Mysterious Journey II Review

Mysterious Journey II is a sequel to Schizm: Mysterious Journey, originally released in 2001 (and which, in its turn, was a loose sequel to Reah). There is little relationship between the games, from the standpoint of the storyline, and either game can be played independently of the other. In MJII, you play Sen Geder, a character who has been in a state of cryogenic suspended animation for the past 200 years, after being accused of instigating a war that destroyed his entire race. Upon emerging from the cryogenic chamber, Sen discovers that the story may not be that simple. In fact, there are still two civilizations remaining on the desolate planet, locked in struggle. Sen must return to the planet, and -- while traveling through a world of rich images and scenery -- discover the hidden secrets that remain; and, if possible, find out more about how his role contributed to the existing situation.

In the tradition of the original Mysterious Journey (Schizm), the landscape is even more lush with vibrant colors, and incredibly detailed scenery. And it doesn't take much time at all to recognize two things about MJII: First, it has a complex storyline; and second, it is filled with complex puzzles. But before I get to the highlights of the game, let's look at some of the "hurdles" that I encountered -- beginning with the installation.

MJII is a big game -- and the minimum requirements for the game are by no means meager. (See the sidebar for a complete list of hardware and system requirements.) Not the least of these is that the game -- which is distributed on 3 CD-ROMs (and, unlike Schizm, has no DVD version, sadly) -- requires a whopping 2.8GB of disk space to install. The bright side of this is that the CD-ROMs are not needed to play the game after installation, and there's no hassle of disc swapping. (Interestingly enough, the hard disk requirement is the only major requirement that is not listed on the outside of the box.) Even worse, as we'll see in a moment, the saved game files can easily accrue to another 500MB!

Additionally, I found that the minimum requirements were exactly that -- minimum. For reasonable gameplay, the "recommended requirements" are more appropriate. My system was a Pentium 4 with a 1.7GHz CPU, 384MB of RAM, and an nVidia GeForce4 with 64MB of video memory. Personally, I wouldn't recommend much less than this. Even with the game fully installed on the hard drive, there are frequent "loading" periods, often as much as half a minute or more.

I also ran into one or two problems with the installation itself. When I initially installed the game, and after all 3 discs had been processed, a warning dialog came up, telling me that I was missing one or more files. Even worse, I was then presented with 3 buttons: Exit, Try Again, and Continue. Not sure of the difference between the last two, I chose Try Again -- only to be told that all files were being erased from my system, and the installation was starting over from the beginning. Then, after a successful installation, a message came up to tell me that the wrong disc was in the drive, and I should mount the drive labelled "NEW". It's a shame that all three of the CD-ROMs had the same label -- "NEW".

But aside from the fact that the hardware requirements are high, and the game truly is a system hog, let's move on to the "plus" side of the game. Now, one thing that I should explain is my own gaming preference. As an analytic, I love puzzles. I love logic puzzles, I love brain teasers, I love "mind games". I'm not as enthralled by the "walk around until you've talked to everyone, then talk to everyone again, and try every inventory item on every object in sight" type of adventure games. So in a nutshell, I can summarize MJII by saying "It's my kind of game!" Which, of course, means that it won't have the same attraction for everyone. But for anyone who likes puzzle after puzzle, mind-bender after mind-bender, and mathematical and logical brain teasers galore, they will not be disappointed.

The game, in fact, really consists of two major activities: Solving puzzles, and watching cut scenes (often fairly long) that continue to develop the storyline of the game. That's it, in a nutshell. As you move Sen around the game, there are plenty of places to explore. But in every case, your main activity is to encounter and solve an obvious logical puzzle. And, for the most part, the puzzles are "in your face" puzzles -- paths that are blocked by a control panel of lights and knobs, and you can't continue until you've solved the mechanism; doors that are locked by complex means requiring extensive logical or mathematical solutions, typically involving controls, buttons, switches, and so on. But what is so unusual is that very few of these puzzles had "solutions" located elsewhere in the game (as often happens in other games) -- you won't read a book that has a "clue" buried in it, for example. In almost all cases, you will be left to "fiddle" with the puzzle, find out what controls result in what actions, figure out the purpose of the puzzle, and then determine -- either through logic or intuition -- what is required to solve the puzzle.

And often, one puzzle will be solved, only to open the pathway to... another puzzle! The frequency of the puzzles in MJII is astounding. I didn't make an exact count, but there were in excess of 30 puzzles in the game -- ranging from medium to extremely complex. Most of the complexity comes from the logic and/or math involved. (Semi-spoiler: much of the math required to solve puzzles in MJII is not decimal-based math; so if you have trouble with other bases, or with math puzzles in general, you will most likely not enjoy MJII as much as I did. On the other hand, if you are mathematically oriented, and really enjoy the challenge of having some "curves" thrown at you, it may quickly become one of your favorite games.) Another thing that made some of the puzzles even more interesting is that several of them are "random" puzzles. That is, they start with random configurations, or in some other way respond differently each time they are played. For me, this increased the "challenge level" of the game. Working with another player, I enjoyed at least 30 hours of challenging gameplay.

But the puzzles are not the only highlight of MJII. In keeping with the design of Schizm, the graphics are even more stunning than before. (See sidebar for sample screenshots.) The detail of the scenes is astounding. And the artwork -- particularly the 3D rendering -- is incredible. I moved through the game from one breathtaking scene to another. Now, I can also say that there were places where the graphics suffered from some common problems -- "seams" that appeared between two textures, or (much more prevelant) objects that were created with far too few polygons, resulting in "blockiness". (This latter bothered me the most, because the rest of the scenery was so fantastic, that it was an almost ugly contrast to come upon a cliff edge, for instance, that could have been drawn with a straight-edge ruler; or even a character whose body was too "rough".) But for the most part, those simple things could be overlooked, when compared to the outstanding detail of the remainder of the game. In virtually all places, the textures used were so detailed that they often seemed like photographs. 3D perspectives, as I would move through the game, were extremely true-to-life. All gameplay is done in the first person (i.e., playing Sen), while all cut scenes show Sen in the third person, interacting with other people and objects.

