Journey to the Center of the Earth Review

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Publisher: Frogwares/Micro Application
Developer: Viva Adventure (Viva Media)

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 500 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D video card, 700 MB HD space, 8x CD-ROM, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

Ariane is a travel photographer on assignment to capture the rugged beauty of Iceland. On her shoot she quickly becomes trapped when the helicopter that dropped her on a remote ledge in a volcanic crater is ruined by collapsing rocks. What should be a simple rescue is complicated when Ariane falls into a darkened crevasse and descends deep into the crust and unconsciousness. When she awakens, she is trapped in a second, inhabitable world at the Center of the Earth! Not only do dinosaurs roam the improbable landscape, but there is a city constructed by 19th century scientists who wanted to hide from the world and "live their scientific ideals undisturbed," joined by an ancient and mystical culture of giants.

While Ariane strives to escape from the world below the surface and composes the story of her career, the political landscape on the surface is quickly deteriorating. China and North Korea have formed an alliance and appear to be facing off against the rest of the world. News alerts on Ariane's laptop computer suggest a Cold War-style conflict, but officials beneath the surface are trying to spin the conflict as a global shooting war, and may try to lay some of the blame on Ariane's shoulders!

Kyle Ackerman

Somewhere, deep within Journey to the Center of the Earth is a solid adventure title. Unfortunately, between the player and the solid core of an adventure game is a layer of glitches and a lack of polish that exceeds what adventure gamers would reasonably expect, even of a bargain title. The framework of the game is a familiar formula: wander around attractive environments, perform fetch and carry missions for the world's residents, combine objects in unusual ways and solve a few brain-teasing puzzles. The problems with Journey are most disappointing because they feel as if they could have been fixed with only a little more time and quality assurance. Despite seeming close to done, the interface for the game is incomplete, the environment feels empty and there is a lack of feedback with respect to your actions.

When A Hotspot Just Isn't

Of all Journey's sins, the interface is by far the biggest. Often, the game makes it feel like the problems are the player's fault. For example, the lead character Ariane will typically only follow certain narrow, constrained paths across the hand drawn backgrounds. Sometimes these are obvious, sometimes less so. When these paths twist, you can't just click on Ariane's destination. Instead, you need to micromanage her path through the screen, lest she shuffle aimlessly in circles trying to figure out where to go. Worse, the active areas (typically on the edges of the screen) that tell the program to switch to another panorama only seem to work some of the time. You may need to send Ariane back and forth several times before she actually manages to leave, and when she does, the program can get confused and flash back and forth between screens before ultimately settling on one. Labels and dialog options are also confusing, perhaps due to translation or localization issues. It is ultimately of little consequence, as you can explore every branch of the dialog trees without danger, but it may take you a while to figure out that "Place" is how you ask "Where am I?" or "Tell me about this location?"

The worst problem of all has to do with hotspots. Many adventure games will change the style of the cursor when it hovers over an object with which you can interact. Often, the area indicated by a cursor hotspot in Journey is much larger than the actual interactive area. For example, at one point you need to open a hamster wheel-like device. The whole contraption appears to be a hotspot, but only clicking on the very lower-leftmost area produces a result. A similar issue surfaces when trying to place a map in a balloon. So it's common to discover that even if you know exactly what to do (say, from a walkthrough), it's still difficult to figure out exactly where or how to click.

"I Can't Leave Just Yet"

This brings us to another serious problem. The game fails to give adequate feedback. Frequently you know exactly what to do, and know how to do it, but just haven't clicked in the right place. When this happens, the game is entirely silent – your efforts simply produce no result. It would help If clicking a few pixels to the right of the correct location produced some sort of message. While sometimes a problem in adventure games, in Journey this can leave you wondering if you have encountered a bug. Sometimes feedback is simply inadequate. Near the opening of the game you try to enter a dark passage and are told "I can't leave just yet." You need to get everything from the area before you leave because you can't return, but even running the cursor like a lawnmower doesn't always locate objects. A message such as "I still should take a few things from the crashed helicopter" might clue you in that you still need to cannibalize the helicopter for parts.

Shortly after, you encounter a machine in a mine that presents several feedback problems. Try to fix a machine with obviously torn wires by dragging wires from your inventory, and nothing happens unless you first don warm gloves as insulation. You aren't told "That's too dangerous, I need protection." Instead, it just doesn't work. Worse yet, the feedback can just seem wrong. After fixing the wires, if you try to enter another tunnel you are told "It's too dark to go on." Yet fixing the wires has turned on the lights! Eventually you may figure out that you need to wrap your electrical patch in surgical tape (using the gloves) before the machine is actually fixed, but the game doesn't tell you that. Instead, it contradicts what you can see with your own eyes. Most of the time, the feedback isn't wrong – it's just nonexistent. A little playtesting and some additional text or vocal messages could have made this fun.

The World is Hollow, But Contains A Puzzle of Note

The fanciful and attractive backgrounds are really the best part of Journey. The underworld is filled with dinosaurs, colossal fungi and vaguely archaic technology. While it looks pretty enough, many adventure games will let you click on elements of the environment and give you descriptions or optional background to make you feel part of a living world. In Journey, you can occasionally click on posters, books or bones, and descriptive text or graphics will be added to Ariane's laptop computer (which is so powerful it can perform carbon dating). Receiving the info on the computer is fine, there just aren't many of these descriptions. It would have been more engaging with more text describing the surroundings and background of this fascinating world. There are also relatively few ambient animations or background sounds. This makes the illustrations more like what all adventure games are: a flimsy backdrop for your character and a few important objects. Poor voice acting accentuates the problem, with Tohu Malla (the Giants' Gardner) as easily the worst of the lot with his throaty-yet-nasal redneck drone.

All the above issues really came together in a single puzzle. The game's brain-teasers were entertaining enough challenges until Ariane came to the Valley of the Spirits. This is the sort of puzzle that makes a person quit a game. The puzzle itself wasn't the issue. You need to decipher a set of columns, to produce six sounds in the correct sequence to gain access to a new area. To make the sounds, you needed to open or cover holes on six posts. Mess up a single combination and you need to start the series of six sounds over again.

Had all the posts been in one place, this sequence would have been a minor irritation. As it is, the posts are scattered around a large valley. Even if you know the correct sequence and combination exactly, mess up one note and you need to start the whole sequence over. Of course, if you mess up, you don't know you have done so until a floating island fails to descend after you make the sixth noise. Because the pipes you need to adjust are far apart on a narrow path, you will struggle through the entire puzzle with the pathfinding issues mentioned above, making the puzzle deeply grating. The first two times attempting the puzzle, one of the many clicks must have been off, as the island failed to descend. The third time through, Ariane had a pathfinding problem and got stuck permanently in the grass. After restoring a long-past save point and returning to the Valley of the Spirits, it turned out the bug was reproducible, and Ariane got stuck in the grass again. Permanently. It is FI's practice to complete games before reviewing them, but certain exceptions must be made. We got no further than the Valley of the Spirits. Were this not a review, and just casual play, Ariane would have consigned herself to an underground fate hours earlier.

The problems with this game are unfortunate, as they seem the sort of issues that should be caught quickly in quality-assurance testing. The underlying world is a rich one, and a worthy setting for an epic adventure. Not just the game, but the characters themselves take inspiration from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. The puzzles and brain-teasers are the equal of other adventure games (with that one, notable exception). Ultimately, the game suffers from a simple lack of polish, but in areas that severely detract from the gameplay experience. Much is redeemed by the bargain price point, as Journey retails for just under $20, but that isn't enough to hold an adventure gamer's attention.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 26, 2004 3:21 PM.

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