Traitors Gate 2: Cypher review
Let me start out by mentioning the strange decision to rename this game at the last minute. After months of advertising it as Cypher: The Sequel to Traitors Gate, The Adventure Company chose to release it as simply Traitors Gate 2. Presumably, this was to assure that buyers associated it with the previous game, a game which I enjoyed a lot. However, TG2 actually shares absolutely nothing with the first game except for the name of the character you control and the inclusion of a few high-tech gadgets for use at the end of the game. Rather than using the smooth-transition node-to-node movement that worked quite well in TG1, the designers have jumped on the 3D direct control bandwagon, with disastrous results. And whereas the first installment was a pure adventure game with no action elements, TG2 is most definitely an action-adventure hybrid, or at least an adventure game wrapped (badly) in action clothing. The result is a game that requires too much speed and dexterity in places for adventure game fans (or even for most computers, apparently), and has sloppy controls, ugly graphics and obscure puzzles that will drive action gamers nuts. As a final word on the subject, Traitors Gate refers to a specific location within the Tower of London, Raven’s pickup point in the first game. TG2 takes place half a world away in an ancient Babylonian temple. Calling this game Traitors Gate 2 makes about as much sense as calling Syberia something like Return to the Amerzone.
If I haven’t adequately turned you off on this game yet, let me get down to specifics. For many players, the first annoyance will be in the installation. TG2 includes something called “Starforce” copy protection. You are required to enter a 24-character key code the first time you start up the game. The Starforce copy protection then runs a check every time you start the game to assure that you are using the correct, legitimate CD. I was one of the lucky ones. My installation ran nice and smooth. But there have been numerous complaints from users who got a glitch during installation and were unable to either configure or play the game because Starforce misidentified their CD during the check. For some people, the check itself would hang their system. This is but one of many, many bugs within the game, which I will discuss more later.
Assuming that you get the game installed correctly, next you get to configure it. One big bonus that TG2 has is the ability to choose what resolution you want to use. Except that unless you have a top-of-the-line graphics card that far exceeds the minimum requirements, choosing any resolution above 1024 x 768 results in nauseatingly choppy, jerky graphics. Many gamers will likely be reduced to playing in 800 x 600. Not that there is a discernible difference between these two choices; both settings leave the scenery looking blurry and washed-out.
Okay, you’ve got the game installed and configured. You’ve watched the long intro that serves as TG2’s only bit of story interest. Now you’re ready to start actually playing. And you immediately run into one probably the most frustrating aspect of TG2: the controls. Now much has been said lately about how 3D/direct control is the future of adventure gaming, and some of these points are valid. But TG2 stands out as a shining example of how not to implement such an engine in an adventure game. Movement is via the arrow keys; up arrow to move (default is run, use the shift key to walk), down arrow to back up, and left/right arrow keys or mouse to turn. The mouse controls the camera, which is stuck looking at the back of Raven’s head; thus turning the camera turns Raven. While you can adjust gamma level and mouse sensitivity from the Options page, the navigation controls cannot be remapped! Point-and-click fans will struggle a bit to deal with learning to use two hands to move Raven around, but when they do learn it, they will still be frustrated by the flaw that will immediately drive the Quake players nuts: the steering is as loose and sloppy as that of a 1970 Dodge Dart. Little taps of the arrow keys barely turn you or don’t work at all, while more concerted pressure on them will spin you around completely in a blink of an eye. Mouse users will fare no better as even configured at its lowest sensitivity, a tiny movement of the mouse will result in a dizzying spin. For those who have little experience with 3D first-person shooters, the safest way to move around will be to walk rather than run… yet this necessitates using another finger to hold down the Shift key!
The control problems don’t end there. Let’s say you are in a room that has some objects with which you must interact. There are no “hotspots.” Nothing to tell you what objects are “clickable” and what is static scenery. In order to interact with something, you must maneuver Raven PRECISELY in front of the object and hit the Enter key. Most of the time, you must be within a few millimeters of the correct spot in order for this to work. Sometimes, it doesn’t work even if you are in the right spot, and you must back away and approach the item again. The end result is that the player will miss items that he needs to collect/move/etc. because he was slightly off from the correct spot when he tried to “click” them; or, he spends uncounted wasted hours nudging Raven around pixel by pixel to position him directly in front of useless scenery. The folks at 258 Productions (newbies in the game industry) have managed to make pixel-hunting a 3D frustration.
