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Montezuma's Return (Windows)

69
MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.2
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  micnictic (385)
Written on  :  Apr 27, 2008
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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Summary

Great ideas and fatal dilettantism arrange a meeting in an Aztec temple.

The Good

In a rough time-line, the very first platformers were two-dimensional and jumped from scene to scene. Then came the scrolling ones, which had some of the most successful games of all time among them. That era lasted pretty long, until the genre went 3D. Nintendo mapped the path with "Super Mario 64" and others quickly followed. But there's one specific rule, all platformers have in common: they all use a third-person-view.

Well, actually all but one...

Feel free to correct me, if I should be wrong, but I believe "Montezuma's Return", released more than ten years ago, to be the first and up to this day the only first-person-platformer in the history of video games. If you prefer abbreviations, we might also call it an FPP. On first look, you can easily mistake the game for being a shooter, as the perspective simply implies it. However, there's no way "Montezuma" could be called that. You don't even have a gun in this game. And while there's some melee combat featured, jumping always remains the core element of gameplay. In fact, we have to do it with a pure platformer, that's played from a first-person-view.

Actually this game is the sequel to the old classic "Montezuma's Revenge", but doesn't have much in common with it. In the leading role is Max Montezuma, who's a descendant of a legendary Aztec ruler and another fedora-wearing Indiana Jones clone, who goes treasure hunting. But even when his personality isn't outstanding, he has a quite uncommon feature, as he was probably the first hero of a first-person-game, who actually had legs. More recent games like "Crysis" added some legs to the hero as well. But even nowadays, the majority of games just have you floating through mid-air in a quite peculiar way. The only reason, why we don't even wonder about this bizarre fact, is probably, that we're so used to it already.

Actually it's by no means useless, to have legs in this game – there's a meaning to this feature. As you're often at the brink of a deadly fall, it's important to have control over your exact position. While other platformers achieve this simply through their exterior view, in "Montezuma" it works just as it would in a risky real life: you lower your view and are careful, not to make a wrong step.

I have to admit, I was sceptical about this system at first. More precisely, my first impression was, that it totally sucks. However, after a while of familiarization, playing went more and more smoothly. The handling of "Montezuma" is by no means perfect: even when you got used to it, it's sometimes still problematic and things, that should have been easy, can become rather complex affairs. On the other hand, modern 3rd-person-platformers have their problems as well – at least you'll never be bothered by camera issues in "Montezuma". And all in all, the controls work surprisingly good – far better than the usually quite primitive and troublesome jumping elements, some shooters have integrated into their gameplay. One advice I have, is to put the mouse sensitivity to the maximum level, as it's vitally important, that you can move your virtual head very quickly.

As soon as you get used to the controls, the perspective is able to show its strengths. Standing at the edge of a deep abyss is, compared to any other platformer I've played, a far more intimidating experience in "Montezuma". You might really suffer from vertigo, when standing on the edge of a cliff. There's a difference between seeing the bones of another person break and breaking your own (which is the impression, you get in this game). However, in this virtual experience you're actually a tough guy, who can survive pretty deep falls. As a rule, the damage taken depends on the kind of terrain, you happen to hit: sandy ground is good, rocky surfaces not. Water is, of course, the best thing to come down to. And believe me: you'll have to hop into small pools of water from almost surreal heights...

It's often difficult to distinguish between platformer and action-adventure nowadays. The pure platformer seems to be more or less dying out, while hybrid forms get more and more en vogue. "Montezuma" is a less difficult case: despite the unusual perspective, it's pretty much true to the roots of the genre – not only in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of style.

When games like the "Tomb Raider" series try to portray similar settings in a convincing way, the Aztec temples of "Montezuma" are by contrast consistently unrealistic. The game coins a rather wacky comic style, where fundamental forces like gravitation aren't all that important and classic platforms make their comeback. While many of the more realistic, modern games camouflage the platforms as natural parts of the environments, "Montezuma" doesn't care for that idea. Platforms are just platforms and they can float through the air, without having to be attached to anything. Just like in many of the spiritual predecessors of the 2D age, the only one, who always comes down to earth in this game, is the hero.

"Montezuma" is no hybrid game, either. Although it adds some combat (more on that in the second section of this review), the core element of gameplay is at any rate good, old jumping. The levels all play in temples – you'll never gonna see the sun in this game. Mostly you just move from room to room. Those rooms could always be considered as little mini levels, structuring the big ones. And in some ways every room is like a little puzzle. You come through an entrance and leave through an exit – that's pretty easy. Less easy is the way between entrance and exit: not all that seldom it requires a bit more than just manual dexterity to figure it out.

Although "Montezuma" is quite reminiscent of classic 2D platformers, one can not accuse the game of not taking advantage of the possibilities of 3D-environments. For example, it adds the fun of exploration to the gameplay – certainly one of the most important innovations of the 3D age. Public opinion agrees, that Mario was once again the pioneer: when he was only running from left to right in his early games, he could explore all possible directions in "Super Mario 64". And the designers made great use of that. Same with "Montezuma", where interesting levels wait to be explored. More often than not there's more than one possible exit to a room. The levels are branching and, once again, resemble puzzles. Not seldom you're confronted with situations, you have yet no solution for. You have to explore another part of the level first, find some item, push some button, launch some kind of mechanism or simply find another way around your obstacle. It's not to say, that "Montezuma" would really challenge your wits, though. In fact, the puzzles are fairly easy. But they are at least an interesting and funny diversion, that won't contribute to the degeneration of anyone's brain.

