Sinking Island Review

The name Benoit Sokal is well-known to adventure gamers. For years, he has been creating, directing, and producing some of the highest quality adventure/puzzle games, including Amerzone, the Syberia series, and Paradise. Now, through the auspices of his studio, White Birds Productions, comes his newest offering, Sinking Island. The game, while still somewhat of an adventure game, is more of a detective mystery, complete with the murder of a wealthy (and highly unlikeable) figure, and a cast of characters who each had their own reasons for wanting him dead.

As with many other detective mysteries, the game is played in the third person. As Jack Norm, police investigator, you begin the game with a simple mission -- to fly out to Sagorah, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and investigate what is apparently a tragic accident, resulting in the death of multi-millionaire Walter Jones. It is on Sagorah that the reclusive Jones was building a large, and very exclusive, resort. However, within minutes of arriving on the island, it becomes clear that Jones' death is no accident, and it is now your task to solve his murder, and bring the criminal to justice. To do so, you will have to talk with the many characters whose lives intertwined with Jones' -- family, friends, acquaintances, and business partners -- and use your logic, and clues you will discover along the way, to separate fact from supposition.

From the outset, the artwork in the game is breathtaking. Moving from screen to screen, I was awed by the level of detail, and by the amount of movement in each scene -- almost as though I were watching a movie. A heavy rainstorm has the palm trees swaying, the branches blowing, the water white-capping, and occasional flotsam and jetsam blowing along the beach. Anyone who has come to enjoy the level of artwork in Sokal's previous games (such as Syberia) will not be disappointed in that regard when playing Sinking Island. The screen shots in the sidebar illustrate some of the quality of the graphics, although still shots cannot begin to capture the realism of the animated scenes.

The way in which you progress through the story is as thorough, if not more so, as any similar detective game. You have, at your disposal, a trusty magnifying glass, for close up inspections. A camera is also handy for recording images that can later be used as evidence. And you will also accrue numerous documents, letters, invoices, and other textual material as you proceed through the game. All of this is woven into an intricate plot, linking the various characters one by one, until it seems that you are getting further from, not closer to, the truth as time goes on.

The attention given to the smallest details is also apparent. Characters walk or run in a very lifelike manner; they fidget, shrug, and shuffle their feet. And the voicing is done extremely well. For the most part, the characters quickly become quite legitimate personae, rather than just two-dimensional computer creations. The one exception is the close-ups during conversations with the various witnesses/suspects. Although characters are highly animated in all other respects -- even to the extreme of not just moving their arms when they talk, but often flailing wildly about, in a caricatured manner -- there is not a single facial movement while they are speaking. And I found that bothered me more than games where random lip movements are applied to a character without regard for syncing the lip movements to what is being said.

As a detective mystery adventure, there are not the same kind of logic puzzles as you might find in some other adventures -- or even, for that matter, in earlier offerings from Benoit Sokal. In truth, the vast majority of the game is spent interrogating the various characters -- frequently, and repeatedly. Each time Detective Norm talks with any of the other characters, he has the option to ask them about three different categories of questions. This is all accomplished through an on-screen interface known as the Personal Police Assistant. The PPA is a combination of a notebook, portable file, and inventory that Jack can refer to at any time. And within that Personal Police Assistant are collected all of the photographs that Jack has taken, all of the documents that he has accumulated, a list of all of the characters he has encountered (along with any information he has obtained about each of those characters up to that moment), and a list of common questions or topics he may choose to ask them about.

The PPA is also used as a way of examining the evidence further, with some neat additional capabilities that increase the complexity of the game. For example, there is a "comparison window" where two items can be compared to see if they "go together." The items may be a picture of footprints taken at the crime scene, and a shoe. If they match, Jack has established another piece of evidence that he can use later. He must use all of his skill, logic, and intuition to route out Walter Jones' killer.

