Okay, having now finished this I can easily recommend it. Those people who claim it's one of/the best adventure game? They're right.
I'm still digesting it so this will be rambly (and is more for myself as an aide-memoire in any case) so yeah.
It's from 1999/2000 and it shows, it only supports 640x480 for a start, the background pre-rendered stuff is still fine but many of the characters haven't aged as well. Mechanically though it still plays well, the only issue is with hot-points - there's no way of highlighting them you just have to sweep the screen with the cursor and hope you discover everything. There was at least one puzzle which had me stumped as I just hadn't seen the object I needed to interact with.
Having said that - the puzzles are really not the point here, this is clearly all about the story.
The story. Where to begin?
You are April Ryan a young art student struggling to come up with a painting for her college's end of year exhibition. Lately she's been plagued by nightmares, but is it from the stress of her painter's block or is it from the uncomfortable heatwave? (Of course we know better but she
That's essentially your introduction to what is probably one of the best realised worlds in an adventure. Often these games can suffer from a feeling of 'flatness' - that the locations are just sets, the characters props. But the writing here gives almost all the characters just enough depth to avoid this and all with a nice light touch so it's mostly done through allusions and conversations without ever feeling forced or like it's trying to make a specific statement. All of this has almost no bearing on the actual game either, it's just there to flesh out the world and it does a marvellous job. One character will confide in you about her concerns for a mutual friend with bad taste in men but you won't get the details as your character already knows them, and the game makes no judgement on this friend - that's just how she is. It's little elements like this that make the world and make you care about these characters so you do fear for them and want to help them.
That's just the background cast, April herself is a wonderfully believable (and likable) protagonist. She doesn't really know what she's doing, or even what she wants to do. She'll worry whether she is actually doing the right thing or if she even can do the right thing. She gets frustrated when characters are obtuse or cryptic rather than just answering her questions. She's witty but doesn't necessarily get along with everyone. A nice touch is that all the objects in the game are described from her point of view, so if she doesn't know she'll just guess or quote Star Wars because it looks a bit like the Death Star.
Which incidentally reminds me that the voice acting is all extremely well done and just adds to the characters (Crow and Captain Nebevay, I'm looking at thee).
She also keeps a diary as you progress through the game, and for a change it is an actual diary - usually it'll just be your quest log or a straight up history of what you've done. Here it's her view on what's happening, often the fears or thoughts that you wouldn't necessarily bring up in conversation. Again, this has no impact on the game and you could easily progress without even noticing it's there - it adds nothing beyond an enjoyable insight into the character.
Yeah, this really is an excellent story well told.
Trying to think of anything similar and the only thing that pops into my head is Beyond Good And Evil, a normal extremely likable/human protagonist who just wants peace and quiet but gets unwillingly caught up in things and a well-realised world that you're just dumped in and left to figure it out from conversations and interactions.
It isn't Lara Croft or some devil-may-care adventurer, it's just a normal young woman who's ashamed to admit she's a little bit scared of the old homeless guy who hangs around her neighbourhood, and who hates her sleazy neighbour who keeps propositioning her despite repeated rejections.
The best adventure game? Quite possibly. The best characters, world, story
? Almost certainly.