Soul Trapper: Episode 1, from Realtime Associates, is a cross between an old-timey radio drama and a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. It’s built around the iPhone’s audio capabilities instead of its visual horsepower, so it’s a refreshing change from the usual App Store fare. This ambitious game proves that interactive audio adventures are a good fit for the platform, and it certainly has some startling moments of creativity–but these are buried under cornball dialog, groan-inducing minigames, and several irksome design flaws.
Soul Trapper: Episode 1 is narrated by Kane Pryce, a 27-year-old paranormal investigator, ladykiller, and self-designated comedian. Before he vanished, Pryce’s father built the eponymous Soul Trapper, a gadget that allows its wielder to vacuum up haunts, interview them in person, and then expel them from our plane into the afterlife. Pryce goes from job to job, trapping and eliminating unwanted ghosts for pay. It’s not much of a living, but there are plenty of mysteries to solve and murderers to track down, and that suits Pryce’s adventurous nature.
The story bounces from Southern California, to Vegas, to far more exotic locales. We won’t spoil the plot, except to say that you’re going to end up chatting with quite a few supernatural entities by the time the three-hour adventure is through. We’ll also guess that you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything in the story, because it’s pretty formulaic stuff. Pryce has a sidekick, a love interest, and a conscience. He is the archetypal rascal with a heart of gold–the kind of guy you can find at the center of any pulp mystery or adventure novel–and we didn’t find him to be a very compelling protagonist. The game’s plotting and pacing, while competent, has a similar colorless quality. There are a few gems in the dialog, especially when Pryce and his long-suffering assistant are going at it, but most of it is laden with bad puns and lame innuendo, and is kind of painful to listen to.
The game’s voice acting is not a strong point, either. You spend most of the game listening to Pryce, and by the time you’re through, you’ll want to kick him down a flight of stairs. Pryce’s actor plays him with an uncomfortable, wide-eyed earnestness; he really tries to sell you on the part, but it just ends up sounding amateurish. His colleagues are better, but we wish that the lead role had been cast differently. The game’s sound effects and audio production, on the other hand, are top shelf. The audio effects associated with paranormal activity are actually pretty spooky!
Soul Trapper’s gameplay is divided into chapters. Each chapter usually covers a single location, where you need to fulfill an objective to move on. There are multiple “rooms” in each place that you can navigate to using touch buttons, but the backgrounds don’t change. Instead, Pryce simply describes the new area–and he’ll give you the exact same description every time you return. Unfortunately, there’s no way to skip this dialog, even if you’ve heard it before.
There are also numerous minigames sprinkled through each chapter. Almost all of these are based on audio cues; after much frustration, we also discovered that some of them require stereo headphones to complete. A handful of these are unconventional puzzles that are genuinely innovative. The rest seem like filler by comparison, especially the boring sequence you have to complete before entering the Soul Trap.
Overall, we feel that Soul Trapper: Episode 1 shows flashes of brilliance, but the magic doesn’t hold up over the course of the game. The 45 minutes of really good stuff is simply spread too thin. Even so, interactive audio adventures definitely have merit on the iPhone; we can see where the developer is going with this, and we like the idea. This game is an iffy $7 purchase, but if Episode 2 gets a tighter script, a new Pryce, and some badly needed design tweaks, we will be back for more ghost busting.