Moving through the game presented a challenge. Unlike many other adventure games, MJII cannot be played with one hand. Movement is accomplished through two sets of keys (or one set of keys and the mouse). All rotation (360-degree horizontal panning, full vertical panning) is done with either the mouse, or the arrow keys; movement away from the current location (i.e., back, forward, right, left) is done using the "WASD" keys. Thus, the game requires a good degree of ambidextrousness to move smoothly through the environment of the various scenes. It took me a while to get used to using both hands to move (and, at first, I disliked the design greatly), but after some practice, I became fairly good at it. (Just don't try playing the game while eating a sandwich!)

The complexity of the environment is a boon and a bane. There is very little movement in a nice, square "X-Y" grid. Paths diverge at odd angles, stairs or ramps take you to different levels, and the end result is a very complex layout. For me, this added to the realism of the game. However, it can also be a headache for adventure gamers who like to "map out" the various areas of a game. Many places are three-dimensional (i.e., multi-level), and it is quite difficult -- after turning around on a curved path, then up a hill, and down again around another curve, for example -- to remember even the relative direction from which you came. (To make it even more difficult, some scenes take place at night, so there is far less referential data to go on.) Overall, however, I favor the complexity of the layout, just because it is more challenging.

There is a certain element of linearity in the game, simply because the story progresses. Once certain activities have taken place, Sen cannot go back and "undo" them. In that sense, there is a reality to the linearity (just as everyday life is linear). Exploration of a given area is typically non-linear, however. Sen is free to move around and explore, but typically cannot progress to the next "stage" of the story until a certain puzzle is solved. In that sense, the puzzles actually create the linearity of the game. As each puzzle is solved, and as each cut scene is played out, the story continues to develop, Sen learns more about what has happened (and what is currently happening) on the planet, more about the conflict that is going on, and more about himself.

The sound effects are on the same level as the graphics. Not only do ambient sounds fortify the feeling of "being there", but also several of the puzzles require good sound, because the solutions are -- at least in part -- based on audible clues.

One thing I found quite interesting about the game was the way that the cursor was used to provide clues to the player. Whenever I brought Sen near some object that could be interacted with, the cursor changed to a pointer, pointing to the object in question. And as I moved past the object, the pointer rotated to continue pointing to the object, until I was "out of range". On the one hand, some players might consider that a "spoiler" -- i.e., giving away which things are interactive. But after playing for a while, I realized that the developers had most likely done that with the specific purpose of avoiding the "pixel hunt" complaints that come from other games. The message I got was "Our puzzles are so good, we want you to focus on those, and not waste time hunting around for some tiny object or area to click on." It became something I relied on more heavily, later in the game, as well.

In conjunction with the cursor, I also have to mention the inventory, and its usage. There is very little inventory in MJII; rarely will Sen be carrying more than one item -- and usually none. But what is even more interesting is that when Sen approaches the "target" of an inventory item (e.g., an object upon which an inventory item may act), the inventory lights up, and a "USE" symbol appears on the screen. Simply clicking on the object causes the proper item in inventory to be used on the target object. Again, some may dislike that, saying that it takes away some of the "inventory puzzles" in such a game. But what I read into it was the desire to avoid the trivial "run around and find the lock that this key fits" puzzles, and focus on the more overt brain-teasers.

The game save engine in MJII is wonderful -- within limits.MJII employs one of the best game save designs that I have encountered. There is no fixed limit to the number of saved games that can be created. You can supply a name in free-format text, and the location within the game, date and time, and thumbnail picture are all added automatically. Scrolling through the list of saved games is quick and easy. Furthermore, the game itself creates game saves at critical points, and when exiting the game -- a simple Resume option brings the player right back to where the game left off. And since Sen can never die, there is no need to make tedious saves before trying various puzzles, or engaging in potentially dangerous activities.

From my perspective, I found only one drawback with this almost-flawless design -- game saves required from 2MB to over 8MB of disk space per save toward the end! By the time I had completed the game, over 100 game saves had been created, totalling over 500MB of space. (This is in addition to the original 2.8GB installation.)

There is a lot of spoken dialog in MJII, mostly in the cut scenes. At times, this dialog was difficult to understand, or difficult to follow (often because of the length of the cut scene). While there is no ability to put "closed caption" style text on the screen, MJII does go a step further, and provides a Transcript option, which allows the player to go back to every dialog that has taken place throughout the entire game, and re-read it. I found this to be most helpful, especially when clues were given in a dialog, and there was no time to write them down, or remember them.

All in all, MJII is at the top of my list of "favorite games". One of my own measurement criteria is how I feel when a game is over. Sometimes I'm relieved; sometimes I wish the game would continue longer. MJII was certainly one of the latter. Even with over 30 hours of gameplay, I would have loved more of the same. (Maybe Mysterious Journey III?)

The game clearly will not appeal to all adventure gamers. The complexity of the environment, the difficulty of many of the logic puzzles, the occasional requirement for extended math concepts, and perhaps even the requirement for two-handed operation could all contribute to dissatisfaction for someone more attuned to a less puzzle-oriented, or more intuitive-play type of adventure game with a simpler interface. However, I would highly recommend MJII to any serious adventure game player who delights in challenging logic puzzles.

-- Frank Nicodem