If you’re into gritty sci-fi adventures set in bleak, dystopian futures, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the upcoming Gemini Rue. The first commercial game by UCLA undergraduate student Joshua Nuernberger following several freeware adventures, Gemini Rue was an Independent Game Festival Student Showcase winner in 2010. Since then, the game has been picked up for publishing by Wadjet Eye Games, and is due for release in February. With its launch date closing fast, I recently had the chance to play through a nearly-finished version of this retro-styled, noir-themed thriller.
Originally known as Boryokudan Rue, a name that was considered too difficult to pronounce and remember, Gemini Rue has two alternating storylines that seem to be totally unrelated at first, though eventually they turn out to have something in common. The first story is about ex-assassin Azriel Odin, who has radically changed his life recently, now fighting the syndicate he used to work for, the Boryokudan. Here he arrives on a planet named Barracus, a rain-drenched mining colony in the Gemini System. From a conversation with the pilot of his spaceship, we learn that his mission is to find someone who wants to defect from the syndicate, and who happens to know something about Azriel’s missing brother. The second story is about a man called Delta Six, who is rudely awakened by a voice from an overhead speaker that tells him his memory has been wiped because he tried to escape. He is in some kind of rehabilitation center where he will have to be retrained and retested, and as long as he follows orders, he will soon be free. As if that weren’t alarming enough, he finds a note that says he shouldn't trust anyone.
For most of the game, you can choose between playing as Azriel or Delta-Six until you reach the end of the chapter for that character; at which point you must finish playing the other to complete the chapter completely. As the 'Rue' part of the title indicates, the story is a sad, dark and gloomy one, touching on subjects like drug abuse and organised crime, as well as the role our memories play in defining who we are. The grim mood is accentuated by an excellent soundtrack created by Nathan Allen Pinard. The music consists of beautiful but sad orchestral and piano tracks, which fit the game very well. Ambient sounds include the constant rain falling, elevators changing floors and announcements on the public address speaker, all of which help immerse you into the setting.
Originally the game had no voice acting, but when Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert got involved, he insisted that spoken dialogue be added if it was to be sold commercially. That was a good choice. The voice actors are a mix of professionals and first-time performers, and although not all of them had been implemented in the preview version, those that were included are very well done. The subtitles have different colours for each character as well, which makes it easier to keep track of who is saying what. Other characters you meet include Kane Harris, the pilot of Azriel’s spaceship, fellow prisoners in the retraining center, some homeless and addicted people in the streets, a few Boryokudan criminals and an escaped prisoner. For both Azriel and Delta Six, it is hard to judge who can be trusted, and an important part of the game is spent finding ways to get other people to do something or give you information.
Much of Gemini Rue simply oozes nostalgia. From the way the characters walk and the way you interact with the environments, everything looks and feels like an old-school adventure game. The retro pixel art will not appeal to everyone, but if you look back to games of the early ‘90s fondly, you will feel right at home. To move around, you simply click where you want to go. Right-clicking on an object calls up an action menu consisting of four icons and the inventory. The icons are self-explanatory: an eye to look, a hand to take or use, a mouth to talk and a foot to kick or climb. You can also 'use' some of your fellow characters by right-clicking them, choosing the hand icon, and then clicking the object you want them to interact with.
Some clever features have been added to improve the interface somewhat, like the option to drag and drop names from your 'communicator' into a search engine, which is a welcome alternative to typing in everything. Searching for information on a terminal is just one of the well-integrated puzzles in the game. Other puzzles involve moving crates, getting machines to run, and asking the right questions, along with carefully searching and combining objects. Some of the smaller hotspots are very hard to find, resulting in some pixel hunting, with no highlight function to help out.
Gemini Rue is not a pure point-and-click adventure game, however, as there are about a dozen shooting sequences that require you to have fairly quick reflexes. You first get to 'practise' these sequences as part of Delta Six’s retraining sessions, and then you play more of them out in the next chapter as Azriel. The first few are easy enough, fighting against only one enemy at a time. The tutorial tells you how to figure out when to duck or attack and when the opponent and you are vulnerable. After a while, though, there is a second enemy to conquer, and you have to figure out who is shooting on which side of you and what pattern they follow. This is quite challenging and I died a lot. It is also possible to run out of bullets, and you can't run away from the scene, so once you are all out, it's over. The keyboard interface during these segments felt clumsy to me, and quite a few times I went into attack mode on the other side when all I wanted was to get back under cover.
Fortunately, the game autosaves before a dangerous situation, usually right before a shooting sequence, though sometimes you need to replay a few minutes of the game. There are also quite a few situations where time is of the essence. If you don't do the required action within a few seconds, like failing to run from under a falling block, you die. These are generally easier to get out of and are much better implemented. Other scenarios are fatal too, but they can be solved by paying close attention and combining the right objects rather than requiring any quick action.
You’ll have to live with some aim-and-fire to go with your point-and-click, but if you can handle that, Gemini Rue promises to be a gripping, dark science fiction mystery with interesting characters and nice retro-style graphics. In the preview I played, the shooting sequences felt a bit out of place and there were too many for me to fully enjoy the game, but if you don't mind a bit of action and enjoy old-school adventure games, you will certainly find plenty to like in Gemini Rue when it releases next month.