Schizm Review

I received my copy of Schizm with great anticipation. There had been much fanfare about the game prior to its release, and I was anxious to see if it lived up to its marketing pitch. So I began playing Schizm with high expectations. From the moment I started, all my expectations were completely blown away. The graphics are stunning, the gameplay is incredible (including a few new "twists" that I've never encountered before), and the diversity of puzzles is a delight.

On the distant planet of Argilus, at some indeterminate time in the future, scientific expeditions have failed to reveal the secrets behind what appears to be a mysterious situation -- a fully developed but abandoned planet, with absolutely no people.

Previous exploration teams had reported unusual findings, before they mysteriously went missing themselves. Their garbled messages speak of a world containing large habitable organic vessels aimlessly floating and abandoned. These messages are the only legacy that remains of a missing race.

The challenge now is to travel to the strange and exotic lands of Argilus, on a quest to uncover the secrets behind this strange phenomenon. And to discover the mysteries and the secrets that have been lying dormant, waiting to be revealed.

The graphics in Schizm are the best I have ever seen. The pre-rendered scenes are incredibly detailed and stunningly realistic. While playing Schizm, I found that I was continually putting aside the gameplay for a moment, simply to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Movement is handled in an incredibly seamless manner, so that when the player pans around, depth perception is awesomely realistic, resulting in an experience of "being there." And the animations are not limited to cut scenes. In every "still" scene, there is movement -- flags waving in the breeze, waves rippling in the water, birds flying past, fish breaking the surface of the water, and so on.

As in many situations, the actual implementation, or execution, of the complex graphics in Schizm -- the compression algorithms and other facilities that integrate the scenes into the game -- sometimes result in a bit of pixelation, "artifacts" on the screen, or even colors that change slightly. However, I was captivated by the incredible detail and "reality" of the artwork itself.

The game is distributed in two formats: 5 CD-ROMs, or a single (double-sided) DVD. While the graphics on both are astounding, there is a tremendous amount of scenery and interactive graphics on the DVD version that is not available on the CD-ROM version. (For the sake of comparison, the double-sided DVD contains over 9GB of files -- compared to about 3.2GB for the CD-ROM version. The additional space on the DVD version is used for animations, cut scenes, and other visual interaction not available on the CD-ROM version.) Besides the extra animations, there are also two additional puzzles in the DVD version, which are not in the CD-ROM version. [Ed: The screenshots are from the DVD version of the game. Graphics on the CD version are not quite as crisp and may have more noticeable compression artifacts.]

Movement from scene to scene is continuous and seamless. 360-degree panning is available everywhere. The background sounds and music are done quite well and provide added support and ambiance to the gameplay. Even the sounds are positional, as things like running water will pan from one speaker to another as the player rotates around a specific position. Only a few occasional sounds were difficult to discern, and in one particular case, these sounds were crucial to the solving of one of the puzzles.

At first, Schizm appears to share similar gameplay with other games in the same genre. Using full 360-degree panoramas at every location (including, in many cases, the ability to pan up and down, as well), the player is instantly involved in the world of Argilus.

Movement through the game is simple, and intuitive. Navigation is performed entirely with the mouse, and an on-screen indicator assists users in determining which directions they may move in/look at any particular point.

Perhaps the most interesting twist to the gameplay is that the player takes on the role of two different characters -- Hannah and Sam, the two characters sent on the mission to discover what has happened to the missing scientists -- and can switch between the two at any point in the game. In fact, at least two of the puzzles can only be solved by working with the two characters together -- which adds another dimension to the standard problem-solving techniques employed in other similar games.

The puzzles are well-scattered throughout the game, and range from the abstract to the purely mathematical, from the relatively easy to the incredibly complex. Some are solvable "in place" -- i.e., requiring no interaction with other objects or information that must be found elsewhere in the game. Other puzzles are so complex that they are not solvable until many other situations have been encountered, information has been gathered, or objects have been collected.

All puzzles are smoothly incorporated into the context of the game. And I was pleased to note that all puzzles have a logical solution. I personally don't like to just "solve" a puzzle; I prefer to know why a certain solution worked. In Schizm, I felt comfortable understanding the "why" behind each solution -- even though one or two of them required more time to understand the "why" than to solve the puzzle originally.

There are constant encounters with other characters in the game; however, there is no dialog. Instead, the encounter typically takes the form of a cut-scene, in which the character is relaying critical information to the player. It is important to listen carefully, as there is no mechanism to replay these encounters, other than returning to a previously-saved game and replaying that portion of the game. Fortunately, one of the game options is to display subtitles at every such scene -- something I found highly useful, especially since I was not playing with headphones, and some of the dialog tended to be quite soft.

My complaints about Schizm are minor -- and, for the most part, are nothing more than suggestions for possibly improving gameplay. As might be imagined, for a game of this size, there is a lot of territory to cover. Early in the game, as the player is initially exploring, it is not too intimidating. However, as the game draws to a close, and the player is required to backtrack to previously-visited areas, they are required to do so by retracing all of their steps, which can often require a lot of traveling -- and, in the case of the CD-ROM version, unnecessary disc-swapping. There is no ability to warp to a previously-visited location (as is found in many adventure games), nor is there a map that might be used to quickly transport to another location.

Another comment I have is in regard to sound. At least two of the puzzles involve sound in their solution. One, in particular, is solved almost exclusively using sound. And I had a difficult time clearly hearing the distinctions between some of the "sound bites" that were part of the puzzle. I had to resort briefly to using headphones for more accuracy, replaying a particular scene over and over again, and even then, the sound bites could have been a little more distinct.

I would also have liked to have been able to save more than 16 games at a time. Schizm uses a motif whereby the user can see thumbnail views of all saved games. However, there is a limitation of 16 such saves, which -- for a game of this scope -- can be considered insufficient. I was forced to "zip up" 16 saved-game files, time and time again, so that I could continue to save new games, without losing the old ones.

The only technical difficulty came in the form of a repeated system hang on a system that did not meet the minimum requirements specified by the developer. While I did not take the time to explore exactly what might be causing these system hangs, my recommendation is to abide by the minimum requirements as stated.

Schizm is unquestionably the best adventure game that I have ever played and takes over the position of "favorite adventure game" in my game library. It should appeal to all fans of Myst/Riven, Riddle of the Sphinx, and other similar adventure games (e.g., The Messenger, Traitors Gate,). Players can expect around 40 hours of gameplay to complete the game. Throughout the game, the adjectives that continued to pass through my mind were "stunning," "unique," "challenging," and "awesome." It's the type of game that has only one letdown -- and that is, finishing the game! I heartily recommend the DVD version, not only for the additional puzzles, but also for the breathtaking scenery and animations that are missing from the CD-ROM version.

-- Frank Nicodem