A funny thing happened while I was playing VOYAGE, the newest game from Kheops Studio. I had this weird thought that at some point, a long time ago, adventure games died.
I'm the last person I'd ever expect to say that, let alone put it in print. But a scene in VOYAGE put the idea in my head, and I haven't been able to shake it. It started when, exploring an all-but-deserted lunar landscape, explorer Michel Ardan stumbled upon a desolate alien necropolis. There, in crumbling tombs flanking a distant view of planet Earth, lay heaps of long-neglected Selenite bones. What happened to this once magnificent race, between their last contact with ancient humanity and their apparent disappearance? What tragedy befell these proud people, leaving behind only a few primitive creatures in the forest and these skeletons long since stripped of their marrow? It's a powerful image, not only because of the loneliness and despair that shrouds this eerie resting ground, but also because of its resonance with that ill-conceived assertion we adventure game fans are never going to be able to escape. The disappearance of a once-great race… the death of a once-dominant genre… the link was impossible to ignore. But no sooner had I thought it, I, like Ardan, saw a glimmer of hope. A suggestion that these legendary beings had not been wiped out completely. A possibility that what seemed to be lost was, in fact, merely hiding beneath another layer of mystery.
It's no coincidence that I had the death of adventure games on the brain. Whether or not the genre's viability was ever truly in question, Kheops Studio has done a lot to change public perception. Last year, the developer's sleeper hit Return to Mysterious Island surprised reviewers and fans alike with an approach that was at once extremely traditional and refreshingly new. Earlier this summer, ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern created some buzz even among mainstream websites. Now, with VOYAGE, Kheops is poised to deal another blow to those critics who insist on likening the adventure genre to a dusty pile of bones.
If you've ever bemoaned the fact that they just don't make adventure games like they used to, with flexible, open-ended gameplay and a heavy emphasis on exploring new worlds, you're in for a treat. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the game borrows liberally from two novels by Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon), but the bulk of its creativity comes directly from the minds of the developers. It uses the same first-person perspective and node-based, 360-degree panning from previous games, but the setting is entirely different than anything we've seen out of Kheops so far. Although not a sequel to Return to Mysterious Island, VOYAGE employs a similar interface and method of gameplay. RtMI fans are going to be thrilled to find more of the same. And those who never played RtMI get to experience for the first time what makes this style of game so good.
If you're a Verne fan, or were forced to read him in school, you're probably familiar with the game's premise: a renowned French adventurer named Michel Ardan has agreed to accompany two colleagues, Barbicane and Nicholl, to the moon on a space capsule shot out of a giant cannon. But that's where the similarities between the game and Verne's books end. In Kheops' re-imagining of the story, the capsule makes it to the moon, but Ardan is the only survivor. Our hero awakens, groggy, to find the shell dangerously low on oxygen and too heavy to land on the lunar surface. Your immediate concern, as you take control of Ardan, is to get past these challenges and safely onto solid ground.
Once you have, the capsule's hatch opens to reveal a stunningly surreal landscape of brightly colored plants and cratered ledges, set against the backdrop of a star-filled sky. This is not the moon as we know it, but as it was imagined by Jules Verne's contemporaries and by Kheops' own visionaries. At first glance, the crater appears to be inhabited only by the aggressive, towering plants that dominate the vicinity where Ardan's capsule landed, but a bit of exploration reveals a few creatures walking among them. What's their relationship to the ancient Selenite civilization that, according to legend, once lived here? This is the question Ardan seeks to answer as he makes his way across the landscape and begins to decipher the language and culture of its onetime inhabitants.
Many of VOYAGE's early challenges involve studying the behavior of the lunar plants and finding uses for the fruit they produce. Some can be cooked into compotes that provide you with special skills when eaten. Others must be planted and grafted together before Ardan will find a use for them. As the game progresses, Ardan gains access to a laboratory for more advanced experiments that help him repair his capsule and procure needed supplies. For me, these tasks were a lot of fun, but Kheops understands that not everyone plays the same way. Many of the items you can make can also be found or purchased. In fact, most of the game's critical actions have two or more possible solutions, which means VOYAGE may well appeal to a broader audience than many of the more linear adventures released these days. This game has a little something for everyone.
