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Adventure Gamers Awards
Some readers might lose interest in this review once they learn that Adventures in Odyssey and the Treasure of the Incas is primarily a children's adventure game. Others might resent this game for the religious conviction its developer, Digital Praise, stands for. Playing the game, however, I learned that this is neither a children-only experience, nor a Christian propaganda machine, so don't be quick to write it off for either reason.
Adventures in Odyssey began as a radio show that was first aired in 1987. At present, hundreds of episodes have been produced and the show is broadcast all over the world. In addition to the radio programs, books, video episodes and albums are now available, and in recent years, Adventures in Odyssey has branched into computer games. The series' goal is to present children, as well as their families, with fun and educational amusement containing moral principles that the creators find lacking in other popular kids' shows.
Odyssey is a small rural town where John "Whit" Whitaker lives. Whit is the typical grandfatherly character and fulfils a paternal role in the show. He is kind, wise, and in an unassuming way, the humble paragon of morality and virtue.
Whit runs a peculiar ice cream store called "Whit's End" (pun surely intended) that actually has a lot more to offer kids than just tasty treats. The large Victorian house serves as a recreation centre which is a kid's dream come true in terms of discovery, imagination and adventure. The many rooms such as the invention corner, the library and the theatre allow children to play and learn simultaneously. Whit's End serves not only as the ultimate hang-out for children; it is also the central setting of the radio program. Here the children meet each other, and it is from this place that the many Adventures in Odyssey commence.
The series features a regular cast of children, adolescents and grown-ups. While Whit is present in just about every episode, most characters appear only in certain shows, in which case the story revolves around them. This theme is carried on in the three Odyssey computer games. Like Whit, present in each game is Eugene Meltsner, a science nerd who discusses the theory of relativity with Albert Einstein in his dreams. He's an overly well-mannered adolescent with a vocabulary no one his age should possess. His manner of speaking is clever and dorky at the same time, a peculiarity that might have you laugh out loud a couple of times while listening to him talk.
Treasure of the Incas opens with a rock crashing through Eugene's window, after which a car can be heard racing away. Attached to the rock is a note with a threatening message: Eugene's parents apparently stole something that belongs to the mysterious author, and he or she wants Eugene to put a map in a gym locker. Mom and dad Meltsner went missing on an archaeological expedition in Africa years ago, and Eugene has no idea what map the letter is talking about.
The next morning Eugene visits Whit's End, where he meets up with Whit and Connie, a bright young girl who is another regular in the radio plays. They assess the situation and the adventure begins. The game's formula is simple: in segments you complete tasks as Eugene, Connie and Whit, after which the team meets back at Whit's end. There they discuss what everyone has learned, the story advances and new goals are presented to each.
The order in which you play as the three main characters is non-linear, as you get to choose freely whose goals to pursue first, and you can switch between the protagonists while you are in the middle of their respective quests. This non-linearity, however, is not very significant; what each character does and discovers only become important after everyone's tasks have been finished. The characters cannot influence or meet each other for the duration of the segment since they are restricted to their own area.
These segments are relatively short but are all unique and interesting in their own way. In the first segment, Whit decides to analyse the note, while Connie looks up information about the Meltsners on the internet. Eugene decides to look for clues among his parent's possessions. Some objectives are of the standard adventure gaming type, such as creating a device in the invention corner that lets a camera take pictures and transmit these back to Whit's End. Other tasks are more of the straightforward puzzling kind, such as deciphering an encoded message or using prisms to redirect beams of light. Some goals solely involve a character having a conversation with someone in a cutscene.
The graphics in Treasure of the Incas are an extension of the game's charming and pleasant character. Playing this game fills your screen with bright and vibrant cartoon-style graphics. When the protagonists are each working on their individual quests, the game takes on a first-person perspective with little need for animation. Dialogue is animated in a lively fashion – we get to see a lot of facial expression and all characters gesture with their hands. The voice acting is splendid; the show's usual voice actors are also featured in the game, and it is evident that they've got plenty of experience. TOTI's music is nice but nothing special, and sometimes becomes annoying during the objectives you spend more time on than others.
Treasure of the Incas is certainly designed for children and has a difficulty level to match. It is not possible to die or get stuck in a dead end. I can imagine a few puzzles being quite hard to complete for younger players, but no tasks are overly complicated. Playing the game as an adult didn't provide me with any trouble, yet I was never bored through the six or so hours it took me to finish. Completing each segment may be easy and not time consuming at all, but the challenges presented are appealing and overcoming them is satisfying. I had fun looking for clues in Eugene's note, and decoding one message required a certain degree of intelligence and reminded me of those Sudoku puzzles that are popular these days. The combination of this game being challenging for kids yet also enjoyable for adults makes Treasure of the Incas and ideal game for families to play and have fun with together.
