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micnictic

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The Whispered World (Windows)

Only a clown may save us

The Good
For me personally, one of the most charming games of the last year was "Edna bricht aus", the debut of a newly founded company called Daedalic. Their newest game is entirely different, yet belongs to the same genre. What we have here, is basically a very old-school-like adventure game, which is at the same time a tremendously nice fairy tale.

"The Whispered World" is actually a very fragile place. Many characters you meet are talking about the end, which they suppose is near. Moreover, a prophetess tells Sadwick, the hero of the game, that he will be the cause of the apocalyptic event. The young boy, however, believes he could fight his own fate and goes on a journey to meet the king and prevent the destruction of his world.

Sadwick is, of course, the one you will take control of, when you play the game. Being the newest entry in a long list of antiheroes with leading roles in adventure games, he is part of an unsuccessful travelling circus, that consists of him, his brother Ben and his senile grandfather. Since he is far too clumsy and inept to be anything like a high-wire performer or animal tamer, Sadwick is more or less determined to play the role of the clown – a fate, which he accepts only because he has no choice. Although he is supposed to make people laugh, our young hero is at his heart a very unhappy boy, who suffers under his family and the path they chose for him. His only true friend is a caterpillar by the name of Spot, his sidekick, who follows him everywhere, always smiling, yet never speaking a word. The sad clown and the happy caterpillar: I am tempted to say, that these two characters represent the range of moods, this game has in store.

Of course, there are lots of jokes and funny situations to be found in "The Whispered World". Alone the conversations with Sadwick's confused grandfather are a classic example of comic relief – and not the only one. However, the humor never crosses that line, where it would become a parody. Unlike many other recent adventures, this one treats its story and characters seriously. It's lovely and cheerful, but at the same time a very serious and often even dark fantasy tale, that never breaks the illusion it creates and never sacrifices its bittersweet atmosphere in order to bring those cheap jokes and pop culture references, that other comic adventures throw at you regularly. Although there are many funny scenes in the game, there's always a soft breeze of melancholy and romantic pessimism blowing through it as well. There's a feeling of tragedy, an intuitive knowledge that there's a sad thing going on in this world and that the end of all things is near.

During its best moments, "The Whispered World" really manages to be sad and amusing in the same breath. One of such moments is the one, where Sadwick gets to meet Bando, an unemployed working man, who wistfully recalls those "good old days", when he was still working in a huge factory, that has lately been shut down. In the following dialogue the game really shines. A depressed muscleman who recalls the beauty of shoveling coal in the heat of the furnace is not only funny. The way this character perceives himself as useless, the way he idealizes his past, the way his awareness of the futility of his existence and of life in general has grown since he lost his job – all of that is in some ways quite similar to how people in real life often feel, when they are without employment for a longer period of time. I actually know people, whose fates bear some parallels to that of Bando. And, of course, I'm a fan of fantasy that's trying to mirror our reality. If it is done right, it can make the difference between meaningful and trivial, wise and naive, good and forgettable.

The story of "The Whispered World" actually spans a total of four acts, all of which play at different locations, each one slightly more difficult than the previous one. You control Sadwick with your mouse in a more or less typical adventure fashion. Pressing the space bar shows all the hotspots you can interact with. By clicking on the left mouse button, an annular menu appears, giving you the options look, talk and use/take; a click on the right mouse button shows your inventory. A nice idea is how Sadwick has to make use of his companion Spot to solve some of the game's puzzles. Apart from just being a constantly smiling source of happiness, the little caterpillar is also useful for being able to change the shape of his body. For example, he can swell up to a round ball, which you can use in various situations. He can also change from normal to burning mode: a condition, where he is even able to spit fire. If you want to make progress in the game, Spots various abilities are essential.

Of course, different player types tend to make completely different experiences with one and the same game. However, at least from my point of view the puzzles in "The Whispered World" are very well balanced. There are some exceptions, where the solutions are somewhat strange and a little bit of trial and error is required, but generally speaking the puzzles are logical and quite good. The game is also a lot easier to manage than "Edna bricht aus", since the amount of locations and hotspots has been considerably reduced. Mind you: it is far from being easy – you have to do some tough thinking from time to time. But still I was hardly ever stuck or frustrated, when I played. The game has a good flow.

One of the things, that were often criticized about Daedalic's previous title were the cheap 2D graphics. While I actually belonged to those who liked the weird drawings, one thing can not be debated: "The Whispered World" clearly beats Edna in this regard. The game is still entirely in 2D, but this time it looks so stylish that it's hard to believe, that the same company is standing behind it. The visual style has completely changed to elegantly drawn rooms and landscapes, which look so beautiful, that I almost wanted to print them out and embellish the walls of my home with them. I'm especially fond of the Autumn Forest, which you get to explore in the very first chapter. The scenery is so lovely, so full of wonder, words simply can't describe it.

I mentioned in the beginning of this review, that "The Whispered World" is a very fragile place. The dreamy visuals not only reflect that, they also encourage you to save this world, as you simply will not want such a beautiful place to be destroyed. The end is near, however, and one thing that always reminds you of that is the music. The soundtrack is actually quite minimalistic. Most of the time it is build upon merely three instruments: piano, bassoon and flute. Yet the range of emotions, that music can display, was never limited by the size of the ensemble. The composers did the right thing in writing these discreet musical pieces, mysterious and fragile, just like the world they accompany. The feeling of melancholy, which almost constantly emanates from the game, is also a result of the music, that's for sure.

The Bad
"The Whispered World" does have its share of weaknesses, the biggest of them probably being that the world is so deserted. Some locations would have clearly been in need of more people to communicate with. Take only the village, you are going to visit in the second chapter. How can it be, that there are only two people around? Where is the rest?

It is a general problem of the game, that the world feels too empty. You are taken on a journey to a wide range of different locations, yet these locations are often not as detailed or alive as they could be, if the developers concentrated on a lesser amount. What I missed was some kind of a centre, a place, you would return to from time to time. Such a thing also would have helped to establish some deeper relationships between the hero and some of the supporting characters. As it is, most of them appear only once in the game and are therefore often not far developed.

What's more, the story does have its flaws, too. It does take some quite unexpected turns in the end, but up to that point there are many idle periods without much happening.

The evil guys were also quite disappointing. Maybe these Asgil could have been interesting villains, if they were somewhat ambivalent. However, the way things are, they are nothing but nasty beings with an evil muahahaha-laughter and no morals. Could have been better.

I have already mentioned, that not all of the puzzles are perfect. What I remember right now, is a puzzle in the beginning of the third chapter, where you have to push and pull five levers, until a door opens. A very annoying affair.

In the end, I think I prefer the dirty and insolent humor of Edna to the much more innocent and pleasant style of "The Whispered World". This is a personal thing, however, and it's not even very fair to make this comparison. In their unique ways both games are excellent.

The Bottom Line
I'm quite sure, that Michael Ende's "The Neverending Story" – without any doubt one of the best fantasy novels ever written – had a significant influence on the story of "The Whispered World". The gameplay, on the other hand, is clearly inspired by the adventure classics of LucasArts. The amazing 2D art style, the interface, the absence of dead-ends or ways to die, even the copy protection brings back some memories. From these influences – and their own imagination, of course – the people at Daedalic designed a bittersweet adventure, refreshing and unique, particularly because of its tragicomical spirit. If this game would have been made in the nineties, it might be considered a classic today.

By micnictic on September 18, 2009

Frederik Pohl's Gateway (DOS)

A magnificent space odyssey with unknown destination

The Good
Released in 1992, "Gateway" was Legend's first work based on a license, more specifically a cycle of novels by renowned science-fiction author Frederick Pohl. The title of the game refers to a space station located right in our solar system, circling the sun near the orbit of Venus. In the distant future, where this game takes place, Gateway Station is central to mankind's exploration of outer space, holding a great number of ships, which are capable of faster-than-light-travel.

Legend put much effort into working out the details of the setting. There's lots of written material, that provides further insight into the game world, all of it worth reading. The in-game news channel, where you can read about many events from earth and other places in the galaxy, is only one example for this. Important to know is, that humanity only discovered Gateway Station. The original builders were the so-called Hechee, a mysterious, technologically advanced alien race, that vanished without a trace. Although mankind is making use of the Hechee technology, they are still not able to fully understand it. As a result, faster-than-light-travel is a risky business, as the guidance system of the Hechee ships are beyond human understanding and the destination of a ship remains a great enigma. Still, there are more than enough volunteers, called Gateway Prospectors, who are willing to take the risk. They go on journeys with unknown destinations, hoping to discover alien races, new technology or anything else, which may bring them wealth and fame. As you may have guessed, you start the game as a newly arrived Prospector. In the course of the game, you will be the first human to visit many strange planets. Your discoveries are going to be rather unpleasant ones, however.

Part of what makes Legend games unique is their flexibility, that gratifies hardcore interactive fiction players as well as people more used to modern point and click adventures. What I mean is, the game offers different ways to communicate with it, either by using your keyboard or your mouse. For the latter method, there's one menu bar with verbs and another one with nouns, both of which can be easily combined to what you can call sentences. After clicking on a verb, there are also prepositions popping up, making more complex commands possible (and often necessary). What still makes the handling somewhat more cumbersome than for example LucasArts famous SCUMM system is the sheer mass of verbs, that's placed at your disposal. While the most common ones are conveniently placed at the top of the list, you have to scroll down quite a bit to reach some of the less often used ones. Remember, however, that if you're a fast typist, like me, you can always switch to entering the commands via keyboard. And the upside of things is, that you can and must elaborate your thoughts more clearly, when talking to the game. It also enables experimentation to a wide degree, meaning you can try out countless things, which aren't even related to the puzzles, but nevertheless bring up many unique responses.

Even though it plays quite differently from what we're used to nowadays, games by Legend are still very accessible. They manage to transfer the qualities of classic IF games to the 90s, modernizing a lot, but never losing sight of what made them great in the first place. The presentation is a good example therefor: like some later games by Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls and other IF manufacturers of the 80s, "Gateway" also features graphics: the environments are illustrated by slightly animated pictures, showing everything from a first person view. What really brings the world to life, however, still is the pristine power of words: detailed and well-written text descriptions. Purists may even turn the graphics off and experience the world through nothing but mere words and imagination, but in my opinion the illustrations are too nice to really consider this.

When you travel through the galaxy in "Gateway", you'll visit many different planets, each of them with individual landscapes and individual challenges. Kaduna III, for example, is a quite perilous place, where both flora and fauna are exceptionally aggressive. On this planet you better save often, since you can die quite easily here. Opposed to this is the peaceful scenery of Psi Dorma V, centered around an idyllic pond, that looks as if it was imported from a fairy tale. As the atmosphere is very dreamlike, it fits the setting very well, that you constantly feel sleepy on this planet. Be prepared for some cryptic dream sequences, that actually provide hints for some puzzles, once you decipher their meaning.

Speaking about puzzles, this is easily the most wonderful part of the game. I really think, that every adventure game designer should intensely study the works of Legend. Here you can see, how good puzzles are made. Not only is each and every one intelligent and reasonable, but also perfectly integrated into the plot, never feeling forced or artificial, always appearing as a natural part of the narrative. Moreover, every new planet seems to be a little more difficult than the previous one. If you visit them in the order suggested by your ship's control system, you will experience a notable learning curve. Another cool feature: many puzzles can actually be solved in multiple ways. This is especially the case on Nemira III, one of the coolest parts of the game.

I could easily go on a while like this, talking about how great the puzzles are, but I think you should discover the details yourself. The last thing I'd like to add is, that "Gateway" actually is one of those games, which have an internal clock. With every move you make, one minute passes in the game world. This means among other things, that you have to sleep from time to time, since the story actually spans several days. And when a character tells you to meet him in the Blue Hell Bar at ten o'clock, you better arrive on time. Of course, you can always leap forward in time by using the "wait" command. This kind of an internal clock is another feature taken from classical interactive fiction games and I always enjoy it.

The Bad
Well, I would have preferred multiple choice conversations instead of the system that's employed here, which is still similar to Infocom games. Basically you have to form commands like "ask character X about topic Y". The only improvement over older text adventures is, that you can do this via mouse. The game will show a list of possible topics as soon as you have specified the character, you want to talk to. Later games by Legend implemented multiple choice dialogues, which is in my opinion the better technique. The sequel to this game, "Gateway 2: Homeworld", already had it, by the way.

Otherwise, my only criticism concerns the game's MIDI soundtrack, which is at best mediocre and sometimes even slightly annoying. Actually the music was always one of the weaker points in Legend games. While LucasArts and Sierra already had excellent composers working for them, Legend was clearly a little behind the times in that regard.

The Bottom Line
Despite the criticisms expressed above, "Gateway" is an amazing adventure in the truest sense of the word, containing an epic voyage, diverse planets, stunning discoveries, good and evil, artificial intelligences, virtual realities, humans, aliens and nothing less than the saving of mankind as your ultimate goal. One of the most delightful and entertaining games Legend ever produced, "Gateway" has hardly lost anything of its charm in all these years.

By micnictic on September 15, 2009

Sam & Max: Season One (Windows)

An episodic feast of frivolous laughter

The Good
Lots of reviewers describe Sam and Max by pointing at the franchise's "crazy humor". This description surely isn't wrong, but it's often forgotten, that this whole craziness is only so funny, because it appears so familiar. However deformed and exaggerated it may be, the world of Sam and Max is essentially nothing but our own one. The places our protagonists visit, the people they meet: it all is an extremely distorted, grotesque mirror image of what we already know. In its way of reflecting reality, the franchise was and is a prime example of satire. It exaggerates and taunts the normal, until it appears strange and funny. Indeed, Sam and Max are funny, but the reason is not so much that they are just crazy, but that they illustrate the madness of the world we live in.

Of course, the game's portrayal of our world is everything but naturalistic. The setting is full to the brim with antagonisms, dissonances and strange phenomenons. The most implausible thing are probably Sam and Max themselves: an anthropomorphic dog in clothes and an always naked rabbit-thing, who work as self-employed detectives. The paradox, that surrounds these characters, is perhaps best described by Max personally: "We're here to keep the peace – by violence, if possible".

As I'm quoting him from memory, the phrase may appear somewhat different in the game, but in any case this line describes the absurd nature of the protagonists almost perfectly. Although Sam and Max may regularly save the world from the evil plans of evil thugs, they are clearly no heroes. Their ethical values, if existent, are more than questionable, and their violent attitude is clearly at odds with our conventions of civilized behaviour. The latter is especially true for Max, but Sam isn't really that much better. A hilarious scene from the first episode has him knocking out an unfortunate, annoying, little kid by the well-aimed throw of a bowling ball, for example. As they seem to follow no rules, one could actually consider Sam and Max anarchists. Wherever they go, they cause chaos and mayhem – yet they indeed always save the world in the end. Their motivations for this remain a mystery, by the way.

