Return to Mysterious Island review
Combine 1 part Jules Verne classic with 5 parts survivalist challenge. Sift through semi-fine filter to remove chunky dexterity elements. Add 4 parts tropical paradise with 2 parts eye candy. Let sit for several minutes of graphic admiration. Pour in 492 inventory puzzles, and top with one obligatory cute monkey. Knead for 12-15 hours. Allow to rise above all expectations. What do you get? Return to Mysterious Island, by Kheops Studio.
If you've been starved for a hearty inventory-style adventure game to sink your teeth into, this may be just the recipe to whet your appetite. And so it should--it's a tasty and affordable gaming meal, and if not for a few issues that scream "diet!", this would be gourmet cuisine at its finest. It's not a very big serving, but it does come with second helpings and dessert. Hungry yet?
All right, all right... now that I've annoyed everyone (including myself) by overusing the food imagery, let's take a closer look at the game itself. Return to Mysterious Island opens with a young woman named Mina being washed ashore on a deserted island, shipwrecked and alone (without even a volleyball). Naturally, her sole motivation is to familiarize herself with her surroundings and figure out a way home, using nothing but her wits and whatever items she can scavenge. But weakened from her tragic ordeal, the first order of business is... finding enough to eat. (Sorry! I mean it literally this time.)
These humble beginnings devoted to sustenance are actually very representative of the gameplay throughout. The basic premise of escaping the island never wavers, and its practical simplicity is what creates both the charm and limitations of RMI. Anyone looking for diverse locations, engaging characters, scintillating storyline, or brain-scorching conundrums had best check their expectations at the beach. There is an intriguing sub-plot that creeps into the game and eventually becomes more prominent, but the primary goals are always survival and rescue. This gives Mina's adventure a sense of realism, immediacy and tangible consequence that so many larger, sprawling games lack, and it really works to the game's advantage.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish Return to Mysterious Island from any number of other point & click, first-person, node-based games with 360-degree location panning. Unless, of course, you count being graphically stunning. Oh, you do? Well then, let me gladly tell you that this is one of the best-looking games ever to use this style of presentation. From coastal shoreline to tropical forest to volcanic base to underground caves, the game's relatively few locations are all beautifully rendered, rich with detail and clarity. It's no exaggeration to say that you'll want to stop and admire the scenery throughout the island--which is good, because you'll spend most of your time exploring it thoroughly while looking for crucial items. Environmental animations are also quite generous, which go a long way towards making the gameworld feel alive and immersive. The water ripples and laps, the fish swim, the birds circle overhead, and there are many admirable individual touches, like a sea turtle slowly heaving itself across the sand. I must admit, just when I was starting to think this type of game engine should be permanently mothballed as an antiquated relic, games like RMI make me a believer again.
While you're soaking in the gorgeous sights, you'll also bask in the sounds that are equally well handled. The music is a varying blend of gentle instrumentals, but often RMI wisely relies on a different sort of symphony--the one made purely of nature's ambient sounds. Apart from the rumble of thunder or the violent island tremors (which also shake the screen in a jarring display), you'll rarely tune in to the various underlying noises of insects, birds, wind, and water, but they effectively build a believable atmosphere without being intrusive. The only notable vocal role in the game belongs to Mina, and the acting performance is first-rate, though you'll undoubtedly wish she'd speak up more often.
Thankfully, there's no drop-off in quality from production values to gameplay in RMI. In fact, this is the area where the game truly excels and sets itself apart (and above) the vast majority of adventure offerings. This uniqueness is achieved not by innovating in a bold new direction, but by taking the status quo and giving it a brilliant little tweak.
Say "inventory puzzle" to many gamers, and you'll conjure up images of using a chewed wad of gum with a spatula and a teddy bear to escape a prison. The solutions are zany and make not a lick of sense, but we gladly overlook that, because we're packrats at heart, and it's just plain fun collecting everything that isn't nailed down and stuffing it into our impossibly-sized pockets. Yet listen a little closer, and you'll likely hear some murmurs about resorting to "trying everything on everything", and exasperated questions like "why can't I cut a rope with my knife??" Yes, adventures are escapist fun, but our brains are still hardwired to the real world, and at some point many of us wish the bridge between the two were a little more reasonable. Now they are.