As a bonus, there are optional tasks in TOTI that I didn't spend much time on but which are probably very enjoyable for kids. One involves the notepad, which automatically records all clues discovered by each character. Players can choose to assign clues to the various suspects in order to create an overview that helps children figure out who is responsible for threatening Eugene.
Another interesting optional activity concerns the invention corner, where you build the photo device mentioned above. Here there are numerous other inventions children can come up with just for fun. You can experiment with various sensors (light, heat, cold, motion) and connect these with various alarms or lights, which in turn can also influence other sensors or can be connected to a photo camera or cell phone. Alternatively, you can experiment how the sensors are influenced by turning off the light, holding coffee near a heat sensor or ice cubes near a cold sensor, for example. Had I played this game when I was ten years old, I probably would've spent a good deal of time creating devices in the invention corner.
With the invention corner a notable exception, the straightforward nature of the puzzles in each segment occasionally makes Treasure of the Incas too limiting for the player. Understandably, kids' games cannot be too complex. However, the price paid for simplifying the gameplay is that TOTI is often more like an interactive movie than a game.
As with difficulty, TOTI's plot is suitable for both children and adults. The story arc is that of a typical mystery/whodunit leading into an adventurous treasure hunt. The antagonist is responsible for stealing and kidnapping, while the protagonists do their best to figure out what is going on and discover a whole bunch of clues along the way, which ultimately leads them to where the treasure is located – and to the bad guy. Still, the mystery of what happened to Eugene's parents and what the roles of various people involved are remains secret and speculative until the very end. The story draws on some clichés and the plot twist is hardly spectacular or shocking, but I was still intrigued to learn the truth.
As a kid I loved watching DuckTales on TV. Replace Scrooge McDuck with Whit, and the nephews with Connie and Eugene, and you have an idea of the experience presented in Treasure of the Incas. However, as I mentioned earlier, one aspect of this game makes it different from others; the same feature that makes Adventures in Odyssey different from other shows and series: its emphasis on morality and ethical values.
From the game's opening splash screen, which reads, "Digital Praise: Glorifying God Through Interactive Media", it's clear the developers don't hide the fact that they are Christians. But I'll repeat that TOTI is not a Christian propaganda vehicle. In fact, I don't recall the words "Bible" or "Christ" being mentioned anywhere in the game. They have created this game with the intention of providing wholesome entertainment for children that allows them to have fun and to learn. Parents can be confident in the fact that this game contains no violence or foul language. Looking objectively at this game, I could judge it more as a game based on humanist values than Christian ones, which are actually very much the same. This allows TOTI to be enjoyed by religious and non-religious people alike.
What life lessons are there in Treasure of the Incas? This is partially explained on the back cover of the game's box: children will develop skills like logic, reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking, and the game's theme is "trust". As the game progresses and Eugene learns more about his parents, people who knew the Meltsners accentuate the fact that Eugene's parents were good and kind people. On the other hand, it is made clear why the antagonists are the bad guys, such as the one who is "ruled by greed".
An Adventures in Odyssey radio show is available on the game's CD, which I listened to in preparation for writing this review, and there are others available for download from the Whit's End website. These shows are much more strongly about Christianity than Treasure of the Incas. The stories are also about adventure, but more often about people struggling with the Christian way of life. While this theme is handled very well, it's not indicative of the approach in the game.
Treasure of the Incas is one of three currently released Adventures in Odyssey games, but the only one that could be considered a full-fledged adventure. The other titles are The Great Escape and The Sword of the Spirit. I briefly played the latter, which initially started out as an adventure game, but soon turned into a sequence of puzzles and arcade action mini-games, and Great Escape appears similar in style. For more information or to purchase any of the titles, you can find what you're looking for at the Digital Praise website.
The company behind the original Adventures in Odyssey is known as Focus on the Family, and I think Treasure of the Incas indeed stays true to that ideal. Not only is this game fun for people of all ages to play, parents can rely on the fact that their children are playing a harmless and educational game. To the adult adventure gamer, the game might appear too simple or limited, but never so flawed that it becomes a nuisance to play. In a time of both violent computer games and dangers of religious extremism, Adventures in Odyssey and the Treasure of the Incas stands out as a well-balanced and positive experience.