The characters of Sam and Max aren't sufficiently explained by pointing at their chaotic spirit and violent behaviour, however. Their verbal humor is perhaps even more important. The dog and the rabbit are in fact two extremely sarcastic intellectuals, who never run out of sharp remarks about the mad world, that's surrounding them. Like most adventure game protagonists they are constantly commenting on everything they see. The difference to most other video game characters is, however, that Sam and Max may come up with something surprisingly insightful from time to time. Actually they are studying the world in an almost analytical way. They deconstruct things, places and people with their intellectual rhetoric, as if they were looking at it from a remote distance. This gives the game some subversive potential, since the protagonists can (and sometimes subtly do) deride common ways of living and thinking with their ironic remarks. All in all they do it much too seldom, but listening to how Sam and Max perceive their world is at least very funny.

Speaking about humor: the puzzle design actually is an important part of it. As weird as the world of Sam and Max is, as weird are the tasks you have to fulfill – gameplay and narrative in perfect unity, so to speak. One of my favourite sequences comes from the second episode, where Sam and Max get caught in an incredibly brainless TV sitcom called "Midtown Cowboys", where they not only have to improvise a totally absurd scene, but also must place a product placement for toothpaste in it somehow. This hilarious sequence is completely interactive, all done via fairly traditional adventure puzzles. It surely is a highlight in terms of humorous puzzle design, but the season is generally strong in that regard. I even think of the puzzles as superior to those in the old predecessor "Sam and Max Hit the Road", since they are much more balanced and less likely to frustrate you. Don't get me wrong, though: it's still part of the fun to throw conventional logic overboard and resort to quite odd ways of thinking.

The episodic nature of "Season One" clearly is the most striking change towards the predecessor. As it was the first time I ever tried my hand at an episodic game, I wasn't so sure about what to expect. However, after playing the whole thing, I have to say: the idea works. The briefness of the episodes actually never bothered me. Since stretching a comedy is seldom a good idea, I actually liked the idea of finishing an episode in one funny evening. A really clever thing is, how each of the six parts has a self-contained plot, but at the same time connections to other episodes. Actually all the cases, which Sam and Max have to solve, somehow involve the theme of hypnosis. No matter whether the criminal nemesis of the day is a former child star, a living statue of Abraham Lincoln or a mafia mob: in some way or another they all try to hypnotize the population. As it turns out, each of these incidents is indeed part of a bigger plan and the real mastermind, who stands behind every crime committed, is revealed not before the final episode. So, while each episode is basically understandable on its own, only together they form a more complete story. To maximize the fun, my advice is therefore to play them in the proper order.

Last but not least I should mention, that the season has excellent production values. Particularly outstanding are the voice actors. I played some episodes in English, others in German: they were in both versions almost perfectly cast. Often enough you get the impression in video games, that some actors hadn't had a clue about the roles, they were performing. In this case the actors obviously understood not only their roles, but also the specific kind of comedy, that Sam and Max is. The performances are all completely over the top, just how they should be. Graphics, animations and music are also quite nice, by the way.

The Bad
There are certain aspects, where the old "Sam & Max Hit the Road" is still superior to Season One. For example, the aged classic was constantly surprising you. New locations kept popping up on the map, new characters were introduced, one insane situation was followed by another. The small episodes of Season One are pretty much straightforward and predictable in comparison, especially since certain key elements are repeated again and again. The similarities in the structure of the episodes and the continuous recycling of already known locations and characters can actually get quite tiresome.

Another thing is, that Sam and Max are often hilariously funny, but there's mostly not much behind it. Some may consider this a very stupid criticism, but what separates this game from a really brilliant satire is, that it is only interested in laughter. The protagonists deal out blows in all possible directions, but they are doing it more or less randomly. Basically Sam and Max are just nihilists, who put on a nice farce, while they waste their analytical skills on mostly meaningless targets. They are indeed very funny, but you ask yourself no questions, while you laugh.

The Bottom Line
I would have to play it again to say this for sure, but I don't think that "Hit the Road" was really so much better than "Season One". At least Sam and Max haven't changed: they are exactly like I remember them. Surely we all tend to glorify the past a little, but I think Telltale's take on the franchise is by all means a worthy successor to the old classic. It's witty, entertaining, funny and already available as a bargain...

By micnictic on March 27, 2009

A Vampyre Story (Windows)

Stay away from it as far as possible

The Good
Not much, but a distinctive visual style, an admittedly admirable job by Bill Tiller. If you haven't heard it already: the guy behind "A Vampyre Story" actually is a former LucasArts employee and worked as graphic artist on such games as "The Dig" and "The Curse of Monkey Island". His style is instantly recognizable, especially when you've played the latter one. Even though "A Vampyre Story" has 3D-rendered characters and a much darker palette of colours, it still features the wacky comic style that was seen in Guybrush Threepwood's third adventure. Of course, the setting has changed from sunny Caribbean isles to the barren land of "Draxsylvania" at the end of the 19th century.

Yeah, the graphics are really fine. As opposed to some other recent adventures, this includes smooth character movements and many special animations for all kinds of actions. The backdrops speak for themselves: the game features lots of stylish and beautiful locations. There's the old Castle Warg, from which heroine Mona de Lafitte has to escape Jonathan Harker style, and later the town Vlads Landing and its surroundings. Every scene is indeed quite wonderful, but that's about all of the nice stuff I can say about this game.

The Bad
The idea behind this game apparently was to do a parody, i.e. something that pokes fun of vampire and horror stories the same way "Monkey Island" did it with its Caribbean buccaneer setting. Problem is, that "A Vampyre Story" isn't even remotely funny. And when this happens with a game that tries so hard to be funny, in almost every second of its annoying existence, then something clearly went wrong.

Being held captive and being turned into a vampire should be quite enough, but Mona has a much more serious problem, that doesn't seem to worry her at all: through the entire game there's an annoying little bat sitting on her shoulder. Said bat answers to the name Froderick and is honestly the worst sidekick I ever saw; a miserable clown and a constant pain in the neck. But Mona is hardly any better. She is arrogant, self-absorbed and stupid beyond belief. There's a difference between the idiocy of Homer Simpson and the pointless and disgusting idiocy of Mona and Froderick. The game actually wants to identify with them, but I never found out, how I should care about these two failed comedians.

Another thing I didn't get is, where the story in "A Vampyre Story" is supposed to be. I have to admit, I didn't finish the game (I simply couldn't stomach its "humor" anymore), but I wasted enough time with it to write a review and I didn't see any substantial plot development. Mona's motivation for getting away from Draxsylvania is explained in the very beginning. Then the game throws some obstacles in her way and lets her meet with a pathetic cast of caricatures, leading to numerous conversations, all tedious and boring. Apart from stupid jokes and farting ravens (the climax of the game's dullness), nothing happens in this so-called "Vampyre Story". The people at Autumn Moon aren't able to tell a story. All they have is their "humor", which lets every third-class television sitcom appear remarkably funny and full of wit in comparison.

How about the puzzle design? Well, at their very best the puzzles are just boring. At their worst, they're senseless and illogical in addition. I still ask myself, how I should have got the idea of pouring Mona's perfume into the lake, that's surrounding the castle. I needed a walkthrough for this, since the game hasn't given me the slightest hint to such a strange behaviour.

To be fair: senseless puzzles like this occur not all that often. Unfortunately that doesn't mean, the other puzzles were interesting, though. First: those much vaunted "ideas" make absolutely no difference for the gameplay. Basically they just represent objects, that Mona can for various reasons not carry around (because they're too heavy or whatever). In the end, you use them just like any other thing placed in your inventory. Second: the vampire abilities aren't breaking new ground as well. Whether it's transforming into a bat or sucking blood from human arteries: Mona's special powers are seldom actively used and then only in very obvious manners. Result: most of the time you still have to deal with conventional object combinations, which are neither creative nor entertaining in this case. Most of them can be solved relatively easy, but you shouldn't expect any fun of it.

Some minor things: the music isn't good, but at least a not utterly annoying aspect of the game. The voice actors aren't bad either, but show a tendency to overdo their characters (which might have even worked, if their lines weren't so crappy). The best example is Mona's terrible French accent. If someone considers it funny to have the leading character permanently speak that way, it really tells its own tale...

The Bottom Line
There's no doubt, that Bill Tiller is a talented graphic artist, but when it comes to other elements of game development (especially the writing part), my advice is: next time hire some people, who know what they're doing. Don't let the graphics fool you. This is garbage.

By micnictic on January 12, 2009

Murder in the Abbey (Windows)

No usual suspects in this crime

The Good
The Spanish company Alcachofa Soft is creating adventure games for more than a decade now. The first time I took notice of them was, when I played a game called "Mortadelo y Filemón: Una Aventura de Cine", in my opinion one of the funniest comic adventures in the last couple of years. "The Abbey" is now the first time they dared to do a serious story and the result is really worth checking out.

The plot is divided into four acts and set in a medieval abbey, where a monk by the name of Anselmo has died under suspicious circumstances. As the player you assume the role of Leonardo de Toledo, a famous intellectual friar who pays the place a visit together with his young novice Bruno. After the two were nearly killed by a cloaked figure in the introduction movie, the abbot entrusts Leonardo to investigate the case of the dead brother.

Despite the unusual setting, "The Abbey" at first glance appears like a rather formulaic whodunit story, which is to some extent true. Many of the ingredients were indeed directly taken from the recipe for successful murder mysteries: the closed setting, the different suspects, the ongoing murders and last but not least the numerous clues, which lead you sometimes on right, sometimes on wrong tracks. It's not like the whole thing was made up completely from conventional elements, however. For an interesting facet just take the dramatic entry of an inquisitor, who thinks he could save the souls of men by burning their flesh. How close religious zeal and blind fanaticism adjoin could have been hardly better pictured within a video game.

By the way: if you've read Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose", you will surely notice some similarities between the book and this game. Leonardo de Toledo clearly resembles the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, the hero of "The Name of the Rose". Just as him, Leonardo is quite a literate person, who is in many things ahead of his time – an almost modern character, who puts more trust into his strict logic than into the bible, when making decisions. And again just as William of Baskerville, Leonardo believes in a much more rational cause, when some other monks are suspecting the devil himself to have a hand in brother Anselmo's death. However, as apparent as Umberto Eco's influence is, the plot ultimately evolves into new directions, emancipating itself from the novel. In the end, it is certainly a lot more trivial than the book, but that was to be expected.

A decisive factor for the greatness of this game are its characters. It isn't just about some guy running around killing, it's a story about human people. Leonardo and Bruno, the two main characters, are simply a wonderful duo, that's far off those cheesy stereotypes we encounter in games all the time. As the developers obviously cared for the authenticity of the setting, this is a game without female roles in it, by the way. A cast that is completely made up of monks, which are neither cool nor attractive by today's standards, is already enough to qualify as a nice oddity in popular entertainment. However, what I found truly fascinating is, how these characters kept surprising me. "The Abbey" tells one of those stories, where nothing is as it appears on the surface – and this is especially true for the characters. Almost every friar keeps a more or less dark secret, that Leonardo has to uncover in the course of the game. Thus, you fall directly into a web of intrigues, that's undermining the seemingly virtuous lifestyle of the community. Once again this is a theme also present in "The Name of the Rose": a place, that is allegedly holy, but on closer inspection no less sinful than the rest of the world.

The way you get to know those characters is, not surprisingly, by talking to them. And like every good detective, you have to speak to every suspect repeatedly. Conversations regularly bring up new topics, about which other characters may know more. You will spend much time walking around from person to person, asking all kinds of questions. Fortunately the designers didn't forget to add a map, which can be used to jump directly to the next location, as long as you aren't inside a building. And the interrogations never turn into a bore, as the writing is most of the time convincing, often witty and sometimes even funny. (Actually I can't comment on the quality of the English translation. I only played the German version, which left a good impression in that regard, including competent voice actors.)

Worthy of note is further, that the time of day frequently changes during play, which is a cool idea. Probably it would have been even nicer, if it had been done in real-time like it was seen in "The Last Express". However, it still is a nice feature, even though time only moves on, once you trigger certain key events. Altogether the four acts span three days with the third act standing out for playing entirely at nighttime. Instead of interrogating suspects you spend much more time solving puzzles during this part, which often involve understanding and operating mechanisms to open secret passages. Puzzles during other parts are less frequent and mostly of the traditional kind, which means you basically have to combine various objects.

When it comes to the presentation, a lot has changed since the days of "Mortadelo y Filemón", which was decidedly old-school in that regard. "The Abbey" now combines two-dimensional backdrops with characters rendered in 3D and offers many cinematic cuts, especially during conversations. Despite its rather dark theme, the game embraces a cartoon-like style, which many critics deemed unfitting. I bring into opposition that the graphics may often be warm and colorful, but never too cute. On the contrary, the game pretty much succeeds in shifting to darker vibes in the appropriate moments. It also is refreshing to see, how the "camera" isn't just always placed at eye level, but frequently provides nice low- and high-angle shots to capture the ornate architecture of the church, the rustic furniture of the hospital or the messy writing desks in the translator's room inside the library. Every location in the game has a unique atmosphere, brought to life by a truly imaginative artistic vision. I absolutely don't agree with the people who think, a more realistic look would have improved things.

A lot of effort (and money) obviously went into the soundtrack, which was recorded with a full-blown orchestra. Apart from string, brass and woodwind sections you frequently listen to organ sounds, while more dramatic scenes usually have percussion and choirs joining in. What I really liked, however, were the more gentle and warm themes. Maybe this is because it doesn't happen so often, that you get to hear an orchestra playing something peaceful in a video game. Anyway, there are numerous cues for characters as well as locations, each and every one underlining the atmosphere perfectly. Surprisingly the music wasn't written by an external composer, but by Emilio de Paz, the creative director of this title. Be it in a game or a movie, he delivered one of the best scores I've heard in a while.

The Bad
At the start of this section: some words about bugs. The first release of the game is said to have been beyond all bearing. The version I bought, however, was already patched from the outset and worked like a charm, without a single crash or other serious problems. Occasional glitches appear, when people are walking through each other like ghosts or look into weird directions during conversations. There are also some amateurish audio effects, which can be a little annoying, but nothing of it is worth further talking. The important message is, that the problems of the initial release appear to be solved and there aren't any bugs left to prevent you from enjoying "The Abbey".

Imperfections still arise, though, and most of the time they come with a puzzle. It often is ironic, how sometimes simple solutions lend themselves to a problem, but must be ignored in favor of the more complicated ones, which the designers had in mind. No, you can't open that old wooden door with your crowbar, you have to run around and search for numerous items to knock some explosives together. By the way: that the game has no option to indicate hotspots, makes searching for items sometimes really unpleasant.

