When I reviewed Adventures in Odyssey and the Treasure of the Incas earlier this year, many were surprised that it was deserving of such lofty praise. Apparently, the general consensus was that "Christian" games are usually mediocre at best. And while that's an unfair stereotype, now that I've played Isles of Derek, I must admit that I'm beginning to understand where such an assumption comes from.
A first-person slideshow game in the style of Myst, Isles of Derek is an updated version of an earlier game titled Derek, from independent developer Virtue Games. The premise of the game, in which you might recognize parallels to some periods in human history, is a fairly interesting one, though rather poorly developed here. The islands of Derek are inhabited by a people known as the Matteh. We are told that these Matteh are deeply religious, and have long followed the "true Word of God". Then another people, the Dalaq, took over. The ways of the Dalaq are evil, and they took away the Bibles from the Matteh. The Dalaq then created a false religion, complete with false Bibles written in a language the Matteh cannot read or understand.
We learn these facts at the outset from a man on a ship who (like the other few characters in Derek) remains nameless. The player coincidentally runs into this captain after escaping from a monastery of the evil Dalaq early in the game. Luckily, the friendly captain knows precisely what needs to be done in order to save the Matteh from their grim predicament of religious suppression. When the evil Dalaq conquered the Matteh centuries ago, a group of fanatic Matteh chose to flee their lands in order not to have to compromise their faith. These Matteh became known as the Qadas, and with them they took the Bibles written in the Matteh language. The captain reasons that if the Qadas are to be found and a copy of their Bible can be obtained, the Holy Scripture can once again be distributed among the Matteh, which will finally earn them their precious freedom. Of course, there is but one person who can succeed at this quest, and I think you can guess who this is. It isn't clear how the return of the Bible would help the Matteh with the Dalaq still forcibly in charge, or why the captain can't translate his own Bible for the Matteh. But the basic premise is adequate for setting up the player's task, if not altogether convincing.
The captain's outline covers just about all there is to Derek's plot, as the game follows the standard pattern of puzzle-driven adventure games: a background story is provided early on and the rest of the game is focused on solving puzzles. The plot isn't really developed and we do not get to know any characters other than in a few very brief conversations. Some might find this disappointing, but usually such games make up for their lack of plot and interaction by challenging the player with intelligently conceived puzzles. Sadly, Isles of Derek runs short here as well.
A handful of Derek's challenges are traditional inventory-based puzzles, albeit rather simple ones, like placing a wooden board over a gap to walk across. The lion's share of the obstacles, however, consists of unique Bible-related puzzles. These are the driving force behind Isles of Derek, and you'll be spending most game-time working on them.
The first of these concerns a locked door which can only be opened by using a strange locking mechanism that consists of a lever that allows you to scroll through various images of animals. On a wall near the door is a plaque that reads "Matthew 26:34". The intention is that you actually take your Bible and look up what this passage says. This way, the Bible will provide the vital clue you need to progress the game. Sure enough, the verse in question reveals the appropriate animal to proceed.
The concept of using an external resource is interesting, but there are a few major issues with their implementaion here. The first is the lack of variety. All Bible puzzles are basically variations of the example given above, where an excerpt from the Bible provides a hint to what action needs to be performed. The correct solution allows you to advance your journey. Over the course of the entire game, this simple formulae of "Look in Bible. Solve puzzle. Enter new Area. Look for next puzzle, etc." tends to get rather tedious and repetitive.
A second concern is the lack of believability. It may just be a matter of taste, but this sort of endless series of overly extravagant contraptions are the kinds of unrealistic challenges that detract from my gaming experience. The fact that the puzzles are neither plausible nor believable makes it impossible for me to immerse myself in the game and its world.
I also can't help but wonder what the designer's goal was when they conceived the idea for the Bible puzzles. I figure the objective was to make Derek a learning experience, expanding the gamer's knowledge of the Bible. It is made clear in the game that the Bible is "the true source of light" and that "you will never lose your way in the storms of life" if you follow its counsel. However, instead of consolidating the Bible's position as the ultimate source of truth, instead it is limited to being a riddle book. The spiritual message is removed, leaving only loose excerpts that provide hints and clues to the gamer. Derek puts the focus on the wording of the message, but not on what the message actually has to say. Meaning and relevance are traded for the triviality and insignificance of an excessive obstacle course.
As a result of these criticisms, Isles of Derek can't maintain its momentum as a puzzle game or as one that says something meaningful about religion and the Bible, though the latter is not so much a failure as a lost opportunity. Yet do these factors make Derek a bad game completely? Not at all.
One of Derek's finer qualities is its graphics. The pre-rendered 3D backgrounds look good, though not stunningly good, and I was impressed with the quality of the animations, like riding down a rail in a mine cart or elevators moving up and down. Although there aren't very many of these cutscenes, they help to bring the otherwise still backgrounds to life. One complaint here is about the darkness in night scenes and un-illuminated rooms. I don't enjoy having to adjust my monitor's brightness settings because I can't see a thing on screen.
The use of full motion video (FMV) also impressed me. Like the 3D cutscenes, they occur only so often, but they successfully manage to portray the few people you encounter in Derek. The FMV characters are realistically integrated in the 3D backgrounds, and the actors are dressed in a kind of medieval fashion, which adds to the game's atmosphere. The acting is done convincingly (especially that of the ship's captain), though the written dialogue itself is less convincing. The music is charming, except for the darker pieces which don't really succeed at generating a threatening ambience.
A hint system is available, designed to guide inexperienced gamers step by step through the game. If there is a hint available, a box appears onscreen which the player can click to reveal the hint, ensuring the game won't be spoiled unnecessarily. Since Derek isn't a very difficult game (experienced players should be able to finish it in a matter of hours), these hints aren't really necessary. However, the puzzles can sometimes be rather obscure, in which case the hint system can help you clarify your goal.
Other nice extras include a "making of" interview with the game's designer, and a short but funny movie that explains the usage of the "magic" adventure game bag that can hold so many large items.
Ultimately, Isles of Derek fails to live up to its potential in the important plot and puzzle sections, but there are positive qualities that people with specific interests might find redeeming. The concept itself is intriguing, so if you are eager to play a game in which the Bible plays a crucial part or think you might just enjoy an alternative type of puzzles for a change, you might want to give this game a try. If you are looking for an engaging adventure game or curious to learn what Christianity is about, however, Isles of Derek is best avoided.