I tried playing The Sydney Mystery with an open heart. I really did try to enjoy the game and accept it for what it is – an FMV adventure made by one single person. Nevertheless, no matter how hard I tried, my final conclusion is that The Sydney Mystery just isn't a very good game.
The Sydney Mystery's story starts quite simple. The main character returns home to Sydney, after a long trip out of town, only to discover that her dear uncle is missing. Crossing the police barriers on her uncle's house (the police have decided to bar the house, although the uncle has only been missing since “last night”), she finds clues that something criminal might have occurred. Later on, we learn that the story also involves some mysterious bombings in Sydney, and for a moment I was actually led to believe that the story could do a sudden u-turn and become interesting. This illusion, however, was brutally crushed later in the game, as the story turned out to be more shockingly blunt than I could ever imagine.
The gaming world is seen through the eyes of the main character, although unlike traditional first-person adventures (like most of those published by The Adventure Company), the backgrounds are entirely static. This means that the view of the gaming world is fixed, with no option to look either up or down. Also, it means that whenever there's a crowd, car or any other typical moving object, they will be standing as frozen. The scenes are only seen from a single point of view, so that when the player is walking away from a location, it'll feel as if she's walking backwards. The exploring part of the game works alright though, and the screens are, for the most part, nice-looking photographs, making the player want to investigate the world further. Whenever entering a new area, a short introductory movie clip will be played, presenting the different Sydney locations as effective as any tourist guide. The game's interface is plain, one-cursor point & click, and the inventory items are scrolled through by tapping the right mouse button. This system works just fine, except for the few times when the player is carrying too many inventory items.
The acting in the game, however, is bad. Period. The acting in The Sydney Mystery makes the perfomances from Phantasmagoria seem like Oscar material. This comes as no big surprise, though, as the designer chose to use his friends and acquaintances as “actors." Due to this, much of the filmed dialogue in the game tends to be involuntarily humourous. Also, often in the dialogue sequences, you can see the camera's microphone as part of the picture, and at other times, it is almost impossible to hear what the characters are saying, due to heavy wind or other noises from cars, boats, etc. In addition, there aren't any subtitles, so players will have to make use of lip-reading at times. The voice-acting of the narrator tends to be quite annoying. She utters unenlightening phrases like “I'm really worried now” and “These plants are tall” like she is reading from an obituary.
Not all is lost, though. The puzzles in the game aren't all that bad, although some feel a bit illogical and strange, like when one of the characters is refusing to talk to you until you're wearing all green(!), or when you have to find three different coins in three different places to use in a vending machine. Sometimes, the main character will find some hilarious inventory items, as a full bottle of beer outside the Sydney opera house, or 200 dollars in cash on the street, right after one of the characters had asked for the exact same amount of money in order to cooperate. The game is very short, and the puzzles are, for the most part, very easy. Most experienced adventure gamers should be able to finish the game in a sitting or two. The only time I got stuck in the game was when I couldnt find the necessary inventory item. The introductory screen in the game tells the player to be sure to explore each area carefully – in other words, extensive pixel hunting. The needed inventory item can sometimes just be a small detail in the lower part of the screen.
Adding to the almost bizarre feeling of The Sydney Mystery is the game's music. The theme music loops in many different variations, and although many might think that the music is just annoying, I found it somewhat enjoyable. Moody synths with elements of noise helps keeping a certain atmosphere through the game. The music is sometimes too loud, though, and with no sound options available, it tends to drown the speech.
The FMV adventure is probably the most hated sub-genre in the adventure gaming industry. Games like Phantasmagoria, Zelenghorm and Fox Hunt have upset adventure gamers for years, and The Sydney Mystery will likely follow in that tradition by virtue of its extremely bad acting, linearity and almost parodic puzzles. In spite of all this, I can't deny that I had a few good moments with the game, and that The Sydney Mystery could prove an OK, albeit short, experience for gamers that are desperate for a new adventure, or are particular fans of the FMV-genre. All respect to Brendan Reville for carrying out this project all by himself, and hopefully, Twilight Software's next adventure, The Millenium Adventure, will be a better game.
(The Sydney Mystery can be ordered from the Twilight Software website at the price of $24.95. This price includes worldwide shipping and handling.)