The Mystery of the Nautilus Review

The Mystery of the Nautilus is based, as the name implies, on the classic Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You are an engineer aboard an archeological submarine that, while exploring in a volcanic region of the Atlantic, comes across a mysterious object that turns out to be the remains of the famous Nautilus of Captain Nemo. You board the Nautilus and discover it to be in remarkably good condition -- but with some strange happenings going on. Captain Nemo had designed a highly-advanced form of artificial intelligence into the ship, which has now sensed an intruder and puts the ship (and itself) into high-security mode. A deadly game ensues, as you try to outsmart the on-board AI, and take control of the Nautilus -- and save your own life.

Right from the start, I encountered technical problems. The installation of Nautilus, for example, overwrote my existing version of DirectX (8.1) with its own version 7.0 -- without even prompting me. The installation procedure offered two options: a smaller installation (requiring about 100MB of disk space), and a "complete" installation (requiring about 500MB). The sole difference between the two involved the copying of one single file -- just slightly over 400MB -- from the CD-ROM to my hard drive. This single file, however, turned out to have a significant effect on the performance of the game, since it contained all of the videos, all of the still shots, all of the text, and all of the audio for the entire game. Before the unwary user thinks, however, that choosing the "complete" installation will allow Nautilus to be played without having the CD inserted, I will point out that the CD is required to start the game each time -- a very annoying factor.

Another problem I encountered is related to the previous comment about 90% of the game being stored in a single binary file. That means that every still shot, every animated sequence, every sound byte, all of the text displayed on the screen, and so on, is compressed into this single file. It can take the game a long time to locate the object it needs from that file, and this fact alone makes it virtually a necessity to select the "full" installation. In the "minimum" installation, accessing this file repeatedly from the CD-ROM slows gameplay to a crawl. Clicking on the forward arrow (to move to another scene) can result in a delay of 5-10 seconds before the new scene is displayed. (I played the game on a 900MHz Inspiron 8000, with a high-speed drive and 384MB of RAM, and an nVidia GeForce 2 video card. I'd hate to try it on a slower system.)

Gameplay is perhaps the first, and foremost, shortcoming of The Mystery of the Nautilus. And, in my humble opinion, the vast majority of complaints that I have regarding the gameplay could have been very easily overcome, with some simple attention to detail, and perhaps a bit more beta testing by "real users."

For instance, working with the inventory is rather cumbersome. Not only is the backpack icon constantly in the way of the gameplay, but when it is opened up, only four items show at any one time. This results in a lot of scrolling back and forth through the inventory, as there are times when more than a dozen items are stored in the backpack.

One of the "features" in the game is that your character "talks" to himself. However, while other dialog in the game is audible, much of your own dialog is displayed only as text on the screen, with no sound associated with it.

At all times during gameplay, there are several items on-screen. One is a backpack, which holds your inventory; another is your Palm PDA, which allows you to access game options and perform some simple functions necessary to solve some of the puzzles. Finally, there is a border at the right side of the window throughout the entire game. (The purpose of this is never explained.) All of these continue to get in the way of the game. At times, they block the view of an important object; at other times, trying to access the backpack or PDA results in the current scene wildly swinging to the side, as the mouse movement is interpreted as a request to pan the scene. It would have been much better had there been a few keystrokes to hide and recall these objects only when they were needed.

I tend to be a stickler for consistency, so another item that bothered me was the inconsistency throughout the game, both in identifying objects and in displaying scenes. For example, a pair of gloves are called "rubber gloves" when you pick them up; but when put into the inventory, they are "leather gloves." A "zinc ball," when placed into the inventory, becomes a "lead ball." And "bits of wood," when accessed later, are called a "wooden box."

In a similar manner, the states of objects are inconsistent between different scenes. I might open a particular cabinet door, then walk back across the room, turn and look at the cabinet, and the door displays as closed. But when I walk back toward the cabinet, the close-up scene shows the door still open. Or I might pick up an object from the floor, but then after walking across the room and looking back, I could still see the object on the floor. This is nothing more than "laziness" on the part of the programmers -- i.e., not taking the time to re-draw scenes to represent different states, but instead using only a single scene for all occasions. (The "up" side of this is that I was absolutely amazed at how much game -- how many scenes, how much video, how much music, and how much else -- was fit onto a single CD-ROM! It's nothing short of miraculous.)

I was also frustrated by what initially appeared to be "spoilers" in the game -- but which later turned out to be red herrings instead. For example, upon picking up a wooden box, my character thought to himself: "This could be used to keep doors from closing behind you." My first thought: "A spoiler! I didn't want to know that!" However, as it turned out, the wooden box was later used for a totally different purpose -- and was never intended to keep doors from closing. Similarly, upon picking up a candle holder, my character thought "This could be used as a weapon." Another spoiler! But no -- just like the wooden box, the candle holder was later used for a totally different purpose -- and never as a weapon. So I don't know whether to be upset about these "spoilers," or frustrated that they were totally misleading statements.

