Adventure Gamers Awards
I think sometimes I should change my moniker to “Skeptical Gamer” and leave it at that. It isn’t any one game or one developer that has caused me to slide from my once “Happy Gamer” mindset. No, it seems like there is a trend of releasing games that are uneven in design, gameplay, and other aspects, resulting in so many “could have been so good” titles that missed the mark.
As I played these games, there were times I wondered if competing designers worked on each game section. One part played great, but then you would get a bit further into the game and run smack into the wall of “What on earth were they thinking?” So what does this have to do with Sentinel? Well, more than I preferred. The news isn’t all bad; it’s just that I expected a bit better from Detalion. Yep, better grab your mouse and hang on ’cause it’s gonna be a bumpy review.
The start of the game demonstrates this sense of uneven design. The opening of Sentinel is very abrupt and dumps you right into a scene with the bad guy, his henchman and a struggling girl. After being spoiled a bit by lush opening cinematics in so many games, this felt disorienting and oddly disengaging. A first-person game, there is an odd choice of camera angle from the player’s view. The camera angles are so skewed that you look way down on the trio, although you appear to be standing in front of them. The lack of a contextual introduction and the unusual perspective creates an immediate sense of detachment from the gameplay and environment. But don’t fear, as the game suddenly takes a turn for the better.
What truly impressed me after leaving that sketchy beginning was the interface. Now, I know there are those who get dizzy with 360-degree turning and full-motion movement through 3D environments. But the ability to explore freely truly immerses me in a title. If gaming is a respite, an escape, a source of other-worldly pleasure from the slings and arrows of work-a-day life, then give me that free feeling of cruising through my games. In Sentinel, you aim your mouse where you want to go, click the (right) button, and away you go.
Along the way, you can turn at will and eyeball plenty of graphical candy. It would be hard to find fault with the graphics, as they are gorgeous. Detalion used the Jupiter 3D engine from Mysterious Journey II to build this game. Now, we are not talking about fine hand-drawn art, but the look is fluid and dynamic, with real-time animations and solid texturing. Not only that, but the worlds you roam in Sentinel are spectacular. When you end up in a world of ice and snow atop floating islands, you’re ready to break out your coat and hat, because it just feels cold. You won’t need that coat the whole time, though, because the environments change dramatically throughout the game. From a deep cavern tomb to a deep sea wonder world, and on to a place where the only land is granite rock perched in oceans of flowing lava, to name but a few, you’ll encounter plenty of gameworld variety in your wanderings.
Detalion did more than just create grand vistas; they also did an amazing job with the ambiance. The care taken with the sounds and music is obvious, and it truly adds to the distinct atmosphere particular to each highly unique environment. Travel to the volcanic domain is one of the best experiences in the game. Though it is a grim place, replete with seas of molten lava and a sky blackened with thick rolling clouds of ash from a nearby volcano, it feels so dynamic. You’ll hear hissing and crackles as errant sparks fly off from molten streams, and the ground shakes as tremors rumble beneath your feet.
One thing sadly missing is actual interaction with these wonderful scenes. No inventory, no interactive dialogues, and nothing much to pick up and examine. The only genuine interaction is strictly related to the larger puzzle specific to each place. It was as if the entire game had a “look, but don’t touch” philosophy. I would find myself in a particular location that I once again truly enjoyed. The interface and 3D environments meant I could roam at will and check out every nook and cranny. The levels themselves are for the most part not very large, but each is filled with doorways, bridges, and towers, making good use of every pixel. There is a great deal to explore and look at; unfortunately little of what you see is a clue or hint related to the overall game goals. Even less is reactive. Doors are locked, and items do not move. There were rats and birds in one level that I was grateful to see. Why? Because whenever I approached this one rat it would move away. It was the first real interactive element I had discovered in hours. I actually had more fun pushing the rat around by moving towards it than I had in many other corners of the game. I have to pause and think how disengaged from a gaming experience we have come where the prospect of a rat running makes us jump with gratitude. This sort of low interactivity isn’t fun… and that is sad.
Fortunately, Sentinel does have more than just sensory candy working for it. Even in barren landscaped games with not a person in sight, the story can give a point of depth and sparkle to what would otherwise be a sterile field of play. In this area, Detalion did shine. While the plot synopsis could probably be laid out on a short page, it has ample twists and turns to keep you engaged along the way.
Sentinel takes place in the future; not Earth’s, but that of a peaceful civilization in a faraway place. Our alter ego is a young man named Beni, a descendant of an advanced race whose history and legacies are largely unknown. Hundreds of years ago, they simply vanished, leaving little trace of their existence other than a number of tombs. Eighty-five in number, they are rumored to house mysteries, treasures and hidden knowledge, and are guarded by holographic constructs with complex A.I. to help them protect their realms. These tombs are said to feature traps for the unwary and their guardians do not take lightly to intruders. The largest and perhaps deadliest of them all is Tomb 35. As any intrepid explorer knows, the strongest defenses are employed to hide the greatest treasures, and for those motivated by the fame of successfully outwitting a guardian, also present the greatest challenge. Many have been drawn to this most renowned underground resting place, and it has beaten them all, except for one--Ramirez. He does not speak of all that he saw or found there, but he went in and more importantly, made it out alive. He brought out no treasure, but he did bring tales of a deadly guardian and the traps that lie waiting inside for the imprudent tomb raider.