As long as we have to do it with pure platforming, the game almost never fails to entertain. It must be said, that it can get quite difficult and at times even frustrating. But in the end, those carefully arranged platforming sections have to be the result of a meticulous work, that should be appreciated. And the gameplay is in addition quite diversified and full of creative ideas.

A specifically amusing part of the game materializes in form of special platforms, that work almost like bumpers in a pinball machine. When you jump on them, they send you up in the air like a rocket with amazing speed. When flying, you usually have to try to land on a higher platform or grab a rope, a ladder or whatever you can reach. As long as you aren't afflicted with motion sickness, those moments provide truly great fun.

To list all of the game's great ideas would be far too much. But believe me, that this game has some truly brilliant sequences, I have never experienced anywhere else. What I remember right now, is a scene, where I was feeling almost like a hamster, as I had to race within a super-king-sized wheel like a maniac. The only difference to being a hamster was, that I always had to leap over the gap, through which I entered the wheel, and that the whole thing was, driven by my expenditure of energy, flying through the air in highest regions. Actually, it all became quite tedious and frustrating, as I fell out of that damn wheel so often, that it wasn't funny anymore. But in the end, ideas like this stay in memory, even when the game is long finished.

The Bad

Maybe the reviews on Mobygames show a tendency to disappoint readers. At first, they always tell you, how great a game is. And just when you think, how amazing this all sounds, the second part mercilessly kills all those good vibrations. Actually I feel a little sorry for doing this, but I think, it's a reviewer's duty after all. So, let's enter directly into the realms of dilettantism and talk about one of the worst aspects of this game: the combat.

The fact, that "Montezuma's Return" concentrates entirely on melee fights, is unfortunately not half as interesting, as it may sound. There are only few different types of enemies and they all attack in the same manner: stupidly running towards you and trying to hit. What you've got to do, is simply to kick and punch by clicking your mouse. It all leads to battles, where you run towards your enemy, click, and run backwards again. Apart from the boring simplicity, there's an additional aggravating factor in form of your stamina level, which sinks with every punch and kick you make. The further it sinks, the less damage you will dispense. And as it sinks pretty fast, this means in effect, that you have to flee your enemies every once a while and run around mindlessly waiting for your stamina to rise again. It's as exciting as it sounds.

The combat is luckily not an overused element in "Montezuma" and many regular fights can be avoided. However, it's not possible to avoid the annoying boss-fights, that wait at the end of each level. And even the regular enemies still have to be defeated often enough. Since this is really a pain in the neck, it's almost a blessing, that the AI is so bad. Often the enemies stop running at you and suddenly turn their back towards you, so that you can land a couple of hits without any danger. While this doesn't make combat more entertaining, it at least shortens it a little, which is good, since the most annoying thing about the battles is actually their immense length: the enemies can bear a whole lot of blows, before they finally dematerialize. That the developers stretched the stupid combat sequences to such hardly bearable lengths, was perhaps their biggest mistake. It really makes this combat system one of the worst, I ever came across.

One can almost get the feeling, by integrating those longsome combat sequences, the developers wanted to stretch the playing time a little. They also didn't implement a save system, which supports that theory even more. Following once again a nostalgic retro-style, they rather give you three lives, each time you begin a new level. And every time you lost all your lives, you have to start the level from scratch. Without this questionable feature the game would have been much shorter, as it already is.

Even as it is, the long-time-value of "Montezuma" is still a disappointment. It has only nine levels, which are solved quickly. Only when you're a passionate highscore-hunter, who enjoys trying to search the levels for treasures, you can spend a little more time with the game. Floating through each level are hundreds of white pearls, that give you inane points and unlock a little bonus passage, when you collect them all. I did that once and the bonus level was nothing but a boring, little obstacle course, you had to pass through within a short time limit. I have no idea, how this should justify the effort of a minutious level-searching.

However, the main problem of "Montezuma" are neither the stupid fights, nor the missing save system or the short playing time. My main concern is simply its inability to build up any atmosphere. The reasons for this failure are not so easy to pin down. But the most important factor is without any doubt the presentation. While the engine, that's employed here, is technically quite advanced for the time (high resolution, realistic lighting etc.), the graphics still failed to impress me. The Aztec temples, that are portrayed here, are stripped from everything, that's not exactly necessary for the gameplay. The rooms look all the same: blank walls with eternally repeating textures, no objects besides the most elementary ones. Add to the boring visuals a terrible MIDI soundtrack, that sends shivers down my spine, when I even think of it, and you have an idea, how carelessly the presentation of this game has been handled.

Somehow it seems, like the developers wanted to direct the player's attention completely to the gameplay and nothing else. As if they considered a rather intangible quality like atmosphere as not important enough to invest work in it. But when the eyes are bored, the ears annoyed and the mind without anything to work with, it can never come to a captivating experience. The game just leaves you cold.

The Bottom Line

It's always a disappointing thing, when promising ideas get impaired by avoidable flaws. "Montezuma's" shortcomings, most notably the mindless combats and the lifeless environments, constantly gnaw at the fun, its jumping sections provide. However, even when it's in no way an unrestricted enjoyment, it's still a very interesting game. The level design may not make anything new in the strict sense, but the unusual perspective makes it nevertheless unique. It shows, that a simple change of view can seriously affect a quite familiar type of gameplay. I would therefor still recommend this game to platform-enthusiasts with a desire to play something out of the ordinary. For all I know, "Montezuma's Revenge" is still the only game of its kind. Maybe "Mirror's Edge" will step into its shoes, when it will be released this year. We'll see.