Mata Hari Review

In the early 1900's, a Dutch exotic dancer named Margaretha Zelle was gaining popularity. Dancing under the stage name of Mata Hari, she quickly caught the eye of many high-ranking politicians and military officials. As the winds of World War were approaching, and international travel become more difficult, she enjoyed the privileges of being a Dutch citizen who could travel freely, as the Netherlands remained neutral. British, French, and German officials recognized the advantages of conscripting Mata Hari as a spy, and she was soon operating as a double agent. History relates that in 1917, she was arrested, tried, and condemned to a firing squad.

Developed by DTP Entertainment, Mata Hari spans the period from 1905 until her death in 1917, allowing the gamer to take part in her travels and her espionage activities. The game is a third-person point-and-click adventure/puzzle game that is built on much fact, some speculation (historians are not entirely in agreement about many of the aspects of Mata Hari's life), and a bit of imaginative fancy from the minds at DTP Entertainment.

From the start, the game showcases the artistic talents of the developers. The backgrounds are done in lavish detail, with abundant color. Scenes from early 20th-century Paris are recreated quite believably. (See sidebar for sample screenshots.) And during the course of the game, Mata will travel to several international locations, including Monaco, Berlin, and Madrid.

Throughout the game, Mata interacts with several major characters -- many of whom were actual contacts in real life. Each has their own priorities, their own motivations and desires regarding the advancing war. And each has ways in which they wish to use Mata's "talents". The requests they make, and the assignments they give to Mata, make up the majority of the game. For the most part, Mata Hari was a courier of information. So as she moves from city to city, many of her assignments are simply to acquire information -- either through conversations with key individuals, or by obtaining papers, letters, or other documents.

The game interface is quite simple. One thing that brings a bit of diversion to a game that could otherwise be much more linear is that there are a number of elective activities that Mata can engage in -- usually by way of optional puzzles. As she takes part in these activities, she increases her "abilities," represented by a point total. Each optional task results in points being added to a running total. Not only does this offer a certain degree of replayability (i.e., seeing what additional options can be engaged in), but the abilities that Mata acquires (and the points that they represent) can change the outcome of the game. The game ending will differ (possibly even from the standpoint of history), depending on how many additional activities Mata engages in.

The puzzles in the game are a mix of inventory puzzles, arcade-style puzzles, and logic puzzles. The inventory puzzles are fairly straightforward. Typically, Mata needs some object -- either to bring back to the person who requested it, or to serve her in her espionage. Solving this kind of puzzle usually involves locating the object, and using it appropriately. The most common form of arcade-style puzzles are the dances that Mata must do throughout the game (to progress to a new level). These dances involve some fast-finger clicking on moving objects on the screen, and increase in difficulty as the game progresses. In some cases, they can be skipped (at the cost of missing the additional points); in other cases, completing the dance successfully is required before moving on to the next objective.

The logic puzzles can be frequent -- however, some can also be skipped. As Mata travels from city to city, for example, her travels are all by train. Each time she goes to the train station to get a ticket for another location, a puzzle will be available. It is a logic puzzle, based on playing a turn-based game against the computer. The puzzles start out fairly simple, but become increasingly difficult -- almost to the point of being impossible. Thankfully, after the first few have been solved, Mata will be able to choose to skip these puzzles (again, at the cost of missing the additional points). Other logic puzzles occur throughout the game, usually in the form of a visual puzzle (where pieces must be moved and/or rotated to complete a goal), or a word puzzle (such as decoding an encoded message). While any one of these logic puzzles is interesting in itself, they were a bit over-used -- i.e., repeating the same kind of puzzle too often.

Throughout the game, Mata interacts with the other characters through dialogues. During these conversations, there is very little optional activity on the part of the player. They are typically conversations (some quite long) in which Mata and another character talk about what is happening, or about some new task for her to engage in. This progresses the story line of the game, but it also becomes tedious after a while. It is important in a game of this nature -- that is, a linear, story-based game (particularly one based on historical records) -- that the player understand that there is less opportunity for free-format exploration. The game has a definite direction and goal, and the player is subject to that linearity.

During the close-up character-to-character dialogues, the renderings of the characters are not done quite as well as the rest of the artwork. Many sharp angles and lines make it obvious that the precision of the wireframe objects could have been improved. And movements tend to be stiff.

But perhaps the most detrimental factor to me had to do with the traveling. No matter what city Mata is in, when it is time to travel to another city she must first find a taxi. Then take the taxi to the train station. Then go to the ticket counter and buy a ticket for her destination. (Then optionally determine whether she wants to acquire more points by playing the logic game that gets her to the destination city, or skip the game and "take the Express.") Initially, there was an element of fun -- especially when, early in the game, large amounts of time are spent in a single location. But in the latter part of the game, Mata is traveling almost constantly; and this process becomes extremely tedious.

To make matters worse, anachronisms abound in the game. There are a few minor historical anachronisms (e.g., planes flying continuously over Paris in a scene from 1905). There are also the "nothing has changed" anachronisms. As the game moves from 1905 Paris through the intervening years to 1917 Paris, many of the scenes show the same people -- in the same clothes, and standing in the same places. (In one case, a man standing on a bridge was in the same place 5 years later. In another, a man riding a bicycle was still riding in the same circle years later.)

Perhaps the biggest faux pas of all, though, in this area was when Mata was in Madrid. She needed to obtain information from someone, and saw that he was on the phone with his "contact" at the moment. She decided that she needed to tap into his phone line, but the hardware she required was back in Berlin. So she a) went back to the train station and took the train to Berlin; b) gathered the objects that she needed for the telephone tap; and c) went to the train station and traveled back to Madrid. And the person was still on the same phone call -- and she was just in time to tap into an important part of the conversation!

Of course, a game such as Mata Hari, based on historical records, has only a certain amount of leeway, in terms of how the game will end. But as noted above, the format of the game allows for several different endings, based on how much Mata has accomplished, and which optional puzzles have been solved. Some of the endings may defy history; but that is the "poetic license" that the developers have chosen to use.

Mata Hari is rated "T" (Teen). The reasons listed include "Alcohol Reference", "Sexual Themes", and "Violent References". The background, however, is the events surrounding the start of World War I; and Mata Hari was recruited because of her ability to travel openly as an exotic dancer and entertainer -- often in what we would call "night clubs." Other than those allusions, I did not find the game offensive in any way.

As with all such games, I always take additional time to do some research on the historical facts surrounding such a game. And I appreciate what I learn in the process. Mata Hari is one such game. Aside from some minor foibles -- and if played with the right mindset -- Mata Hari is a game that should provide a good mix of historical fact and fiction, adventure, and puzzle-solving.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.