Adventure Gamers Awards
I didn’t really know what to expect from Adam’s Venture: The Search for the Lost Garden going in, but any doubts I had about its it religious orientation were somewhat dispelled around the time the intro mentioned a greedy corporation interested in finding Eden because it was full of gold (I don’t remember the Book of Genesis mentioning that, but I’ll work with it). Whatever uncertainty still remained took about two minutes longer to disappear, as the first puzzle in the game is to rearrange three parts of a biblical quote to open a door. Very subtle.
Religious games have a rocky history in the industry, with many previous attempts ranging from poorly made to simply misguided. The lack of success is not because the message and the medium are incompatible, but simply because they just haven’t been very good so far. Dutch developer Vertigo Games is hoping to address that imbalance with the episodic debut of Adam’s Venture.
Does this game buck the trend? Not entirely. While The Search for the Lost Garden isn’t bad, there’s really nothing that stands out about it, other than its refreshingly modern graphics and integral physical element. The game is an adventure that controls more like an action game than a traditional genre title, but features no violence and very little challenging platforming. Rather, gameplay centers around a series of puzzles strung together with simple but enjoyable sequences of climbing, crawling, and jumping. Anyone concerned about similarities to Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia can rest assured that this game was designed with more relaxed gameplay in mind.
Despite its milder focus, Adam is capable of a wide variety of actions, such as shimmying across ledges, jumping from ladders, crawling on his stomach, and so on. Many of these moves are only needed once or twice, but their inclusion helps make the physical game world come to life. Adam’s Venture is controlled entirely with the keyboard (full gamepad support is disappointingly absent), which takes some getting used to, as many jumps and narrow walkways require a gentler touch than the arrow keys can reliably provide. Death is rarely a consequence, mind you, as invisible barriers usually prevent it, and if you do perish, you simply start over immediately at a point nearby. Those averse to “twitch-based” gameplay don’t have much to worry about, as tricky maneuvering is kept to an absolute minimum.
This game is the first chapter of a planned ongoing episodic series centering on the exploits of the aptly named Adam Venture, intrepid explorer. After uncovering the journal of one Charles L’Heureux, Adam is able to track down the location of a system of caves that ostensibly leads to the titular lost Garden of Eden. After securing funding for the expedition, Adam, his girlfriend Evelyn (get it? Adam and Evelyn?), and the stunningly mustachioed Professor Saint-Omair from the not-at-all diabolical Clairvaux Corporation enter the caves and begin making their way toward Paradise.
That information is relayed in much the same fashion that I just told you – a succinct scrawl of text gives you the basic details before the game dumps you right into the caves. And... that’s about as much story as you’ll get. Other than a couple of extremely brief conversations, the game is very light on plot, and even lighter on character development. Adam goes exploring and is generally kind of arrogant about it, Evelyn worries and talks over the radio when signal stength allows, and the Professor yells. The plot disappears for the meat of the game, and after a brief climax, players are treated to an even briefer ending cutscene. Even for a game that lasts little more than two hours, the story is threadbare. It’s also strangely full of holes. There are times when Evelyn, who remains back at the base camp, knows things about your current situation that you have never mentioned. Hopefully later episodes will take more time to get you to care about what’s going on, or at the very least to like the characters, because as it stands, I was woefully uninterested in anything that was going on between them.
Another major weakness is the utter lack of originality in the story. Adam is one of countless Indiana Jones clones, the increasingly tiresome Knights Templar play a role in the proceedings, and the game even features a black smoke monster that will be instantly familiar to fans of the TV series Lost. There are literally no original elements in the game. That wouldn’t be so bad if the story was a creative take on old archetypes and clichés... but it’s not. Again, that doesn’t make what’s offered anything terrible, just nothing of notable interest, either.
Maybe the story was weak because the developers were concentrating on the game’s graphics, which are a genuine treat. By using the tried and true Unreal 3 Engine, which is usually reserved for big-budget action games, Vertigo Games had at their disposal quite a bag of tricks. The game is done in real-time 3D, with crisp textures and beautifully modeled rock formations that look simultaneously realistic and fantastical. The lighting goes above and beyond what it typically seen in modern adventure games, leading to some very convincing atmospheric moments where the player is alone in dark caverns with only his torch to light the way. Shadows twist and warp, water refracts light, and the damp rocks glisten in firelight.
