NiBiRu: Age of Secrets Review

NiBiRu is the latest adventure game from Czech company Future Games. Following on the heels of their successful game The Black Mirror, NiBiRu makes use of a similar story format, game engine, artwork, and overall look and feel. The story, however, is a bit different (and less macabre) than the more "soul-searching" TBM.

Archeology student Martin Holan is sent on a journey by his uncle, to examine a newly-discovered mine in Prague. The older man has reason to believe that the mine holds potential for some interesting archeological discoveries. When Martin arrives in Prague, however, he discovers that the mine leads to never-before-unearthed secrets of the Nazi regime from World War II. But it is not military secrets that Martin finds most interesting; it is the advanced experiments done by some of the leading Nazi scientists -- experiments that hark back to the ancient Mayan civilization, and which could change the course of the world today. And it is soon apparent that there are those who will stop at nothing to keep Martin from uncovering these secrets.

NiBiRu is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, and the only installation option is a complete install of all files, requiring 2.5GB of hard disk space. Fortunately, Future Games did not impose the Star Force copy protection that it did for The Black Mirror, so once it has been installed, NiBiRu can be played without either disc loaded.

First and foremost, NiBiRu is a story-adventure. The game is played in the third person, with the player controlling Martin's movements, actions, and dialogue. Since there is a significant story that unfolds throughout the course of the game, Martin spends a lot of his time interacting with other characters -- often in fairly lengthy dialogue -- the means by which a good part of the story is related.

Any story-adventure that tries to cover the ground that NiBiRu does will naturally be a bit linear. The developers chose to retain a fairly tight control over how the story plays out. As a result, rather than simply letting the player explore and solve puzzles at their own pace, the game requires that things be done in a prescribed manner. This increases the focus on the story, while reducing the alternatives to the gameplay. Although many adventure games work on the principal of "explore everywhere you can, and collect everything you can when you see it, because you'll probably need it later", in NiBiRu this is not the case. Often, there may be an object that cannot be picked up at the moment -- but a few minutes later (because of some action or conversation or story development that just took place), it can be retrieved. Or an object that was not active only a short time ago, now is. This detracted a bit from the realism of the story, because it was unnatural for objects to be "subjectively available", depending on which part of the story was being played. (A rock is a rock. If it can be picked up at one point in time, it should be able to be picked up at any time.)

The overall implementation of the game is actually done fairly well. Not surprisingly, one of the most outstanding features -- as was the case with The Black Mirror -- is the artwork. The pre-rendered backgrounds are some of the most detailed I've seen. Lighting and shading, weather effects such as haze or rain, details of texture, and muted colors all contribute to the breathtaking scenes in NiBiRu. (See some of the examples in the sidebar -- which don't begin to do justice to the full game.) The characters (and there are quite a few that Martin will encounter as he moves through the game) are rendered quite well, with sufficiently conservative animation so as to make them realistic, rather than "cartoonish". And the character voicing is good -- if a bit overdone. (After listening to the stereotypical German voices for a while, I was waiting to hear the classical phrase: "Vee haff vays uff making you talk!")

Subtitles can be enabled, allowing spoken dialog to appear as text on the screen. I found this to be not only helpful, but -- at times -- necessary, as the many conversations held throughout the game not only contribute to the overall plot development, but provide clues to the game, as well. This also comes in handy for some of the characters whose voicing borders on being caricature, and might otherwise be difficult to understand.

Realistic sound effects and background music both contribute excellently to the atmosphere. Just as the developers did with The Black Mirror, the additional sounds -- rain, footsteps, crickets, birds, wind. etc --provide that added touch of realism to the game environment.

The puzzles in the game are a combination of intuitive inventory-style puzzles (i.e., finding/using the right object in the right place, at the right time) and a few in-your-face logic puzzles. The latter are comprised mostly of close-up screens that contain puzzle pieces that must be manipulated to a specific solution. In virtually all cases, these puzzles were completely stand-alone. No external clues are available (or necessary) to solve the puzzles, nor do they integrate in any further way with the developing story. They are essentially gratuitous -- since each could be played outside the game with little or no modification. But each basically served as an "unlocking mechanism" for progressing further with the game.