Return to Mysterious Island is not only the most inventory-centric game I've ever played, but fully grounded in common sense and practical application. Mina's challenge is our challenge: how would we survive? Well, we'd need to build a fire and make rudimentary tools, for starters, and RMI eases you in by giving you precisely these kinds of challenges. As you explore more, you'll discover evidence of previous island inhabitants, who left behind more advanced equipment and notes of how to construct even more useful items. This allows for a natural progression of complexity without changing the overall focus of the game.
A huge part of RMI's inventory appeal is that almost nothing is a standalone item. Which makes sense, as there really isn't a lot you can do with only a thin bamboo shoot or wet seaweed. For this reason, there's an entire area of the inventory menu dedicated to assembling the various items you acquire. Some need only a simple pairing, while others will require as many as five combinations. If more than two items are involved, once a connection is triggered, a visible formula shows you how many other items you need, though not which ones. Before long, you'll be crowning yourself champion of makeshift gadgets, towering above pretenders like MacGyver and the Professor.
Adding another layer of interest is Jep, an injured little monkey that Mina meets along the way. After nursing him back to health, Jep tags along and becomes available as a combinable inventory "item". While this begins to strain credibility in some ways, it's used in a reasonable way, such as reaching places that Mina can't get to herself, so this is a welcome addition. And he's adorable!
The most intriguing part of the various inventory puzzles in RMI is something that many people (who, me?) have moaned long and loud about wanting to see incorporated into more adventures: multiple solutions! Not every puzzle has more than one option, but many do, and this provides a welcome relief from the rigid design of most games. As RMI alternates between linear and non-linear segments, involving lots of naturally camouflaged items (though not quite pixel hunts, as all items are plainly visible), it's great that progress is rarely halted by an inability to find one unknown object. As an added benefit, the extra options increase the number of puzzles for those determined to find the alternatives. The game encourages seeking out these secondary solutions by providing a point scoring system to measure your success, and by offering bonus art at various point levels. It's the best of both worlds, folks. Go Kheops!
Unfortunately, there are a few weaknesses in the inventory system that slightly hinder the experience. To begin with, the sheer size of the inventory is simply too unwieldy. To give you an idea of its scope, at one random moment I counted 62 individual items either sitting loosely, in mid-assembly, or fully combined with other objects in my inventory. Finding them all involved clicking through several main inventory tabs and the assembly scrollbar, meaning I'd rarely have all the items I wanted on the same screen at one time. This is too cumbersome to navigate repeatedly. There is also a temporary "transit" place for new items collected that serves absolutely no purpose except to make me have to empty it into the main inventory manually.
Another problem is that Mina will often start combining items long before I know what she is trying to build, which lessens the immersion factor. Eventually I would find a clue or figure it out myself, but by then I'd begun to feel like a passenger in someone else's story. This also causes some logistical problems for puzzle solving, as any item in mid-assembly cannot be used in another combination. So between a massively-bloated inventory, multiple solutions and complex assemblies I didn't understand, I still ended up resorting to "try everything on everything" too often. If ever a game needed an automatic discard for items no longer useful, RMI is it. Surely if Mina knows what items she needs before I do, she'd also know what items have become obsolete. So with a better clue system and a more streamlined inventory interface, RMI would have been far more intuitive, but despite the room for improvement, it's still the most fun I've had with inventory in a long, long time.
By now puzzle lovers will be wondering if there's anything BUT inventory puzzles in the game, and there certainly is. In fact, the latter stage of the game sees a surprising focus shift from inventory to other types of conventional logic puzzles like pattern-matching, jigsaw, and slider-style puzzles, plus a fabulous riddle sequence (though a little uneven in difficulty). There's also a musical puzzle, but breathe easy; it's optional. While the change in gameplay is justified by the narrative, it may leave inventory lovers feeling abandoned, and have abstract puzzle lovers wondering what took so long, and I'm not sure either will be entirely satisfied by the abrupt switch. If you enjoy both, of course, you're laughing. So the variety is there; just be aware that the distribution is anything but proportional.
