In 1995, Sierra On-Line was one of the most prominent PC game publishers, particularly in the adventure genre. This was also the year when they were aggressively championing a more adult demographic with the FMV adventures Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight 2. Can Shivers hold its severed head high next to those ghoulish classics? Well, that's a difficult question to answer...
FMV adventures are notoriously cheesy, but Sierra had a way of making great games in spite of this. Shivers too cast live actors in many roles which again err on the wrong side of cringe-worthy but the game itself is far from bad. In fact, in the not-so-serious context of this game, it actually adds to the B-movie feel. Where it does differ from what Sierra has done before is by being entirely in the first-person. The similarities with Myst, which was then the most popular game of all time, are immediately evident in its first-person perspective and emphasis on puzzle-solving ahead of story.
You wander around the abandoned - yet somehow spectacularly maintained - museum solving a variety of logic puzzles. Why are you there? Well, you've got some complete bastards for friends. As a dare, they've locked you in the pristinely dilapidated grounds of the museum refusing to return 'til the morning. All of the doors are locked and you are desperately in need of shelter to stave off the night cold. After increasing your IQ slightly by solving some puzzles, you find yourself at an underground river, with the ghost of the former curator pleading for your help. Evil spirits or 'Ixupi' have taken over the museum and it's up to you to entrap them and save the remaining souls. It's spooky stuff and a simple enough premise that could be worthy of an adult target audience where anything goes1. Except that this game is firmly aimed at teens.
The Ixupi themselves are very disappointing for any horror fan looking for some frights. They are animated cartoons that wouldn't even give the Scooby gang the willies. The pre-rendered backgrounds are nice for the time, impressively using bright and vivid colours while still retaining a spooky and often unnerving atmosphere. The assets were even used as clip art in Sierra's newly formed Print Artist series of programs, which was how I first heard about the game (it came free with our very first printer - along with Big Red Racing bizarrely).
Once you enter the museum, the game opens up and becomes less linear, giving you the opportunity to attempt the puzzles in any order. A lot of these fit in well with the environment, but a couple do feel like mini-games that ruin the suspension of disbelief. Aside from this the puzzles are high quality for the most part but don't expect Myst levels of cleverness.
I can find little to say that's negative about the game, but my biggest gripe is in the way it tries to artificially lengthen the game. You can only carry one item at a time. There may only be one type of item you can carry, but it is an important one. In order to entrap the Ixupi, you need to find special pots - complete with lids - among the interesting artefacts and factoids.
I went in expecting something along the lines of Myst meets horror and it does kind of deliver. Where it doesn't is in the scare factor. The way the plot is written and how the scares are presented are more akin to an average Goosebumps episode, echoing its teen target audience. That's not to say that it's bad. Like Myst, there's enough there to keep you intrigued until the end, with an interesting setting and nice mid-90s graphics.
As to my original question, can it hold up to the other horror titles Sierra released that year? In terms of content, no. It is not scary, it's playstyle is very different and it relies very little on FMV cut-scenes. As a game, it certainly does. It's a highly polished adventure with an interesting setting and intriguing premise. It's most definitely worth your time.
As of 21st June 2018, Shivers is now available to buy DRM-free on Good Old Games.
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Shivers is © Sierra On-Line Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me