Forever Worlds Review

On the cover of the booklet that comes with Forever Worlds, the game is subtitled "Enter The Unknown". It might also have said "The Unclear," "The Undefined," "The Unintuitive," "The Unworking," or "The Unenjoyable" -- all of which would have been just as accurate.

Forever Worlds is a difficult game to describe. The following statement is taken from the Prologue to the game booklet: "Forever Worlds is one man's cosmic search for eternal life, a journey through surreal and immersive worlds where magic and fantasy merge with humor and beauty, where lizards and condors are sidekicks and humans are kicked to the side." And that made more sense than the rest of the game. FW is the brainchild of Courtland Shakespeare -- something that should be cause for great anticipation, especially for fans of his two Jewels of the Oracle puzzle games. But somewhere between Jewels and Forever Worlds, Shakespeare must have had a bad midsummer night's dream, because FW is a comedy of errors.

First, there were the technical difficulties. I tried to install FW on three separate machines: Windows 98, Windows Me, and Windows XP. The first two never did get running. So my test machine was a Windows XP system running DirectX 9.0b on a 1.7MHz Pentium IV, with 384MB RAM, and an nVidia GeForce4 440 Go card -- clearly exceeding the minimum requirements (see sidebar).

From the very beginning, I experienced problems. FW incorporates many video cut scenes, all of which are .AVI formatted files. Every time I encountered one of these full-screen cut scenes, the picture was either entirely green, or a mixture of green and purple. The sound would continue, but I couldn't see what was happening. Yet I could go to the game's installation directory, and open every one of the .AVI files manually -- in several different media viewers -- and view them with no problem at all.

I began what turned out to be a fairly lengthy E-mail dialog with technical support from The Adventure Company, the game's distributor. I was told to be sure that I had DirectX 9.0b installed. (I did.) I was told to try playing one of the video files in an external viewer first, then play the game. (I did.) I was told that the video drivers on my laptop weren't current. (I was using the latest drivers available from Dell. There was a newer driver available from nVidia, but both Dell and nVidia recommended against installing the new driver on a laptop machine.)

Eventually, I broke down and installed the unsanctioned nVidia drivers. And the full-screen problems appeared to go away. However, all of the partial-screen videos (i.e., where the video plays in only a portion of the screen, over a static background) just showed up as black boxes. (Again, every one of these partial-screen videos could be played successfully in an external viewer.) I ended up finishing the game without ever getting this problem resolved. (Only after finishing the game did I discover -- through various Internet gaming forums, including one at The Adventure Company -- that there were more massive technical problems with the game than even I had encountered!)

After getting the game to run (for the most part), I found that several times it would just hang up in the middle of game play. The cursor would either freeze, or disappear entirely. I could no longer call up the game menu, nor save or restore a game, nor even exit the game. (It had to be terminated externally, usually from the Task Manager.) I was never able to determine what caused these crashes, since they were entirely non-reproducible.

Still on the topic of technical "burps", there were one or two points in the game where, while playing in one "age" (for lack of a better term), I would walk through a doorway, or click on an object, and I was suddenly in the middle of another age -- one that I had not yet even visited (and shouldn't have been able to access yet)!

The technical issues were not relegated to game play, either. Even the artwork had its problems. On more than one occasion, I would walk through a single door, and upon entry into a new location, I would turn around to look at the door I had just come through, and it would be a double door! This kind of carelessness of design was exhibited throughout the game.

But let's, for the moment, overlook the incredible plethora of technical difficulties, and talk about the game.

The game interface was very difficult to use. While the basic design is a common one (centrally-located cursor, 360-degree panning, click on arrow cursor to move), there were several major problems. The first thing I noticed was the extreme difficulty in controlling the cursor. The smallest movements of the mouse would often cause the cursor to swing erratically (or, more correctly, cause the scene itself to swing erratically). The movement was jerky and sudden, oftentimes almost nauseating. It was very difficult to position the cursor in a precise location. (And there were plenty of times when a particular object or action-spot was very, very small, requiring a lot of "pixel-hunting".) Secondly, the cursor "drifted". Normally, it would be in the middle of the screen. But if I continued panning to one side, the scene would rotate, but the cursor would simultaneously edge slowly toward the side of the screen. After panning for a few seconds, the cursor would have drifted all the way to the edge of the screen.

The inventory was also implemented very poorly. The inventory is not brought up by right-clicking, or pressing the space bar, or even the Esc key -- as is common in so many other adventure games. Instead, there is an icon in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that you must click on, to access the inventory. When you do, the inventory covers the entire screen, in semi-transparent mode (you can still see the scene behind it, but the inventory takes precedence on the full screen). Each inventory item is shown in thumbnail format. Clicking on an item brings up a larger image in the center of the screen. But it does not select the item. Now you must click on the large image of the item in the middle of the screen to "take" it. But you're still left on the inventory screen. So you must click on the button in the lower right-hand corner again to drop the inventory window. And finally -- with the selected object "in hand" -- you can now click on a place on the screen where you wish to "use" the item. Five clicks every time you want to use an inventory item. And to make matters worse, there is almost no item in the game that is used intuitively. (And there are many inventory items that are never used at all.) So every time you encounter a "hot spot" on the screen, it typically requires going to the inventory and trying every single item on that spot -- clicking five times for each one.

