Lost Chronicles of Zerzura review
Searching for lost cities is an adventure game staple, and to that extent the arduous journey of brothers Feodor and Ramon Morales from 16th century Barcelona to a secret Saharan city doesn't really break any new ground. But even a flogged-to-near-death premise can get a new lease of life if injected with a meaningful story and executed with finesse, and fortunately that is the case with Lost Chronicles of Zerzura. The latest – and probably last – game from Cranberry Production is far more ebullient and traditionally heroic than the team's morbid Black Mirror sequels, but its multilayered narrative, stellar production values, credible characters and engaging gameplay propel it well above ordinary fare.
Budding scientist Feodor, competing with Leonardo da Vinci to invent the world's first flying machine, is forced to drastically alter his agenda when his strangely spiritual brother is arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. Set against an intriguing historical backdrop, the game trails Feodor as he races against time to rescue Ramon, along the way wrapping an ancient legend around the timeless concepts of family and loyalty. It is a substantial excursion that can take over ten hours to complete, but it maintains a steady pace of inventory-based puzzles and information-laden conversations amidst gorgeous scenery, all brought to life with impressive character animation.
The titular Zerzura is an Atlantis-like fabled city set in the Sahara desert, most likely in Egypt or Libya. Venerated as the 'White City' both for its white stone buildings and its distinctive fair-haired, fair-skinned citizens, it has been documented in travelogues since the 13th century. But despite several expeditions, the actual city has yet to be discovered. The game chooses Libya as the host nation and sets a major part of the action in and around Tripoli. It also stays faithful to the legend, with the city's architecture featuring buildings hewn into the surrounding white stone mountains, embellished with mural-encrusted walls, lush palm gardens and pretty waterways. The city's emblem, a white bird, and its 'sleeping monarch' play prominent roles as well.
Truly remarkable, though, is the way authentic circumstances of the 16th century are leveraged to merge Ramon's unique heritage and Feodor's discovery of Zerzura into the existing mythology. It is evident from the outset that white-haired Ramon is physically different from his darker, more typically-Spanish younger brother, and his deeply introverted nature, obsession with ancient artifacts, and mumblings about Zerzura serve as consistent reminders of the incongruity with his present circumstances. For the pragmatic Feodor, his brother's preoccupations are an annoying distraction from the problem of only having a week to finish their invention, a situation aggravated by the fact that the Inquisition is in town to identify and eliminate heresies against the Church, particularly scientific experiments which can denounce the all-encompassing power of God.
But when the Inquisition storms into the Morales workshop, it is shockingly not for Feodor. Instead, Ramon is hauled away for owning a part of the key to Zerzura, which compels Feodor to finally give credence to his brother's theories. After a botched rescue attempt, Feodor is forced to escape Barcelona in his makeshift flying machine. An accidental encounter with some Corsairs who are pillaging a coastal town lands him in the bilge of their ship, but his time in captivity is abbreviated by a surprise attack on the pirates, and in the melee he gains an ally, the sassy Jamila.
While there are no formal chapters, the game is roughly spread across four key cities, each with four or five scenarios. After Barcelona, which features the workshop, a market, a harbour and an Inquisition galleon, assorted disasters steer Feodor to Malta, where he has to curry favour with a pirate leader to sail forth to Tripoli. This forms the first – and the more exciting – half of the game. Feodor doesn't get time to ponder his brother's arrest or his own circumstances as he careens from one crisis to another, and for the player, this translates into a lot of quests and action.
Once he reaches Tripoli, the pace drops off considerably due to lengthy expositional dialogue which explains the legend of Zerzura and how the boys are linked to it. New characters are also added to the fray, including the local emir and Rafi, Jamila's smuggler friend, which leads to much talking. Teasing out the story more gradually, especially since Ramon is aware of most of it, might have better served than passively reciting it all during extensive sit-down sessions. The action resumes once the crew sets off into the desert to collect the missing pieces of the Zerzura key, visiting Egyptian ruins and Bedouin encampments en route to the grand finale at the lost city itself.
The controls, introduced via in-game instructions and the preliminary task of rescuing Ramon after a trial flight crash, are simple: sweeping the cursor over the screen reveals hotspots which can either be looked at or collected by left-clicking. Certain onscreen objects can be used with a second hotspot by clicking them in succession. Feodor describes each item in detail, and collected objects, which can number up to a dozen at a time, are placed in the inventory at the bottom of the screen, to be used with each other or in the environment. Exhausted hotspots are deactivated right away, the inventory is cleared during location changes, and a one-click hotspot revealer eliminates the need for any pixel hunting. My only complaint about the interface is that there is sometimes a considerable delay between an object interaction and the cursor becoming active again, which gets extremely pronounced during the finale.
The nicely streamlined gameplay has a steady flow of inventory-based quests, sprinkled with a few standalone puzzles. Inventory use is both practical and user-friendly. General purpose items like matches and pliers are reused, and when attempting to combine objects, intuitive matches turn the cursor red, minimising unnecessary clicking and negative feedback. Just because two items can be used together doesn't mean it is the right combination to solve a puzzle, but the game sometimes allows these 'incorrect' matches too: if you have a knife and a fruit, you can cut the fruit; you can also eat the whole fruit, or the cut halves, or carry the whole or cut fruit with you without affecting your progress. Either certain quests have multiple solutions or some inventory objects do not affect the game; in any case, it's interesting to see alternate usages of your possessions. If you misuse a disposable item, you can always collect more.