Really disappointing is the game's linearity. The multiple choices you have during dialogues are purely decorative, for instance. It doesn't matter on what sentence you click: the outcome is always the same. And that streamlined approach becomes even more apparent, when you look at the puzzles: not much room for experimenting, strict orders in which you have to fulfill task after task, all in all a very conservative design. You often have to resort to trial and error methods to figure out the next step, the designers want you to make.

Lastly, "The Abbey" also is a good example for the difficulties, designers seem to have when creating puzzles within a realistic setting. Many of the traditional object combinations feel out of place, forced into a serious narration.

The Bottom Line
Unlike some other recent adventures with similar problems in their puzzle design, I still immensely enjoyed "The Abbey". Like a good mystery story should, this game aroused my curiosity and made me eager to get some answers. If that isn't enough motivation, you can add complex and believable characters, supremely stylish visuals, wonderful music and an altogether engrossing atmosphere. About one thing I'm pretty sure now: the folks at Alcachofa Soft are definitely a talented lot, that will be worth to keep an eye on.

By micnictic on December 30, 2008

Gothic (Windows)

To take or to be lunch, that is the question

The Good
"Gothic" came as quite a surprise, when it was released. No one had ever heard about that small German developer called Piranha Bytes, who actually build an own engine for their first product, delivering quite spectacular 3D environments, that still look impressive even today.

The game takes place in some sort of magical prison, a colony, where the bad boys of medieval fantasy kingdom get arrested. A vast area is separated from the rest of the land by a gleaming magical barrier, preventing all life forms from leaving. The people inside the colony are mining ore for the outside world, which is therefor sending food and other important goods.

For reasons, that remain unclear, our predetermined male hero is thrown into the colony at the beginning of the game. He soon finds out, that there are three different factions. First the old camp, where people more or less came to terms with the situation inside the colony. Second the new camp, where people long for freedom, seeking ways to destroy the barrier and preferring to live from plain farming, instead of doing any business with the outside world. Last the swamp camp, consisting mainly of spiritual fools, who smoke too much weed and believe in the return of a god-like being, they call "the sleeper". All of these factions are eying each other suspiciously and you eventually have to choose, which one to join. In typical RPG style, they all have strict hierarchies, inviting you to work your way up by doing missions for them.

"Gothic" features magic and many strange creatures, but it isn't your typical fantasy setting with elves and dwarfs and such. People are living spartan lives in provisional shacks, there's no luxury, no opulence to be found. Folks are ruthless and brutal, their speech not polite and eloquent, but harsh and often filled with insults. All in all, the medieval setting of the game is quite convincingly portrayed, without the usual fairy tale glamour. Many details make the world feel quite real, for example some of your interactions with the environment. It's quite cool, to be able to hunt down some animals, join a campfire, roast the fresh meat over the flames, eat your meal and see your energy refill. Things like day/night-cycles, dynamic weather changes and lots of other stuff, that makes virtual worlds feel more authentic, are included as a matter of course.

You will spend most of your time not in the camps, but out in the wilderness. Rarely you meet a human soul there: people seek shelter in the camps, which are like bastions against the untamed nature – fortifications and heavily armed guards are protecting the residents. All kinds of hungry beasts, monsters and other foes populate different areas of the world, often even attacking and killing each other. Theoretically the vast game world is completely open and you can go where you want, but practically you will be killed immediately, once you make a single wrong step. Since "Gothic" is a role-playing-game, you have to become stronger, before you can explore the world as you like. Many enemies are simply too tough for you and in the beginnings you will often find yourself trying to sneak past them or, if that fails, running for your life.

The role-playing system, that works in "Gothic", is kept very simple, making the game very intuitive to play, but still quite hard to master. You can basically become a sword fighter or an archer, invest points into magic or thievery skills and learn some other things as well. The number of skills and attributes is certainly not overwhelming, but proves to be enough. What makes "Gothic" great, is the way it lets you feel the impact, every time you invest experience points. Concentrating just on the most essential skills, the RPG system is incredibly effective and precisely balanced. You're slowly evolving from a poor loser, struggling for survival at the wrong end of the food chain, to an almost ridiculously mighty super-warrior.

Especially in the early stages, the game is really hard, however. During my first trips into the wilderness, I didn't feel very heroic. In fact, I had no choice but to behave like a coward, trying not to attract any attention, making a safe file for every successful step. Sometimes I could kill enemies with a bow from a safe position, sometimes I was running down hills with several dinosaur-like creatures behind my back, eager for a piece of human flesh. I died very often and it got quite frustrating at times. Seeing certain enemies, I thought, I'd never be able to beat them, but I was wrong. It doesn't happen fast, but through constant, arduous self-improvement you eventually become powerful enough to defeat those beasts, which killed you with a single bite before. It's a very rewarding feeling, that actually makes up for all the troubles, you had to experience before.

As cruel and unforgiving the world of "Gothic" may be, it also is beautiful. The wonderful landscapes will surely not leave you unimpressed, the vastness of the world and its huge majestic mountain ranges make you almost feel small and insignificant. Every mountain can be climbed, every house can be entered, every lake can be swum. It never even bothered me, that the vastness of the world also implicated a lot of walking around. Wandering through the country on foot is part of the experience, which is dangerous and uncomfortable, yet great. The exploration of the world is pure joy and you feel amazed, when you're finally strong enough, to venture into new areas. I especially liked conquering mountain tops. I never found any precious extra items there, but it was great fun, an hazardous challenge, rewarding me with incredible views. This is what this game is basically about: overcoming nature.

Other than for example in the "Elder Scrolls" series, you won't discover new dungeons with every step in "Gothic", but those to be there are huge and often brilliant. Especially the old mine, one of the most well-designed dungeons I've ever seen, is full of atmosphere. Over wooden footbridges, not appearing very secure, you descend into the mountain. Your mission is to kill minecrawlers, scary monsters, coming out of their dens every now and then to scarf down some of the poor workers, which are digging for ore everywhere. To eradicate those minecrawlers, you have to kill their queen, which gives birth to the species. "Gothic" has strong elements of horror and this is a sequence, that serves as a good example. From dim light to shocking sound effects the designers use every trick to create an intense atmosphere.

The Bad
The game starts to lose its appeal somewhere near the last third, when it is unable to bring anything new to the table. I don't know it for sure, but there must be some kind of unwritten law, which says, that every RPG has to take at least 30 hours of the player's lifetime. I wonder, when people will finally stop counting the hours and seeing more playing time as more "value" for their money. This annoying trend has already harmed quite a couple of games, maybe even ruined some.

No one is so stupid to take the number of pages into account, when judging a book. Maybe this is a reason, why most good authors knows, when to stop, while game designers often don't have this competence. "Gothic" is a typical case: at some point you have seen everything, heard everything and done everything interesting, but still the game refuses to come to an end. Of course, you have no idea, that the interesting parts are over and continue playing, only to get the feeling of having wasted your time in the end.

You'll come to a point in the game, where it all gets tiresome and the motivation sinks. You won't discover anything new, as the world is ultimately explored and the final dungeons just repeat what has been done before, only with less style. You won't discover any new enemies and the old ones won't intimidate you anymore, as you've already slayed hundreds of them. It's as well a problem of the balance, which is close to perfect in the earlier stages, but gets lost in the end. Being the almighty super-warrior, the game suddenly becomes uninteresting.

The game's appeal lies almost entirely in the tough struggle for survival, it presents. That appeal is lost towards the end, while the flaws become more apparent. Many things in "Gothic" could have been better fleshed out. There's the storyline, which starts quite promising, but gradually moves into the boredom of generic fantasy trash (and finally dissolves into one of those endings, which rather care for advertising the sequel than a proper conclusion). When the characters then turn out to be flat and uninteresting and the world is devoid of any history, intrigues or other cool things, you can't immerse yourself as deeply in the game as you can in other roleplaying titles. Many classical RPG virtues are completely missing out here, even the non-linearity is only a cheap fake. You can join one of the three factions in the beginning, but these strands are reunited pretty soon. The rest of the game is linear and leaves you no choices, neither are there any interesting side quests to fulfill. Don't get me wrong: the qualities of the game do make up for these shortcomings, but I imagine, it could have been even better, if these parts were more polished.

The Bottom Line
Let the final third aside and you've got a more than impressive first game from a then totally unknown developer, that spawned against all odds a quite popular series. In its essence, "Gothic" is about the human struggle against nature, which is temptingly beautiful, but also cruel and unforgiving. The world is fantastic, yet believable, the rules are simple, yet survival is tough. To describe "Gothic" in a single sentence: a very atmospheric and intense experience.

By micnictic on August 28, 2008

Overclocked: A History of Violence (Windows)

High aims, deep fall

The Good
The German developers from House of Tales – the name implies it – place emphasis on storytelling, when they create their games. Always sticking to the adventure genre, they gained some popularity with "The Moment of Silence" in 2004 – a game, that didn't tap its full potential, but was nevertheless a quite enjoyable affair. "Overclocked" is their next big project, after they released some mini-adventures for mobile phones and helped converting the awful German telenovela "Verliebt in Berlin" into a video game.

The story of "Overclocked" is filled with violence and despair and doesn't sound uninteresting on paper. It takes place in the city of New York and casts you as a psychiatrist named David McNamara, who's an expert for post-traumatic amnesia. Your job is to reconstruct the lost memories of five young people, who seem to have shared a traumatic experience. When the police found them, the three men and two women were romping through the city, shooting with pistols, confused and unpredictable. As McNamara, you have to visit them in an old and run-down hospital on Staten Island to find out what happened. It's no safe job: some of them still behave aggressively and one patient even attacks David in the beginning.

There are two interesting aspects about "Overclocked". The first thing is, that you actually control six different characters – as soon as the patients remember certain events, you adopt the role of the respective person in an interactive flashback sequence. The second, perhaps even more outstanding aspect is the reverse storytelling, that starts with the most recent memories and goes on to the earliest. The concept is in some regards similar to Christopher Nolan's movie experiment "Memento", where Guy Pearce is unable to store new memories. The narrative structure of "Overclocked" is arguably even more complicated, since parts of the story are not only told in reverse chronological order, but also from different perspectives. Basically we have two lines of narration: the present one, where McNamara speaks with his patients, and the flashbacks, that slowly reveal past events by moving backwards in time and using five different viewpoints.

McNamara still remains the lead character of "Overclocked", not only because you control him more often than the others, but also because he's much more fleshed out than his patients. He's in fact a quite despaired person, who's constantly on the brink of collapse. I'm not spoiling anything, when I tell you, that his wife is going to leave him, as it already becomes clear in the very first scenes. And this is not the only problem, that troubles the poor psychiatrist. He's a quite ambivalent character with many good sides and many weaknesses. My impression is, the goal was to create a protagonist, who appears more human than other stereotypical video game heroes. The idea is good, but doesn't really work out, due to his often noncredible behaviour.

The 3D graphics aren't spectacular, but do a solid job in reflecting the game's dark atmosphere. Some well made cutscenes show important events and even the interactive parts create a cinematic feeling with their frequent cuts and panning. Music is rather sparse, but sound effects are put to good use and the voice actors do a more than solid job in the German version. The atmosphere is almost depressing: the game portrays an utterly cheerless New York, where rain keeps coming down in sheets. What we get, is arguably just McNamara's pessimistic view of the world – a character, who's ultimately tired of his own existence. The bitter taste of urban life reminded me a little of David Fincher's "Seven", but "Overclocked" is still far away from reaching the same level of intensity.

The Bad
The biggest flaw of "Overclocked" is quite simply its horrible gameplay. It is streamlined, unimaginative and boring. For the sad trend, that so many people seem to have lost their confidence in adventures, I tend to blame games like this one.

Most of the puzzles, McNamara has to solve, center on making his five young patients remember memories of their past. You usually run from one patient to another, talk to them and let them listen to audio recordings of what their colleague's said in earlier conversations. When a patient remembers something, you take over his/her role in one of the interactive flashbacks. During those scenes the five characters all stray around an abandoned military base – how they got there, is unclear. What they do there, is also unclear. What you have to do, is mostly just finding ways to open countless doors, air grilles and crates. Therefore you have to find keys, guess numerical codes and use the good old crowbar. The inflationary use of this worn-out stuff is sometimes really hard to believe.

I didn't have to think, while I played "Overclocked". I moved through it almost mechanical, as the gameplay becomes a matter of routine quite quickly – one standard task after another. It's a rare thing, that you're obliged to tackle a problem, that has nothing to do with opening things or jogging memories. As one of the patients, you have at one point to repair an old radio set to transmit a distress call. And as McNamara, you once have to darken a room and dazzle a patient with a flashlight, to make him recall a situation, he had in a dark corridor. I'm no expert, but I guess, a real traumatized man would rather wet his pants than share a suppressed memory, if his psychiatrist suddenly behaved like this...

The sad truth is, that the game is neither imaginative nor interesting, even when it breaks away from the routine, it establishes. And I haven't even talked about the oppressive linearity, that troubles the whole thing from start to finish. Progress can only be made, when you trigger the event, the designers had as next step in mind. What you have to do, must be done in a strict order. Further, the restrictive interface simply prohibits wrong actions. Hotspots become inactive, when they have no further use; characters refuse to go to places, that aren't relevant for the time being; you can neither move nor act freely. If you ever wanted to know, how your dog feels, when you put a very short leash on him, try "Overclocked". The game just drags you along without ever asking for your initiative, cutting down your activities, your movement and your thoughts. If this isn't a step into the wrong direction, I must be really disoriented.

However, even when you can live with the streamlined and unimaginative gameplay, I still wouldn't recommend "Overclocked". That the story puts your freedom in such a tight corset is even harder to forgive, when you take in account, that the story isn't even great. I have to nag about it as well.

"Overclocked" lacks a quality, that's vitally important for every game, that calls itself a thriller: it's called suspense. Almost nothing exciting or interesting happens during the slowly paced first half of the game. In the second half the story accelerates a little, but the whole mystery is far too obvious. You will likely anticipate the secret behind the traumatized patients long before McNamara does it, whose deductive skills appear rather slow. In fact, the protagonist's relation to his wife is the only somewhat interesting facet in a boring and predictable story.

The unorthodox narrative structure – the fact, that the story moves backwards in time – may sound interesting on paper, but doesn't benefit the game either. Behind the unusual structure hides an ordinary standard plot with lots of fundamental drawbacks. The credibility of the story is ruined by numerous plot holes and inconsistencies. The characterization of the patients is as superficial as their talk is silly. The writing, one of the strengths in "Moment of Silence", becomes unbelievably pathetic in "Overclocked". Some of the worst examples happen during McNamara's pub crawls, where he weeps on a poor barkeeper's shoulder about how miserable his life is – here it gets painful.