Now, in this time, people live simply and at peace. There is no need for money, and treasure is not desired, so it is not about finding great wealth. For Beni’s people the tombs exist as a rite of passage, or maybe a chance for challenge in a world at ease, without war or threat of harm. However, Beni has come to Tomb 35 for an age-old purpose. He comes determined to beat the tomb’s guardian and bring out hidden treasures. Why? Because if he fails to return with the goods, his sister will be harmed or even sacrificed at the hands of an evil man and his cohort. So, armed with nothing more than his wits and the tales brought back by Ramirez, our hero enters the depths of Tomb 35 determined to win the day and save his sister.
Once there, Beni meets what may be one of the more personable characters in recent games. She is Dormeuse, a tantalizing construct exuding wily charm and calculating menace. As the sole character in the game, she serves more than a passive role in this game universe. In fact, the story is revealed through a series of discussions she has with Beni, as she appears without warning throughout levels of this game. She is crafted from the memories and experiences of the long dead occupant of this silent mausoleum, and the bits and pieces of that one life give depth to this character. All this is enhanced by the superb voice talent used for this role. You will enjoy her tale as it unfolds, and also learn of these ancient ancestors of Beni’s people. Even better, the tale weaves its way to a satisfying conclusion. The end story is one of the more unique resolutions in gaming and creates some unexpected surprises.
With a thin but compelling story driving us forward, we now travel into the obscure world of puzzling. Bear with me on this one. First I will tell you that after much initial grousing, I dug in and found that the puzzles for the most part were not that difficult to solve. In truth, many are quite easy once you get past their daunting appearance. But it’s that initial presentation that repeatedly ravaged my gameplay.
There are two basic levels to in-game puzzling. First there is the problem of figuring out what or even where the puzzle is. This is the “what am I supposed to do now?” part of the challenge. Then there is discovering and applying the solve itself. In stand-alone puzzles, such difficulties may be mastering sounds to apply or negotiating a maze. In these situations, you know “what” to do--it is the “how” that is elusive. Still, for players to have a fair chance, we depend on the game designers to clue us in a bit, or we end up in a brute force application of everything in our pants or bag o’ tricks.
Without some skillful design work from the game-maker, games can end up with challenges maddeningly obscure on one or both of these levels. The more frustrating of these are puzzles frying your brain before ever letting you get to the “how.” Discovering the puzzle itself or what you need to be doing IS the puzzle, but often more frustrating than fun. Sentinel’s puzzles fall into this group for most of the game. Now, this design decision may not be such a bad thing in a game where there are many interactive elements like characters to question, books to read, or items to look at. But the lack of actual interactive elements makes it incredibly difficult to get past the “what is the puzzle” part of this game.
I will point out there is an in-game hint system that you can access for help. Now, I think this is a great concept that many games should feature. It allows for a developer to create a puzzling atmosphere that is a legitimate challenge for more intrepid gamers, yet still make the game accessible to time-constrained or casual gamers. It isn’t so much a lack of gray matter for many people as it is a lack of time or energy for writing out reams of diagrams or struggling through a schematic for sound relays. But finding this helpful aid is turned into another obscure game puzzle. Unless you read the manual, it is unlikely you will even know it is there, as it is buried three levels deep in the menu area, rather than placed somewhere prominent to draw attention to itself. One more wrinkle with the system was that many of these “hints” were sadly just another layer of obscurity. I checked some of them after solving a few of the puzzles and was glad I hadn’t seen them first. They simply were not always helpful, and in a few places were actually confusing.
Now, Sentinel certainly has some puzzles that are inspired and well done. They have the requisite built-in layer of accommodation to make them enjoyable whether you are an abstract or practical thinker. Though there are no blueprints to these puzzles, manipulation of the elements and an alert eye show the manner of each challenge, and the means to a solution was neither too easy nor obscure. Unfortunately, this is not consistent throughout the game. Since each discrete environment is really one large puzzle to be solved, if that puzzle is vague and problematic, it sours the gameplay for the entire level. Since the game has such a low interactive component, if the challenge eludes you, all that’s left is a sterile virtual world to wander in, with nothing else to do... except figure out there is a hints feature.
Playing Sentinel really got me thinking about what makes a game good and fun. What do great graphics do, really? They set up expectations. A free-moving control scheme makes you eager to explore through the gameworld, gobbling up the scenery and environment. A great story gets you primed for the gameplay. But generally if the design is actually done well, then it will be consistent, and if it starts weird, it'll stay weird. That’s the rub--I found that this game is amazingly well-designed from a technical and artistic standpoint, but doesn’t ever match that expertise with its gameplay execution. It never breaks away from its rigid formula, and yet the ambiance, the amazing look, and that clever character construct make you desperate for it to break out.
Games shouldn’t feel like an SAT test, or like a job to get through, no matter how high the production values they’re dressed up in. Here’s a wistful remark from a former Happy Gamer: they are supposed to be… diverting… relaxing… stimulating. And yes, challenging, but is there any reason that challenge can’t be more fun?
I think that if game designers can't achieve these goals, they will end up with titles that have amazing graphics, ambiance and even stories, but just don’t play as well as they should, or receive the sort of player appreciation that they otherwise deserve. Sentinel is precisely one of those games, and the end result is another “sigh… this could have been such a great one” experience.