Even saving games had its problems. Each saved game can be named using free-format text. Almost. I would often find that what I typed would not be entered, because I had used a "non-acceptable" character. But even worse, at several times during the game, I had saved a game at a difficult spot, or when I was having technical difficulties, and every response from the system indicated that the game had been saved. But when I came back later to restore the game, it was not there. YAUTI. (Yet another unexplained technical issue.)

Sound was also a problem in the game. Not a technical problem -- it was just difficult to hear. During game play, you encounter a number of "characters" from these other ages. They are not human, but are called "Fillers", because they have no substance. In an attempt to get alien-sounding voices, the geniuses at Hexagon took normal voice recordings and ran them through an "effects filter". The result, more often than not, was something so garbled that it was difficult to even understand. Echoes, reverb, time compression, and other distortions made much of the dialog unintelligible. (The Chipmunks did a better job of voice-modification 30 years ago -- and without today's high-tech tools!)

Another issue that thwarted successful game play is that there is no way to repeat the dialog that goes on in the game. If something important was said, or if a clue was contained in any of the dialog, the only way to go back and hear it again is to load a previously saved game and replay the section.

If there is any saving virtue at all in FW, it is the artwork. A lot of time was put into the design of the scenes, and, in particular, the animations. The scenes are not fully 3D, but might be called "layered 2D." However, the textures (and colors) used were frequently quite excellent. But nothing compares to the detail, the textures, the shadings, the lighting, the rendering, and the reality of the 3D animations. I can't recall any other adventure game that contains 3D animations that are more realistic. Unfortunately, they are too infrequent (and don't work on many systems, judging from forum comments), and are not enough to save the game.

Throughout the game, the dialog makes an attempt at humor -- usually either very dry, or very caustic. My initial reaction was that this was going to really lighten the mood, and make for a more enjoyable experience. But after about ten minutes, it became obvious that the humor was forced. And eventually, it simply became stupid, annoying, and insipid. Except for the fact that I didn't want to miss any critical information, I was tempted to play the game with the sound turned off.

Another bothersome factor was that many times I would be moving forward along a straight path, but after clicking forward, my orientation would have changed. Maybe I'd be looking back at where I'd just come from; maybe I'd be facing off to the right or left. It made it very difficult to progress along a continuous, forward route, without a lot of panning around in between every move, to be sure I was continuing in the same direction. Where this really became problematical was in a couple of mazes. I would be moving forward along a straight path, but the next scene would show me facing into a blank wall. But which wall? The one that had been on my right, or on my left? I lost track of the number of times I ended up going back where I had just come from.

Let's move on to the puzzles. After all, this is an adventure game. So what were the puzzles like?

You don't want to know. But I'll tell you anyway. The game includes both inventory puzzles, and logic puzzles. However, neither type is intuitive. One problem is that, throughout the entire game, I never did fully understand what I was trying to accomplish. In fact, after I had finished the game (and even read some other reviews), I wasn't quite clear on exactly what had happened. The puzzles in the game followed suit. And quite often, after finally solving a puzzle, my reaction was "Who in the world would have ever thought of doing that?" At no time was there any sense of "Oh, gosh, that was well thought out!"

Speaking of the puzzles -- and this really is a comment on the game as a whole -- the game comes with a "Solution Guide". I could not possibly have finished the game without it. And I am not embarrassed to admit that, in all my years of adventure game playing, it was the only time that I ever sat down and played from a Solution Guide. Early in the game, I had already given up, so I decided that I wanted to see if I could even make sense out of the developer's own instructions. It wasn't easy. (Among other things, there are at least three errors -- two of them completely wrong and misleading-- in the Solution Guide itself!)

Even the story line wasn't clear, without reading the additional comments in the Solution Guide. Much of it was completely illogical, disconnected, and puzzling. Without giving away the plot, I can only say that the story conceived by Courtland Shakespeare may have had potential, but it was certainly not developed well. The end result was total confusion.

There is simply no way to solve the puzzles, and move through the game, in any logical manner. There are puzzles that require "clues" to solve, but the clues are virtually nonexistent, and never intuitive. Different sections of the game (what I have called "ages") come and go with virtually no connection between them. The game is fairly linear (thankfully), but even that didn't help me to understand the story itself.

Then, after all of the hassle and grief of going through the brunt of the game, the end game turned out to be nothing more than a fairly lengthy cut scene. There is no player interaction. Right up to that point, it appears that there are still things to do, places to go, people to see. Then, suddenly, a cut scene begins, and takes you through the end of the game -- literally "sailing into the sunset". The developers apparently either ran out of time, ran out of ideas, or ran out of money, and just decided to emulate Jessica Fletcher, from the TV show Murder: She Wrote. Just as on the TV show, the final cut scene attempts to explain, in the last few minutes, everything that's happened in the story -- things the player may have noted, and things the player had no idea whatsoever about. And supposedly this pulls everything together. But all it did was to add more confusion and more frustration. The high point of the game was being able to say "It's over!!!"

While I'm sure that Mr. Shakespeare's hope for this game was that "All's well that ends well", my response is that, measure for measure, FW is "Much ado about nothing".

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.