The Bottom Line
"Overclocked explores an archetypical, yet actual condition of mankind: violence", says the press release. Sounds quite intelligent and profound, eh? However, countless other video games deal with violence as well and the approach of "Overclocked" is hardly more philosophical. PR and product have at least something in common: they both try to sound sophisticated, but consist only of hot air.

There are enough people, who see "Overclocked" as a keen and interesting work, just because it dares to be a little different. But concepts are only as good as their execution. I don't think, the story is good, just because it tries to deal with some uncommon themes in some uncommon ways. There are numerous games with classic fantasy tales, that achieve their own goals more convincingly. It's obvious that House of Tales sacrificed the gameplay for storytelling ambitions, they couldn't realize. The result is streamlined adventure boredom at its worst; a disappointment, that fails in both disciplines.

By micnictic on August 9, 2008

Edna & Harvey: The Breakout (Windows)

Kissed by madness

The Good
At the moment it isn't clear, whether "Edna bricht aus" (literal translation: "Edna breaks out") will ever be released outside of Germany. At least for the time being, most visitors of this site will therefore not be able to play this game and writing a review may seem rather pointless. However, such thoughts are only trivial, when something really needs to be praised...

"Edna bricht aus" is a classical 2D point&click adventure, that's everything but modern. In fact, it could have been released 10 years ago as a quite similar product, but that doesn't matter. This quirky low-budget project is so uncompromisingly creative, that the technical side of things is absolutely negligible.

First of all, this game has a delightful cast of wacky characters to boast, with a lovely protagonist in the forefront. Edna is neither brave nor sexy, but she has a charming sense of humor, a jaunty esprit and a serious mental-health problem. She is completely nuts, but in a quite endearing way, that made me immediately care for her. Another good thing about this lady is, that she always carries Harvey around, who is a blue-coloured talking stuffed bunny. Harvey can be described as the dark side of Edna's schizophrenic mind, standing for her passion for all things wild and antisocial, dirty and rebellious. And even though he's only a soft toy, he's probably the coolest imaginary sidekick since Tyler Durden. His comments are adding lots of hilarious humor to the games many comical situations. And when you keep in mind, that his personality is only a product of the anti-heroine's mind, it adds an interesting layer to her as well.

Quite fittingly this strange duo, a lunatic girl and a talking toy, has to escape from a mental asylum. One could argue they belong there, but it also smells like evil conspiracy. All the signs are that Dr. Marcel, chief of the asylum, has erased Edna's memory, because she once knew something, he wants to keep secret. There's a mysterious connection between pro- and antagonist, a dark secret, a forgotten memory. In the end there are two ultimate goals: escaping from the asylum and finding out more about Edna's past.

The game starts rather slow with Edna being caged inside a padded cell. But once you've managed to get out and begin to meet the rest of the characters, the game begins to shine. There's a former stock market speculator, who first lost his money and then his sanity; a crazy Zen-Buddhist, who's wearing an aluminium-suit; a manic woman, who loves a depressive man; an old fellow, who thinks he is a frock coat (and at one point actually climbs into a washing machine) and many more. The weird characters turn this game into a really special affair. Thankfully most of them are very well voiced. There are a few exceptions, but at least the really important characters have just the right actors.

What's important: most of these characters are not only funny, but also quite lovable. In the worst case this game could have been nothing but a cheap comedy, that makes some fun of mentally disordered people, but thankfully it isn't. The many conversations are full of sometimes silly, sometimes hilariously funny jokes, but the characters never degrade to pure laughing stocks. Some of them are even dark and scary, like the mysterious Keymaster, a frighteningly intelligent madman, with whom Edna must cooperate, if she really wants to flee the asylum.

Plot elements like that, where you're forced to sign a pact with the devil, add a serious and dark note to the game. It would be an absolutely wrong presumption, if the visual style brought you to think, this game was aimed at children. Behind the joking attitude lurks actually a well conceived story, that deals with mental delusions and other serious stuff in an absolutely surprising manner, that hasn't been seen very often in video games. Edna is in fact somewhat like an emotional roller coaster ride: at one moment lovely and funny, the other moment dark and sometimes even tragic. It may not become apparent at first sight, but the game slowly unfolds a really cool plot, that gets highly dramatic towards the end. This is perhaps, what crowns the experience.

When it comes to gameplay, "Edna bricht aus" is a standard adventure, but a fantastic one. It's in many ways more reminiscent of older classics than it takes the modern route. An example is the interface: instead of having one of those "smart cursors", the game allows precise commands by giving you buttons for the actions "look", "take", "talk" and "use". What's more: the game's environments are filled with all kinds of manipulable objects. Unlike many of its modern counterparts, Edna has no "empty screens". Hotspots are everywhere, sometimes dozens within a single location. As your inventory soon gets filled with all kinds of stuff as well, this enables experimentation to a degree, that wasn't seen for a while. It also makes the whole thing more difficult, of course.

The game is surely tougher than its average contemporaries, but it's not unfair. The solutions to the mostly object-based puzzles are – consistent with the game's general style – sometimes quite insane, but they have their own weird logic, that can be figured out. For those, who listen carefully, the game is also providing numerous clues. The right idea often jumped during conversations to my mind, in which the writers frequently indicate ways to get rid of a problem. To separate the useful from the preposterous is up to you, of course. And it's not an easy thing.

One of the nicest aspects about Edna is, that the game keeps you entertained, even when you're stuck. No matter what strange idea you may have, the game has an answer for it. That's the reason, why experimenting with all that stuff in your inventory is so much fun. You can try out everything: you can use Harvey with every hotspot you can find and listen to his comments, you can talk to doors, chairs, bathroom mirrors and television screens, you can use all kinds of things with all kinds of persons – the game will react on it. A standard answer like "This won't work!" does simply not exist, here.

Do yourself a favor: don't run through this game using a walkthrough. Try out things, experiment with your inventory, use Harvey, amuse yourself. Even when you don't make progress for a while, the humorous outcomes of your efforts are worth it. And while all of this is pure old school adventuring, it's by no means something ordinary. Edna may not bring innovations to the genre, but it uses an old concept in such a fresh and original way, that the result is nevertheless outstanding.

The Bad
I don't feel like wasting my energy with blathering about some minor annoyances of a great achievement. Of course, a double mouse click to leave the current location without having to watch the walking animation would have been a nice feature, that's unfortunately missing here. No big deal, unless you're in a pedantic mood.

What's really a matter of taste, are the graphics. I suppose you just take a look at the screenshots here at Mobygames, to get an idea of what I'm talking about. It looks old, it's 2D, the maximum resolution is only 800x600 pixels. Those people with a technological fetish will certainly hate it, others might discover, that the game's style is almost perfect. The only drawbacks are in fact the animations, which are either awkward or non-existent, and the music, which gets repetitive very soon. The game is actually quite long, but features only five or six short musical pieces, which are looped again and again. On the other hand, especially the theme, that's played during flashbacks, is really nice. And anyway this is no reason to trash such a brilliant game.

The Bottom Line
Edna surely makes no compromises. This game is remarkably different from anything else, you can find on the market. The general gameplay style may be typical LucasArts fashion, but the developers fortunately understood that retro isn't chic, when it just copies everything old; retro is chic, when it adopts certain elements from the past and forms something original with it. With its magnificent story, its cool setting, memorable characters and charming humor this is exactly what this game does. The result is great entertainment and a pleasure to play.

By micnictic on July 23, 2008

Tass Times in Tonetown (Amiga)

An amusing little game. Even dying sometimes is funny...

The Good
The good thing about this game is, that it takes you onto a journey to a really cool place. The word "tass“ actually means "cool“ in Tonetown tongue. And the games title does indeed not promise too much.

Your starting-point in this Interactive Fiction is the real world, more exactly your grandpa's domicil. Gramps has vanished without a trace and a clever little boy like you would of course not call the police, no, you take on investigating yourself. Doing so, you're quickly discovering a secret lab and some strange machinery, which turns out to be some sort of dream-fulfilling cross-dimensional travelling-device.

Thus you arrive in the bizarre place that is Tonetown and surely would be a cool place to move to. To me it seemed, like the Tonetowners were always in a relaxed and happy mood. Very crazy at the same time, they all dress up like maniacs and surely have a heart, when it comes to parties and Rock'n'Roll. In fact, their official currency are guitar picks!

Being an ordinary young boy from our dimension, where Rock hasn't freed the minds of so many people yet, you surely look a little out of place here. You have to get more "tass“, which basically demands getting a lunatic outfit and and a mohawk-haircut. Getting socially accepted that way, was quite funny and in my eyes almost as surreal as a talking dog becoming a star-reporter (an important side-character in this game).

One thing, that's remarkable about "Tass Times in Tonetown", is actually its interface. The screen is divided into three parts: in the upper left are slightly animated graphics giving you first-view-impressions of your surroundings, while right from that some icons are placed, which make simple orders like "look“, "take“ and "talk“ possible by clicking on them with the mouse. Below that you find a text-window, in which places and events are described.

"Borrowed Time" and "Mindshadow", two earlier Adventures by Interplay, both had quite similar interfaces, which means that this company brought the mouse to the genre even before the folks at Lucas Arts had that idea. Contrary to "Maniac Mansion" though, it is not possible to handle "Tass Times in Tonetown" solely with your mouse. More complex or seldom used actions still require the good old typing. Regardless of that, the interface established here was ahead of it's time and feels even today not totally uncomfortable. You move through the world by simply clicking on a compass-rose and all simple actions are easily done with the mouse. The only thing I found strange about the interface is, that among the icons also the possible action "hit“ can be found, which is of no use in the entire game.

Which brings us to another topic: violence might be no way to progress in Tonetown, but therefore it is a good way to die.

Right, death comes in many ways, when you travel through Tonetown. An especially frequent kind of dying is getting eaten. My personal nightmare became a weird animal that is called "crocogator“ and strives through the wetlands northwest from Tonetown. Any encounter of that kind (and I had many of them) leads to a graphic showing a close-up view of a fully opened jaw armed with razor-sharp teeth, while the text-window is telling you that you just died. Therefore, to save often is important, when you want to prevent some frustrating moments. At least were the developers nice enough to build in a quicksave-function: to calm down a little, you just have to press F7.

Actually, the games puzzles quite often involve figuring out ways to bypass the numerous death-traps. The procedure is the classical trial&error-one: you die, you reload, you try to solve the problem, you die again, you relaod again and repeat this until you (hopefully) suceed. The creativity of that puzzles is certainly not overwhelming, but I have to say, they are way more entertaining, than it might sound here. The solutions are neither illogical nor ultrahard and sometimes even quite amusing, once you got it. If you get stuck, it's most likely that you've missed some important object, so you simply should explore a little more.

The quality of the graphics heavily depends on the system used to run the game. On the PC it looks rather awful, on the Amiga quite nice. Animations are seldom to be found, but nevertheless there's style. And the images also make orientation easier. As the amount of explorable terrain stays relatively easy to remember, you don't need to draw a map in this game. (By the way, the existence of gamers who actually enjoy mapping their virtual playgrounds always irritates me a little. If there's one thing about games from that era that annoys me, it's propably the need of drawing maps, which plagues so many Interactive Fiction Games.)

The Bad
On the other hand though, vaster areas to explore might have had some positive effects, either. As it is, the game isn't very long and the "Tass Times in Tonetown" are over pretty soon. I would have liked more places to go, more people to meet, more things to do. Most of the things you can do in this game are elementary for progressing, there is little extra. Interacting and experimenting with your surroundings is quite limited and unfortunately often not even interesting.

The writing is overall a little disappointing, I would have expected a bit more in that section. Sure it isn't to be called bad and it makes a correct use of the English grammar. But all is said in a rather brief and sober tone, which in my ears just didn't sound like the right style for this game.

Apart from that, there are only minor problems, as they are found everywhere on closer examination. Annoying is the limited inventory. As you can carry only a maximum of eight objects with you, you're forced to leave some behind and travel back once you need them. I really had difficulties in detecting the purpose of that design-decision. Might it be realism? Mhm, but who cares for realism, when you're in a weird, surreal world like Tonetown?

The Bottom Line
Despite its weird setting, Tass Times in Tonetown is not really an extraordinary experience. In the end, it simply feels a bit too shallow to be called that. On the other hand, it features an interface, which makes playing relatively fast and easy, compared to other games from the mid-80ies. And it really can make you smile sometimes.

By micnictic on July 11, 2008

The Simpsons: Hit & Run (Windows)

Wow, it's GTA: Springfield! Someone needs fresh ideas.

The Good
"The Simpsons: Hit & Run" isn't really bad as a plagiarism. Some individual creative content would have been a good addition, but it's still a quite professional Grand Theft Auto theft. The game's main problem is just, that the comparison with its role model is as inevitable as it is impossible to win.

Admittedly, the developers could have stolen worse concepts. The Simpsons and GTA are at least a matching combination. Homer's driving style always suggested, that he developed it in a video game rather than in a driving school. And the anarchic sense of humor, that characterizes the Simpsons, works well together with the equally anarchic gameplay style, for which the GTA franchise is famous.

The game is divided into seven chapters, in which you successively control all members of the yellow family (except for little Maggie). Homer and Bart have two chapters dedicated to them and the fifth one features – quite a surprise – the Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu in the leading role. Hands-on there aren't any differences between the characters: their main activity is running, jumping and driving. Even Lisa can steal cars and run amok like the rest. Yet, unlike GTA, it's all presented without gore. The shooting sequences are replaced with sporadically intercepting platform action and whenever a car hits a pedestrian, slapstick comedy replaces brutal death scenes. Watching, how Flanders gets catapulted into the air from your buffer-bar, will surely put a smile on your face. Nothing really new, though: everybody knows, that car crashes and accidents are funny, as long as they happen in video games.

The racing sequences are still the strength of "Hit & Run". Similar to GTA, you have a great number of vehicles at your disposal, all with observably different qualities and handling characteristics. The game doesn't make the mistake to strive for realism, however. It remains a pure fun racer with exaggerated stunts and all kinds of hilarious action. The missions, you have to fulfill, involve a great amount of car chases, which are always fast-paced, easy to handle and yet challenging. If they were more varied, the missions could almost keep up with the quality of GTA.

Another strong point are production values, even when the transition from 2D to 3D doesn't do the characters any good. We're used to the Simpsons as a cartoon family – seeing them as badly rendered 3D-models isn't really appealing. But anyway the secret star of this game is neither Homer nor Bart, neither Marge nor Lisa. It's the city, it's Springfield. It may not have the size of a San Andreas, but the design shows a lot of talent as well.