In addition to the agriculture and chemistry experiments, the game includes a number of mechanical puzzles, two extensive sound puzzles (one that's completely random and doesn't have an alternate solution, so if you're tone-deaf, you're in trouble), and a bit of math that ranges from elementary to head-scratching. VOYAGE also has several simple dexterity challenges, such as collecting potassium bubbles that are floating around the weightless capsule, and trying to master the moon's unfamiliar gravitational force while jumping from one lunar ledge to another. And brace yourself: there are a few timed sequences near the beginning of the game. Don't let these scare you off. The timed sequences are very forgiving, and the dexterity challenges are much more puzzle-like than action-like. Although dying is possible, the game immediately brings you back to a point just beforehand, with your inventory items and progress in tact.
If you played Return to Mysterious Island, VOYAGE's interface will be old hat. If not, there's a little bit of a learning curve, but tips in the game's initial sequence (such as being told to right-click to access the inventory, and prompted to save your game for the first time) will help you get over the hump. Not having played RtMI, I came at VOYAGE fresh—and, I'll admit, a little cynical. Combining one inventory item with another to create a third has become a bit of a joke in adventure games (syrup + cat hair, rubber duckie + band-aid… need I go on?), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Kheops' system retains the fun of tinkering without making the process too formulaic or mundane. A lot has already been said about the ins and outs of this inventory system, so I won't go into too much detail. What was good about it in RtMI is good in VOYAGE, too. However, some minor interface annoyances—such as the fact that the player must organize the dozens of items in the inventory by hand—are still present.
I do have one specific gripe about the inventory: it has loads of empty slots, yet you can only carry three of any one item at a time. This was problematic when I first started experimenting with the plants, because it required me to travel back and forth, often across several screens, to pick up what I needed. It gets better as the game goes on and Ardan discovers alternative places to pick up certain ingredients, but even then, sometimes the three-item limit just wasn't enough. Of course, the ability to carry more of each item could make an already unwieldy inventory worse, but I wouldn't have minded if the game represented stores of items with just one icon and a number to show how many Ardan was carrying, rather than displaying an icon for every single thing in his pockets.
Partway through the game, an "intelligence management" system is unveiled, which ranks how well Ardan understands the world around him. It's essentially a point system that echoes the classic Sierra adventures, but with a twist—you won't be allowed to advance in certain parts of the game until your lunar IQ is high enough. This means the more time you take to learn about the Selenites' environment and culture early on, the smarter you'll be later when you need to be. If your score is still relatively low when this system comes into play, you'll have to do some backtracking and boost it before you can progress. In this open-ended game, neither is the "right" way to play—they're just two different ways that ultimately change the focus of the player's experience. The point system doesn't guarantee tons of replayability—the same options are ultimately available every time you play, no matter what order you do things in—but some players will undoubtedly want to play again and see how different actions affect the score.
VOYAGE is hardly a comedy, but one of its strengths is its subtle, off-beat humor. This tone is evident from the very opening of the game, as a mischievous Ardan taps on the glass from inside the monitor and a Selenite rides across the menu screen on a bicycle, E.T. style. The humor isn't as in your face as in a Leisure Suit Larry or Monkey Island game, but it's prevalent, and it often emerged when I least expected it. Some of the game's funniest tidbits are not required actions, but it's worth it to putter around until you uncover them.
The voice acting is average, although there isn't all that much of it. All of the talking is done by Ardan, one Selenite, and the narrator. The rest of VOYAGE's dialogue is conducted in the Selenites' native language, a cacophony of melodies and tones that Ardan must learn to understand and speak as part of his journey. This works extremely well in context. Ardan starts with a Rosetta Stone of sorts that defines a few basic glyphs and proceeds from there. This makes sense from a logistical standpoint (Star Trek's universal translator always seemed a little too convenient to me). The game is subtitled, and early on, subtitles of the Selenite language display as a jumble of symbols. It's only after Ardan proves his competence in the Selenite tongue that these symbols are replaced with English translations. In addition to the music of the Selenites' language, the game features a diverse orchestral soundtrack that just sounds lunar, with a collection of hauntingly high-pitched melodies that shift depending on the location and the current mood of the gameplay.
