Mata Hari (Windows)

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Written by  :  András Gregorik (65)
Written on  :  Aug 05, 2013
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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Strong pedigree, weak results.

The Good

Historical edutainment adventure titles are a dime a dozen, and the only reason I decided to take a closer look at Mata Hari is because its designers are Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood. While not exactly famous, these names might ring a bell in 'proper' LucasArts fanboys and 80's to 90's point-n-click purists. Falstein was an instrumental early designer at Lucasfilm Games, later acting as consultant and/or co-designer on virtually all classic LucasArts adventure titles. Barwood used to be a close associate of Steven Spielberg, and was more of an outsider at LucasArts until he joined forces with Noah to create The Fate of Atlantis, a benchmark classic still widely played two decades after its release. Well, as a sad sign of our times, both have proceeded to spend most of the 2000's designing what could be regarded as casual console games, so I was excited when I discovered that they teamed up in 2007 to create this full-length title -- for German studio Cranberry, as LucasArts wouldn't be caught dead these days supporting a point-n-click adventure (sigh).

Do we have another Fate of Atlantis on our hands? No, not exactly. This is a low budget effort which is not necessarily a bad thing -- see the Law of Diminishing Returns for why many big budget games fail. In fact, the game lacks the urgency and passion of classic LucasArts titles, but there are some things to like.

While there aren't many locales, the hand-drawn backgrounds are uniformly wonderful and evocative. Sound is adequate, but the music appears to be patched together from short sound bytes, making the soundtrack repetitive.

I like the fact that the game is frank about the risque aspect of its protagonist's chosen career as a duplicitous seductress. It's far from being graphic in its depiction, but there are scenes which actually find her in bed with some of her "persons of interest", complete with erotic lingerie.

The dialogues themselves are often sophisticated, venturing into topics like fashion, 1910's European life, the looming war, all in all suggesting that the game is intended for a mature audience.

Well, so much about the upside...

The Bad

Mata Hari is a storehouse of what many people detest about stereotypical point-n-click adventure games. Incessant commuting between the same couple of overexposed locations, a lack of world interaction, a lack of immersion, long non-interactive conversations, annoying and contrived "maze" sections, reflex- and/or logic-based minigames that stick out of the gameplay like a sore thumb, cliché codebreaking puzzles, a general sense of triteness, and a lack of dynamism in the gameplay and the plot.

It's like window shopping: the game entices us with the promise of a globetrotting espionage adventure, then we find that glamorous Paris ends up being a 3-screen wide small town, Monte Carlo a 2-screen wide village, Madrid a single-screen town square.

The Bottom Line

Given its strong pedigree and the fact that it was supposed to be a comeback of sorts, Mata Hari is a disappointment. It has just a modicum of the inspiration and invention of the lauded 1990's titles its designers were involved in. Only its well-written dialogues serve as a reminder of the fact that it's actually coming from semi-retired adventure gaming royalty. But it's not enough to save it from being a bore, even with its short playing time.

Full-length point-n-click adventure games can be a deep, rewarding, enchanting experience. Just see Gabriel Knight, Monkey Island 2, Death Gate, Mission Critical or Grim Fandango for prime examples. The genre's late 90's demise tells us more about our ADD/ADHD-affected times than about adventure gaming itself. And Mata Hari, an uninspired, derivative game, tells us that LucasArts' veteran designers will probably not play a role in the much-needed revival of the adventure genre.