In true sandbox style, you can at any time steal a car and explore the city ad libitum in between missions. Hunting for items can be a motivation, but even when you don't care for completing the game with a 100% mark, exploring the world is still a joy. Springfield not only looks good, but also appears alive and spirited with all its traffic and countless characters walking around (many of them known from the television series). Despite being 3D, the environments have a nice cartoony feel to it with lots of attention for details: walking in the garden of the Simpson's estate, lets you discover Bart's tree house, for example. Needless to say, that you will visit many well-known locations like the nuclear power plant owned by Mr. Burns and the elementary school, where my favourite supporting character acts out his visions of proper education. In addition the game is filled with many, many references to certain episodes, that will delight any fan. Sadly, average persons like myself probably miss many of that self-referential stuff...

Freak or not freak, exploring the game world and enjoying the beautiful graphics should still be an enjoyment for everyone. The production values in the audio department fortunately keep up. It's almost superfluous to say, that the original voice actors from the series do an excellent job, but the music is even better. Besides familiar themes you'll also hear many new ones and everything blends perfectly. Although it's sometimes hard to notice, as you concentrate on the action, the music, that plays during races, is particularly amazing.

The Bad
Ever since their first broadcasting, the Simpsons were ranging from sharp, political satire to ridiculous, irrational farce. Unfortunately, "Hit & Run" more or less forgets about the first style of humor and does a pretty bad job in attending to the latter. It's not completely unfunny, but the few good moments get lost in hundreds of stupid groaners, crammed into pointless conversations and almost entirely relying on tired character clichés. The actual story comprises mechanical bees spying on the neighbourhood and a mind-manipulating Buzz Cola fake. While your daily Simpsons episode moves at a frantic speed, this stupid, slowly evolving plot is mostly in a slumber. It's only doubling the disappointment, when you hear, that "award-winning Simpsons writers" were at work, here. So what happened? I don't know, but it feels like the writers saw this as an opportunity to finally put the rather brackish ideas to use, that were collecting dust somewhere in the more seldom opened drawers of their desks. There's hardly any other explanation, when this isn't discarded television material, stretched and adjusted to video game format very quickly. In any case it doesn't do the franchise any justice.

Dialogues also suffer from having to advance the plot as well as to introduce the next mission objective, which usually is a carelessly disguised replication of the one before. That's probably the worst flaw of this game: the mission design is terribly unvaried. You either have to race against an opponent or against the clock. You often have to collect a specific amount of specific items within a specific time limit – alone this mission type is repeated for what feels like hundreds of times. Not a good approach, when you want to stay interesting in the long run.

On foot you're challenged only seldom. The platforming sequences are few and far in between, probably because the handling is neither really precise nor comfortable. What exists, doesn't fuel any desire to see more. Jumping over rooftops is mildly entertaining during free exploration, but the platform segments during missions are uninspired and annoying. The desire to do secondary missions is limited even more. As likely as not, the rewards will fail in making you perform more boring standard-tasks. True, the racing is fun, as I said before. In comparison with GTA, however, the gameplay is far too monotonous and uninspired. And this comparison isn't unfair, since the game so deliberately entered Rockstar's territory. Being measured against their works is a consequence, that must have been expected.

The Bottom Line
So, if you can't stand violent gangster-settings or are just a glowing follower of the Simpsons cult, you can nowadays get this game as a bargain. As soon as you have explored Springfield, there isn't much interesting left, however. The city may shine, but the performance of pop culture's most beloved family is quite disappointing. The best thing about "Hit & Run" is probably, that you can start it up and immediately enter a fast, action-packed racing sequence. The worst thing is, that it gets old so quickly.

By micnictic on June 29, 2008

Mortadelo y Filemón: Una Aventura de Cine (Windows)

A movie freak's dream.

The Good
"Una Aventura de Cine" is one of those games, that attracted far less attention, than it deserved. With an effective promotion, it could have possibly achieved cult status in some circles. As it is, most people haven't even heard of it. Partly because, there never was a release in English speaking countries – to this day, the game was only released in Spain and Germany. Nevertheless, it has a lot going for it. Of course, it isn't breaking any new ground in the genre. It's just an old-fashioned, two-dimensional comic-adventure. But it has two charming anti-heroes and a lot of humor.

For those new to the subject: "Mortadelo y Filemón" (or "Clever & Smart", as we Germans call them) are a pair of chaotic secret agents, that originally appeared in comics. Their career, that has them working for an agency called the "T.I.A.", started all back in the late fifties and they were quickly becoming famous. Especially in their birthplace – Espana – they have an impressive cult following for about five decades now.

You don't have too know anything about Mortadelo and Filemón to enjoy this game, though. I myself have read only a few of the numerous comics, either – and this is a long time ago. Still, I hadn't any problems following the story. For a better understanding of the countless jokes, it might instead be advantageous, if you had a little knowledge of what is going on in the dream factory called Hollywood. I say this, because the premise of "Una Aventura de Cine" (the German title reads "A Movie Adventure") is as simple as it is brilliant: the two agents just travel through different movies.

This is made possible by the T.I.A.'s scientist, Dr. Bacterio, who invented a device, that can overcome the bounds between reality and fiction. Unfortunately, the initial try-out conjured "The Mummy" out of the movie by the same name. While the undead villain quickly starts preparations for world take-over, Mortadelo and Filemón have to travel into the movie to find the only thing, that can stop their adversary: an item called the book of the dead. But before they arrive in cinematic Cairo, unforeseen events have them stranded in several wrong movies. While those incidents tend to drive Filemón mad, from our perspective as players this is only good, as it simply means more entertaining stuff to do. For example meeting Charlie Chaplin in a silent movie. Or picking a quarrel with Billy the Kid in a Western. Enjoying cool jazz music and a very funny Sam Spade as narrator in a black-and-white film noir. Visiting a Jurassic Park parody. Or immersing ourselves into a horror flick, where Norman Bates, Freddy Krueger, Count Dracula himself and countless other famous genre characters appear.

From what I can recall of the comics, "Una Aventura de Cine" does a wonderful job in transferring the humor and style of "Mortadelo y Filemón" into a computer game. Not only the freakishness of the two main characters is well captured, the game is visually true to the comics as well. Similar to the better known "Runaway" (which also is of Spanish origin), "Una Aventura de Cine" resists the 3D-trend within the adventure genre. Two-dimensional graphics may not be the most modern way to present a video game, but it's just authentic in this case. I can say, that I really had the feeling of watching and diving into one of those comic-strips, I read many years ago. Maybe the animations aren't perfect sometimes, but the backgrounds are nothing but wonderful. They are not only colorful and pretty, but also overflowing with plenty little details, that had me giggling more than once. Pay attention, when you walk through pyramids! It would be a shame to miss those lovely ancient Egyptian mural paintings.

The work done in the audio department is equally fine. The voice actors of the German version do a more than solid job. Maybe it's sometimes a little too over the top, but it suits the game in the end. Simply wonderful is the music. The game features an exquisitely diverse soundtrack, that plays around joyfully with the musical stylistics, that are typical for the different movie genres, its two protagonists travel to. There are many humorous musical citations to be found, often inserted into wholly new contexts. For example, there is a strange, little version of Edward Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King", when you visit an old gold mine in the Western scenario. The individual score pieces form sharp contrasts: the music is sometimes kept simple to the extent, that you have only a single piano playing, but it comes to full swing in just the right moments. A good example therefor is, when you finally reach your ultimate goal, the already mentioned pyramid, and are welcomed by a single acoustic guitar, that plays a gentle, quiet little theme, until dark drumbeats and a small string section suddenly pump the whole thing up to a grand, atmospheric, memorable piece. I'd like to congratulate the composer on delivering one of those rather rare soundtracks, that truly help defining the personalities of places and characters, instead of merely drowning the unsexy silence.

When it comes to gameplay, you have to deal with a quite traditional comic-adventure, where puzzles are mostly object-based. You can examine things by left-clicking and fulfill various actions by right-clicking on your mouse. The comfortable handling treats your nerves with respect and offers nice functions like cancelling long walking animations by double-clicking on a possible exit. You can't die, the game is not too hard and always logical – everything's absolutely solid, to say the least. However, there's something, that makes this game stand out: you can jump between the roles of Mortadelo and Filemón anytime you want. Of course, this is no entirely new feature – we have seen it in other adventures like the LucasArts classics "Maniac Mansion" and "Day of the Tentacle" before. But still there aren't too many games, that have such a feature. And even when they have different protagonists, you usually can't change roles when you want it – you rather have to do it, when the game wants it. Alone for this feature, "Una Aventura de Cine" is not your everyday adventure. But it even goes a step further and allows you to connect with a friend via the internet, so that one can play as Mortadelo, while the other one acts as Filemón. What other adventure game can be played in cooperative multiplayer mode?

But even when you play the game in single player mode, it's fun to have two different characters with different personalities. Speaking to people often leads to entirely different conversations, depending on whether you approach them with Mortadelo or Filemón. Both characters are also commenting their environments in varying ways and have separated inventories – some puzzles can only be solved, when you choose the right agent. Sometimes the weird duo even has to coordinate their actions, for example when Mortadelo distracts someone by talking to him, while Filemón steals an important object. Instead of being a lonesome traveler as in most other adventures, the feeling of this game – to use an analogy "de cine" – is more that of a buddy movie. A welcome change.

The Bad
There really isn't much wrong about "Una Aventura de Cine". The not so perfect animations were already mentioned. The characters walk a little awkward and when the two agents find an object, it tends to be transferred into their inventories almost magically, by pure power of will and without any use of their hands – clearly the effect of too few special animations. But the game is generally too motionless. The backgrounds have style, but most of the time there isn't happening much. Even the main characters stand there like paralyzed statues, without having to wink with their eyes or anything. Maybe that's also analog to a comic-strip, but in this case it's somehow less positive, if you ask me...

Another thing is, that the dialogues can sometimes reach exhausting lengths, without telling important things. The main reason therefor is clearly the game's lust for cultural references. Especially when it comes to movies, the game is almost too allusive to my mind. It's not a permanent problem, but sometimes I would have preferred conversations coming more directly to the point, instead of making endless references. If they all were funny, everything would have been okay. But naturally not every joke is brilliant.

The Bottom Line
Alright, here comes the summary: "Una Aventura de Cine" is a chaotic trip through popular culture, a comic adventure with a strong personality, a visually and acoustically attractive experience, an interesting attempt of adding multiplayer to the genre, an example of elegant humor, all in all a supremely entertaining piece of software. Especially recommended to the cinéastes.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Windows)

Bioware – you can only admire those clever wizards!

The Good
The people at Bioware have to be true masters in the philosophical art, that is game-design. "Knights of the old Republic" is the most powerful proof therefore, the design of that game is so clever, so smart, it's hard to believe sometimes. One of the most impressing things about this Bioware-baby is actually, how versatile it is, how intelligent it serves the needs of many completely different types of game-consumers...

"Knights of the old Republic" certainly has more mainstream-appeal than all previous Bioware-releases. Remember only "Baldur's Gate". You had to know the quite complicated AD&D-rules-system to have a chance in that game, otherwise you would have been lost without hope. Even then, combat was everything but easy, challenging you to the max. That sure was fun for experienced RPG-players, but frustrating for others.

"Knights of the old Republic" is much more flexible, offering the player three different grades of difficulty. Furthermore, the experienced RPGer can manually determine for each character of the party, which of the numerous attributes, skills, feats and force powers should be further developed – while others simply let an automatic routine do the work. Same goes for inventory-management: the newbies can simply click on a button to dress up the best way possible, while others have room to experiment.

To be honest, the tactical depth of the fights is on neither of the three difficulty-grades as high, as it was in "Baldur's Gate". But more important is, that you always feel, the designers are in control of the difficulty: there is a noticeable learning curve and the game feels always well balanced – this is certainly not a matter of course in roleplaying these days! And I haven't even mentioned, how great those battles are presented. "Knights of the old Republic" uses the well proven "Infinity Engine", which means real-time-combat, that can be paused at any time, to give orders to your party. And watching those combat-scenes sure is a blast, as they manage to resemble the well known movie-scenes in quiet an astonishing way.

But combat is in my opinion not the only thing that makes role-playing interesting. The game also features a really interesting RPG-system with quite numerous possibilities to shape your main-character the way you want. Apart from violent skills you can also learn, for example, to hack into computers for shutting down the security-systems of enemy-bases. Or you can reach your goals by persuading people, instead of killing them. The best thing about the RPG-system is actually, that it reflects the moral choices, you make during the game. Followers of the dark side will develop entirely different force powers as servants of the light. Last but not least, the opportunity to upgrade your equipment is executed brilliantly and allows nice experimenting.

"Knights of the old Republic“ is one of the very rare games, that I truly hold in high regard and that at the same time sold really well. Of course it is likely, that the name "Star Wars" on the box has contributed a lot to the games commercial success – but I don't believe that to be the only reason. Equally important is in my eyes, that people with less time or will to dive deep into the material, are this time not excluded from the joy. And the game manages to stay interesting for the hardcore-fraction as well – I consider myself an experienced RPGer and I can tell you, I had a lot of fun!

Let's go further and reflect about the things, the presentation of a game is important for. I would say, the presentation of a game should create and by all means adhere to a specific illusion. In this case though, the presentation rather recreates a specific illusion – the illusion of the Star Wars movies. And "Knights of the old Republic" does even more: it enriches this illusion quite significant.

A good example is the soundtrack. We hear a lot of familiar themes while playing, as the brilliant score by John Williams is used to a great effect. But there's also a huge amount of original music featured, that hits the typical Star Wars style perfectly – like the beautiful theme, we get to hear on Dantooine. Sound effects also do a lot to enhance the atmosphere: from the buzzing of the lightsabers to the bleeping of the droids, everything is there.

The graphics are beautiful. The game uses a better version of the graphics-engine already seen in "Neverwinter Nights", which means 3D-environments instead of an isometric view. I remember being on Tatooine, that desert planet you know from a couple of movies, and I really had the feeling of entering the world of Star Wars. Landing on Tatooine, you actually arrive in a mining colony first. Building stands next to building, there is a feeling of narrowness somehow. But that's used to a great effect, when you finally leave the colony and enter the vastness of the desert, giving you a fantastic view. And there is an image, that will evoke familiar feelings in the minds of all Star Wars fans: a giant, heavily damaged sandcrawler, just like we witnessed it through the eyes of Luke Skywalker in the very first movie. That giant object in that flat, beautiful landscape serves not only as quite an impressing image, it also recreates the atmosphere of the movies by discreetly referring to them.

So, the images, the game creates, truly breathe the atmosphere of Star Wars. But it does more than only citing the movies. We also visit planets never seen in any cinema, the most impressing one probably being Rakatan. I really felt like walking through a piece of art, instead of just standing in front of it. (I only wished, the Neverwinter Nights engine would allow me more freedom of view, while exploring this wonderful landscapes...)

