Return to Mysterious Island Review

In Return to Mysterious Island, Kheops Studio has taken a Jules Verne classic and woven a brand new adventure game around it. But unlike last year's Journey to the Center of the Earth, developed by Frogwares, Return to Mysterious Island actually does incorporate a good deal of the original story into the game.

Mina, an independent spirit and sailing enthusiast, is caught in a violent storm while sailing, and is cast upon a strange -- and uncharted -- island. It is not immediately apparent if the island is inhabited, but as Mina explores the island, she quickly discovers that someone else has preceded her here -- someone with a high degree of technology. Before long, she realizes that she has been cast away on the same island -- Lincoln Island -- described by Jules Verne almost 150 years earlier in his book The Mysterious Island. Furthermore, it is apparent that before she can leave this island, she will need to unlock the secrets that are still contained in its deepest recesses.

Even before describing the details of the game, I have to say that RTMI is a delightful and enchanting game. Having just finished playing Myst IV, I approached a new game with a bit of trepidation, realizing that it might be quite a challenge for another game to gain and hold my attention. And although RTMI may not be at the same level as Myst IV, it has, in its own way, a number of features that place it high on my list of enjoyable adventure games.

The game has very acceptable system requirements and should be playable on most current PC systems (see sidebar). It was a breeze to install RTMI, and I was up and playing in no time at all. Although the game is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, the installation completely copies one CD-ROM to the hard drive, eliminating the need for any disc swapping while playing.

From the very outset, RTMI caught my attention. Starting as it does with Mina's shipwreck on Lincoln Island, the developers have taken great effort to insure that the beginning of the game consists of fairly easy exploration, and quick discovery of numerous objects destined for the player's inventory. This gives an immediate feeling of accomplishment, and allows the player to become involved with the game rather quickly.

RTMI uses a fairly simple point-and-click interface, with a cursor that easily identifies possible directions of movement, ability to interact with other objects, items to look at more closely, existence of puzzles, etc. A photo gallery allows for viewing of scenes already encountered, which can sometimes provide information from previously-visited locations and save some traveling. It is through the gallery that the player can also replay certain cut-scenes that have taken place.

But one of the most delightful surprises for me was the fact that RTMI goes back to a format initially conceived in the original text adventure game Adventure, which took place in Colossal Cave (am I dating myself???). What I'm referring to is the fact that there is not one single "right way" to play the game, or even solve the puzzles! There are multiple endings -- but not in the sense of games like Myst, where only one of those endings is considered "successful". There is more than one way to end the game successfully. But the feature that links this game to the original Adventure game, in my mind, is the fact that, as the player progresses through the game, points are accumulated for doing various things -- solving a puzzle, finding an object, working with the inventory, escaping a hazard, etc. And many of these actions are there solely for the accumulation of points and are not necessary to finish the game.

I have to say a word about the inventory. The game makes extensive use of the objects collected by the player through the course of the game. During gameplay, the player will discover items that can be gathered and placed into inventory. There are over a hundred inventory objects that may be manipulated throughout the game. But that's only the beginning. The implementation of the inventory deserves commendation. A simple right-click calls up the inventory, which is presented in a series of tabbed sheets, each capable of containing 25 items. Inventory items may be grouped together on any of these sheets, making it quite simple to keep tools in one place, keep edible objects in another, keep chemical objects in still another, etc. Furthermore, inventory items can be combined with each other. But this is not a simple case of combining only two items all the time. There are many cases where 3, 4, 5, or more items can be combined to form some other object needed to solve a puzzle, or gain more points. And the Inventory even provides a "combining tray" where items can be brought together, easily manipulated, combined with each other, and even uncombined when necessary.

The majority of the puzzles in the game are inventory puzzles -- that is, they involve deciphering what is needed, finding the necessary item(s), and using them appropriately. In fact, rarely does 5 minutes go by without encountering something that requires an object -- or combination of objects -- that must be in inventory. In some cases, these combinations are obvious. (It's not exactly a spoiler to use the example of combining a hammer and a nail to perform a repair where needed.) Some combinations require a bit more knowledge -- such as several of the chemical combinations required to produce necessary compounds. (Not to worry -- most of the latter are unnecessary for finishing the game and only exist to add more points to a player's total.) Some are obvious; but some require a certain degree (occasionally extreme) of intuition.

But what is even more fascinating is that RTMI is the first game that comes to mind where many of the puzzles have multiple solutions. When a fire is needed, everyone knows that there are several ways to start one. And most of those ways are available -- and work -- in RTMI. Nor does it matter which you choose, as long as it gets the job done. Accessing an inaccessible location, eliminating pesky intruders, or finding something to eat all can be done in a variety of ways, and different players will take different approaches to solving these puzzles. This kind of latitude is one of the many things that made RTMI so delightful -- and intriguing -- to play.

There are many areas to explore, and many hazards to encounter. Some of these are even life-threatening. But while Mina can die in the game (and most probably will -- several times), the game interface gives the user a quick and easy way to return to the spot just before the life-threatening situation, allowing the player to "do over" -- or, if necessary, to escape temporarily and return at a time of greater readiness to deal with the situation.

There are very few cases where a player should be stumped. The challenge level of RTMI should easily be within the range of most adventure gamers. And the game can be played fairly readily in 15-20 hours or so, putting it at the short end of games of this genre. Yet despite this seeming minimalism, the quality of the game is outstanding. The scenes use beautifully pre-rendered backgrounds, and each location provides complete 360-degree panning. Most scenes incorporate some minor amount of animation -- birds flying overhead, water rippling, small animals moving around, etc. But what struck me the most about the graphics is that most of the game is played in a bright, high-contrast, high-color environment. While there are one or two dark areas, the majority of the game maintains a light, pleasant air, largely due to the colorful and realistic scenes and objects. It is obvious that a lot of attention was given to the design and creation of 3D models and realistic textures.

When I first began playing RTMI, one thing that was noticeable by its absence was video cut-scenes. Instead of using these genre-standard cut-scenes, the majority of transitions in RTMI are done in storyboard format. Something would take place that might normally be done in an animated cut-scene; but instead, the screen would go black, and then one, two, or more drawings would appear on the screen -- exactly as they would, if they were posted on a storyboard. Accompanying the drawings would usually be a sound track -- either of music that related to what was happening, or of Mina's voice, accompanying the storyboarding.

Initially, this seemed like a "cheesy" replacement for doing more high-class animations. Yet the more I played the game, the more I discovered that I liked the uniqueness that Kheops Studio had brought to the game with this design. And eventually, I appreciated this storyboarding method as much as the more technical alternatives.

Gameplay is fairly non-linear, and Mina can explore much of the island in a reasonably random order. There are times when she may be blocked from continuing in a certain area until some puzzle is resolved, or some other action takes place elsewhere. However, for the most part, puzzles can be solved in any order, and exploration can take place island-wide. The end game was, perhaps, a bit briefer than I would have hoped for. In fact, I was almost surprised that it came when it did. I was hoping to have more to do.

RTMI turned out to be a far more enjoyable game than I anticipated. I encountered no hardware or software problems, and the quality of the game was quite high. But what I enjoyed most of all was playing a game with so many things to do, so many different ways to do them, and so many different ways to "score points". This last factor even resulted in something not typically found in most adventure games -- namely, replayability. While the general course of the game will not change, the player may encounter new objects, puzzles that weren't solved the first time through, or even alternate endings to the game.

-- Frank Nicodem