Mata Hari review
It’s the dawn of 20th century, La Belle Époque. Artists and poets, dancers and singers crowd the streets of Paris, the bistros, and the theaters. Among them walks Mata Hari, an exotic performer who has bewitched the whole city with her charm, her provocations, her sensuousness. Every man in Paris wants her, and every woman wants to be her. But they don’t know that, without the feathers and furs offstage, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle is a spy in the pay of the French military intelligence, and perhaps even a double-agent for the German government. While the world remains unaware of falling headlong toward a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, Mata Hari enchants the European elite with her tantalizing shows and steals secrets from her high-ranking lovers, politicians and military officers alike. No one can resist her.
After inspiring countless movies, books, documentaries and unbridled speculation, Mata Hari is now the star of her own adventure game. Fortunately, apart from a few questionable design decisions that hamper the experience somewhat, Mata herself is as charming as ever in this new adaptation of her life from none other than Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein, the creative minds behind what is arguably LucasArts’ most accomplished title, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
Rather than delving right into the story, I’ll begin with the unusual elements of Mata Hari, because for better or worse, these will inevitably affect players’ final impression of this game. Developed by Cranberry Productions, at first glance Mata Hari is a classic third-person adventure, presented in a luxuriant 2.5D format and controlled through a simple point-and-click interface. When mousing over a hotspot, the cursor changes if an object can be observed or picked up or a character spoken to. Through the whole game, Mata Hari is so tightly clad that she doesn’t run, but a simple double-click will immediately take her close to a selected object, or directly to another location. So far, everything is very traditional, but it won’t take long for the player to realize that the inventory – classic companion of every adventurer – is very different this time around, and its revamping brings some unforeseen consequences to the game.
At the bottom of the screen, the player will find not only the objects Mata is carrying (represented by green icons), but also topics (blue icons) that appear in conversation mode, and ideas (red icons). These ideas must be “realized” by turning them into objects or topics. This can be confusing, so I’ll give an example from the very first scene of the adventure. After her first stage performance, Mata attends a ball where she hopes to find an impresario. The room is filled with la crème dè la crème of Paris high society, and a bar is serving champagne and cocktails under a gilded gallery. Mata can talk to the waiter but when he asks if she would like a glass of wine, she politely declines. Then she meets Gabriel Astruc, one of Paris’ most famous impresarios, who is thirsty and refuses to speak to her without a drink in his hand. As soon as Astruc mentions his thirst, a red icon representing a cocktail is added to the inventory. Now Mata can talk to the bartender and thus “realize” this idea of a drink by asking him for an actual glass of champagne, which goes into her inventory as a green icon this time. Used often throughout the game, this process is interesting: it tries to avoid typical incongruences like picking up strange items even before the character knows what to do with these objects. Unfortunately, the execution is a bit clunky, and aside from a couple of occasions where the “ideas” are used in clever ways – like seducing wayward men or finding inspiration for new dances – most of the time it adds only another rather unnecessary step.
What’s most bewildering, though, is that while this system is obviously designed to avoid logical inconsistencies, logic seems to be totally optional in the puzzle design overall. Apart from a few nicely integrated dialogue-based puzzles – which can’t be failed because you’re later given another chance to get the conversation right if necessary – the puzzles are mostly inventory-based. In general they are quite easy and straightforward, but they often seem to defy rational thinking. For example, when Mata has to make a phone call, no matter where she is she must go to Berlin, since the only telephone available to her is there. This produces some laughable stretches, like the need to eavesdrop on a private conversation in Madrid. Mata has to take a train to Berlin, take the telephone receiver, take another train to Madrid, use the receiver on the junction box and voilà! After at least a week away, the same two men are still at the telephone, just waiting for Mata to listen in on their secrets.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a rarity: almost every action in the game requires constant travelling between distant cities, sometimes only to acquire an object that wasn’t previously available. Added to the “idea” system, this extensive backtracking sometimes becomes incredibly frustrating. At one point, Mata has to pose for a portrait. When I realized that, I traveled to the city where I knew there was a painter, only to discover that I didn’t have the portrait’s “idea” in my inventory. So I had to travel back to my starting point and search for something to click on for Mata to realize she needed a portrait of herself. Without exaggerating, thanks to this peculiar puzzle design throughout the game, by the time I finished I had visited Paris, Monaco, Berlin and Madrid literally hundred of times.
Moreover, the puzzles are usually few and far between because Mata Hari prefers to deal with many situations through a series of minigames. First of all, she is a dancer, so from time to time she must indeed dance, although never in a particularly erotic way. In these rhythm-based sequences, using the mouse the player has to “hit” moving notes exactly when they arrive at the center of certain onscreen circles. It may seem easy enough, but in reality these sequences require good hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, and if you, like me, are dreadful at this kind of action, they may turn out to be a real nightmare. Luckily, after a few seconds they can be skipped, so there is really nothing to worry about, although of course that strips out a fairly significant portion of the game’s designed activity.