Most of the inventory puzzles were fairly obvious. ("It's too dark to see in here. I need to find a light.") But a few were not only unobvious, but were made unnecessarily difficult by something I consider a fault in the game design. In addition to the already-mentioned problem with items not always being active (when there was no logical reason for them not to be), there were several times when it almost appeared as if the developers purposely hid things from the player. To describe this more fully, it is necessary to understand that the movement throughout NiBiRu is scene-to-scene. That is, as Martin moves off one side of the screen (or out a door, for example), there is a scene transition to the next location, and he walks onto the new screen as if in a continuous motion. The problem is that -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not -- there were a number of times when he walked onto the new screen and stopped directly in front of an important "hot spot", blocking it completely from view. As a result, it was not enough to simply "eyeball" a new scene, but I had to make sure I moved Martin around enough to expose every bit of the scene, since he might be hiding something critical to the game.

The inventory is not complex, nor does it ever grow excessively large. Martin usually only has half a dozen items or less "in hand", and they are shown at the bottom of the screen when the cursor is moved there. If necessary, the inventory will scroll across the bottom, though the need for that was rare. Most of the puzzles were of average difficulty, with some even solvable immediately, with very little additional information. There were some rare occasions where it was necessary to do some pixel-hunting, when the one and only hot spot available on the current screen was extremely small. And this returns to the issue of the extreme linearity of the game. There were many times that I was stuck at a particular point, only because there was one -- and only one -- activity that had to be done (or could be done) before play could progress further. And that single activity was not immediately obvious. Rather than allowing me to do further exploration, or alternative plot development, I was confined to finding (and solving) one very particular puzzle before I could continue.

The game interface did include a nice feature that helped to discover possible options of play on a given screen. Using the same design as in The Black Mirror, the game provides a hot key that will show all available exits from the current location. To some extent, this helps overcome some of the potential pixel-hunting that might otherwise have been necessary to discover the same information.

Although for the most part NiBiRu was an enjoyment to play, there are a few characteristics of the game that, for me, made it unnecessarily tedious. And, as they are mostly things that would be simple for the developers to correct in future offerings, I'll make mention of them here. None significantly detracted from the game, but they were annoying due to their repetitive nature. One of these had to do with the left and right mouse buttons. The documentation that accompanies the game indicates that the left mouse button is an "action" button (e.g., pick up something, use an object somewhere), while the right button is a "look" button (e.g., provide more information about a location/object). However, as I played the game, I would sometimes find that the left button would merely describe an item, while it was the right button that actually acted on it! This inconsistency eventually resulted in my left/right clicking on virtually everything in the game, just to be sure I didn't miss anything.

Another annoyance was the game Load menu. I typically save games frequently -- and, in the case of NiBiRu, ended up with over 50 saved game files. Each saved game displays a date and time, along with a thumbnail image of the scene where the game was saved. However, only four images show at one time; to see more, you have to scroll through them. These images scroll one at a time (not all four at a time, which would be more efficient). But to make matters worse, most of the time, when I went to Load a saved game, the screen displayed the oldest saves first, and I had to click 40 or 50 times to get to the most recent one (which was typically the one I wanted). There is no slider to scroll through them quickly; it requires individual clicks to see each new save.

The game could also have benefited from a more thorough error-checking of the subtitles. As the characters would speak, and the subtitle text would appear at the bottom of the screen, there were countless misspellings, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and other gaffes . And to exacerbate the situation, many of the conversations could not be repeated; nor was there a "log" kept of all conversations, such as is done in many other similar games. So if something was said that was critical to the story, and I missed it, I had to load a recent game save, and replay from that point.

All of these are minor points, when compared to the scope of the game. However, the majority of them would have taken very little time and effort to fix, and would have made this an even more appealing game. But overall, I found the game to be quite entertaining, as both the story and the artwork contributed to its success.

-- Frank Nicodem