken-style. The graphics on the DVD release are quite beautiful, too.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth (Release Date: 2003)
This imaginative graphic adventure game is marred by interface woes and glitchy puzzles, but serves up a clever bifurcating plot that allows players to choose different endings depending on their perceptions of the heroine's priorities. Plus dinosaurs. Who can say no to dinosaurs?

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Wizardry Gold/Wizardry 7 (Release Date: 1996)
Wizardry Gold is just about the campiest game ever written, but if that doesn't bother you--and if you have the patience for the long, tedious combat sequences common to the early Wizardry games--then the interesting plot, smooth interface, great character development system, and extensive customizability of Wizardry Gold make this classic CRPG worth revisiting.

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Physicus (Release Date: 1999)
An otherwise unmemorable Myst clone with a twist: it's for kids age 10-15, and it teaches real-world physics in a science-fiction setting. Written originally by a German science teacher, Physicus offers little to hold an adult gamer's attention for long, but it's much more engaging than other educational software I've seen for this age bracket, never talks down to kids, and comes with a surprisingly good interactive physics encyclopedia that's useful as a study aid long after the game has been completed.

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Ultima IV, V, and VI (Release Date: 1985-1990)
This trilogy defined classic role-playing games in their era, and each expanded the genre's scope in some innovative way. Ultima 4 tasked your character, not to slay an overlord or retrieve an object, but to complete a complex spiritual journey. Ultima 5 had a revolutionary plot and interactive characters. Ultima 6 turned the mythology of the series on its head and forced the main character to examine his or her beliefs from a new angle. This classic trilogy has not aged well (the interface is unpleasant, dungeons and combat are aggravating, and the graphics are extremely dated), but the freshness and wonder of the gameworld still shines through if you have the patience for it.

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Riven (Release Date: 1997)
A disappointing sequel to the classic puzzle game 'Myst,' Riven has lovely graphics and does feature original and challenging puzzles but is hampered by a boring plot and agonizingly slow gameplay. Serious puzzle enthusiasts with a healthy store of patience will still enjoy this game, but most gamers will probably be more interested in the other Myst titles than in Riven.

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Chemicus (Release Date: 2002)
This sequel to Physicus is a boilerplate first-person graphic adventure with an educational twist: all the puzzles are based on real-world chemical experiments. With its minimal plot and dull gameplay, Chemicus offers little to hold an adult gamer's attention for long, but my kids turned out to be really interested in creating explosions and throwing things into virtual vats of acid. This game could make a real find for kids and younger teens who enjoy science fairs and/or graphic adventures.

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The Sinking Island (Release Date: 2008)
The Sinking Island was written by the same game designer who brought us the Syberia games, and it is another beautifully illustrated game with an interesting plot. Unfortunately, it is hard to enjoy it because of the boring, repetitive gameplay. The Sinking Island would be a worthwhile choice for gamers who just enjoy watching a memorable story unfold, but if you like to take a more active role in computer games, you are likely to be disappointed.

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Mystery of the Mummy (Release Date: 2002)
This basic 3D puzzle-game aimed for Sherlock Holmes and came out closer to Scooby-Doo; players wander around a genuinely creepy old mansion randomly bumping into secret doors, solving puzzles, and wondering whether their adversaries are really undead monsters or just faking it. It's fun, and many of the puzzles are clever, but Sherlock Holmes seems glaringly out of place here, and the game is marred by irritating timed sequences, tedious inventory puzzles, and a lack of input into the mystery plot the game is supposed to be about.

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The Omega Stone (Release Date: 2003)
Far superior to its execrable predecessor Riddle of the Sphinx, Omega Stone suffers from a dull plot, improbable puzzles, and way too much pixel-hunting, but has a much improved interface and makes a decently fun play-through if you enjoy Mystlike games and are good at suspending your disbelief.

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Escape From Monkey Island (Release Date: 2000)
The dumb inventory puzzles and cliched rerun of a plot would have been forgiveable if the gameplay of this cartoon adventure had been as low-maintenance and enjoyable as its equally light-hearted predecessor, Curse of Monkey Island; instead, LucasArts inexplicably decided to use the subtle, difficult-to-control interface from their artsy magical-realism title Grim Fandango. The end result is unfortunately as mediocre as you might expect.

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Timescape: Journey to Pompeii (Release Date: 2000)
Set in an attractive virtual reconstruction of the ancient city of Pompeii, this game is very short (it took me no more than four hours to solve) and contains only a bare handful of puzzles to solve, but it does give you a very good feeling for what an ancient Roman city must have looked like.

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Black and White (Release Date: 2000)
I wanted to like this game, I really did. It's got a great concept: you play a god, but instead of spending your time building sewer systems a la SimCity, you get to shape your worshippers' society, conquer or convert the followers of rival gods, and solve increasingly thorny divine problems and quests. That's the concept, anyway. In practice, 95% of this game is taken up in training an idiotic virtual pet not to poop on the floor. I only wish I were exaggerating. The training interface is so awful it hurt my wrist, too. It's too bad, because the god parts were pretty cool; but unless you're really into virtual pets, you won't enjoy this one.

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Phantasmagoria (Release Date: 1995)
This was one of the earliest movie-style adventure games, but though it had its intriguing moments, overall it fell flat. The pace is too slow and the plot too cliched to be effective as horror, and the game frequently stoops to the visual gross-out in an attempt to compensate. If you're looking for a really good horror game, I recommend Sanitarium or The Black Mirror instead.

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A Quiet Weekend In Capri (Release Date: 2004)
This game features beautiful photography and a creative premise--a Mystlike adventure set in an alternate-reality version of a real-life Italian island, which you are thrust into by a twist of fate that causes you and a boy from the alternate universe to switch bodies. Unfortunately, the game design and production are so hokily amateurish that the promise of this concept never even gets off the ground.

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7th Guest (Release Date: 1993)
This pioneering 3D puzzle game has not withstood the test of time. The puzzles are still plentiful and fun, but they have nothing to do with the plot or the environment you're exploring, so they feel shoehorned in. In fact, the whole plot is very thin and inconsistent, and the ending is one of the most illogical I've ever seen. The overall gaming experience is that of wandering around a large house watching random puzzles and games pop up at you for no valid reason. The more recent games inspired by 7th Guest tend to be better written than the original.

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Daggerfall (Release Date: 1996)
One of the biggest disappointments I've had in a PC computer game, this one-character CRPG boasts "hundreds" of quests--but accomplishes this through repeated random dungeon generation and the placement of a random item somewhere within, which your character then must retrieve. I don't know who wants to do this hundreds of times, but it isn't me. There are few puzzles to solve and the 3D environments are very buggy; the only bright spot is the extensive customizability you get with your character, who need not conform to any particular character class.

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Riddle of the Sphinx (Release Date: 2000)
Somehow Riddle of the Sphinx manages to combine the worst of the "graphic" adventures of the 80's (the ones that were really text adventures with badly drawn pictures appended) with the worst of the Myst clones of the 90's. This game is so low-budget it might be campy fun if it were less pretentious and had a vaguely tolerable interface, but it isn't, and it doesn't. Almost anything on the market would be better fun than this.

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