Yet another problem with moving Raven from Point A to B lies in the ugly polygonal graphics used in TG2. They frequently overlap, obscuring parts of the scenery or even Raven himself. To say the graphics look “dated” is an understatement; they are downright antiquated. Looking at the screenshots below will give you some idea. In the first two instances, Raven is standing on top of the surfaces he appears to be submerged in. It was not unusual for me to be running around with Raven buried up to his chest in the floor on which he was walking. In the bottom screenshot, Raven is not standing on the floor beside the curved stairway; he’s walking on the stairway and has stepped off the side to now levitate beside it ten feet in the air! (be sure to click on the thumbnails for a better view of what I'm talking about)
More roadblocks await the now-beleaguered adventurer in the form of bugs. No, not The Mummy’s vicious scarab beetles, but the computer variety. There are the normal crash-to-desktop variety, except they are frequently severe enough to crash the whole system. I hit one that was bad enough to cause registry damage, necessitating a system restore. There are some (most common during the final section of the game during the “retinal scan” sequences) which will hang the player in the middle of a cutscene… with no apparent indication that this is what has happened, as Raven will continue to move his arms slightly and look around or scratch his head every so often. There are some where a game or a graphic event isn’t triggered properly. But the most common bug is walking/falling through solid objects. There are at least two stairways where it is easier to walk directly through the solid stone than it is to climb the stairs. It is extremely common to be running along a passageway and have the “solid” floor drop out from underneath you, putting you back at the beginning of the hallway. (This one actually came in handy. After getting trapped in the Lost Tomb room, I ran around until I hit one of these “bug holes” and appeared back outside the room to make my escape.) In the Pump Room I could walk through a solid wall to reappear on the opposite side of the room. Such unintentional pitfalls not only make navigation a chore, they make the temple near-impossible to map.
There are two bugs that will render the game impossible to finish for many players. (WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead… as if it were possible to spoil this turkey.) I already mentioned the retinal scan bug. In the ending sequence, you have moved out of the temple and into the high-tech underground lair of the terrorists who are Raven’s target. To enter each room, you must use a device that provides a fake retinal pattern for a scanner. Every time you do this, there is a good chance of the game locking up, forcing you to reload from a previous save point. The better your graphics card, the better your chances of success here, but even a screamer is no guarantee that you will get through all the necessary doors. The other game-ending bug comes early on in the Water Elevator room. The player is supposed to activate an elevator platform, then turn 180 degrees and run to leap on the platform before it starts moving, or else run to a nearby lever and throw it to stop the platform before it gets out of reach. For many players on many computers, this task is simply impossible. I attempted both maneuvers over fifty times each. The lever would not move and my best effort got me less than halfway to the platform before Raven was frozen by the cutscene of the platform rising. I tried using a slowdown utility and steadily increased it until my CPU was running at 10% speed. No use. After hunting through several game forums, I discovered that only a VERY tiny minority of players had managed to actually get through this critical bug. Fortunately, one of them has posted a saved game at the Adventure Company forums, though using the save requires the player to go back later (after opening up an alternate means of moving between levels) and collect items that he should have gotten before he ever went up the elevator.
I want to leave off talking about the navigation troubles now and say a few words about TG2’s puzzles. There were a couple of them I actually liked. There was also a near-impossible action sequence early on (the Sin room) which will defy even the most skilled action gamer. But most of the puzzles are either extremely easy but time-consuming and repetitive (the Chime room and the Boat room come to mind), or obscure, unclued, or even (in one notable instance) MISclued. Puzzle clues are provided both from the environment and in the half-burned journal of an archaeologist who was one of the temple’s discoverers. (Another spoiler coming.) Many players have found themselves stumped in the Pump room, where you must turn the right hands on a series of statues into various positions in order to start a waterwheel. The journal specifically says that two of the hands should be turned pointing “up.” In fact, those two statues must have their thumbs pointing down to solve the puzzle. The shame here is that this is one of the few puzzles for which the matching clue in the journal actually made sense… and they STILL got it wrong! The easy puzzles become tiresome almost immediately, and the tough ones are made excruciating because of the aforementioned difficulty of locating just what objects you can manipulate.
But enough about what’s wrong with TG2, let’s look at the positive aspects. It is mercifully short, with most of the game time spent either retracing your steps because of game bugs or beating your head against the wall over some of the puzzles and action sequences. There is no story to distract your attention from your surroundings. It is varied enough to appeal to a variety of masochists, regardless of their gaming preferences. The uniform drabness of the scenery can be very soothing. The awkward controls allow you to exercise the fingers of both hands. And it gives those folks who didn’t like the first Traitors Gate the opportunity to feel smug. All for a mere $30.
My advice: take that money and buy three copies of Sanitarium. Even if you never unwrap or give away the extra copies, it’s still a better bargain by a hundredfold.
Possibly the worst adventure game of 2003, guaranteed to piss off both adventurers and twitchers.