Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life review
I'd love to see Sylvie Leroux's passport. First she got to travel all over the Mediterranean in the first Chronicles of Mystery game, The Scorpio Ritual, while investigating her uncle's mysterious disappearance. Her latest outing, The Tree of Life, kicks off in Brittany, France, where Sylvie has been hired to pick up the work of another archeologist who recently died under suspicious circumstances. Her discoveries there will lead her to Venice, then Egypt, then Gibraltar, and finally an under-the-radar Central American island in search of the secret to eternal life. An ambitious itinerary, to be sure, but unfortunately the journey doesn't quite live up to the promise of its destinations.
Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life is a typical adventure game in many senses. Epic adventure with a diverse selection of locations? Yep. Ancient conspiracy with modern-day ramifications? Uh-huh. Point-and-click, lots of dialogue? Check and check. Plenty of inventory items to pick up and use? Yes--so many, in fact, you'll be marveling at the size of this woman's pockets. Sounds like an adventure gamer's dream, doesn't it? When I first started playing The Tree of Life, I thought so. This is obviously a game made on a budget, but at first glance it seems to have all the elements that an adventure needs to be pretty good, if not great. However, as I played on, some major flaws emerged--one of the biggest being the story itself.
Sylvie's predecessor at the Brittany museum had been investigating an old chest once owned by Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer who reportedly searched for the Fountain of Youth during his discovery of Florida. Sylvie's first order of business is to open the chest and analyze its contents, which include a map that just might reveal the location of the legendary landmark.
When it comes to ancient conspiracies, adventure games have trod very familiar ground over the years (Knights Templar, anyone?), but this is the first dramatic game I've played to deal with the Fountain of Youth, and for that reason alone I was intrigued by the premise. Sadly, the mystery never really fulfills its early potential. Instead, it becomes increasingly convoluted as Sylvie hits each stop in her travels. In fact, now that I've finished the game, I'm confused about how the Brittany section relates to the rest of the story at all. Characters and subplots that seem like they will be important never resurface, and Sylvie walks away from her new job with seemingly no regrets.
After the early scenario in France, Sylvie heads to Venice for a prior engagement--a lecture she's giving on the subject of her recent book, The Scorpio Ritual. (See what they did there? Very Gabriel Knight.) Conveniently, a creepy antiques collector named Count Saint-Germain, who knows something about Ponce de León's chest, is in Venice and wants to meet with Sylvie. The Count asks her to help him track down artifacts related to the chest and the Mary Celeste, a 19th century ship whose crew unsuccessfully attempted to retrace the explorer's steps. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Sylvie agrees to help him.
The pair are under a bit of pressure to find what they're looking for, however. Murders are occurring at the hands of a trio of masked assassins, and Sylvie and the Count may be next. Oh, and the Count has some serious health problems, including a convenient case of amnesia, that he's desperate to find a cure for. But as the story unfolds, the tension I would expect these elements to generate is largely absent, which made it difficult for me to really understand Sylvie's behavior or sympathize with her circumstances. It doesn't help that Sylvie makes completely illogical choices. She suspects the Count may be involved in some sketchy business, plus she doesn't like how he orders her around and refuses to pay the price she asks for her work--yet she still agrees to help him. This is a story-heavy game, so it's important for the storyline to really grab and hold the player's attention. At the very least, it needs to be somewhat believable. Unfortunately, this story didn't grab me and I didn't believe it, which I'm sure had a big impact on my reaction to the rest of the game.
Part of the trouble with the story is that it's mainly told through dialogue. Very little actually happens in this game, but a whole lot of time is spent talking to other characters about all this stuff that isn't happening. The game was translated from Polish, and in spite of valiant attempts from the voice actors, the translation isn't the best, sounding more like painstakingly translated text than actual dialogue that would be spoken by real people. Because of this, it's sometimes difficult to understand what they're saying, especially when they attempt to joke with each other. Sylvie seems to have a deep-rooted need to shoot the breeze with everyone she meets before getting down to business, and most of this banter whooshed right by me, leaving me completely lost as to what the characters were prattling on about.
Even if the translation had been better, this game has too much unnecessary dialogue. I didn't want to skip any of it for fear of missing potentially important story points, but often I'd get to the end of a conversation feeling like it had been totally pointless. And even with subtitles to click through faster, the more pointless dialogue I sat through, the more annoyed I got every time I had to enter into another conversation. Thanks to an in-game notebook that transcribes conversations in their entirety, you can go back and read anything you might have missed, but scrolling through the notebook proved to be rather finicky, and in one location it seemed to stop recording dialogue altogether, so I didn't end up using this very much.
Static camera angles and unrealistic character animations contribute to the dialogue issues. When characters are just standing in one spot for fifteen minutes droning on and on, a little visual diversity would have gone a long way. Even without dynamic camera changes, you'd at least expect the characters to be capable of some captivating animations, but no. Rather than standing still with occasional movement to punctuate a point--you know, like people having a conversation do in real life--these characters jitter and shake like Parkinson's patients. A very short loop of animation plays, with characters jerking their heads or flipping their hands around completely independently of what they're saying. (The casual hand-flipping persists even when Sylvie's pointing a gun at someone!) The animation loop is the same for all of the characters, detracting even further from any semblance of realism. I found these twitchy animations to be very distracting, and they increased my irritation with the long dialogue sequences. It’s a shame, because the character models are actually decent, with very detailed faces. I would have loved to see more from them.
