With sequels, the question that usually comes to mind is "why?" Further cash-in of a profitable series? A showcase of a game studio's new technology? Or a genuine effort to continue and improve on the first installment? Perhaps with any sequel the answer is a little bit of each, but thankfully with Tsunami's Return to Ringworld, it is mostly the third. The first game, Ringworld: Revenge of the Patriarch, was a touch-and-go affair. While the story and dialogue were excellent, there was little cohesion between the story and gameplay. Lengthy stretches of cutscenes advanced the plot, interspersed with the occasional gameplay section. This left the player feeling more like a movie-goer than an active participant. With this second installment, Tsunami managed to hit their stride, retaining the strengths of the first game and crafting more of a playable experience, though not an entirely successful one.
The game takes place in science fiction author Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe, and picks up directly from the events of Ringworld. In the first, the explorer Quinn and his two companions Miranda, a human engineer, and Seeker, a Kzin (a cat-like humanoid race), uncover a plot by the Kzin Patriarch to destroy the Puppeteers' home worlds as retaliation for the Puppeteers' role in shaping the outcome of the Human-Kzin wars in favor of the humans. Stealing the Hyperdrive II, the fastest spaceship in the universe, the three travel to Ringworld and discover technology that help them to destroy the Patriarch's warship before it can lay waste to the Puppeteer worlds. However, instead of being hailed as heroes, they are branded as terrorists for this act. Return to Ringworld begins with our heros fleeing back to Ringworld, in hopes of finding evidence to clear their names. Upon arriving, they discover a new menace in the form of a power-hungry ARM (Amalgamated Regional Militia) military general named Teal who wants to unravel the secrets of Ringworld for his own devices.
Ringworld itself is a huge, ring-like artificial ecosystem, built by an ancient race, possibly as some sort of biological experiment. It possesses the climate, geography, and organic life of any Earth-like planet, and is home to thousands of primitive civilizations. It is within this rich and interesting setting that Tsunami tell their story. And as with the first game, the story really is the standout element of Return to Ringworld. The plot is nicely paced and is supported by a smart and well written script, with good doses of humor here and there. The main characters are better fleshed out this time around, and there are also more non-player characters to interact with, though they don't play any major roles in the game. Teal, the main villain (a dead ringer for Duke Nukem), starts out quite promisingly, but unfortunately becomes just another cartoon villain. Nevertheless, the mystery of ARM's presence on Ringworld, as well as a few interesting plot twists, do more than enough to keep the player interested.
The interface is similar to the first game, with a pop-up menu accessed by the right mouse button that gives access to options like look, use, and talk. The inventory, which used to be part of this menu, is now at the bottom of the screen. It does allow for easier access, but the fact that there are only four visible slots means there is a lot of scrolling necessary when the items start to accumulate. Another annoyance is that once used, objects remain in the inventory. This results in a large inventory of useless items that just sit at the bottom of the screen.
Players disappointed with the lack of gameplay of Ringworld can rejoice, as it is much increased this time around, though perhaps not as much improved as it could have been. The puzzles are a mixture of different types. There are of course the standard inventory-based puzzles, most of which are pretty easy. However, some are quite obscure, with solutions that require the player to understand what a "programmable sensor probe" and other such devices do without actually telling. The inventory puzzles pretty much cease to exist after the first third of the game, and are replaced by mazes. Lots of mazes. Don't get me wrong, I love mazes, but not an entire game full of them. Some are well-conceived, such as exploring a space ledge looking for parts to make an escape vehicle, or flying a hot air balloon over mountains. Others however, such as crawling through a ventilation system, become chore-like and tiresome very quickly, and kill any momentum the story may have built up. Given that the characters cannot run, and there is no way to move the character to the next screen instantly, there is a lot of walking to be done. Fortunately, one can exploit a glitch in the game by clicking the mouse rapidly on a location, which gives the characters a burst of speed. Another shortcoming is that there are no hints or cues as to the player's progress, such as Quinn making a comment if the player is straying away from the goal. Without such aid, some of the sequences become little more than trial and error exercises. Nevertheless, these exploratory sequences make imaginative use of Ringworld technology and locales. They also help to bring the scale and scope of Ringworld to life, a task that the first game did not accomplish.
Another notable gameplay feature is the ability to use multiple characters. In addition to Quinn, the player can switch to Miranda or Seeker at any time. When travelling together, your companions will follow the playable current character. If the plot demands that you separate, each character will remain in position while you control one of the others. There are a few instances where you'll need to do this to complete a task, though it is not always clear when it needs to be done. For example, there is a point in the game where you must switch to Seeker and have him complete a quest before the game can progress. However there is no indication that such a quest had become available, and available specifically to Seeker. Though a good idea, the multiple characters concept seems sloppily implemented and is not tapped to its full potential.
The graphics this time around are more streamlined. The game still uses a third-person perspective with the standard VGA presentation, but compared to the first game, Return to Ringworld features a more subdued color palette with less scenery detail. The portraits that appeared when characters talked to each other in the original have also been removed. These simplified elements give the game a sleeker and more distinct look. Other times, one wonders if the designers were simply cutting corners. In particular, many of the exploration sequences and mazes involve screen after screen of the same piece of terrain, with little to no graphical variation. The graphics also feel quite flat, mostly due to an over-reliance on identical side views for all of the backgrounds. Visually, after awhile it actually feels like you're playing a side-scroller rather than an adventure. The game also features early use of 3D animation for cutscenes. Some of them work, most notably the space animations involving the Hyperdrive II and Ringworld, but the rest are just too lacking in detail to be convincing.
Thankfully, Return to Ringworld features voice acting, and what a difference it makes! This was a glaring absence in the first game, especially since there was so much dialogue. Its presence here helps to elevate the excellent dialogue to another level. Quinn is given a clean British accent, sounding more like a preschool teacher than an adventurer, but strangely enough it suits his hero character. Seeker is suitably tiger-like and gruff. The actress who plays Miranda is a bit too abrasive, however, and becomes annoying after a while. The Michael Dorn-like narrator is the best of the lot; dry observations during such tasks as looking at a bit of technology sound hilarious with his matter-of-fact enunciations. A shortcut the script writers seemed to have taken was to recycle some of the conversations between the main characters. As Quinn, you might have a certain conversation with Seeker. If you switch to Seeker and have him talk to Quinn, the exact same conversation unfolds, but with the roles reversed. Though probably a minor oversight, it does unfortunately break some of the credibility of the multiple character system. The music is the typical midi soundtrack one can expect of the time. It does its job, but none of the tunes are particularly memorable.
On the technical side, Return to Ringworld ran with no bugs or crashes on a PC with Windows XP, using the latest version of DOSBox. There were occasional slow-downs and skips, but these were tweakable via the DOSBox settings.
In the end, Return to Ringworld seems like a game only brought halfway to its potential. The gameplay is deeper, more interesting, and better integrated than the first game, but the difficulty level is inconsistent and many puzzle solutions require trial and error rather than logic, while the overuse of maze and exploration sequences may deter all but the most persistent players. Despite its shortcomings, however, Return to Ringworld rewards with a strong sci-fi story that makes good use of its source material, and the addition of voice acting is an important improvement over the original. Unfortunately, being the last game in the series, it never got a chance to develop more fully. Still, it's a solid addition to the sci-fi adventure genre that is worth a look.