Journey to the Center of the Earth
(JCE) follows the exploits of Ariane, an attractive, ambitious photojournalist. Ariane is retracing the footsteps of the unlikely heroes of A Journey to the Center of the Earth (the book) written by Jules Verne in 1864. Beneath Iceland’s frozen volcanoes she’s stumbled across the ultimate headline-grabbing scoop. She’s also stumbled into the inner workings of a conspiracy that entangles two hitherto unknown civilizations.
Visually and aurally, this game has a distinct “WOW!” factor going for it. JCE’s 3D environments are vibrantly colorful and feature a surprisingly sharp graphical resolution. These worlds have an authentic lived-in character. There are picturesque architectural forms, unique imperfections in the stone tiles of the floor, rust trails beneath the metal window frames. Water effects are beautifully realistic. Fabrics sway in the breeze. Startling yet recognizable beasts wander through the scenes.
Amid these marvelous surroundings, the story explores two very different utopian societies. One society has based its beliefs on scientific reason, the other on natural living and the discipline of magic. The game delves into our heroine’s reactions to each culture and the effect – both real and potential -- of bringing the values of our non-utopian world to bear on these pristine highly-focused communities.
There are various characters to meet on Ariane’s journeys. The main characters have memorable personalities, but some of the minor characters (who turn out later not to be so minor) are easily forgotten. Conversation with characters is rather brief, especially when compared to, say, The Longest Journey. I thought the amount of dialogue was just about right, though more interaction might have given me a better glimpse into the motivations of the minor characters. Dialogue writing and voice acting are both solid. Although this isn’t a comical game, there are snatches of humor throughout. Ariane tells one laid-back unanimated character: “I’ll be back to see you later.” He responds: “Okay, I won’t have budged an inch!”
The game has an engaging high tech/scientific gloss for what is essentially the telling of a far-fetched tale. There are references to the characters from the Jules Verne book, and to the history of the exploration and settlement of the underground world. Ariane puts her laptop to good use, both to analyze what’s going on around her and to receive messages and news bulletins from the world she has left behind.
JCE has two endings. The developers have made the unusual choice of inserting one of the endings much earlier in the game than the other. The game pauses at the tipping point of a moral dilemma, which our heroine resolves by walking either through a wide door or a narrow one.
The choice that gives you more gameplay also spends more time developing the story. You go back to previous locations and work your way through the conspiracy until the truth is revealed. I confess that I would have enjoyed a few new locations here – especially because the worlds in the game are so well developed. However, the story definitely carried me along even through familiar territory. I found myself caring deeply about the fate of the dual-societies, though it was nerve-wracking near the end to observe the meditative pace of the back-to-nature one. A catastrophic threat is approaching, and the extremely relaxed victims demand that Ariane scurry around running errands for them before they will assist her in saving their own world.
Both endings, though not full of wiz-bang effects or revelations, are interesting and satisfying.
The music adds greatly to the gaming experience. It is delicate and lyrical, which perfectly suits the game environments. There were places in the game where I stopped for awhile just to listen to the music -- I wish that the music had been used much more throughout. Ambient sounds are well done in each location.
Now for the quibbles: although there is a nice range of entertaining gameplay in JCE -- from stand-alone strategy puzzles to mechanical puzzles and inventory puzzles -- there are also moments of intense frustration. Frustration for this gamer arose because of the inconsistencies in the hotspots. Sometimes hotspots are easy to find. Other times they appear from out of nowhere after an unidentifiable triggering event occurs. A few times they never appeared at all, so that solving a puzzle involved clicking until the cursor activated a hotspot where previously there had been no sign of one.
Beyond the hotspot inconsistencies, there are two high-end tear-your-hair-out puzzles in the game. One puzzle has you placing tiles around a portal. Each tile has its own symbol. For the puzzle to work, the meaning of the symbols on the tiles should be susceptible to reasonable deciphering, but (as frequently occurs in this kind of puzzle) symbols are amenable to so many different interpretations that recourse to a walkthrough is necessary. By the end of the game, the meaning of each tile becomes a little more obvious – unfortunately the puzzle is at the game’s beginning.
The second hair-tearing puzzle is called Initiation Alley. Here you have to activate resonating wooden poles as you go back and forth and back and forth, pausing to draw pictures and take notes. In other words, the challenge uses repetitive movement within a structured path to slow down the solution. You can figure out this puzzle by sheer determination if you keep slogging through. However, any little error – and the poles look enough alike that it’s very easy to make an error – means that you will have to backtrack and figure out where your notes were wrong. You really need a secretary (or a note-taking playing partner) to ensure accuracy.
Further, I’ve rarely had as much trouble moving from place to place while using the mouse as I had in JCE. Directional hotspots (represented by footprints) are frequently tiny, forcing you to pass the cursor over the spot several times before you can find and click on it. The footprints occur at various intervals – sometimes in the middle of the screen, but more often down at the farthest edges. Sometimes the hotspots are placed in such a way that in order to go forward, you first have to move sideways. Sometimes no directional hotspots can be found, so you click around wildly.
There is also an odd two-step move that Ariane often performs if she can’t decide which direction to go: she spins around in a whirling dance until she hits the hotspot that sends her on her way. It isn’t unusual for the directional hotspots to send our heroine over to a location where she actually blocks the element needed to solve a puzzle. Every time she moves somewhere new, you need to shift Ariane slightly to the side to see if she is covering something important.
In addition to the aforementioned technical problems, the game crashed five times. On the whole, I thought JCE’s strengths outweighed its frustrations. Still, I can’t help wondering how much more fluidly the game would have played if more care had been taken with movement controls and hotspot placement, and if there had been less game-lengthening back-and-forthing.
Quick List for Journey to the Center of the Earth
Third person perspective, frustrating mouse control. Sumptuous 3D graphics in an authentically-realized world. Fun critters. Cutscenes vary in quality, though one in particular is magnificent. Occasional graphical glitches: stuttering, one slow-down, heroine able to run right through furniture and pedestrians. Five crashes (I suggest you save before getting on the altimonorail). Nice range of puzzles; however there are hotspot inconsistencies plus a couple of puzzles that are real stumpers. No sliding tile puzzles, no mazes, no timed puzzles, one sound puzzle. The inventory is easy to use, though it may cover up hotspots on the screen when activated. Visit the Preferences Menu before playing – lots of ways to tweak your game there. No dead-ending, no dying, two well-done game endings. Unlimited saves. Exceptional music, good voice acting, good dramatic tension and a story that keeps you guessing the identity of friend and foe. Game length: long. Aimed at gamers who like to explore fantastical environments while caught up in a thought-provoking story.
Final Grade: 3.5 BAAGS out of 5.