Once in a while I get my hands on a game that is unusual in so many ways I don't even know where to start. You know, the kind that doesn't seem to hold much promise at first, but then you notice this nice feature, and that one, and you want to play just a little further before going to bed... you're charmed.
To get one thing out of the way, Ekphrasis is written in French. If you speak the language but haven't played a French text adventure before, don't worry. Most commands are what you'd expect, shortcuts included (such as 'x' for 'examiner'). You can even go west by typing 'w', something I did without even thinking about it. Be sure to type 'aide' at the beginning; it will point out a less obvious command that happens to be used a lot during the game.
The story is reminiscent of an old stylish detective movie. A particular Renaissance painting appears to have been stolen and replaced with a copy. You've been called to evaluate it, but things are a lot more complicated than they first seem. Being a cranky old professor with a distaste for modern technology doesn't help either. If you're expecting humor, you won't be disappointed. I haven't had such a laugh since Dutch Dapper IV.
The gameplay is neatly divided between interactive scenes and "talk to"- triggered dialogues. The former are short and focused, usually one or two locations with a handful of items and NPCs and a clear goal; the latter are long-ish but charming, and do a great job of portraying the characters. Otherwise there isn't much in the way of literary style. Ekphrasis relies on pictures — otherwise beautiful — to describe the locations. Too bad it also relies on pictures for essential information such as phone numbers, which really should stay in the text. Be sure to keep the walkthrough at hand.
One thing the game is particularly good at is feeling natural. Most locations are famous spots in Europe; the NPCs and situations are what you'd expect to find there. Even the maze towards the end (yes, there's a maze!) is perfectly justified, and not all that complicated. The NPCs, though unhelpful, are at least pro-active, often starting conversations on their own. Puzzles are generally logical, but they sometimes require perfect timing and/or performing a precise sequence of steps which may not be so obvious. Add to that my abysmal puzzle-solving skills and the sheer length of the game and you'll see why I ended up following the walkthrough a lot. Except, of course, when following it a la lettre led to an untimely death. Oh well, it's a big game. Things can easily go out of sync.
Speaking of size, Ekphrasis is too large for its own good. I spent more than ten hours on the game, or so I think, because I lost count with all the loading and saving. Apparently, so did the author. Most of the scenery is not implemented, not even as a "you don't need that" message. A lot of synonyms are missing in action as well, which can become quite a problem when the game fails to recognize a noun from its own room descriptions. There's also a good deal of "read the author's mind" towards the end. I suppose it's difficult to explain everything when you write such a big game all by yourself. And despite the author's assurances that specialist knowledge is not required to win, there were a couple of spots when even Wikipedia couldn't help me.All in all, the game kept me interested to the end despite all the annoyances. Fun, education, suspense and even romance - Ekphrasis has them all, so allow me to conclude as a Frenchman would: chapeau!
P.S. I was unable to hear the sound for technical reasons, so I can't make any comments about it; my apologies to everyone interested.