The Secrets of Atlantis review
When describing The Secrets of Atlantis the other day, I said it was like Grim Fandango without the comedy (or the Mexican folklore). This is high praise, as the LucasArts classic is considered one of the best adventures of all time, but there are a surprising number of similarities between the two games: among other things, both have a 1930s noir atmosphere and star femme fatales, misguided compatriots, and smarmy bad guys. But Secrets of Atlantis also has a fair bit in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the main character being something of homage to Indiana Jones, a fact the game alludes to in a few tongue-in-cheek comments throughout the game. Such similarities do leave the game feeling a bit clichéd, and the sometimes-lacklustre array of puzzles keeps it from being in the same league as Grim Fandango, but even so, this is without a doubt the best game I have played in recent memory.
Atlantis is no wallflower of the adventure genre. She has been taken out for a spin many, many times in the past, sometimes with positive results like in Journeyman Project 3, and sometimes not so favourably, such as the developer's last outing, Atlantis Evolution. And while Atlantis Interactive has gotten the mix just about right this time, there is still a feeling of been there, done that about the premise. Fortunately, the lack of originality doesn't sink what is otherwise a very full, interesting storyline that's nicely complemented with fascinating characters, great dialogue, and beautiful environments to explore.
There are evil brigands on the loose in Secrets of Atlantis, known as the Thule Society, and not surprisingly, they are trying to get their wicked hands on a powerful ancient object. This would be the same Thule Society from Black Dahlia or the Hellboy movie. You know these guys: work for Hitler, yearn for world destruction, put their elbows on the table at supper. Now, this game doesn't actually say they are working for Hitler, but any other time I have come into contact with these baddies, the trail has always lead to the Führer. And given the setting here and the fact that Secrets of Atlantis seems poised for a possible sequel, I am going to go out on a limb here and predict the next game will include Nazis. But for now, all we know is that our hero, an engineer named Howard Brooks, finds himself embroiled in some sort of trouble when he is attacked while travelling back to America aboard the Hindenburg.
Howard soon learns that he is the heir to a medallion that may or may not be the key to finding the lost city of Atlantis. Naturally, such a discovery causes Howard to seek out the fabled land himself. With the help of the powerful and shadowy Mr. Foster, Howard is given the medallion, some advice on where to start his search, and all the resources Foster can bring to bear. Foster's true motivations are never revealed, but he only appears for a short time in the game, so I suspect his intentions will become clearer in a future game. We do see a lot of Kate Sullivan, a knowledgeable archaeologist, and Cornel Blackwood, a retired officer and veteran of WWI who knew Brooks' father. With these fellow travellers in tow, Howard sets out to find the lost city on a quest that will take him from New York to Macao, India, and Mesopotamia.
Atlantis Interactive has done a wonderful job of giving each character a distinct personality, along with their own unique look. Rather than using just a handful of models and making only small superficial alterations, characters here all have unique models, giving each person their own individual facial characteristics. This distinctiveness is further added to by the well-conceived and nuanced voice work done for each. I was really impressed with how well the dialogue flows and the conversations are spoken. The translation is excellent, showing a healthy understanding of English grammar, and the voiceovers nicely capture the idiosyncrasies of the spoken language. The accents are believable and the dialogue meshes naturally with what's happening in the game. Even the slang used works flawlessly. The dialogue trees seem to make sense no matter which order you choose to explore them. I often find that dialogue options aren't updated to reflect current information, but I didn't encounter this problem anywhere in Secrets of Atlantis. This is important in a game with upwards of fifteen different characters to interact with throughout the game, each providing a mountain of information.
The characters aren't the only aspect to benefit from good design. Almost every environment in the game is wonderful to look at, with lots of colour and vast historical buildings and objects. The Empire State Building in particular is awesome in its detail. The building was actually designed with a zeppelin dock in real life, as the architects at the time believed blimps would one day become the favoured form of travel, at least until the Hindenburg burnt up. The Empire State Building here is recreated in all its opulent glory, a symbol of decadence that stands in sharp contrast to the Depression-era reality of the world around it. For instance, the mysterious Mr. Foster's office alone takes up a whole floor. One does not even want to think of what sort of rent he is paying for that square footage. However, it is just one of the many lavish environments in the game, including a giant in-floor aquarium, which I am now convinced I need.
Art Deco gave the 1930s a very particular look which most people recognize and relate to the era, making it a fantastic period to recreate graphically. And the game designers attacked it with gusto for spectacular results. On top of this, there are numerous little graphic design touches I enjoyed. As you move through the game, you'll glimpse people walking through hallways and across walkways or working on boats, while water moves and paper snaps from an air filtration system. A great deal of work went into these little details, but I can't overstate the level of quality they bring to the game's visual design.
Each environment is also designed with its own unique soundtrack. The music is looped, but the tracks are of sufficient length that you won't tire of them if you don't get stuck on any one puzzle too long. Each track brings a feeling of intensity to the tasks at hand. For example, in Macao, one puzzle has to be completed without the bouncer of a gambling junk boat noticing. Whenever the music built close to its crescendo, I knew it was time to change tactics to elude his gaze. Also woven into the aural mix is a large number of ambient sounds that serve the game well.
Sadly, there is a certain malaise to the puzzles in the game. There are no Myst-level brain teasers in the game, but while they are not extremely difficult, they are not particularly clever, either. They fit into the environment and the story, but they display a feeling of apathy, like a student who hands in a "C" paper when you know they are capable of an "A". While a number are fun to work out, there is just nothing new here: a couple of sliders, a few push-pull and mixing challenges. The vast majority simply require perseverance, as given enough time you will eventually figure them out, rather than requiring more sleuthing through the game or analyzing information you've learned. One puzzle in particular really got me frustrated. While opening a safe, the visual design makes it impossible to see all the hands you're moving, forcing you to constantly pan up to see properly, which made me feel like I was getting a virtual neck strain. My favourite activity was a game of Texas Hold'em. Being a poker neophyte, I had no idea how to play, but after the game I was inspired to learn how to play in real life. The game does have an inventory and you'll collect items throughout your travels. When you can use one, an icon shows up on a person or object indicating an item is needed, then it is up to you to figure out which. Multiple objects can also be combined in inventory. Be aware that you can die in the game. I did so, often. Luckily, the game automatically resets to right before the puzzle, but a number are random and will reset in a new pattern for your reincarnation. I saved before each puzzle and avoided some serious frustration.
The first-person graphics allow for 360-degree panning, and you will use it frequently as there is so much interesting stuff to look at as you move node to node throughout the game. I was a little sad that you couldn't always zoom in to inspect objects, but you can't have everything. The point-and-click interface is familiar and intuitive. A pair of feet indicates which direction you can move at any given time, which is nice, as it cuts down on aimless wandering, which I have been know to indulge in from time to time. The pointer changes to indicate when an object can be picked up or used, and to signal that you can interact with a character. The inventory is accessed with a simple right-click, and option menus are just a keystroke away.
While Atlantis isn't exactly a new premise for adventure gamers, the lovely depiction of seldom-used 1930s settings and the game's rich storyline saves The Secrets of Atlantis from being just another first-person adventure clone. The many characters, each with a unique look and personality, are established nicely throughout the game and really help to develop the multiple layers of the story. The puzzles don't break any new ground, but they're tried and true, and better yet, they're nicely integrated into the plot, appearing like they were meant to be there as a natural part of the adventure. All this adds up to a very entertaining game that I think is well worth purchasing and playing, and with an ending that appears to indicate a sequel on the horizon, this is the first time in a long time I can say that I would welcome another excursion in pursuit of Atlantis.