A story about a deep space mission gone horribly wrong and a female A.I. orchestrating the attempted recovery may not be entirely original, but it’s usually a recipe for some compelling sci-fi fiction. Add to that some gorgeous graphics, promises of strange alien encounters, and a thoroughly innovative approach to gameplay, and my curiosity was thoroughly piqued about J.U.L.I.A., the “logical video game” from two-man team Cardboard Box Entertainment. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed, as it proved to be an enjoyable and unique experience, with a wide variety of puzzles, diverse environments to “explore” (though not in the traditional way), and a clever integration of text-based adventuring to support its futuristic plot.
In the year 2430 A.D., astrobiologist Rachel Manners is awoken from cryo sleep to find the entire crew missing and her interstellar probe damaged by a meteorite. Assisted by the titular J.U.L.I.A., the ship’s artificial intelligence, her first step is to repair the craft, then find out what happened to her colleagues. She soon discovers that they left decades ago to search the nearby planets without her for reasons unknown. Their mission was to make first contact with alien species, so Rachel must now follow in their footsteps (more or less) across the six planets in the current solar system, where she encounters different races and some disturbing clues about the fates of her shipmates.
It’s an interesting premise, and although science fiction fans might think the story a bit clichéd, J.U.L.I.A. proves anything but conventional in its execution. Rachel and J.U.L.I.A. are joined by Mobot, a hulking controllable robot that does all of the field work. Rachel and J.U.L.I.A. never actually leave the ship during the game, so it’s Mobot that explores the planets below, sending video feeds back to the probe to allow for remote guidance. The only other characters in the game are a few aliens and several dead bodies, although the latter is never graphic, merely suggestive, like lifeless legs sticking out from behind an obstruction. There is also an occasional narrator (whose presence is rather awkwardly never explained) who describes the scenes on the planets.
Aboard the probe, everything is controlled through a computer interface with functions that include ship repairs, Mobot upgrades, and the ability to harvest material from planets. When Mobot is sent to the surface of a planet, he (it? His voice sounds male, at least.) isn't controlled directly, apart from two planets that allow movement on a grid-based map. Since you can only see a specific still, grainy image from Mobot’s current perspective, the narrator describes the immediate surroundings and informs you whether there is anything to interact with. Like a sort of graphical text adventure, you can then tell Mobot what to do by choosing from the available dialogue choices. There are no right or wrong answers to worry about, as you’ll end up choosing all options eventually.
Puzzles in J.U.L.I.A. are plentiful and widely varied in both type and difficulty, although all of them are fair. Clues can be found scattered around the planets, and writing some of the information down is necessary, since there’s no journal to record it. There are no inventory puzzles per se, since there is no visible storage compartment. You can instruct Mobot to pick up items, but their use is available only through the text-based options in context. The many logic puzzles range from decoding a cipher to matching star patterns with a map to creating upgrades from blueprints by connecting circuitry with limited pieces. A few are repeated multiple times, increasing in difficulty as you progress, but the impressive diversity overall keeps the experience fresh as you move from one planet to another, continually confronting new obstacles.
For each puzzle, there is an available icon to explain the objective and give small hints on occasion. The only time the game provides more help is during a particular math puzzle, where it offers to do all of the calculations for you, leaving you to simply input the solutions. There is no in-between on this puzzle, so either you do all the mathwork yourself or let the game do it for you. On some puzzles there is a “give up” button, but this does not solve the puzzle for you; it merely exits to the previous screen so you can try it again later. It isn’t always possible to back out once engaged in a puzzle, though you can save and quit the game at any time. After the initial planet is explored, you can choose any of the six planets to proceed, but access on one planet may depend on progress from another, so the game is pretty linear overall, and puzzles have to be done in a certain order.Continued on the next page...