Voyage: A Journey Beyond Reality Review

In Voyage, Kheops Studio returns to the source of its success with Return to Mysterious Island, by creating a game based on another Jules Verne classic. The original working title for Voyage was A Journey to the Center of the Moon -- and indeed, the game has its roots in Verne's two stories, From the Earth to the Moon, and A Trip Around the Moon. Taking the lead from these stories, the game begins with Michel Ardan, Impey Barbicane, and Captain Nicholl preparing to set off in a capsule that will be projected, through the use of a giant cannon, at the moon. Their goal is to prove that space travel is possible, and to explore whatever they can.

Beginning with the space shot itself, most of the initial setup is true to the Verne story -- the passengers in the capsule, the method of firing the capsule, even the chemicals and processes used to purify the air and provide oxygen during the flight. However, due to an unexpected tragedy, the game quickly diverges from Verne's story, to take on a life of its own. And from that point on, while there are still touches of the original story, most of the game is based on a purely fanciful -- albeit enjoyable -- story of its own. Michel Ardan -- contrary to the original story -- does land on the moon, and begin his exploration. He not only needs to discover a means by which he can eventually return to Earth, but he also uncovers some incredible secrets about the Selenites -- the beings who have inhabited the moon for centuries. And as an adventurer himself, he wants to gather all of the information he can, and take that information back with him, for other scientists and researchers to study.

As with most games from Kheops Studio, the system requirements are quite acceptable. Voyage should be playable on most current PC systems (see sidebar for details). Installation is straightforward; the game is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, most of which is copied to the hard drive, thereby eliminating the need for any disc swapping while playing (though a disc is required each time the game is started).

Gamers who have played Return to Mysterious Island will be extremely familiar with this game's interface. Voyage uses the same simple point-and-click interface, with a cursor that identifies possible directions of movement, the ability to interact with other objects, items to look at more closely, existence of puzzles, and so on. The Main Menu provides all of the common options (Save, Load, Resume, Quit), as well as access to a log kept by Michel Ardan, and a few other references that continue to grow, as game play advances.

Voyage depends heavily on the use of the objects collected by the player during game play. The player will discover items while exploring that can be picked up and placed into inventory. There are well over a hundred inventory objects that may be manipulated throughout the game. The inventory in Voyage uses the same well-structured design as Return to Mysterious Island. A simple right-click calls up the inventory, which is presented in a series of tabbed "sheets", each capable of containing 18 items. Using this tabbed interface, inventory items may be grouped together, making it quite simple to organize -- and quickly find -- all items, even when there may be dozens of items in inventory at any one time. For instance, I kept tools in one place, chemicals and other compounds in another, etc.

And, as may be expected, the majority of the puzzles in the game are inventory puzzles -- that is, they typically involve some intuition to decide what is needed, locating the necessary item(s), and then using or combining them in a manner that solves the puzzle. In some cases, these combinations are obvious. In others, a greater level of intuitiveness is helpful. Many of the inventory-style puzzles are not of the same practical nature as in other games (e.g., finding a hammer to use on a nail). Instead, they are more fanciful -- quite fitting with the fact that Michel Ardan is working in a completely unfamiliar environment -- the moon, and its flora and fauna. For the most part, common tools and other "earthly" items don't exist. So it is up to the player to determine how to use the objects that can be found, in a way that addresses the various puzzles that are encountered.

One possible weak point in the game's design has to do, indirectly, with items required for some of the inventory puzzles. Built into the game is the ability to use a sort of barter system that allows the player to purchase items from a "game repository" -- items which can be found elsewhere, but have perhaps not yet been discovered by the player, or are at a location as yet unreachable. Conversely, the player may sell items in their own inventory, in order to gain enough "lunars" (the currency used on the moon) to purchase other items that they need. While many games have implemented similar systems, the flaw in this particular situation is that there are some items in the game for which the player has an unlimited supply. As a result, it almost makes this barter system nonsensical, since -- given enough time -- the player can always obtain these unlimited items, sell them back to the "game repository", and gain enough currency to buy anything that they need. It would have been more appropriate, if the player had a limited supply of items to sell, and had to use them more judiciously.

A point system is used throughout the game (in much the same way as some early text adventure games). As the player progresses -- and either solves new puzzles, or does something that requires some bit of cleverness, or even successfully communicates with one or more of the characters encountered during game play -- points are added to a running total. There are some activities in the game that cannot be accomplished until a certain point total has been reached. But even beyond that, there are some activities (and puzzles) that are not required to be solved, to complete the game. By using a point system for everything the player accomplishes, this adds a certain degree of replayability (typically in an attempt to discover ways to get additional points, or a higher score on some puzzle).

I was not surprised to find Voyage filled with the same level of excellent graphics, and well-integrated puzzle, as earlier games from Kheops Studio. The scenes are beautifully rendered, and provide complete 360-degree panning in all locations. Most scenes contain background animations -- water moving, fires burning, smoke rising, etc. Many of the scenes are fairly dark, which can initially seem to reduce the color or contrast of these scenes. However, that is entirely in keeping with the fact that much of the game is played in underground caves, tunnels, and caverns. So in that sense, the scenes are quite realistic -- if "realistic" is a word that can be used to describe these other-worldly images!

And not all of the puzzles are simple inventory puzzles. There are a few that are quite "left-brain"; and more than one that will require a fairly sharp ear, particularly for musical sounds. This may be considered by some as a shortcoming in the game -- as I have encountered individuals in the past who are either hearing-challenged, or tone-deaf; and those situations could make one or two of the puzzles in Voyage difficult, if not impossible, to complete.

While many games use cut-scenes to depict major story transitions, in Voyage, the screen instead switches to a "storyboard" layout, showing one, two, or more drawings, along with words explaining what is happening. When I first encountered this implementation in earlier Kheops games, I discovered that I liked the uniqueness that Kheops Studio had brought to the game with this design, and that same feeling carried over into Voyage. (And, in fact, one of the main puzzles in the game directly involves this storyboard design.)

Although there are many situations where Ardan may die in the game, the player is immediately returned to the point just before the hazard occurred, providing a "do-over". In this regard, there is little concern for losing progress during a game. However, it is still an excellent idea to save games regularly. Thankfully, Voyage places no restrictions on the number of game saves that may be created; nor do they take an inordinate amount of disk space. Quite often, making frequent game saves can save time later by being able to restart certain puzzles, or replay sections of the game, without having to backtrack too far.

The game turned out to be far deeper -- with more puzzles, and a longer story line -- than I at first anticipated. Each time I felt that I was about to resolve some major issue, or come closer to the goal of getting Michel Ardan safely off the moon and back to Earth, another "roadblock" would be placed in my way, typically in the form of another puzzle, or perhaps even a new area of the game to explore. And the more I played, the more I appreciated this unfolding of the game, and the story.

Even though I had played an extended preview demo of Voyage, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the game as a whole. The fanciful nature of the game held my interest throughout. The graphics were captivating. And the puzzles were usually sufficiently challenging to require me to revisit many of them two or three times before I was able to discern exactly what was required, and manage to solve the puzzle.

I'll also say a word about the ending cut-scene -- one of the few full video sequences in the game. Normally, the ending video for a game is nothing more than a "wrap up" that puts a ribbon on the package. But I actually chuckled out loud after viewing the ending for Voyage, and realized that the developers must have had a lot of fun designing this particular scene into the game. So as not to provide a spoiler, I will only say that this one single scene manages not only to wrap up the story of Voyage, but also ties it to the past, and -- potentially -- to the future. Voyage is a game that should be enjoyed by young and old alike.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.