Through the use of the PPA, the progress of the game -- and the solving of the mystery -- is broken down into 13 segments, or questions, each represented by a puzzle piece in the PPA. For example, the initial question is "Was Walter Jones murdered?" When the proper evidence has been collected to be able to answer that question, the first puzzle piece is completed. The game begins quite simply; however, as the questions are answered, and the segments progress, it becomes more difficult. Evidence is more difficult to locate; conversations with the suspects produce less meaningful information; and the clues are less obvious. When all 13 questions have been answered, the mystery is solved, and the game is over. The motif of the puzzle pieces also gives some indication of how far you have progressed in the game, and how much still remains.

What adds a bit of stress to the game is that -- as the name implies -- the island is actually sinking. (There is really no plausible explanation given for why this is happening, or why Walter Jones would have built an expensive resort on such a remote and precarious island.) You only have three days to solve all 13 questions (and the mystery), before the island sinks beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean forever. And, in fact, as the game progresses, and the storms continue to batter the island, the rising water makes some locations inaccessible. Thus, they must be explored early, before they sink beneath the water.

The game can be played in one of two modes: a fairly standard adventure mode, with a good deal of time to explore, interrogate witnesses, and answer questions; and a timed mode. The primary difference in the timed mode is that there is less time to explore; the island is sinking rapidly, and the game play is much more hectic. I played in the adventure mode, as I don't really favor games that stress me simply by putting a "ticking clock" on all of my activities. One recommendation might be to play in the adventure mode and learn the game, and then use the timed mode as an added "challenge" afterwards.

There is little in the way of a musical score in the game. Indeed, only a few spots have any kind of musical background, with the main one being when one of the characters occasionally plays the piano in the lounge of the resort's main tower. However, the background sound effects -- particularly the raging storm outside -- are implemented quite well.

Given all that makes up the game, I would have expected Sinking Island to instantly grab and hold my attention, and quickly become a favorite. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Even the best laid plans go awry, and Sinking Island is a classic example. True, I was immediately caught up in the game, particularly while learning all that it had to offer, and working on the first of the 10 questions. Everything was new, everything was remarkably well done (with the exception of the lack of facial animation during conversations), and I had the highest expectations for the game as a whole. But as the game progressed, I discovered that I had not anticipated the fact that it would turn into a tedious, repetitive, and often meaningless series of activities, stretching the game out endlessly.

After the initial thrill of the newness of all of the investigative activity, I found that the rest of the game followed the pattern of a) look around at everything you can; b) talk to everyone you encounter; and c) when you talk to them, be sure and ask about every topic you can -- about the other characters, about every document you've collected, about every statement any of the other suspects has made. Then look at every piece of evidence again and again, compare anything and everything together to see if a clue results, and then start all over again. Soon, the dialogues that had been so entertaining at the beginning of the game were now madly dull, boring, and repetitive. Even with only 10 suspects, asking every one of them every possible combination of questions about every other person is tedious. And the vast majority of the questions result in no additional evidence at all. Only when you come upon that special combination of elements -- the right person and the right topic and the right question -- will you gain one more small shred of evidence in the ever-lengthening process of solving the mystery. And every time you "loop back" through the same characters again, the answers are almost always the same, the flailing gestures and chiseled-in-stone facial features more annoying, and I found my enjoyment of the game dwindling rapidly.

Without a doubt, Sinking Island has all the makings of a great story. It has all of the potential for a good adventure, a clever mystery, an entertaining diversion. In fact, had this been a paperback thriller, it had enough plot twists and character interactions to rival a Christie mystery. But it wasn't a book; and turning it into a game just got "old" quickly. There was not enough diversity; there was way too high a requirement to repeat the same things over and over and over again. I've played many games where my thought throughout was "Wow, I hope this game never ends!" With Sinking Island, it was more a case of "Will this game never end?"

The game is rated "T" (Teen), mostly due to the murder theme, and some sexual references late in the game. I found very little otherwise that would be any more offensive than the typical Nancy Drew mystery game.

Sinking Island could have been another killer game from Benoit Sokal, with excellent graphics, an engaging story, and suspense that kept the player riveted, as in Syberia. Instead, it rapidly became boring, overcoming the game's plusses.

-- Frank Nicodem