Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle review
Even as a child, Morgane Castillo wanted nothing more than to lead a pirate's life out at sea. Her mother tried to discourage her by telling her that it's bad luck to have a woman on board a ship, but Morgane was determined to prove that silly superstition wrong. Years later, she gets her chance when her father offers her a position as acting captain for her seventeenth birthday. If you have played Wizarbox's earlier games, So Blonde or So Blonde: Back to the Island, you will already know that she eventually succeeds, as Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle is a spin-off of those adventures, though set in a much earlier time. Taking its title a bit too literally, this game starts off at a boringly slow crawl, but when the pace picks up you'll be pulled into an exciting story that fascinates to the very end, although it's somewhat hobbled by various strange design choices.
The game starts with an introductory chapter that doubles as a tutorial, in which Morgane is an eight-year-old girl simply wanting to go outside and play with her friends. Her mother thinks she should do some household chores first, like sweeping up some patches of dust and cleaning the windows. Since this requires Morgane to pick up items in and around the house, combine them and use them with other objects, these tasks familiarise players with the interface and the basic game mechanics. There isn't a lot of challenge, however, and it is by far the most repetitive, dull and uninteresting bit of the game, which can't be skipped and might easily scare players away. That would be a pity, as the story really starts when this first chapter finally ends. Still, it sets up an important plot point to come, as Morgane eventually spots her father's ship pull into the harbour, and she overhears him tell her mother the tragic news that Uncle Eduardo was lost at sea, having fallen overboard during a storm. Morgane is inconsolable and refuses to believe this is really true.
Thankfully, the game then jumps to Morgane's seventeenth birthday, when she receives the surprise gift of a new sword and promotion from her father, Captain Alessandro Castillo. The first task to perform in her new role is to find a new crew to replace the three men recently fired, along with some cargo to make money. The ship is currently moored at Bounty Island, the island where Morgane's family used to live before her mother died. Her father is still mourning her loss, and has a shrine dedicated to her in his cabin aboard the Winsome Maid. Morgane thinks his grief is getting unhealthy and interfering with his everyday life, and she intends to do something about it (although she isn't sure just how). Meanwhile, she manages to find a rich merchant, Thomas Briscoe, recently retired and now with enough time and money to pursue the tale of a "Golden Turtle" said to exist somewhere in the vicinity. He wants to charter the ship and the crew to follow a vague trail of clues, and is willing to pay handsomely for it. In her travels, Morgane also hears rumours that Uncle Eduardo may still be alive and well on a neighbouring island.
Naturally, all three major and most minor storylines eventually turn out to be entwined. We follow Morgane on her adventures through five islands, one of which featured in the So Blonde games. Along the way, she meets lots of interesting characters and discovers clues about the original explorer that reported having seen the Golden Turtle, Buckleberry Tanner. By visiting his grave, digging up some old maps, locating an island named after him and talking to people who once knew Tanner, Morgane slowly unravels the mystery of the fabled turtle. She doesn't forget about her other tasks though, making sure to ask about Uncle Eduardo in every tavern she visits and trying to persuade her father to get on with his life. Over the course of ten chapters (and about as many hours), she matures into not just a good captain but also a strong woman in an enjoyable, well written coming-of-age story that has a nice blend of emotional depth, swashbuckling, high seas adventure, and quite a few funny moments (like when young Morgane wonders why her parents' door needs to be locked when her father arrives home after months at sea), never taking itself too seriously.
Every island looks and sounds totally different, and each one looks magnificent with incredible attention to detail. From the eternally dark Crab Island to the tropical Turtle Island, it's a pleasure to admire the beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and listen to the Caribbean style music and sounds. Little creatures scurry around, leaves move in the breeze and water ripples to make the world seem alive. It's fun to recognize people and places from the earlier So Blonde games if you have played them, but it is not necessary to have any knowledge about them to enjoy Captain Morgane. This game re-uses some of the locations from its predecessors, offering a whole different perspective for those who played the PC original, but only marginally updating the same scenes presented in the Nintendo-only Back to the Island, which seems a bit lazy.
Cutscenes show a series of stills in a style reminiscent of graphic novels, but with sparse animation that shows no regard for physically possible angles or proportions, which gives these scenes an amateurish feel. The 3D character models and their animations during player-controlled scenes look good, though it is a bit weird to see Morgane shove everything she picks up, from half-eaten fish to a crossbow, anchor or sword, into her well-formed bodice. At times, however, some ill-advised preset animations take over from the player, like when a conversation is started or a task is succesfully completed. For example, after initiating a dialogue, Morgane waves her hand at the other person for a second or two, then the other person looks around and waves back, and only then does the conversation start. All this time a spinning cursor is shown on screen to indicate you have to wait until the sequence stops before you can do anything.
What's worse is that the same cursor also appears during conversations for an entirely different purpose. After each and every sentence the mouse button needs to be clicked (twice or three times if a sentence is so long it gets truncated in the subtitles), but here the cursor means the game is waiting for you to click. Meanwhile, the gestures and lip movements Morgane and her dialogue partner make continue to loop all this time. If you don't click, they keep on waving, bowing or clapping for a few minutes before the game finally moves on. These gestures look very exaggerated and distract from the conversation.