Besides being a danseuse, Mata Hari is also a spy who must travel across Europe a lot to obtain vital information, and every time she steps on a train a new minigame begins. In this one, she must avoid other agents while moving from station to station on a detailed European map toward her destination. If she gets caught, the minigame simply restores from the beginning and the player is allowed to try as often as necessary, though each attempt lowers the final Ability score (more on this later). This task is similar to the old boardgame Scotland Yard, in which the goal is to reach your destination in a turn-based travel simulation. Here, during each turn Mata and the agents move one station and the player has to carefully plan Mata’s movements in order to be always one station ahead of her chasers. I found this activity engaging and challenging, especially in the later acts when the difficulty is really high. I can perfectly understand, though, that some players will be utterly bored by these segments since they’re repeated so often. Thankfully, some friendly spies cleverly placed around the various locations can teach Mata the names of safe trains that can’t be tracked by the enemy. So if you want to avoid this minigame, you simply have to ask the ticket office for these particular express trains to be immediately transported to the selected destination (again at the cost of Ability points). There are also environmental puzzles which require rearranging electrical circuits and phone lines, and some of them, especially near the end of the game, can be very difficult to solve.
The Ability score is actually just one of three different scores in Mata Hari, and these reminded me of the old Sierra titles Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow, because your final points in each category will influence the outcome of the adventure. The Ability score is influenced by how many tries were required to beat the various minigames, and the Money Score depends on how many successful dances Mata performs during the game. However, the Espionage Score is without a doubt the most interesting of the three. The whole adventure is filled with optional activities, such as eavesdropping on conversations, picking up secret projects, and obtaining additional information from the other characters, and not all of them are available in a single game. Even after my second playthrough, I had still only found some of them. While not a necessary addition, I found these tasks furthered the depth of the setting, adding a lot of little details that made the whole experience more rewarding and believable. Before the ending, Mata will comment on her results in each category, giving hints on how to enhance her future performances, thus providing good incentive to replay the game.
Despite some of the weaker gameplay issues, I surely did feel the urge to replay the game right after my first time through. One of the reasons is that Mata Hari is visually splendid. Each city has its own particular atmosphere and all of them are colorful and vividly animated: the clouds move through the sky behind planes and balloons; leafy green branches waver in the wind and the streets are full of passers-by, workers and street performers. Even the lighting feels real and vivid: in Berlin, a dim sun beams through the dusty windows of the Spandau station; in Madrid, a plaza glows under a bright noonday sun, and in Paris a balcony facing the illuminated Eiffel Tower is an awe-inspiring view. And then there are the dresses, so meticulously detailed and historically accurate, the stylish hairdos, and the fashion accessories like fans and umbrellas, parasols and crinolines. The graphic design is really a feast for the eyes, and even if Mata’s dancing moves are a bit stiff, I was mesmerized by the rich drapes of the theater, the sparkling, colored footlights, the baroque outfits and the incredible music.
Indeed, Mata Hari’s orchestration is wonderful. At the beginning of the game, the music resembles the light, cheerful motif of a vaudeville, but as the game progresses and the war draws nearer, it becomes more looming and dark. Emotionally involving when the piano accompanies Mata’s travels, eerie and menacing when the drums underline her spy activities, the theme heard when Mata is with her love interest (I can’t give away who he is) is simply magnetic, with quivering harps and passionate violins. Sound effects are equally top-notch: from footsteps to theater applause, from the gently flowing fountain to the subtle bubbling of the alembics, they all help set an incredible mood in each location. The voices are the perfect icing on the cake. Each character is strikingly portrayed and every tone is believable, every inflection properly balanced. At the beginning of the game, I had some doubts about Mata’s voice, which sounded too mature for the character, but as the game progressed through the years and the character herself grew more confident, I eventually had to admit that the voice was perfectly cast.
I still haven’t mentioned anything about the story. That’s been a conscious choice, because the plot of the game is unquestionably its strongest point, but also the one I can reveal the least about. The real Mata Hari’s fate is public knowledge, as is the tragic destiny that awaited the whole world in 1914. Yet Barwood and Falstein have managed to craft a story that’s both surprising in its developments (all the way to a thrilling conclusion) and emotionally enthralling. Without spoiling important details, it’s enough to say that Mata Hari finds herself entangled in a vast conspiracy and plays a pivotal role on Europe’s political chessboards. The Germans are looking forward to World War I and the British are afraid of the technology they are developing, while the French are desperately looking for allies. Everyone has a secret agenda: one intends to hasten the war’s onset, another person is trying to take personal advantage of the situation, and someone else is simply working to avoid the tragedy altogether. Each character has favors to ask of Mata, and as the game’s four chapters develop, we get a chance to see an idealistic, even naïve woman harden, become stronger and disenchanted. After a succession of mild, uninteresting protagonists in the genre of late, the multi-faceted, struggling Mata is a welcomed breath of fresh air. Better yet, Barwood and Falstein have provided an amazing script, full of wit and pathos, light moments and tragic twists, extremely detailed from a historical perspective and absolutely brilliant when dealing with characters’ development.
To be sure, Mata Hari won’t appeal to everyone: fans of puzzle-driven adventures won’t find much of anything in this title to appease their tastes, and the reliance on minigames might drive away some old-school adventurers. Many will find themselves bewildered by the lack of logic in certain puzzles and others will find the dialogues too long and the inventory system overly cumbersome. Nevertheless, while I won’t pretend these flaws are non-existent, I can’t help but recommend this title to any fan of story-driven adventures. If you like mysteries with just a bit of conspiracy in a thoroughly detailed historical setting, Mata Hari is the right adventure for you. It will take you back to one of Europe’s most splendid periods, and then catapult you toward the dark times of World War I, all the while tightly gripping your attention thanks to one of the most beautiful, compelling atmospheres I’ve had the pleasure to experience in a very long time.
It’s quite light on gameplay and perhaps too reliant on repetitive minigames, but the star herself is a fascinating protagonist, and fans of story-driven adventures will like the detailed background, brilliant writing and surprising plot Mata Hari has to offer.