Journey to the Center of the Earth Review

Deriving its name from the classic Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth actually has very little to do with the world that Verne created. Indeed, the game could have taken place just about anywhere, with the only requirement that it be in a remote location, apart from any connection to mainstream civilization and society. Ariane, a professional photojournalist, is on an assignment when a natural catastrophe sends her through a fissure in the earth's surface — and to the land at the earth's center, where dinosaurs still roam, and the environment is a mixture of 19th-century lifestyle, and 21st-century technology. As Ariane investigates what could be the scoop of her career, a story begins to unfold that makes her realize that there is more to this place than meets the eye — a terrible secret known only to a few, which she intends to uncover.

JTCE is an adventure game that combines both inventory and logic puzzles. Most of these inventory puzzles are of the "find the tool to cut the rope" or "look for something to use to block the door" type. The logic puzzles, oddly enough, range from the fairly simple to one or two virtually-impossible puzzles. (One puzzle has almost no clues for it, and the ones that are provided are extremely arcane. And a user trying to solve this puzzle through trial-and-error will be dismayed to find that there are over 3 million possible solutions. What's even worse is that trying a single solution takes 20 minutes or more, due to the amount of work and on-screen movement involved!)

The game is played in the third person, with the player controlling Ariane's movements throughout the game. The interface is primarily point-and-click, making Ariane move to the location of the cursor. While this was simple to learn, there were a few glitches that made it less than optimal. In many scenes, moving Ariane from one side of the screen to the other took 15-20 seconds. Fortunately, there is a way to make her "run" to her new destination — but it only cuts the time in half. And in several places in the game, the player needs to move Ariane from one scene to another very distant location, requiring that every scene in between be traversed by Ariane. There are no maps or "warps" to get to another location quickly. And occasionally, her movements were awkward — either heading in the wrong direction, only to change abruptly in mid-stride, or sometimes having Ariane do a "rotating shuffle" while she oriented herself to the direction she was to go.

The game installed with no problem, although several times during gameplay, the action would freeze up, and I totally lost all control of the game. This required killing (and restarting) the game — and losing whatever progress I had made since my last saved game. From everything I could determine, these were not system hardware problems, but related to the actual game design itself. (For example, in one place, I had moved Ariane into a spot from which she could not be moved away, and no other action could take place. She kept turning around, but was somehow "bound" to the spot where she was standing.) And while the on-screen cursor normally changes to signify the directions in which Ariane can move, there were many times when this change of cursor was not present, but Ariane could still be moved in that direction — which made depending on such visual clues questionable, and resulted in unnecessary "random clicking" to find the correct path.

Throughout the course of the game, Ariane interacts with many characters. The first dilemma she faces is to distinguish whom she can trust, as the information she is getting from them doesn't always gibe. Dialogues with the characters are controlled by selecting questions (and responses) for Ariane from a list presented on-screen during the dialogues. As in most such games, it is usually necessary to select each of the dialogue options before the game can continue; and certainly that is the case, if Ariane is to discover what is going on in this strange world. So while the dialogues provide a bit of interaction on the part of the player, they really amount to "sliced-up cut-scenes" that are played back piecemeal. At times, Ariane's conversations seem a bit inane, but they are necessary to progress in the game. And in one mildly frustrating situation (which is repeated many times during the game), I would click on an object for her to interact with, she would ask "Do I really want to do that?", I'd click again (to confirm the action), and she would do it.

For the most part, the graphics in JTCE are quite good. For a change (it seems), we are presented with an adventure game that takes place predominantly in sunlight, with lush, vibrant, high-contrast colors. You won't have to turn down the room lights because of dim, dark, foreboding scenes. The textures are done well, albeit fairly simply. There are no breathtaking landscapes with high-definition 3D renderings. However, the artwork is done well, and contributes to an enjoyable visual experience.

The characters are animated reasonably well, although we are not given the close-up animations that some other recent adventure games include. In some cases, the movements are reminiscent of typical Saturday-morning cartoons, while at other times they seem to have been given a little bit extra attention to detail.

The save-game engine in JTCE is one of the most unique that I have seen. You can save as many games as you like, and every saved game is accompanied by a thumbnail image of the scene where the game was saved. Or, more correctly, I should say that every thumbnail is accompanied by information about the current status of the game. Because each saved game consists of a single JPEG image file — with all of the other information (location, inventory items, status of triggers, etc.) encoded within the JPEG file itself!

JTCE is a fairly linear game, in terms of the progress that Ariane must make. While there are no pre-defined chapters, or levels, Ariane clearly moves from location to location, and situation to situation, in a well-controlled manner. (For example, trying to access a location which is "out of order" at the moment will typically result in her saying something like "I have other things to do here first.") Within each particular location, however, she is fairly free to move around, explore, talk to other individuals, solve necessary puzzles, encounter the triggers that will move her along, and generally develop the story line of the game.

Without spoiling the game, I will note that this is a "two-ending" game. At a certain point in the game, the player has an option that will lead to one of two possible endings. One is fairly brief, and involves no other gameplay; the other extends the game by quite a bit, involving more exploring, more puzzle-solving, more characterizations, and more story line. The reason I mention this is that, for me, this is where the game diverged from being a really good game, to being an "okay" game. Because it seemed that this "extension" to the game was done as an afterthought — almost as a "hey, we don't have enough gameplay to this thing yet; let's add something on to take up more time". The puzzles in this section certainly do not distinguish themselves. And most of the activity seemed, to me, to be "make-work" — that is, doing a lot of unnecessary things, things that did not contribute significantly to the overall story, but which involved a large amount of moving Ariane back and forth, taking time and energy, but not much else. My overall impression of the game, rather than being improved by having "more game to play", was actually lessened somewhat by the tediousness of what resulted from selecting the second ending.

JTCE is an enjoyable game, which should provide 15-20 hours of gameplay (if one can find a hint or walkthrough to get by the one or two next-to-impossible puzzles). While my own reactions see-sawed throughout the game (depending mostly on the tedium of the current task that I was performing), I found that the game was entertaining, and a good diversion.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.