Fortunately, the voice actors are quite good at conveying emotions. Morgane's Spanish accent (wisely re-recorded by the publisher due to public outcry over Morgane's original, inexplicably English accent) and Briscoe's British dialect are convincing, but Alessandro sounds a bit wimpy for such a mighty pirate. Adults imitating children's voices are, as usual, awful. The tropical-style music is pleasant at first, but does tend to get a bit repetitive after a while, either because it loops too often or simply begins to all sound the same after a while, so a little more variety would have been welcome.
A great new addition to this game is an interactive map. Whenever Morgane is outdoors, you can instantly travel to another part of the island by clicking an icon. From each island's dock, the other islands can also be instantly reached (once you've discovered them in the course of the story) by simply clicking on the map. Combined with the speed with which Morgane runs across the screen due to her impossibly long legs, this greatly reduces the amount of backtracking and time normally spent just waiting for a character to move between locations, an issue that plagued the So Blonde games to varying degrees.
The point-and-click interface works smoothly, displaying one or two icons for each hotspot you click on to indicate possible interactions such as 'look', 'talk' or 'pick up'. A right-click opens up the inventory, where objects can be dragged onto each other to combine or to the bottom to close the inventory so you can use them with something or someone on screen. At certain points in the game, portraits of people you have spoken to, such as your crew members, appear in the inventory as well, so you can use them on an object; for instance, to ask them to carry it if it is too heavy for Morgane.
Most of the puzzles are inventory-based and on the easy side. If you drag an item onto another in the inventory and it is not possible to combine them, a buzzer will sound. However, if you try to combine an object with something on screen that don't go together, you get no feedback at all, so you can't be sure you didn't accidentally drop the item when it wasn't actually on top of the other, or whether there is simply no possible interaction (or not yet). Due to the game's linearity, solving puzzles is often a matter of doing something else first. Certain objects can't be picked up or combined unless you have spoken about them to someone or completed some other task. A few solutions are far-fetched and there is only one correct solution, even when you need water to clean something and there are several pools, rivers, a sea and a pump to choose from, yet the puzzle will only accept water from a particular source for no discernible reason. As it's usually quite clear what you should be doing at any given time (a diary lists the tasks to complete in case you forget) but not in what order, this can be frustrating at times.
Objectives involve tasks such as proving your worth to potential crew members by finding stuff for them, fixing a broken bridge, distracting someone so you can pick up their belongings and escaping from a prison. Other puzzles involve opening a code-protected safe or a sealed container and finding the safe path over a bridge. There are also a couple of dialogue puzzles, where a few rounds of two or three answers are presented and only one path leads to the desired result. If you fail, you can try again without any penalty. A few puzzles are semi-timed, meaning that you have to do a certain number of things in a certain number of moves, but failing to do so will simply reset the puzzle for a new try. Success is simply a matter of trying all the options and the next time doing only the correct ones, ignoring the objects and people that aren't relevant. Like the So Blonde games, Captain Morgane has a few minigames. These range from a jackpot machine (also used to make some money for purchases) and a key-matching game to an obstacle course and a sword fight. They are mostly fun to play and not too hard, but if you don't like them you can use the 'cheat' button to bypass them without penalty.
Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle has been released on PC, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and DS, and apart from the different system-specific ways of controlling the game and missing voiceovers on the Nintendo DS, the games are virtually identical. The DS version uses an easy, intuitive control scheme. The bottom screen shows the main game action, with the inventory, map or objectives appearing on the top one. Morgane follows the stylus when you drag it across the screen, and touching an item brings up the same two icons as in the PC version, but with a bit of a delay, causing you to wonder whether you missed the object or it wasn't something you can interact with at all. This is not helped by the hotspots being quite small and sometimes awkwardly placed. A small icon along the top edge of the play screen allows you to reverse the two screens, but the trigger area is a bit larger than it appears, which means touching an object near the top sometimes leads to inadvertently switching screens.
Because the environments are all crammed with details, it can be quite difficult to spot smaller items on the little DS screen. The game does (in all versions) have a hint system that switches hotspot markers on and off, but even those can sometimes go unnoticed against the colourful backgrounds, making your quest to find certain items unnecessarily tedious. You'll also miss out on some visual jokes like graffiti or other references to games, movies and books (ranging from Studio Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro to Brutal Legend to Steve Jobs), which are simply too small to make out on the handheld platform. Another minor annoyance for the Nintendo DS is the way Morgane tends to get stuck behind an invisible ridge in one particular location, making it hard to get her where you want her to go.
Regardless of the version you play, there is only one slot to save your game. From the main menu, you can copy your save file to another slot or delete one, but during the game you can't choose to save in a different slot than the one you started from. This is quite common in console games but very unusual for PC titles, particularly because Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle does not save your progress automatically.
If you manage to struggle your way through the first chapter and get used to the repetitive character animations and clicking after each dialogue line, Captain Morgane and the Golden Turtle eventually proves to be a beautiful, enjoyable adventure with plenty of fun puzzles and minigames, offering an interesting coming-of-age story that deals with the loss of a loved one. It's not the most polished of titles, but if this game is any indication, it seems it's not such bad luck to have a woman in command after all.