Tuesday, 31 October 2017

SILVERLOAD


The Wild West was a treacherous time in American history, but imagine if werewolves and vampires were thrown into the mix. Well, imagine no more because the 1995 adventure, Silverload by Millennium Interactive, did just that. And the PlayStation port did it too, only way better.

As a stereotypical man with no name, you take it upon yourself to help a group of stranded travellers of whom the youngest has been kidnapped. He's been taken to the nearby town of Silverload which was cursed forty years ago. All of the denizens have been scratched by a lycanthrope or bitten by a bloodsucker and have become demons of the night, making this gunslinger's journey a far more perilous one.

I first booted up the DOS game, which greeted me with a comic-book style opening and a creepy monologue to set the tone. The graphics are hand-drawn but not too cartoony and perfectly in-keeping with the pulpy tone of the story. So is the brilliant song that plays over the opening credits - cheesy yet perfectly apt. None of this takes away from the incredible atmosphere that is the opening screen. It is here, in front of two caravans and a roaring campfire, where my first impressions of this 22-year-old DOS game began to sour.

The opening scene DOS (left) vs PlayStation (right)

I clicked on the forlorn-looking man at the back of the screen and began a conversation. He waffles of something fierce so I attempt to find the 'skip dialogue' key. Not having the manual, I press ESC which tends to be the go-to choice for the easily distracted. With Silverload, however, it boots me out of the game. I later found out that ESC is the 'exit' key which terminates the game unprompted. And by the way, there's no way to actually skip the boring parts. So, a little bemused, I go back into the game and listen to his dull story about his dead wife and lost son again. Now I have trouble backing out of the conversation and not because I'm awkward around people. There are certain hotspots which are hidden to the player which is so confusing that even this adventure-game veteran got stumped.

At the bottom of the picture (not the screen) are three tiny hitboxes that are only present depending on the context. The bottom right is your inventory, which you'll regularly access. On the left is the ground you're walking on, useful only for throwing away items to free up space (they will remain there if you want to pick it up again later). The centre section relieves any social anxiety and takes you back a screen. Thankfully the cursor changes for each action but by this point, I'd had enough. Time to check out the PlayStation port.

What a difference a year makes. So much has improved or changed in the intervening twelve months (give or take) that I'd probably class this as a remake instead of a port. The opening monologue has been replaced with a CGI cutscene that looks nice, even if it sets up nothing about the game. The in-game graphics have improved too, with pre-rendered backgrounds and a character style that's somewhere between that of a graphic novel and live-action. Some drawings do remain the same, but it says a lot when they don't look out of place with what's been changed. Now, I wouldn't say either title looks bad but the PlayStation version feels so much more alive.

The PlayStation version (right) is more realistic than the original DOS (left)

That sad man by the fire now has a different voice actor, and the dialogue can now be skipped. Hallelujah! There's also an attempt at a speaking animation which, while not entirely successful, is a marked improvement on the static image that came before. In fact, most of the previously static screens now have little animations whether it be dust in the moonlight, chimney smoke or something more sinister lurking in the darkness.

From this very first encounter, I knew which one was better and surprisingly for a point-n-click adventure, it wasn't the computer version. Sure, using a joypad is a little stiff, but they actually made an effort to accommodate these controls. Three of the four face buttons toggle between two icons giving you six actions in total; walk, look, take, speak, use and sleep. The DOS version was entirely context sensitive, which did allow you to see hotspots easier but you couldn't do anything else. The look action alone will open up previously absent clues. It's a scheme that would still be improved by using a mouse, but it's not a chore to play through.

Some puzzles have also been changed, improved or added. For example, the first real puzzle asks you to navigate through a dust storm that surrounds the ghost town. You need goggles to keep dust off your eyes and a compass to know where you're going. On PC, you simply have to have these two items in your inventory. On the PlayStation, each needs to be equipped to your face and hand respectively before you can proceed (remember you can take off the goggles - it took me far too long to realise this which is why most of the screenshots have a green tinge to them). Not only that but the two steps forward of the original is replaced with a maze that has you following the compass. It's a far more involved opening that gets you used to the controls in a much more intuitive way.

Your inventory is also better positioned. Instead of a separate screen hidden behind an invisible hitbox, it's placed between your hand and your face, visible only when the cursor hovers over it. The limitation on the number of objects you can carry is now gone which stops you playing around with unnecessary item management. It's probably a good thing too as the need for healing items is needed a lot more here. You see, an attack doesn't spell doom for our gunslinger. His character portrait will gradually get more skeletal before death comes but fear not, you can regain your health. Even that forlorn man by the campfire will now have a purpose by giving you some health rations.

The Gunslinger's health from bad to worse

After a decent amount of time with the PlayStation version, I decided I may have been too hasty with the DOS original so I gave it another go. The controls are still un-intuitive and the voice actors leave a lot to be desired (though certainly not the bottom of the pack at the time), but once you allow yourself some time to acclimatise to the quirks, there's still a decent adventure in there.

Beyond the terrible controls, there's one other negative I want to point out: unexpected death. If you walk down the wrong road or say the wrong thing, you'll die. Granted, the death sequences are fun in their own right with several entertaining variations which are a joy to seek out, but there's little there to signal any imminent danger. While they are a little gorier on DOS over the better animations of its successor, it also unceremoniously boots you out of the game once the death sequence is over. My advice: save often! At least the PlayStation version gives you a few hits before you bite the silver bullet.

Later on, there are a few action scenes to contend with. These can often be a terrible diversion in even the best of adventures but they're actually pretty fun here. It's also another element that's drastically different between each version. The DOS game has a couple of static shooting gallery mini-games that are fully integrated into the game world. They are not overly hard yet still ramps up the intensity of the story quite nicely. The PlayStation does the same thing, but instead of a static shooting range, it's a fully 3D on-rails shooter not too dissimilar to Virtual Cop or Time Crisis. These sections play really well to boot and wouldn't be unwelcome if expanded to a full arcade game in its own right.

The shootout scenes are static and in-engine on DOS (left) 
while PlayStation is fully realised in 3D (right)

So, my eventual thoughts on Silverload was completely different to my first impressions. The terrible controls of the DOS version gave way to a hidden gem on the PlayStation. There's still enough going for the original game that it can't be dismissed outright, and enough that's different to give each one a try. If you were to choose one, Sony's grey box beats the original hands (or claws) down.



To download the games, follow the links below. These custom installers exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the PC game to modern systems and Retroarch with the Mednafen PSX HW core to emulate the PlayStation. Manual included for PlayStation version. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 199 Mb (DOS) / 496 Mb (PSX).  Install Size: 308 Mb (DOS) / 565 Mb (PSX).  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

Download PC Version

Download PlayStation Version


Silverload is © Millennium Interactive
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me


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2 comments:

  1. Right before German Halloween - which means only hours ago before chances will highly increase being bitten by a thirsty vampire, eaten by a hungry werewolf or getting scared to death by a jerkily moving scarecrow with a creepy pumpkinhead on top of its torso, haha -, I'll go try my luck with this obscurely interesting looking Interactive Drama I probably never would have heard about if it weren't for you, Biff. So let's just hope it won't be me getting hit by a Silverload, but the game's various creatures instead! :-)

    Bye for now,
    Thomas

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    Replies
    1. Cheers Thomas, I thought this would be a suitably spooky game for the best day of the year :)

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