Treasure Island Review

From the German studios of Radon Labs comes a new adventure game, Treasure Island. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, the game is filled with swashbuckling pirates, buried treasure, treachery, and sailing the high seas. As Jim Hawkins, the player follows the same path as the original novel's main character.

Treasure Island is a third-person adventure game that uses a standard point-and-click interface to provide the user with a simple, playable experience. As soon as I began playing the game, I noticed the remarkable parallel to the original novel. Often, a game that is "based on" a famous novel or story bears little resemblance to the original -- perhaps merely using the story's setting, or a single character from the original tale (or even less). But it was obvious from the outset that the game is a faithful retelling of the Stevenson story -- so much so, in fact, that it prodded me to go back and read the entire novel once more, to re-familiarize myself with its details. And while there were parts of the game that were slightly modified -- either by condensing them for the sake of time, or introducing additional characters to embelish the story -- anyone who has read the novel will feel comfortably familiar with the game.

In addition to the character of Jim Hawkins, other leading characters include Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the wonderful -- and treacherous -- Long John Silver. In addition, the game introduces Antoinette, the daughter of Squire Trelawney -- and a "romantic interest" for Jim. As in the book, the story is told primarily through Jim's eyes, as he embarks on a journey to search for the rumored treasure of the legendary pirate, Captain Flint.

The developers clearly wanted the story to be an integral part of the game. As a result, the game play is interspersed with many supportive cut scenes and conversations. This not only fleshes out the story, but also serves as an enjoyable diversion from heads-down game play. The scenes are drawn remarkably well; and for the most part, the character renderings are excellent. The voicings of the characters range from superb (e.g., Long John Silver) to average (e.g., British subjects who speak with undeniable American accents). But none of it is distracting to the enjoyment of the game.

One of the things that caught my attention early in the game is the background animations. While many games have movement going on in the background of a scene, it is often limited to a random bird flying by, clouds moving overhead, water rippling, or the leaves of a tree waving in the breeze. But in Treasure Island, the background animations are more detailed. A street scene may have several characters walking randomly through it, while Jim is exploring around. On board the Hispaniola (the ship that takes Jim to Treasure Island, for those not familiar with the story), there are frequent animations taking place -- not the least of these being the constant motion of the ship, as it -- sails over wave after wave. And in some scenes, the background characters are even taking part in the conversations going on -- all executed quite elaborately, and with great creativity.

Similarly, the background audio is quite supportive -- with an orchestral sound track, and all of the expected ambient sounds (e.g., the creaking of the ships rigging as it is sailing). It all works together to create an environment that is unusually immersive for a third-person video game.

In addition to the background scenery, other 3D renderings are done with superb skill. The details aboard the ship, for example, are marvelous. The scenes in Bristol, England, before the departure of the Hispaniola, are equally good. The movements of the main characters were developed using motion capture techniques; and the result is very realistic character animation. The only weakness was in the close-up views during conversations with key characters. It was painfully obvious that little attention had been given to lip-synching those conversations. They looked more like a low-budget Saturday-morning cartoon, with jaws moving whether words were coming out or not.

Like most common adventure games, Treasure Island includes a variety of puzzles. However, the vast majority are inventory puzzles, where objects need to be found, gathered into inventory, possibly even combined with each other, in order to accomplish some task. The inventory is extremely simple to manipulate, with the added feature that each object can be viewed in a close-up mode that zooms in on the object, and allows it to be rotated in a completely 3D manner, thus allowing a view of the back of the object as well.

I had some minor confusion regarding manipulating objects. It was not always clear whether to use a left-click or a right-click on an object. In some cases, they did two different things; in other cases, they resulted in the identical action. I would have liked to have seen a bit more consistency in that area.

Although there was one small "maze puzzle" (when Jim is walking through an unfamiliar woods), there were really no discreet "mind-bender" logic puzzles. While I decry puzzles that interrupt the flow of a game simply to introduce a challenge to the player, these types of puzzles can be designed to integrate well into the flow of a game, with very positive results. I would have liked to have seen more such logic puzzles included.

Another potential enhancement to the game would be some kind of "goals" interface -- i.e., a journal, a log, a record showing what it is we are trying to accomplish at the moment. I was sometimes confused as to what to do next.

Games can be saved at virtually any point. However, I found the finite number of saved games (8) to be limiting. I like to save games regularly. And while there are no places in Treasure Island where Jim can be killed, or the game unexpectedly terminated, I still would have liked to have been able to create more saved games.

One thing I missed while playing the game was Long John Silver's parrot, Captain Flint (named after the legendary pirate). In most pictures of Long John Silver today, his parrot is sitting on his shoulder; they are inseparable. However, the parrot didn't play a role in the game, which almost seemed to reduce the very essence of Silver's character.

I did have a number of technical difficulties with the game. Occasionally, the screen would just freeze, with no alternative but to abort the game (and lose whatever progress I had made since my last save). Three or four times, the game crashed and a Windows message box was displayed -- usually describing some internal programming error. One time, the game simply went to a completely black screen. My system exceeded the hardware requirements for the game; and to my knowledge, all software (drivers, etc.) were completely up to date. I was never able to define the cause of the problems, nor a resolution to them.

As the game drew to a climax, there was a rather lengthy cut scene. It was in such contrast to the rest of the game -- where the player is continually involved -- that it almost seemed as if the developers completely changed course, and just wanted to end it. I was reminded of the ending to each episode of the TV show "Murder She Wrote", when in the last 5 minutes, Jessica would describe the entire murder in great detail -- with little interruption from anyone else.

One final word about the parallel between the game and the novel: without creating too much of a spoiler, I must say that the ending is quite different than that of the book! Did the developers decided that they had a better idea of how to end the story than did Robert Louis Stevenson? I tend to disagree with that approach. Anyone who has read any of my reviews of the Agatha Christie murder mystery games, for instance, will know that I believe that stories by classic writers such as these do not need "improvements" done to them. If the purpose is merely to provide a "surprise ending", I cry "Foul!" I think it was unnecessary -- with only one possible saving grace.

The (very few) players who, after the game has ended, will "stick around" for the credits (which are quite long) will also be treated to a final cut scene. And without giving anything away, this final scene implies very strongly that a sequel is planned. Employing the same ending as the novel would not have allowed for such a sequel; so if that was the purpose, I can understand.

All in all, Treasure Island is quite an enjoyable game. The graphics are excellent; the music is quite good. The story was skillfully ported from the novel. (And the very fact that it prodded me to go back and re-read the book was an added bonus.) With the exception of the Teen rating (predominantly based on some of the actions of the pirates, and some violence), it should offer many hours of fun for the whole family.

-- Frank Nicodem