Zork really shouldn’t need any introduction. It is one of the most recognized names in the world of adventure gaming, or gaming period for that matter. There are plenty of forgettable and disposable adventures, but Zork is one of the few to hold the honor (or burden) of everyone knowing its name. Almost everyone in the adventure gaming community has played at least one of the games in the series, and with that amount of expectation hanging over its head, Zork Nemesis entered the fray in 1996.
Activision decided to take on a new direction in the Zork series with the development of this title. Although Zork Nemesis is billed as a sequel to the other Zork games, the story and settings bear no significant link to the previous titles except for a few references here and there. Also noticeably absent is the Zorkian humor of old that many fans have come to expect and love. However, I don’t think that humor would have played well against a backdrop as serious as the story that is presented in Zork Nemesis. So for that reason, I understand and concur with the developers’ decision to largely downplay all the humor from this game and satisfy the fans of the Zork humor with the next title in the series – the great Zork: Grand Inquisitor.
For those reasons, this title was met with very mixed feelings from numerous Zork fans. However, to those who are unfamiliar with the series, Nemesis stands up well on its own merits. It is best to look at this game as an offshoot of the Zork series, rather than a direct sequel. Keeping that in mind, I was able to see it for the excellent game that it is.
The story begins as you are ceremoniously transported to a temple, and the spirit of a young woman--Alexandria--implores you to uncover the mystery of her death. You start by exploring the temple and finding that it imprisons four alchemists who have been tortured by something they call, “The Nemesis.” In order to uncover who the Nemesis is and what this all has to do with Alexandria’s death, you must explore the area that each alchemist lived in and solve puzzles along the way. With each new piece of information that is revealed to you, a darker and darker picture is painted of the events that took place.
I found the plot to be intriguing and I was excited each time a new piece of the puzzle was filled in. I’ll shy away from describing the plot completely, since a large part of the game is based around not knowing exactly what is going on until the very end.
You take on a familiar role in adventure gamedom, that of the Nameless Adventurer. Similar to the Myst series, you are less of a character in the plot and more of a bystander, viewing the plot as it unfolds from afar. Being someone that prefers third-person games and not being the biggest fan of the Myst style (lots of puzzles, little character interaction), I was surprised with just how much I was able to enjoy Nemesis. It manages to hit many notes just right, thus overcoming many of the pitfalls with games of its type.
Part of this is accomplished by making it feel like there are other characters present besides yourself, when often times there are not. The alchemists’ lives are revealed through books and video flashbacks that you receive when looking at an item. Through these video sequences, you do feel like you get to know these characters, even though you aren’t directly interacting with them.
With the release of this game, Activision introduced a few new technologies that have since become commonplace. They pioneered a new engine, adequately named Z-Vision Surround technology. This engine allows for the player to move to designated positions and rotate 360-degrees from left to right, as well as pan up and down. This has now become the familiar node-based system used by so many games over the years, but Zork Nemesis was the first to incorporate the 360-degree panning. It was also one of the first adventure games to use 3D positional sound. For example, if a fountain is to your left, it will only be heard out of the left speaker, but if turned to face it, you will begin hearing it out of both speakers. Once again, something that is common now, but at the time was considered to be groundbreaking.
Showcased by this engine are graphics that really set the tone for the whole game. Zork Nemesis is enveloped from start to finish in a very dark mood. The atmosphere is steeped in mystery, which is one of the strongest points of the game. The graphics lend to this heavily by being very dark and subdued. While the graphics are getting to be slightly outdated, they more than get the job done and manage to maintain the dark atmosphere quite well. As with the graphics, the sound in this game is handled wonderfully. Academy Award winning Soundelux Media Labs mixed the sound effects, which help add to the atmosphere immensely, as does the haunting original score.
The FMV (Full Motion Video) sequences are handled adequately. The acting, while nothing amazing, is certainly better than most FMV games and everyone seems to really get involved with the story. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the technology at the time, the videos are not very clear other than close-up shots. Interlacing (the process of alternating a black line every other line to make a small video appear larger) is apparent throughout the video sequences and as a result the videos look undefined. Even in comparison to other games of the time that used interlacing in their videos, such as Gabriel Knight 2, Zork still falls a bit short in the quality department.
The navigation and interface of the game is very straightforward and easy to use. An arrow onscreen is used to indicate which directions you can travel and which objects can be manipulated or placed in your inventory. One possible shortcoming that some players might pick up on is the lack of a traditional inventory. There is no inventory screen and the items that you pick up can be scrolled through by clicking the right mouse button. However, a description of the item isn’t given and this can make a few solutions to puzzles more ambiguous than they should be.
The variety of puzzles, though, is quite good and runs the gamut from the easy, common sense kind to the hard--but not hard enough to make you want to pull your hair out--kind of puzzles. At the start of the game most of the puzzles are fairly easy, usually involving some amount of time learning about alchemy. As the game progresses, the puzzles get more challenging and more varied. In addition to plenty of machine switch-flipping type puzzles, there are also some interesting situational puzzles and a timed puzzle here or there that fits in with the situation at hand. There is definitely a variety in the puzzle design of this game and many made me think and solve them in ways I haven’t done in other games before.
Some of the puzzles, however, run the risk of being so strange that they may turn some more graphically-sensitive players off of the game. For example, there is a puzzle that involves chopping off the head of a dead body, then positioning the head on some kind of mechanical contraption to make it speak. This puzzle has--at the very least--“grossed out” quite a few people.
Despite its minor shortcomings, I really can’t recommend this game enough. It has stood up to multiple plays over the years and its dark and eerie atmosphere has not diminished over time. If you like your games dark and macabre, as I do, you shouldn’t think twice about playing this one.