TimeScape: Journey to Pompeii Review

TimeScape has all the makings of a great adventure game -- extensive 3D graphics, a complex story line, many characters to interact with, and a modest sprinkling of puzzles. Unfortunately it is also hampered by some handicaps -- extensive 3D graphics, a complex story line, many characters to interact with, and a modest sprinkling of puzzles.

The game takes place in ancient Pompeii, in the year 79 A.D., and spans the last four days of the life of that city, prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the city on August 24th of that year. You play 19th-century explorer Adrian Blake, who is transported back in time to rescue his fiancée, Sophia, after she was sent to ancient Pompeii to satisfy the wrath of the goddess Ishtar. You must find, and rescue, Sophia before Pompeii is destroyed by the impending eruption.

The biggest problem with the game is that it attempts to create too much of a story, involving too much boring dialogue with insipid characters, too many unanticipated (and often illogical) actions, and too few puzzles.

The graphics in TimeScape can probably be considered the highlight of the game. TimeScape employes lush 3D graphics, 3D animated characters, and extensive cut scenes and dialogues with those characters. The game is played in full panorama mode, where every scene can be rotated 360 degrees right and left, as well as up and down. However, these graphics are not incorporated into the game well enough to make the player feel part of the "atmosphere." Not once did I feel truly absorbed in the game.

The background music is primarily soft classical music, which suits the environment very well. Ambient sounds -- such as doors opening and closing, or water running -- support the game well, and contribute to an air of realism.

The entire game takes place on the streets of Pompeii. And while it is very possible that the layout of the game might, in fact, closely resemble that of the ancient city, it was an extremely difficult layout to traverse.

A map of the city -- which can be called up fairly quickly -- was helpful, except that you cannot travel on all of the streets shown on the map. I frequently found myself following one particular path, only to find that an "open street" no longer allowed me passage, and I had to retrace my steps and find another way from Point A to Point B.

One of the biggest faults of the game is that it is incredibly linear. You can traverse the city almost at will; however, characters will only be in position, objects will only be available, and actions may only take place in a very predefined order.

To make things even worse, most of that linearity comes from conversing with the characters in the game in a very specific order. And it is that limitation that puts the final nail into the TimeScape coffin. All of the dialogue takes the form of the standard 1990's DOS-based games: a conversation will begin and you are then offered a series of topics on which to converse with the character. And, as in most of those early, poorly-developed games, you must eventually select every one of the options, which means that you basically go through a multitude of very lengthy, very tedious dialogues, without using any logic or intelligence. I could have accomplished the same thing had I been playing the original French version (and I do not speak French).

Not only is the dialogue tiresome and often trivial, but it also weaves an overly complex storyline through the game. The complexity is due, mostly, to all of the characters (with names like Palmyre, Popidius, and Pyramus; Sotericus, Fructus, and Locusta) and all of the various tasks that each one requires you to accomplish. And to make matters worse, the dialogues seem to go on forever. And often, much of the intervening activity required by interacting with these characters seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the eventual outcome of the game, giving the impression of being nothing but "time filler" to pad out a fairly superficial story.

There is one fairly humorous factor in the character interaction, however. When the game was "ported" from French to English, it was apparently done by a team of very British voice actors, with the result being that you end up interacting with a whole city of ancient Pompeiians, some of whom speak the king's English, others speak with a distinctive Cockney accent, and several even with a strong Scottish brogue!

Another oddity about the dialogue has to do with the animation of the various characters. While you are conversing with them, their bodies move, their arms raise and lower, their hands bend. And yet their mouths do not move! It felt rather odd, talking with someone who was moving almost every part of their body -- except their mouth.

The puzzles in the game are few and far between. The greater part of the game is devoted to performing certain actions in a certain order. On rare occasion, a puzzle presents itself. However, these puzzles are usually extremely trivial, involving nothing more than some cursory placement of objects in the correct positions or bringing some object (or collection of objects) to one of the characters who has asked for it.

Another problem I encountered had to do with the fact that it is possible to "die" in this game, if you do the wrong thing at the wrong time. And often the "wrong thing" was not overly obvious. For example, you might simply be standing too near to a couple of characters who are arguing. But if you don't move away, you may get caught up in the fight and be killed! In other cases, there was a fixed amount of time to accomplish something, or you would die -- however, there would be no indication of that time limit prior to beginning the task. The only way you would know was by dying first. Since there is no automatic save in these situations, the only recourse is to retreat to a previously-saved game, and hope that it wasn't too long ago!

I was also disappointed by dialogue that I would not classify as "suitable for all ages". A few choice words made me question the game's "E" rating.

One other item that I was not able to pinpoint had to do with system problems I encountered while running the game. On a number of occasions, I "lost" the sound in the game -- and nothing but a cold reboot would "revive" it (even though all other applications' sound continued to work correctly). At other times, TimeScape took over all other applications' sound capabilities, making it impossible (for example) to hear that I had new E-mail delivered while I was playing the game. I was never able to resolve these problems.

Finally, the game has a fairly disappointing ending. After a rather lengthy (and well-animated) final cut scene, you are left on the road outside of Pompeii with Sophia and a few other characters but with no indication at all of whether you will be returned to your own (i.e., 19th century) time.

TimeScape provides a moderately well-done graphical landscape, combined with a great deal of historical research into the ancient city of Pompeii. The tedious dialogue, combined with the extreme linearity of the game, and the overdone tendency to "die" without warning, contribute to my low review of the game.

-- Frank Nicodem