Of course, the game world is not only depicted through images. You can speak to many interesting characters, you can complete an enormous amount of non-obligatory side-quests, you can always stop and enjoy the many amazing details. The movies simply had no time to show their world in such detail, as they had only about two hours to tell their heroes-save-the-galaxy-tale.

"Knights of the old Republic“ truly outshines the movies when it comes to attention for details. Let's take the games characters for example. Bioware was always great, when it came to characterization – and this time they really outdid themselves. As the game takes place 4000 years before the events of the movies, you won't meet any characters you already know. And trust me: you won't miss them at all, as they will appear flat in comparison to the ones you get to know in this game.

Darth Malak is a great example for a very well conceived main villain. He's not just someone you kill in the end, he's a distinct and almost tragic personality. A character, that can remind you of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" sometimes, as he is indeed a very intelligent person, who became terribly misguided and now spreads tyranny over his world.

The most convincing characters are of course those, that follow you on your journey. They all come with their own background-stories and they talk a lot to you. I was really surprised, when Carth Onassi, a soldier for the Republic, suddenly suspected me of being a traitor. It really gave me the impression of dealing with a living, self-thinking individual – something I rarely felt within the boundaries of a video game.

Adding to that is an absolutely convincing cast of voice-actors, that truly suit their particular roles. Mimics and gestures were also stunningly naturalistic – gotta give credits to the animators. But the most important thing are the dialogues, which are written with perfect style. I found it a pleasant surprise that some great humorous attempts found their way into this overall quite serious game as well. Love that crazy droid HK-47! And really funny are the conversations with the Jawas on Tatooine: those little guys had very amusing ways of expressing themselves...

I still haven't lost one word about the main-story, yet. I haven't forgotten about that. I just wished to spare the best part for the very end of this section.

Well, you could certainly summarize, that you once again have to stop the evil plans of some evil guys. But that is not, what the story is really about. The real theme of the story is quite actually ethics. That theme is at the bottom of every little quest, it hides in nearly every dialogue and is the centre of every single of the countless little stories, the game tells within its big one.

I recommend, you also read the review by JazzOleg, as it is most interesting, what he wrote about the ethical conflict and the behind-standing philosophies, comparing the Jedi to Chinese monks. However, my own thoughts went into completely other directions, as I found it most surprising, that even your worst enemies, the Sith, follow their own moral code – something, the movies never told us.

You actually not only fight the Sith, you get to talk to them, as well. And in doing so, you will discover, that they are still human, that they have still feelings, after all. They are misguided. "Knights of the old Republic" strongly emphasizes on the fact, that everyone can fall to the dark side, every person has that potential. The Sith are often portrayed as extremely selfish, they are actually quite focused on their career. A lot of their thoughts circulate around intrigues, around ways to climb up the ladder in their hierarchy. It fits to their Darwin-like philosophy of a natural selection, where only the strongest survive. That philosophy – the fact, that there's always danger from the lower ranks – makes sure, that only the strongest stay in leading positions. And when only the strongest are in leading positions, it strengthens the Sith as a whole.

It is actually quite easy, to see some parallels to reality here. We live in an achievement-oriented society, that works in many ways quite similar. And I believe, our society also tends to teach young people, to care for themselves mainly. So, were the movies basically just a science-fiction-fairy-tale, you can easily establish a more down-to-earth-like view on "Knights of the old Republic" and actually see "the dark side" more or less as a metaphor for self-centered real-life-behaviour.

What I was often asking myself, while playing, is the following: is it possible, that a game with such a strong emphasis on moral decisions can also lead to reflections about your behaviour in real life? And when that is true, can such a game actually teach people something valuable – especially the younger ones? I'm not sure about that. But nevertheless – call me crazy, if you want – I really see some deeper value in "Knights of the old Republic". Even if it's just a Star Wars game, it definitely goes beyond pure entertainment.

The Bad
There really isn't much to say in this section, at least nothing really important. But for the sake of completeness...

The role-playing-system is quite interesting and well executed, but not to be called perfect. There is a number of talents, that proofed to be rather useless. Why invest points into "security" (nothing but lock-picking), when you could easily bash everything open by using your weapons? Putting points into some passive force powers like "Force Immunity“ or "Force Energy Resistance“ was close to waste them, either.

I already mentioned, that the engine doesn't feed you with as much freedom in view, as I would have liked it. Also, the exploration of the planets was often restrained by rather ridiculous limitations. There you stand sometimes, having gained the maximum level in your "Force Jump“-ability, and a tiny little rock has the means of blocking your way. Very strange...

The Bottom Line
You might have already realized, that I'm extremely enthusiastic about this game. Normally, I don't use superlatives in such an inflationary way. But it just seems appropriate to me, when it comes to "Knights of the old Republic" - I simply call it a triumph for the video game industry.

You should really check this out, even if you don't like Star Wars. Even if you're completely new to the genre, this is no hindrance, as the game really takes not-so-experienced players by the hand. The only thing you should be sure of is, that you really have the time for this game, because it really is absorbing and once you're into it, it can be hard to find back into the real world.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Montezuma's Return (Windows)

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.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Outlaws (Windows)

To call this an Italo Western is like calling Bon Jovi a rock band.

The Good
While "Outlaws" is overall a huge disaster, it has its bright moments. The credit sequence, that is part of the introduction, is an example therefor. It's quite a cool rip-off from the opening credits of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" - the famous ending to Sergio Leone's "The man with no name"-trilogy, that made Clint Eastwood a star.

Yep, "Outlaws" is a video game, more exactly a first-person shooter, that's trying to be a homage to a cult movie genre, namely the Italian Western. The opening credits are one of the rare examples, where this experiment shapes up as a success. Another one is the soundtrack, written by Clint Bajakian, who stuck to the musical works of Ennio Morricone, that emblazed many famous Italian Westerns. While the quality of the pieces isn't anywhere near those composed by the great Maestro, Bajakian managed to deliver a decent imitation. All the elements of Morricone's epic Western scores show up: the whistling, the choirs, the trumpets, the guitars, the typical rhythmic and melodic figures. One could call it barefaced plagiarism, but who cares? The music enhances the atmosphere greatly.

When it comes to gameplay, "Outlaws" is your standard-shooter with weapons a little different. The designers chose a rather realistic approach here: you don't have any rocket launcher to your pleasure, but mainly different guns and pistols as well as some additional gimmicks like throwing knives or dynamite sticks. What's more you have to reload every single bullet manually. If you forget about that, you will make the experience of standing in front of your enemies, while your shooting device will not make "BOOM" but only "click". I found this annoying at first, but came to appreciate it as authentic little detail after a while.

Last but not least, there is a good variety in the settings, that are used as levels in "Outlaws". Speaking of levels, the game features only nine of them, but they are quite spacious and will keep you occupied for a while. You will fight in a ghost town, a mine, a canyon and on a moving train among other.

The Bad
Be warned, that I have a lot to say in this section. To shorten myself a little, I will let the game's visuals aside, although they certainly deserve criticism, as even contemporary games tended to look a lot better. But I still could have lived with the graphics, if the game had been able to catch my imagination. But this is not the case. Story and atmosphere – exactly those things, others praised all the time – offended me the most. Many critics stated, that "Outlaws" would be a great homage to the Italian Western and would resemble the movies of Sergio Leone. I happen to love those movies and therefore I know, that this is just not true. I hope, I can make my point clear by explaining the differences.

A hallmark of the Italian Western is its unique way of displaying violence. I'm talking about those famous, well-known duels, where the key to survival lies more in keeping the nerves than in anything else. In those scenes, the actual act of violence erupts suddenly and is a matter of split seconds. Much more important than the flying bullets is quite actually the prelude: for example the duelists feelings, their concentrated expressions, as they stare each other into the eye. The violence in "Outlaws" is almost exactly the opposite. You won't have the time to take a look into your enemies eyes. And even if you take the time, which normally leads to immediate death, you will only get the impression of a mushy heap of pixels. The actual gameplay is very simple: you're constantly moving, moving, moving (because you must not get killed) and shooting, shooting, shooting (because you must kill). That constant moving and shooting is only occasionally interrupted to make way for some of the games "clever" little puzzles, that have you doing things like using a crowbar on a locked door (I figured this solution out without consulting a walkthrough and I'm still mighty proud – ha, ha, ha). Seriously now, the actual gameplay is your typical brainless shooter stuff. I discovered nothing that would make this in any way superior to "Doom" and the like.

Even when the locations quite frequently change, "Outlaws" is a very repetitive game at its core: it's just firing and killing and almost nothing else. In fact, not even Loco, that merciless headhunter Klaus Kinski once played in "The Great Silence", would have ever dared to dream of sending as many people to hell as Marshall Anderson does. By the way, I act for the theory, that the game throws so many enemies at you, because LucasArts realized, how dumb their AI was. Those stupid gunslingers run around like deranged Lemmings begging for bullets and would hardly provide any challenge, if they wouldn't come in such enormous masses. Exterminating these zillions of foes can even arise some philosophical questions like: where do all those bad boys actually emerge from? And how comes it, that I'm the only brave soul in this whole Wild West society, while all the others are criminal, child-kidnapping bastards? I found no answers to this questions, but one thing I'm sure of: a mindless nonstop mass killing like this does in no way resemble a Leone movie. Period.

Let's put the actual gameplay aside and come to an even more overhyped aspect of "Outlaws": the story. Just as anything in the game, the story aims at resembling an Italo Western and just misses its target. Think only of the protagonist's motivation for forcing the action: while Clint Eastwood just does it for the dirty dollars, Marshall Anderson embarks upon his record-breaking killing spree to save his oh-so-sweet little daughter and her oh-even-sweeter little dolly... OUCH! Can it get any worse? Oh yes, it can. The whole story is just an awfully incompetent, disrespectful rip-off from the plot of "Once upon a time in the West": Anderson's wife is killed and his daughter kidnapped, because his land is in the way of an unscrupulous businessman's railroad-plans. This worn-out idea is presented without any skill or imagination. Not only are the characters flat and uninteresting. Also everything was cut out, that made the arrival of the railroad such a brilliant motif in "Once upon a time in the West".

It is important to understand, that Italian Westerns are no simple action movies. Although they are not exactly talkative, they are always telling you something. It is well known, that Sergio Leone was absolutely crazy on tiniest little details – and when you watch his works carefully, you can notice that. Every scene in his movies makes sense in some way, that not always has to be related to the main-plot. His Westerns were also remarkable for bringing on a cinematic view of the West, that was very different from that of the American Western. When directors like John Ford were virtually romanticizing the Old West, Sergio Leone was systematically deconstructing this rather naive, sentimental view. Think only about his disillusioned vision of the American Civil War in "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly" or of the Mexican Revolution in the often underestimated "Duck you, Sucker!". His movies were quite often dealing with difficult themes and thereby showed no fear of breaking conventions. His quite sarcastic, immoral revisionist picture of the Old West is an integral part of all his Westerns.

How does "Outlaws" stand in this tradition? The answer is simply, that it doesn't even make an attempt to make any greater use of its setting. The Old West is just a battleground for Marshall Anderson's private war. There is no attention for details, no interesting story, no interesting character to be found. Actually it is quite difficult, to establish any interesting character, when the protagonist immediately kills every person, he comes across. As the story of "Outlaws" works this way, the player is left with Marshall Anderson as the only character, he can relate to. And what a flat one he is! His creators must have thought, that anybody who doesn't talk much but smokes all the more, would have to resemble a typical Italian Western hero. What they obviously forgot (or didn't even notice), is that those characters, that Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero or even Bud Spencer embodied, also had distinctive personalities. What made them cool and despite their brutal and selfish nature in my eyes even likable, was for example their humor. The protagonists of the Italian Westerns were anti-heroes: they were greedy, filthy and cynical, but (when we leave Bud Spencer aside) they were also clever. And here "Outlaws" fails again: if the Marshall wasn't such a gun fanatic, he could easily bore his enemies to death by talking to them. Actually it would be much more painful for them. The Marshall's remarks are blatant nonsense, "humor" seems to be a foreign word for him and his head appears to be empty except for his lust for vengeance. He is the guy who raises his eyebrow and says: "I've never met an innocent man". It's so pathetic, so dumb, so sad.

I also remember countless people slobbering over "wonderful cut-scenes" in reviews of this game. And indeed they are made in nice comic-style. Even I have to admit, that they are quite pleasing to the eye, after having suffered through the in-game-graphics for a long level's duration. But what do they tell us? Well, here is a little synopsis: Marshall shoots villain, villain goes down and babbles stupid last words, Marshall makes equally insightful remark, villain dies, Marshall gets on horse and rides to next level. This petty little scheme is reproduced in almost every cut-scene until the very end. There are only few exceptions and they aren't any better. There is no substantial story-telling, no noteworthy content to be found in this entire game. And as if they were applying to some sick rules of dramaturgy, the people at LucasArts saved the most disgusting movie sequence for the finale. There, in a sugar-coat romantic image, the Marshall rides towards sunset, together with his oh-so-sweet little daughter and her oh-even-sweeter little dolly. If anyone dares to say, this ending would in any way capture the spirit of the Italian Western, I insist, that we immediately meet and shoot it out. (Not literally, of course)

It is amazing, how far "Outlaws" is away from what it's trying to be. Sometimes this is according to differences between the media. In my eyes it's extremely doubtful, whether a video game can ever accomplish something similar to Leone's movies. For example, his slow-paced, individual art of direction is very hard to emulate – especially for a first person shooter. But still, "Outlaws" is a disappointment not only by fate. If it wasn't such a thorough misconception, it could at least have failed a lot less miserably. I sometimes was really enraged by the careless and silly ways, this wanna-be-homage treated its subject with.

The Bottom Line
As "Outlaws" still has a good number of fans, maybe I'm not making new friends by writing this. But anyway I really don't understand, why this game was (and still is) praised so much. That question gave me a hard time and finally I can only come up with the uncertain theory, that people were so used to raving at everything wearing the LucasArts logo, that they, regardless of what was served, just couldn't drop that behaviour. Nowadays it is near to common knowledge that this once so creative company sank to mediocrity, but the beginnings of that trend were mostly overseen. I think, in games like "Outlaws" it already showed. When I consider that "Duke Nukem 3D" and "Quake" were already released, I don't see how this pseudo-western had deserved any nice word by critics when it came out.

I do not intend to repeat myself about how miserable the game is at imitating the style of the Italian Western. But let me tell you that: even if you don't give a damn about things like story, atmosphere or Westerns and if you really just wanna shoot, there are numerous better games within the genre. "Outlaws" is neither pretty nor is it innovative – if you're looking for great ideas, you should search elsewhere. Only when you don't care for creativity either and really just wanna shoot shoot shoot, then I guess, this game might be right for you. It's your average, primitive bloodshed – this time with a cool soundtrack.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Flight of the Amazon Queen (DOS)

Walks on the fine line between Monkey Island and Indiana Jones without falling.