The puzzles in Nautilus are not mind-benders. Many are of the "find-object-and-bring-it-to-be-used-at-another-location" variety. Occasionally, there were some more traditional puzzles (e.g., decoding a safe, assembling a matching-pieces puzzle), but none were very difficult. Most of the time, though, the solutions to the puzzles were not intuitive. Solving the puzzles often involved going through your entire inventory, and using each object on a hot spot on the screen, trying to find something that works.

While playing the game is fairly "safe", there are several places where your character can be brought to an abrupt end. This may occur as a result of taking some wrong action, or -- in a number of places -- failing to accomplish some task within a specific period of time. (And yes, there are several places where the game moves into "panic mode" -- i.e., you must rush to complete some task before either your air runs out, your health expires, or some other pre-determined time limit is reached. Now, everyone who knows how I feel about timed puzzles, raise your hand. Ah, there you go -- I figured I'd made my point.) On many occasions, I had to resort to the tried-and-true gamers method of overcoming these hassles by saving a game, working through the timed section (until I typically died), and then going back to the saved game, quickly "catching up" to just before I died, and saving the game again. In any case, the game does not provide the ability to go back to just before the deadly mistake, but it is the user's responsibility to create continual game saves to avoid the possibility of having to return to a much earlier part of the game when (and not "if") your character dies.

Speaking of game saves, Nautilus uses a fairly simple game-save engine, which provides for 8 simultaneous saved games, and no more. The saved games cannot be "titled", but simply show a picture of the scene where the game was saved, along with a timestamp. I found that it was quite beneficial, after filling all 8 saved-game slots, to zip up the saved game files so that I could re-use the saved-game slots, but still return to an earlier part of the game, should I so desire. (All together, I ended up with about 40 saved games -- which shows how cautious I was, especially after getting killed in a few places that required replaying a large segment of the game.)

Perhaps the most annoying -- and discouraging -- element of gameplay, though, was the fact that the game was a continuous pixel hunt. In scene after scene, the player is required to locate some object, or some area of the active window, in order to perform some task, or use some object. However, in many cases, those active areas (i.e., where the user can click on an object) are extremely small, and often hidden, or disguised, in very dark areas of the screen, or in areas of extremely low contrast. I cannot even estimate how much time I spent just clicking the mouse, as I moved it slowly around screen after screen, hoping that I would find the "magic area" that the game was requiring. In some cases, those areas were only 3 pixels wide! After a while, this became quite tedious.

The graphics were remarkably good, especially given the small compressed size of the game. Virtually all still shots and videos are stored in a file that's only 400MB in size. Yet there was quite a lot of video throughout the game, and many areas to explore -- all with full panning (360-degree horizontally, and full 180-degree vertically). Although many scenes were dark (and the game player could benefit by playing Nautilus in a darkened room), the darkness is what would be anticipated if one were exploring a 100-year-old submarine lying on the bottom of the ocean. Once I selected the full install (placing all files on my hard drive), all scene transitions and audio/video played back quite acceptably.

The video clips in the game are, for the most part, quite good. In some scenes, there is a good deal of pixelization, occasionally with a preponderance of artifacts throughout the screen. But the quality seemed to improve later in the game (or perhaps I was just getting used to the "good-but-not-great" videos). In any case, they were not distracting nor gratuitous, and actually added quite a bit to the game.

The audio in the game is often very difficult to hear, resulting in the need to turn on subtitles (which the game provides). The background music is effective but often overpowers other audio necessary to play the game. Fortunately, the game options make provision for different volume settings for the two.

One thing that would have helped immensely would be a map showing the layout of the Nautilus. The ship has several levels, with corridors, passages, and other means of accessing the rooms on each floor. It was not easy remembering how each portion of the ship related to others (especially when I was occasionally transported to another section of the ship, simply by solving some puzzle -- without knowing how I got from one place to the other). A map in my inventory (or -- better yet -- on my Palm PDA) would have simplified gameplay immensely.

The Mystery of the Nautilus provides about 20 hours of gameplay. It was, however, one of the most difficult games I have ever tried to rate, since my interest in the game fluctuated like a pendulum. At one moment, I would be getting incredibly bored and frustrated by spending a seemingly endless amount of time, clicking on just about every pixel on a particular screen, simply to try and move on in the game. Then, later, something would transpire -- perhaps a mildly intriguing puzzle, or a challenging situation, or even some good audio/video gameplay -- which would push my interest level back up, and entice me to give the game a higher rating. Of course, just as I would be getting excited about the game again, I would once more be lost in another endless pixel hunt, resulting in the desire to just shut the game down, and find something more interesting and entertaining to do -- such as having a root canal performed without the aid of anaesthesia.

If one can overcome the design inconsistencies mentioned above, as well as the interminable "challenges" of trying to locate tiny, obscure objects on some fairly dark screens, Nautilus should provide a fair amount of enjoyment. If, on the other hand, you are frustrated (or bored) by the inability to progress further in a game until some specific action has been taken, or until a particular object has been located, you may find Nautilus to be excruciatingly tedious.

-- Frank Nicodem