As in many adventures, high points in the story are underscored by cinematic cutscenes, and there are no complaints here. The main menu even lets you access these scenes so you can watch them again if you want to. The 2D backgrounds are also generally well done, with a lot of detail and weather effects such as rain in certain locations. Each area Sylvie visits has a distinct visual style that does make it feel like you're traveling around the world. Sadly, there isn't much to explore. Only areas you need to look at or items you need to pick up have corresponding hotspots, so there's no real opportunity for Sylvie to share her observations with the player. Maybe that's one reason I didn't feel like I got to know her very well as a character. Even though there aren't many hotspots, they can sometimes be tough to spot in the environments; fortunately, The Tree of Life has a hotspot finder to highlight all accessible points of interest.
The game's puzzles are primarily inventory-based, with a few other adventure game standbys thrown in for good measure (a couple of sliders, some mechanical puzzles near the end). In general the solutions are logical, but even so, very few clues are given to guide you in the right direction. Rather than using Sylvie's dialogue to help players understand the game's logic, almost every incorrect attempt to do something results in Sylvie accusing you of reverting to trial and error, or bursting out with the equally insulting, "Think, Sylvie, think!" (Um, I thought I was?) A robust hint system isn't necessary (although it would have been nice), but there were many, many missed opportunities where Sylvie could have given a subtle nudge in the right direction and reduced the mounting frustration.
Even when I tried using two items together that seemed like they should work but didn't--for example, a glass with a faucet--rather than berating me for guessing, Sylvie could have made a comment that clued me in as to why the glass wasn't the right tool for the job. Her generic, unhelpful responses became particularly frustrating when I was already doing exactly what the game had told me to do. In one example, I was following Sylvie's instructions to use a combination of milk and lemon juice to remove a stain from a piece of fabric, but none of my attempts to do so were accepted (use milk on fabric, use milk on lemon juice, use lemon juice on milk, etc.) The game hadn't established that one ingredient required its own condition, and only one of numerous logical combinations resulted in a casual mention of this important detail.
Compounding the frustration, many of The Tree of Life's puzzles represent obstacles that stand in the way of Sylvie's progress rather than integrated challenges that help develop the storyline. This may seem like a fine distinction, but spending 45 minutes trying to figure out how to hijack a Venetian gondola (and believe me, they don't make it easy!), simply because there didn't happen to be any cabs available for Sylvie to ride to another part of the city, drove me nuts--let's just get on with it already! Ditto for a sequence in Egypt where Sylvie insists on sweeping the café floor in return for a cup of coffee she doesn't have any money to pay for, even after the café owner has offered to give it to her on the house. These are not actions a person investigating an important mystery, and presumably trying to stay one step ahead of masked murderers, would waste her time on. And don't even get me started on the puzzle that requires filling a camel's water trough by randomly flipping a bunch of water valves into a specific and unintuitive pattern--a puzzle that can only be solved using the "trial and error" method Sylvie normally chastises--when she's already carrying a bowl, a glass, and a teapot, and has easy access to a sink that she could use to fill all three of them.
Considering the amount of conversation in this game, it's surprising that dialogue puzzles don't really come into play. There's one point where you can choose between two different answers, and events play out with slight differences depending on which answer you choose. It's blink-and-you'll-miss-it minor, but it stands out as the one point where the dialogue really makes a difference. The rest of the time, dialogue choices are presented in a short list--usually only one or two at a time--and though it seems like the word you select should be the topic Sylvie will go on to discuss, sometimes it has nothing to do with her lines and instead refers to what another character will say in response. Such premonitions are jarring when you're trying to identify with the character you're playing. As a result, I kept being reminded that I wasn't really Sylvie Leroux, out on an epic adventure, but a player pulling her puppet strings in an adventure game.
The voice actors did an admirable job given the script they were working with, but at times the direction is off, which likely led to some of my confusion about the story. For example, in the middle of a conversation with an Egyptian merchant, seemingly out of nowhere Sylvie says "My uncle knew an antiquary?" in a surprised an incredulous tone. I had no idea why she was asking this--the merchant hadn't said anything about her uncle, or an antiquary--and only later realized that it was probably supposed to have been delivered more like a leading question to pump the merchant for information. I had many such huh? moments where I felt like the characters were discussing information I wasn't privy to, and although I do think some of these are due to confusing storytelling, the voice direction is also partly to blame.
In spite of all of these gripes, The Tree of Life may offer a decent playing experience for those who can overlook the issues I couldn't. The game ran smoothly for me, with no crashes and only one persistent bug (the Count, a fairly major character, didn't move his lips while speaking during the entire second half of the game). The character animations may be silly and the conversations drawn-out and static, but at least the environments are pretty. The point-and-click controls are exactly what you'd expect, with the added bonus of being able to double-click to make Sylvie run. The game also has an impressive musical score, with a number of orchestral themes that do a fine job reflecting the mood of a particular location or story moment. And with about ten hours of playtime spread out across six distinct locations, it's not a bad length for a budget title.
So how does Sylvie's second globetrotting adventure ultimately stack up? I've played a lot of really great games in my day, and a lot of rotten ones. The Tree of Life is neither. It has some ambitious qualities--the Fountain of Youth story with its diverse set of locales among them--but suffers a great deal from its mediocre presentation. If you're considering picking this game up, ask yourself: What kind of a gamer are you, how much patience do you have, and what type of experience are you looking for? If you're a diehard adventure gamer that can persevere through many trying obstacles, and you're simply looking for something to tide you over until the next masterpiece comes out, then The Tree of Life might fit the bill. But if traditional adventure game failings tend to get on your nerves or if you're looking to be blown away, don't bother--not even the promise of eternal life is worth it.
The Tree of Life is a game that may appeal to hardcore adventure gamers, but be prepared to overlook a lot of very fundamental faults.