The Good
"Flight of the Amazon Queen" is a decent comic adventure released in 1995 and developed by the Australian based team of Interactive Binary Illusions, who were also responsible for the very entertaining 2D-shooter "Alien Carnage" (also known as "Halloween Harry") prior to this.

The story takes place in 1949 and as the player you adopt the role of a pilot, who – in a quite desperate attempt to come up with a pun – was given the name Joe King. His little private business is getting dangerous, when he's assigned to escort the famous movie star Faye Russel to a photo shoot and his plane, the "Amazon Queen", crashes. The good: the whole crew (more precisely just Joe and his best buddy Sparky) and the passenger (Faye) all survive the accident. The bad: they are now trapped amidst the many dangers of the Amazon Jungle. Not to mention the unpleasant climate (quoting the hero: "Boy, is that hot...").

The relation between the two main-characters reminded me of the second Indiana Jones movie. Similar to the female lead in "Temple of Doom" (played by Kate Capshaw), Faye Russel is a sexy blonde and a bullheaded diva, used to a life in hygienic luxury and now stranded in the wilderness. Of course, she's very angry with the male adventurer who brought her in this messy situation and is giving him hard times in the beginnings. But in the course of the story – no big surprise – both come to like each other.

Soon after the initial events the main-antagonist is introduced. You will have to deal with a mad German scientist in best Josef Mengele fashion, who is hiding out in the jungle and planning to conquer the world. Along with this villain comes his army of brutal dumbheads, which appear to be former Nazi thugs (although this is never indicated clearly). Needless to say, that your primary goal changes from escaping the jungle to stopping the evil plans of these evil people.

True: the characters may be stereotypical and the story-line predictable. But this can be forgiven, as "Flight of the Amazon Queen" is a rather humorous affair, often close to a parody. The game world is filled with funny characters, among them whole tribes of tall pygmies and sex-hungry amazon women, as well as pairs of Christian missionaries and comic-book-collecting discoverers. The games tongue-in-cheek humor often resembles "Monkey Island", but stays a bit less absurd and over the top. One could say (as I did in the top-line), that "Flight of the Amazon Queen" combines the feeling of Indiana Jones adventures with the satiric approach of Guybrush Threepwoods. Even as it throws endless jokes at you (some more, others less funny), it still manages to keep its serious elements reasonably intact. And in doing so, the game succeeds in telling a light-hearted adventure-story and making you laugh at the same time. That surely is a nice thing to achieve, isn't it?

The similarities to LucasArts adventures don't stop here: interface and puzzles show the influence as well. Joe King is controlled via eight buttons, that allow actions like "use", "take", "give" and "talk". They are placed at the bottom of the screen alongside the inventory. Puzzles are of the traditional object-based kind, mostly logical and tending to be easier than in LucasArts adventures. Holding to the best traditions established on Skywalker Ranch, you can neither bite the dust nor maneuver yourself into any dead ends. Overall, the actual gameplay is nothing out of the ordinary, but very solid to say the least.

Graphically, the game comes in VGA and offers nicely drawn backgrounds and some fine animations. The MIDI-Soundtrack is quite inconspicuous, a little repetitive, but overall not bad. What really took me by surprise is the quality of the voice acting. From games from the mid-nineties I normally don't expect much in that sector. As many readers will remember, especially the not-so-big developers often had quite unprofessional (voice) acting during that time. But "Flight of the Amazon Queen" is one of the rare exceptions from that rule. From the accentuated mellow coolness of Joe to the furious outbursts of Faye everything in that department is very well done.

The Bad
As already mentioned, puzzles are mostly logical, but not always. There were cases, where I couldn't figure out any logical approach to certain problems. Also, I sometimes thought the game should have allowed multiple paths to solve some puzzles. For example, there is a situation, where you're captured inside a prison cell in a secret, paramilitary underground base. To get rescued, you have to attract the attention of Faye, who is searching the building for you. A logical solution would be to blow the huge horn you're carrying around. But doing so has no effect at all, although you produce a big noise. But if you get the idea to strike with a coffee cup against the bars of your prison, the case is solved. Strange puzzles like that are seldom, but in my opinion they shouldn't exist at all.

What I explained above, is a situation that occurred in the second half of the game. This is more or less symptomatic, as the second half suffers from a significant loss in overall quality compared to the first. It begins with your heroic infiltration of an ancient temple, peppered with deadly traps and the like. The game gets much darker in tone here, which at first is quite welcome after the comical excesses of the first half. But unfortunately this part is far too long and has some serious drawbacks. Firstly, the game becomes more linear, now quite strictly prescribing the order, in which you have to solve the puzzles. Secondly, there are long walks involved, as there is no map, which allows direct jumping to certain points in the temple (which is provided in the jungle). But the third and most important disappointment is the lack of interaction with other characters, which was one of the more interesting parts in the first half of the game. Even in the temple, you can talk to some creatures and persons, but they are far less than before.

Having completed the temple sequence, I was hoping that the game would return to its strengths one more time. But I became disappointed. The story quickly moves to the final act, which feels quite rushed and unsatisfying. In retrospect, the later parts of the game seem a bit hastily put together. It doesn't feel, like there went the same amount of thinking and care into it, than before.

The Bottom Line
When you strive for playing the judge over this nice little work, you have to keep in mind that the standards, it sets in its beginnings (and by which the later parts are naturally measured), are not exactly low. The second half is certainly a letdown, but nevertheless "Flight of the Amazon Queen" stays an enjoyable experience. Even the fact, that the game isn't to be called strikingly original, renders no weighty criticism in my eyes. Most point and click adventures of the time were heavily inspired by the works of LucasArts. "Flight of the Amazon Queen" is no exception, but at least it features an original setting. Furthermore, it performs very well in terms of always holding the difficult balance between comedy and serious adventure-story. The inhuman cruelty, with which the villain is depicted, not only delivers a fine motivation for kicking his butt, it also brings some darker undertones into the whole affair, where other comic-adventures are merely a collection of jokes. See it this way and there is nothing wrong in giving this game a chance.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - Legend (Windows)

What a change of developers can do...

The Good
I don't want to speak much about gaming history, but allow me to sum up shortly the impact that Lara Croft's first public appearance had. In 1996, the very first "Tomb Raider" was an awesome achievement. It pioneered, along with "Super Mario 64", the use of three-dimensional environments in the Jump'n'Run genre. It also had an engrossing atmosphere, state-of-the-art graphics and fascinating gameplay. It made Lara Croft a star, a brand name, that was used for advertising and appeared in nearly all kinds of media. That her fame is originally based on a really good and innovative game, is often forgotten. The reason partly is, that the sequels, that Eidos and Core Design pushed out in very short intervals, could simply not hold that quality. While Lara became a cultural icon, her games became more and more boring.

After the sixth major release, the critically panned "Angel of Darkness", Eidos realized that the next "Tomb Raider" had to make real advancements and took the series away from its original creators at Core Design. The result is "Tomb Raider: Legend", developed by Crystal Dynamics, who were among other things responsible for the "Legacy of Cain" franchise beforehand. The product, they finally delivered, goes after years of stagnancy suddenly even a bit far in expanding the old formula. It eagerly tries out new gameplay ideas – not always to good effects. But on the other hand this also means a fresh breeze, for that Lara's old tombs surely have begged.

Presentation:

Probably the first thing you will notice about the seventh "Tomb Raider" game are the truly gorgeous visuals. The engine behind all that is a completely new and absolutely good one. Firstly, Lara herself profits from the improved visuals of "Legend". The amount of polygons, that form her body, has increased noticeably. I'm also quite sure, that they scaled down her chest a bit and I must say, that the now more realistic proportions suit her well. Animations are also of the quality, we came to expect from the series: Lara's athletic exercises appear fluid and life-like. The facial design and expressions are also much more detailed. Personally I would say: this is the first time, Lara can really be called pretty. It is quite amazing by the way, how she is always perfectly styled, now matter whether she is visiting a party or a deserted dig site in Peru – it almost seems as if she were well aware of us gamers...

But what's really wonderful to behold are the panoramic landscapes, this game features. When you travel to Ghana and witness a natural spectacle in form of a valley with waterfalls gushing into a sea, you will certainly be impressed. Believe me, when I say: jumping headfirst from a cliff into that sea provides an amazing feeling. Ghana surely is a highlight, but there are other beautiful landscapes as well: for example the mountain regions of Bolivia and especially the snow-covered ones of Nepal. The more urban settings are no less stylish: the city of Tokyo, that you once can oversee from a skyscraper, makes a breathtaking sight. Kazakhstan remained the only place, that felt a little uninspired in my eyes. Otherwise, the detailed environments are of high artistic value.

The engine also is strong at bringing those places to life, which the series is named after. Lara again ventures into several old tombs, temples and ruins of ancient cultures – be prepared for some stunning architecture. Once Lara is inside those ruins, the atmosphere often gets quite intense. Those buildings show their age: the places are run-down and dark. In fact, the lighting is sometimes done superb and significantly fuels the unfriendliness, those ancient ruins emanate. You can notice about "Legend" that the designers previously worked on the "Legacy of Cain" series: the atmosphere is sometimes really dark and creepy.

One sequence, that is to be remembered, is Lara's discovery of legendary King Arthur's tomb. Here the game lets you descend to some catacombs, that are hidden underneath the British Cornwall and filled with deadly traps and the like. Deeper and deeper the game sends you underground. It confronts you with many dangers and a whole lot of coffins from less important knights, before you finally arrive in a huge cavern. There, placed near the rear-wall, stands an impressive gothic cathedral, wherein Arthur and his whole crew, the Knights of the Round Table, have their final rest. The dramaturgy of those moments is exciting. The dangerous descent and the slowly rising tension, that finally pass into a fascinating discovery.

When it comes to mythological charged places like King Arthur's grave, to exploring terrain that is unknown to modern mankind, "Tomb Raider: Legend" shines. The magic of the series, the sweet sense of being the one and only discoverer of ancient cultures most secret and holy treasures, is finally strong again. Also very important for the atmosphere of the game is the beautiful soundtrack, written by Troels B. Foelman, of whom I never heard previously. Nevertheless the music is a key factor to the tension, the game sometimes manages to build up. More important than the beautiful main theme and other quite magnificent interludes, is the dynamic drive of the score: how the music oscillates between bombastic and quiet, how it changes with the mood of the game, how it underlines your seeings, your discoveries. There is no doubt, that this is by far the best soundtrack ever heard in any "Tomb Raider" game or movie, which is just another part of the all in all awesome artistic presentation of this title.

Gameplay I:

As long as it sticks to the classic strengths of the series, first of all the jumping and climbing, I don't hesitate to call the gameplay truly great. A minor problem is, that the level design is more or less in a conflict between offering challenging gameplay and realistic environments. It is sometimes irritating, how conveniently for example ropes and metal bars are placed through the course of the game – often in very unlikely places. This could easily destroy the illusion of the game, if one would care to think about it. But at least I was hardly ever bothered by that as the gameplay proved to be captivating enough to make me get rid of those logical objections. It really is a fascinating thing, how suspenseful virtual climbing can be – this was one of the characteristics, that made the very first "Tomb Raider" such an amazing experience in its day.

"Legend" sure is less complex than the first "Tomb Raider" sprout. In principle the levels are fairly linear, but this is hard to notice, since the climbing action is so damn cool. You can jump acrobatically through the air, swing on ropes, grab hold of small ledges, poles and ladders and you will be swimming and diving through deep waters. Some new opportunities are included as well. The most important one is without any doubt the use of Lara's newest achievement: the grappling hook. Mrs. Croft can throw this magnetically loaded, handy little gadget at any metallic surface. Then, for example, she can swing on the attached rope beyond a deep abyss to a distant platform. But the hook often serves other purposes as well. Often you can pull metallic objects towards Lara, that she otherwise just couldn't reach. That still is not everything you can do in this game. It may be all about climbing and finding your way through a course of different obstacles, but nevertheless there is a lot of variety in the gameplay of "Legend".

The game features clever puzzles as well. Again, Ghana comes to my mind, where you have to activate a water wheel by opening a gate and thus directing the water down to it. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the procedure to open the gate is quite a complicated one. It is a good example for a huge puzzle, where several little puzzles are seamlessly integrated. You have to pull several levers, move heavy objects onto panels and solve some other simple tasks to get the water flowing. The problem is again to reach those mechanical devices. This involves not only the notorious dangerous climbing, but for example also navigating a primitive raft through the water on the other side of the gate. Here you have to use your grappling hook to overcome the stream of water by pulling yourself and the raft towards some objects. The game makes also use of physics: in this section you jump over boulders, that are balanced against each other in scales-like constructions. When you jump on the first one, it goes down, while the other one rises. You then have to catch the right moment for jumping on the second boulder. Bit by bit, with actions like that, you slowly make your way through the room and finally manage to get the water wheel working.

It may be hard for a reader, who isn't familiar to "Tomb Raider", to conceive that kind of gameplay as the fascinating thing that it is. But you have to believe me, that it is highly entertaining. It are those quiet moments, that mark the highlights of this game. Moments, where there isn't any gunfire, where nature is your worst enemy, where you have to be utterly concentrated to avoid deadly mistakes. The experience gets really immersive here and lets you forget about the outside world. Really, if Crystal Dynamics would have focused on this kind of gameplay, there would have been nothing wrong with "Legend". It could have been a glorious return for Lara Croft. But unfortunately other things get in the way...

The Bad
Plot:

Adding a narrative to a game can never be a bad idea, when you have good writers. However when you have bad writers, that furthermore make the mistake of taking themselves too serious, it can be all but enriching. When playing "Tomb Raider: Legend", you basically can notice, that a lot of energy went into creating the background story. There are quite numerous movie sequences, that some Hollywood directors couldn't have staged better (they are for example superior to Jan de Bont's second "Tomb Raider" movie, but I won't call this an achievement). The problem only starts, when you look behind the cool staging – and discover only bullshit.

"Legend" throws a couple of different story pieces at you. There are flashbacks, that show how Lara lost her mother, when she was a little child. There is her former friend Amanda Evert, whom she considered dead, but who is actually alive and now possessed by some weird demon-thing. And there is – a typical and uninspired excuse for globetrotting in a video game – Lara's search for the broken pieces of Excalibur. A good thing is, that the well-known legendary sword has a short but cool cameo as a usable weapon towards the end of the game. A bad thing is, that none of the mentioned story-ideas is elaborated in a convincing way throughout the narrative. The whole thing is nothing but a confused mess of different plot fragments, poorly told and garnished with some pseudo-intellectual history lessons, that would make any historian weep. But actually all of this isn't very annoying, compared to the heroine of this game.

