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.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Mata Hari
Posted by MoonBird on May 19, 2012
Good example of studio's potential, and quite a good game all around
A few years back, when Black Mirror was published, I thought in my little mind that the computer game graphics would not be able to get any better. Bless me, I was so wrong. Cranberry productions provides us with a game, including so high graphics quality,...