If you like your adventure games full of cinematic cutscenes, you may be a little disappointed. There are three or four near the beginning of the game and one at the end. The rest of the time, action is depicted with still images described by an omniscient narrator. These graphics (or comics, as Kheops calls them) have a lithograph-like style that's reminiscent of the illustrations in many nineteenth century novels. This is probably a compromise Kheops had to make in order to stay in budget, and I'm glad they used the money they had to beef up gameplay rather than spending it on a bunch of movies. I'm a big fan of movies myself, but I thought the comics worked well. In fact, I didn't really notice the lack of cinematics until I hit the game's closing movie and realized it was the first I'd seen since landing on the moon.
VOYAGE took me about thirteen hours to play the first time, at a leisurely pace, and without ever feeling really stuck. With so many machines, recipes, and experiments to try out, I never found myself at a loss for what to do. If I couldn't figure out one puzzle, I just went to another area and worked on something else. VOYAGE gives you an incredible freedom to try different things, to uncover multiple ways past the same obstacle, and ultimately to control the pace and gaming experience by focusing on the types of puzzles you enjoy. Someone less interested in exploring the world and more intent on getting through to the end could skip much of what I spent my time on, and probably complete the game a lot faster. But taking my time and immersing myself in the lunar frontier was the best part of my gaming experience. In fact, even when I knew I had everything I needed to return to Earth, I kept puttering around and exploring alternatives. For an impatient player like me, that says a lot.
I'm a stickler for story, though, and I'm sorry to say that VOYAGE doesn't have much in that department. A strong narrative does emerge at the beginning of the game, as Ardan uncovers the mystery of his friends' fate. This backstory, which describes the events leading up to the beginning of the game, is accompanied by a special interface accessed from the inventory screen. As Ardan discovers clues on the shuttle, a 16-square grid fills in with pictures depicting the events he remembers and those that happened while he was unconscious. I enjoyed this method of storytelling and hope to see it employed on a larger scale in a future project. The backstory gives a firm grasp of the time, place, and situation in which Ardan finds himself, but once it's revealed in full, we're left with little more to hold onto than that our hero needs to find his way off this rock.
Of course, that's not all there is to it. The Selenites' history and culture, and the way things work in this lunar world, are part of the story too. These elements are just not compelling as the clearly-defined narrative at the beginning of the game. Kheops did a good job of setting up a mystery—what happened to the Selenite people—but the answer turns out to be fairly simple, and very much secondary to Ardan's task of getting off the moon. No real deep-rooted secrets or big revelations here.
I can't complain too much about VOYAGE's lack of narrative, because the game doesn't really need it. Its strengths lie in exploration and figuring out how things work, and in these areas Kheops has done very well. They've also infused the Selenites with a good deal of background, which may not completely replace a more compelling narrative, but still left me believing in their existence as a race and feeling immersed in the gameworld. So although I would have preferred a stronger narrative and hope to see Kheops push that angle farther if they make another game in this style, I'm not marking VOYAGE down for it.
As much as I hated to leave Kheops' fantastic lunar vision, the objective in VOYAGE is to get Ardan back home. But that's not the end of the adventure. Ardan's return trip takes an unexpected detour that establishes the game in a broader context and hints at the future. (Incidentally, this twist is exactly the type of narrative surprise I was hoping for during the game itself—guess I'll just have to be patient!) I won't tell you where he ends up, but I will tell you this: the last we see before the screen fades to black is, fittingly, the necropolis I described at the beginning of this review, the camera pulling back to reveal rows of Selenite tombs and the distant Earth centered in the night sky. This time it didn't make me think about death and games past, but of games yet to come. Because as long as studios like Kheops continue to turn out high-quality titles like VOYAGE, adventure gamers have nothing to worry about.