When you examine people in real life a little closer, you may discover, that no one is as uncool, as someone who desperately tries to be cool. In real life those people are typically male. They often do stupid things like wearing sunglasses inside of buildings and eagerly try to dress and act in clichés created by the media, because they don't have any personality of their own. It's funny, how Lara Croft resembles those poor male idiots, that have no idea, how ridiculous they are. Lara's two most obvious influences are James Bond and Indiana Jones. With her dumb and worn-out phrases she seeks to imitate them in almost every line of dialogue. And she fails so miserably that you can really pity her – pretty, but stupid. You will miss those times, when she remained silent during gameplay and kept her dignity at least a little bit.

Lara is of course not the only one: "Tomb Raider: Legend" features a cast of other boring characters as well. Especially Lara's two colleagues, the black-and-white duo of high-tech-hobbyist Zip and snobby British academic Alister, are a consistent pain in the neck. Both are permanently in contact with Lara and babble stupid comments through her headphone. The dialogues in this game are sometimes really hard to bear. That frequent babbling is rather a disturbance than an achievement. Once a hallmark of raiding tombs, the sense of loneliness and isolation is now killed by meaningless conversations of meaningless characters. "Legend" demonstrates, how much atmosphere a silly story can destroy.

Gameplay II:

As already mentioned, gameplay is fine, as long as the developers stuck to the strengths of the series. But there are also several attempts of integrating new gameplay elements and many of them are implemented badly. Moreover Crystal Dynamics made the mistake of emphasizing too heavily on shooting.

As Lara's former friend and present enemy Amanda is not only possessed by a weird demon-thing, but also has a super-rich lover, who can afford whole armies of mercenaries, you really have to shoot a lot in this game. Maybe I could have lived with some shooting elements as little distractions from the main gameplay, as it was also the case in earlier "Tomb Raider" games. Maybe I would have even appreciated it, then. But "Legend" simply goes too far. The frequent shooting does the rest in making the atmosphere, the feeling of isolation vanish. Those mercenaries just don't fit in those deserted tombs.

Furthermore, the dramatic staging of the shoot-outs can not – or at least not very long – hide the fact that they are oversimplified. The shooting has never belonged to the strong sides of any "Tomb Raider" game and "Legend" can't change this. While companies like Rockstar Games showed cool ways of integrating gunfire into a third-person 3D-game, Crystal Dynamics must have slept. Basically, "Legend" offers the same shooting as always. Lara automatically locks a target (now visually indicated by a red frame around the enemy) and you only have to press the appropriate button to let your bullets hit. While doing so, you run aimlessly back and forth to avoid the bullets and grenades of your not so intelligent foes. Apart from the simplicity, that makes the whole thing boring very fast, another problem is that you often don't see the direction you're heading, as the camera prefers to show your current target.

All of those problems plague the franchise since its first installment, where it was even less bad, as shooting played only a minor role back then. The little improvements, that "Legend" has to offer, count almost nothing. The throwing of grenades goes utterly inaccurate and kicking at enemies is more or less ineffective. Of no use at all is the manual aiming. When you do so you are not able to move, which is always crucial if you want to survive. The summary: there are no real advancements to be found when it comes to fighting. Especially the boss fights I found annoying. They are everything but easy and last far too long.

There are some other new elements in the gameplay as well. And they are not always absolutely bad. The game has some simple reaction tests, similar to those seen in "Indigo Prophecy", but fortunately not that difficult. It certainly is nothing outstanding, but you can call it a nice addition. I think, the general idea behind "Legend" was, to offer a more diversified style of gameplay. And that idea is certainly not a wrong one. But the influences from other genres are mostly not beneficial. The performance, the game makes in some areas, is just not worthy of a top product. Take the racing sequences, where Lara rides a motorbike once through Peru and once through Kazakhstan. The handling of the vehicle is everything but accurate and the sequences as a whole are just primitive.

The Bottom Line
"Tomb Raider: Legend" once again shows the amazing potential of the series. But while the technical improvements are praiseworthy, the innovations in gameplay are often not. And the story, particularly the protagonist, gets on the nerves. I fear, there is no chance for Lara Croft to evolve into a brighter character, as her traits seem already determined. Maybe going to Hollywood was a mistake. An alliance between the anti-actress Angelina Jolie and the script writers of Paramount can do nothing good to the shaping of a character. The funny (or maybe not so funny) thing is, that it reflects in the games as well. "Tomb Raider: Legend" is somehow like a gaming equivalent to a Hollywood Blockbuster: highly polished visuals, an impressive musical background, frequent exchanges of fire, stereotypical characters and a silly story. It is entertaining while it lasts, but afterwards you will forget about it very soon. The only things that stand out, are those moments where the guns remain silent, as it is primarily the case in England, Nepal and Ghana. In those places the designers focused on the best elements of the series: the slow exploration, the delicious jumping and climbing, the clever puzzles, the intense atmosphere of isolation, the overwhelming might of nature. If they had concentrated more on these elements, they could have easily made a modern recreation of the truly "legendary" first "Tomb Raider" game, that made Lara Croft so famous in the first place. As it is, "Legend" is far away from achieving that goal, but is entertaining nevertheless.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008

Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure (DOS)

Why don't play something strange instead of the usual stuff?

The Good
"Little Big Adventure", the European title for this game, is in my opinion a much better name for this unique work of art than "Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure". Interestingly, Frédérick Raynal and some other members of the French development team were previously responsible for the first part of the "Alone in the Dark" series, that is inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, infested with zombies, and nowadays commonly credited as the grandfather of the so-called "survival horror" genre. I guess, in the early nineties no one would have thought, that the next thing, the designers would come up with, would be as cute as this. It must have been a strange surprise – like the entire game is, by the way...

Story and setting:

What makes "Little Big Adventure" so strange, is in the first place its narrative, that transcends the usual categories. The game world is hard to describe, as you can't easily compare it to something else. While most other story-telling games can be assigned to typical and well-known fictional genres like mystery, fantasy or science-fiction, "Little Big Adventure" eludes that way of describing it. If I was coerced into pressing this game into a fictional genre, I would call it a very weird fairy-tale. But still there isn't a comparison, that could really picture the setting of this game.

The whole thing takes place on a planet called Twinsun – as the name already suggests, not only one, but two suns are shining on this world. As each hemisphere has its own source of light and warmth, the climate is in fact the opposite of what we're used to: the tropical regions are on the poles, while the arctic regions are near the equator. There, a seemingly impassable string of snowy mountains, the Hamalayi, separates North and South.

Of course, there also is intelligent life present on Twinsun. There are four different races: the Grobos look a little like talking elephants and Rabbibunnies like oversized rabbits, while Spheros and Quetches are more human-like species, but also in a rather grotesque way.

At first sight, Twinsun is a very sweet and innocent place, where people have nice homes, nature is still healthy and little worries exist. It's almost like a childhood dream. But this impression is only one side of the coin: opposed to the dream is the nightmare beneath the surface. Already in the first minutes of the game, we learn about Doctor Funfrock, the tyrannous ruler of the planet. He doesn't think much about personal liberty, freedom of speech and civil rights in general. Most people don't rebel, but against those who do, he has a whole army of clones at his command.

To stop the evil Doctor is of course your ultimate goal in "Little Big Adventure". To do so, you adopt the role of a young Quetch with the name Twinsen, who has dreamed a forbidden dream and stupidly told other people about it. As even certain dreams are illegal under Funfrock's reign, you'll find yourself in jail, when you begin the game. In the course of the story you will learn very soon about an ancient prophecy, that you have to fulfill. You will discover, that your ancestors were practiced in magic. And you will have to watch, how sweet Zoe, your more than lovely girlfriend, gets arrested by two of Funfrock's clones.

Remarkable is, that "Little Big Adventure" never loses its light-hearted approach, no matter what theme it deals with. It also is a game, that can be enjoyed by all ages, except maybe the very youngest. While it does feature violence, it is portrayed in a very abstract and humorous way, that won't scare any young boy or girl around. And the dialogues are written in a rather naive tone, that everybody will understand. There is no irony, no sarcasm, no cynicism to be found. The game takes itself serious in its childishness. Some grown-ups may find this annoying, others charming – I lean towards the latter group.

Gameplay:

Rumour on Wikipedia has it, that "Little Big Adventure" was originally planned for release on the SNES. There, it would have had good company with other action-adventures like the third part of "Zelda", with which it shares more than a few similarities when it comes to gameplay. "Little Big Adventure" has its unique twists, though. Firstly, the perspective isn't top-down but isometric. And instead of having a sword and other weapons you fight with your bare fists and throw a magic ball at your enemies. Aiming with that magic ball isn't to be called easy and requires some practice. Nevertheless the ball is your most important weapon and it becomes even stronger, as Twinsen becomes more skilled in the use of magic. Towards the last quarter of the game you gather an additional magic sabre, but by that time the ball is already more effective.

The most outstanding aspect about how the game plays is without a doubt the addition of different "modes" for the protagonist. In "normal mode" you can speak to people, open crates, read signs and basically can interact with your surroundings. In "athletic mode", Twinsen automatically runs, which is often useful, when you want to avoid fighting. The young hero also can jump when you switch him to "athletic", which adds some moderate Jump'n'Run elements to the experience. Finally there is "aggressive mode" to beat clones up and "discreet mode" to sneak past them. The easiest way to switch modes is with your function keys.

The game world is quite a varied one and actually rather big than little. You will come to visit several towns, dungeons, a desert, mountain ranges and military bases – among other. It's very well done, how the world more and more opens up as you make progress. In the beginning you can only explore a very limited territory in the southern hemisphere of Twinsun. But when you get your own ship, you will finally gain more freedom. Later, Twinsen will even find a way into the northern hemisphere and befriend a flying Dino, who will take him to the skies. All of this – how the hero becomes more powerful, earns new abilities, fills his inventory and explores the world step by step – is very well-captured "Zelda" style of gameplay.

Presentation:

"Little Big Adventure" features SVGA graphics, which was no standard in 1995. Therefore you have no scrolling, as it would most likely have overburdened contemporary machines. Instead of fluid scrolling, the game just jumps to the next scene, when you get to the edge of the display. But this is a small price to pay, when you look at the fantastic visuals. The textures are crystal-clear, there is an amazing attention to detail and every location has its unique style. Those little towns you'll come to visit are perhaps the best example. They look like a surrealist's impression of little real-life suburbs, where everyone has a nice home and a fenced garden. Trees and lush green meadows flourish together with happy and satisfied people. The visuals are strange, but appealing.

When in athletic mode, Twinsen moves a little awkward, but otherwise animations are absolutely wonderful. All characters are based upon polygons and particularly the enemies are done with style and quite often a lot of humor – in the end you may almost come to like some of them. For example the bulky soldiers, that are wielding their guns in such a funny way, when they make their patrols. They even have slightly differing personalities: while some fulfill their military duties with great accuracy, others prefer to take a nap and one guy even takes a pee behind a tree as you surprise him. As in "Alone in the Dark" – only in a much more comical way – some undeads found their way into this game as well. Despite their sluggishness they are actually quite dangerous for your health meter, until you found an item called "The Book of Bu", which makes them so awestruck, that they stop attacking – instead they will bow down at your feet in a brilliant animation, which is again very amusing to look at. In fact, even tanks look rather funny in this game, while bullets fly swiftly through the air like small, colorful ping-pong balls, that Twinsen has to avoid by all means. These rather cute enemies of this military caricature are perhaps the most important guarantors for the light-hearted feel of the game, that stands in contrast to the themes it's dealing with.

The soundtrack of the game is just as good as any part of the presentation. I was often humming certain themes – not only during play, but also afterwards. The only part, that is completely unprofessional, is the voice acting. But you've got to hand it to the actors: although they are certainly amateurs (sometimes with slight French accents), their weird performances mostly just match. For example, Twinsen's quirky voice surely needs getting used to, but after a while, I found his way of greeting people – wishing a "Good day!" or asking "How's it going?" – rather funny. In the end, the presentation of the game is creative, bizarre and above all coherent. The different parts, even the unprofessional ones, just fit together.

The Bad
"Little Big Adventure" is a matter of taste – more than most other games. Much of that stuff I wrote in the section above could in another player's mind belong into this section. It's easy to like or even love the cute, colorful visuals and the childish dialogues. But it might also be easy to hate it or just feel too old for it. What is good style? The answer is subjective.

But "Little Big Adventure" has some objective flaws either. Above all is its tendency to be very frustrating. Sometimes you stroll around with maximum energy, suddenly get hit by an enemy, stagger around and collect a second and a third blow, until you die without having had a chance to react. This is not what I call a well-engineered combat-system. "Zelda" clearly is several steps ahead in this section, as it is less unforgiving to your mistakes and – thanks to a wider choice of different weapons and enemies – also a lot more diversified.

What is not only frustrating but enraging, is to die from running into a wall or a table! This is actually possible, as you suffer damage from bumping into objects, when you're in athletic mode. Even worse is the automatic save system, that doesn't allow manual saving. You can only copy existing save game files, which is very cumbersome. And the game just saves every "progress" you make – even when you get arrested! Especially in the beginnings this will happen quite often and it is a tad annoying to break out of prison, when you do it the tenth time already...

Another criticism I have is, that the game is too linear and therefore misses some opportunities. It has a huge and open world, but the openness is more or less wasted. Of course you can always do some backtracking, but in most cases you won't discover anything new. Why are there no secrets to be found? Or some interesting side quests? This would surely have given more life to the wonderful setting.

The quality in level design is decreasing. In fact, "Little Big Adventure" spends some of its most well-crafted dungeons early in the beginning. A good example is a temple beneath a desert, that is cleverly constructed, has some really good puzzles and is in addition quite long. Later areas are in contrast often very short and straightforward, which is a bit disappointing. And speaking of disappointments: the final battle against Dr. Funfrock took me less than a minute to win! And that after I went such a long and difficult way to face that guy...

The Bottom Line
The truth is: I really can't help you much with the question, whether you will like this game. If you will or not is almost entirely a matter of whether you will like its style. I mentioned it several times: this game is strange. You may criticize, that it isn't very deep or even serious on its topic. Although it is dealing with a suppressive police state, this isn't a dark, subversive tale in the sense of George Orwell – it rather chooses to be decidedly immature. You have to like that idea or you will be disappointed. If you want my personal opinion, I have to tell you that in the earlier stages I wasn't too enthusiastic about the game's antithetic nature. But this is only normal, as everything that goes beyond conventions takes a little time of getting used to. Somehow the game's innocent humor still doesn't get me, but when I opened my mind about the game's premise, the whole thing was nevertheless able to make me smile. That smile sometimes suffered a little from things like the combat-system, the decreasing creativity in level design and the overall anticlimactic feeling towards the end. But all of that is forgivable, when you like the style. One thing is for sure: there aren't too many games out there, that are truly imaginative. And "Little Big Adventure" is exactly that.

By micnictic on April 29, 2008