For anyone who feels heart palpitations from seeing screenshots with a "health bar", rest assured that there are no horrific timed action sequences in Return to Mysterious Island. The health bars themselves are merely progress indicators, and while there are a couple of timed sequences, they are also optional (think "puzzle" and work around them if you wish). There are also some very basic mandatory gun shooting requirements, but even a one-eyed gamer with cataracts couldn't fail to accomplish them. I mean that! The first person to mention the shooting gallery in Wanted/The Westerner gets voted off the island... wait, no, we want off the island, so that person has to STAY. The point being, there is no comparison. RMI is as user-friendly an adventure as they come.
It may seem strange that I've neglected plot this long for a game inspired by Verne's own The Mysterious Island, but really it's not particularly relevant to much of the gameplay. As the game's title suggests, RMI takes place after the events of Verne's famous 19th century tale of Captain Nemo and the five men originally stranded on Lincoln Island. Not only is no prior knowledge of the novel necessary, but anyone who has read the book will know that Kheops had to fudge the ending of Verne's story in order to allow a "Return" (although, to their credit, they cleverly justify it during the game). And since the game assumes that Mina doesn't know the island's history, you'll be piecing together past events along with her. So while readers of Verne's novel will take additional pleasure in revisiting familiar locations in graphic form, newcomers won't feel at all left behind.
While the historical record of the five Verne companions is learned only through clues pieced together along the way, Captain Nemo and the Nautilus may yet be directly bound to the island. Mina is plagued by dreams and glimpses of an ethereal figure that compel her forward, though she cannot interact with him. Of course I can't say more, but suffice to say that Mina's fate becomes inextricably linked to Nemo's impact on the island.
Regrettably, the building narrative momentum coincides with the dramatic shift in gameplay and puzzle design, and it's too much, too fast, making RMI feel far less cohesive than it should. Moreover, just when you adjust to the new dynamics... the game ends! I'm not disappointed in the conclusion so much as I feel I hadn't been prepared for it, or done enough to feel I'd deserved it. My first time through, I hadn't yet accomplished what I considered to be a major plot task (I can't tell you, so don't ask), and was stunned to realize it wasn't integral to completion. My corresponding low point score merely mocked me, saying "You pathetic fool! Why are you here so early when there's so much left to be done!" (Well, it didn't actually say that, but I'll bet it was thinking it.) So while the closing cutscene was a satisfying finale, the climactic build-up and framing left a lot to be desired.
Speaking of cutscenes, cinematic presentation is one area where RMI really feels like a "budget" title. After the simple introductory sequence (no shipwreck, sorry), there are virtually no cutscenes at all throughout the game. In fact, there are also no transitions between nodes, no interactive dialogues, and no character animations. Instead, key moments of the game are depicted with sketch drawings. While this is a functional alternative with some merit, the bottom line is that it's no substitute for a more visually compelling presentation. I'm reluctant to criticize any game for issues likely tied to financial constraints, but I am bound to point them out, and RMI does suffer somewhat for the omissions. Not enough to ruin or even tarnish the experience by any means, but enough to prevent it from reaching its full potential to stand among the genre's greats.
It's a rare pleasure to find a game that surpasses expectation, but Return to Mysterious Island is just such an accomplishment. Simply put, it's a game I suspect everyone will enjoy, regardless of personal preferences or experience. With modest ambitions, it succeeds in what it tries to be and forsakes what it knows it can't. It embraces the things we cherish about the genre, but innovates just enough to be truly fresh and new. It may not be splashy or epic or complex enough to make many Top 10 lists, but as it retails for a very affordable price, it’s great value for a few fun-filled evenings of adventuring goodness.
A much simpler formula this time... Combine money with game box on counter. Use on cashier. What do you get? Return to Mysterious Island. You are getting it, right?