The game does fall prey to some of the temptations of other Unreal Engine games: the game is drenched in bloom lighting to the point that it can be difficult to discern details, and everything is overlaid with an entirely unnecessary “film grain” filter that was likely intended to make the game seem grittier, but succeeds only in making some areas look blotchy and colorless. These were trends over the last few years seen in dozens of 3D action titles, both major and minor, but the industry in general has moved on. Adam’s Venture has not.
Adam and company look great when they aren’t talking. The character models are detailed and attractive, with one major exception being the Professor’s mustache, which looks like a piece of white silly putty that has been molded and glued to his face. Adam, who is the lone character onscreen for 90% of the game, is well animated as he runs around, crouches, and leaps from ridge to ridge. His motions are full of nice little touches, such as when he removes and clutches his hat while crouching under low, claustrophobic ceilings. It’s obvious the developers took the time to get his movements right.
Unfortunately, as soon as the characters open their mouths, things aren’t so pretty. Models have a dead-eyed stare during cutscenes that becomes distracting and even disturbing, especially when paired with robotic head movements. It doesn’t help that the voice acting ranges from merely okay to truly dreadful. It’s painfully awkward when Adam sets off on his adventure by decreeing “I am Adam Venture, danger trembles before my name!” in a whiny, unconvincing voice. It’s clear that the voice track was not high on the priority list. Thankfully, the soundtrack fares much better, with a suitably epic, mystical quality. There’s nothing that’s going to get stuck in your head for days, but it’s very well done and supports the atmosphere perfectly.
The puzzles in the game, while suitable for children or inexperienced adventurers, are a mixed bag overall. Obstacles are arranged in a totally linear fashion, as there is no room for straying from the predetermined path, even a little. Each area has precisely one entrance and one exit, and you will almost never have reason to backtrack or do anything other than move on to the next room, which is disappointing in a game that has environments that beg to be explored. The pattern never varies much from puzzle – linear platforming sequence – puzzle – linear platforming sequence, and so on. You’ll never get lost… but you’ll never feel the rush of discovery or thrill of the unknown either.
Most puzzle sequences begin with the word task I mentioned earlier. Players must put three phrases in the correct order to complete a quote from the Bible. That’s the whole challenge, and these comprise about half the puzzles in the game. The other half is a combination of logic, timing, and sequencing puzzles that start out incredibly easy and ramp up in difficulty toward the end of the game. A few are satisfying, such as a puzzle that involves using a clue from the bible quote you just completed, but most are simply too easy or too arbitrary, like when you have to place three pedestals over three holes with no indication as to which hole is correct. Taken as a whole, anyone over the age of thirteen or so will likely find the puzzles quite simplistic, at least until the game’s final multi-part obstacle.
At least part of the reason so many religious-themed games have been poorly made is a design philosophy that prioritizes the message over proper integration. While I have no issue with the message itself, my biggest problem with its presence in Adam’s Venture is that, while it is ostensibly meant to instill and reinforce Judeo-Christian values, it does little more than throw Bible quotes at the player and call it a day. Other than a single puzzle cribbed from Indiana Jones – remember the “Leap of Faith” scene in The Last Crusade? – the gameplay and the message are entirely unrelated. It seems to me there is a lot of potential for a game like this to challenge players to make choices that reinforce the teachings it supports. I’m reminded of a Bible camp I attended in elementary school that taught the Bible simply by making you memorize quotes, rather than talking about why they are relevant or how to apply them. That approach may work in some cases, but here it feels forced and ineffective.
Still, in the end, The Search for the Lost Garden is certainly playable for the short time that it lasts, and despite some rough areas, should be enjoyable enough for those looking for a bite-sized change from traditional point-and-click adventures. Its “action” won’t overwhelm anyone but the least dexterous, keyboard-hating adventure gamers, and Adam’s Venture looks great (with a few minor exceptions), plays well, and has a non-violent message that certainly has its heart in the right place, even if it comes off as somewhat shallow and obvious. There’s definitely room to grow, and a lot of potential for later episodes. Vertigo has nailed the look and feel of the series already, so let’s hope that next time they give us puzzles that challenge and a story to actually care about.