The easy but interesting quests are designed to suit Feodor's practical and charismatic personality, often involving tinkering with objects and negotiating with people. An innate inventor, he creates quite a few contraptions from scratch by combining basic science and everyday objects. These tasks are creative, but not so much that they strain credibility. Working out the scientific basis of the flying machine and gathering its parts is an intricate and enjoyable quest, as is the multifaceted process of breaking into the prison at Tripoli, which includes refurbishing some gruesome Spanish torture devises. Conveniently placed objects – like scraps of cloth in an unlikely location just when you need a robe – occasionally over-simplify solutions, while a quest to determine whether a wall is damp is terribly convoluted, but these hiccups are rare amidst the abundant entertaining challenges.
The few minigame puzzles, while not difficult to solve, may frustrate at first due to lack of instructions, which can leave you wondering about their objectives and mechanics. An interactive map warrants super-accurate adjustment of the direction indicator to become activated, while the key to Zerzura will resist assembly until you work out the logistics of its component placement. These puzzles can be exited while in progress (though this resets them) or even skipped after a while. Some situations are time-dependent, and dilly-dallying can get Feodor caught or even killed. However, in addition to the unlimited manual saves, autosaves allow you to restore from the point just before death.
While progress between central locations is sequential, during each scenario Feodor can explore the available screens – about six or seven at a time – to collect objects and talk to people in any order, though smart quest design keeps backtracking negligible. Simply finding the right objects isn't enough to combine them; you must wait until there is reason to do so and then use them in the proper sequence. Conversation topics are fixed, but new ones are added as situations unfold, so people must be approached repeatedly to ensure you get all the information. Feodor notes down his observations and objectives in a leather-bound diary, and marks important sections with bookmarks for easy reference.
As the sole protagonist, Feodor competently shoulders the adventure but is refreshingly not typecast as a glib swashbuckler. Though only twenty, he is serious and sensible, and handles situations rationally and politely. He is loyal and indulgent towards the brooding and emotionally distant Ramon, who stays perpetually obsessed with finding Zerzura, and is sensitive and chivalrous to Jamila despite her prickly nature. But for all his intelligence, Feodor is also youthfully naive, and learns several life lessons during his journey, which reflects in his decision-making over time. Feisty but dependable Jamila saves the day on more than one occasion with her expert fencing, and is empathetic enough to unconditionally aid Feodor's quest despite mourning her murdered father.
Supporting characters also have in-depth personalities, adding weight to the story. The orphaned brothers' surrogate parent, an Arab merchant named Tabith, has a brief but intense role that illustrates his deep emotional bond with the boys, while shady Rafi vacillates between altruism and mischief as he guides the team through the desert. Hinted as a past lover of Jamila, his resentment towards Feodor is amusing. Even the main villain, the indubitably evil Grand Inquisitor, has a history that almost justifies his pogrom. Most of the minor characters also have storylines that tie them neatly into the plot.
Lost Chronicles of Zerzura is a visual delight, with elaborate, beautiful screens that scale smoothly to high resolutions. Era- and location-appropriate objects, colours, lighting and shadows blend together to give each scene a distinct appearance and mood, be it the rooftops of Barcelona, the picturesque seashore of Malta, the arid lanes of Tripoli or the abandoned yet awe-inspiring Zerzura. There are some interesting perspectives, like a top-down look inside a church spire and a bird's eye view of a ship, while a few scenes have day and night versions. Background animation has standard elements like rustling leaves and lapping waves, as well as passersby and idling animals. The braziers of a temple being lit in sequence as Feodor enters is an arresting sight. Though the ambience is usually pleasant, there are occasional murders and gory scenes with bloodied bodies. Lightly animated, sketch-like 'diary entries' serve as cutscenes.
The character models are lifelike and move believably even while doing complex tasks like climbing ladders and lifting objects, with the exception of an awkward sideways crab-walk when they have to align with something. Animation extends to Feodor executing his inventory-based tasks, like pocketing and combining items, and includes impressive scenes like his escape from Barcelona and rigging up a torture trap, though the screen goes black during the most complicated activities like assembling the flying machine. Characters run by default, but walk slowly around obstacles and near exits, though double-clicking exits fades to the next screen.
There is a lot of dialogue – descriptions of places, people and things, and conversations. The sentences are a bit wordy but error-free and easy to understand, and you can click through the subtitles to speed things up. The writing is largely straightforward, verging on serious, and humour is circumstantial and subtle, with only a couple of outright funny scenes, like the seduction of a courtesan by an inept pirate. The script enhances the basic adventure with many historical facts: a near-deserted market in Barcelona points to the migration of its citizens to the newly discovered, resource-rich Americas, while Feodor's neighbours avoid him because his scientific views make him a target of the Inquisition. The Corsair attacks along the Mediterranean Sea and the conquest of Tripoli by the Spanish are also well-integrated into the story. It is interesting to see people behave similarly despite their apparently disparate beliefs, and that persecution is the bane of all religions, old and new.
Feodor speaks with a British accent, but this is a positive as he has so many lines, and affected ethnic accents can easily exasperate with their artificiality, as is the case with the emir and Rafi, though the latter pulls off his one-liners with élan. Feodor sounds pleasant, and speaks clearly with proper situational inflections. Sexy pirate Jamila has a suitably silken voice, but her volume is considerably lower than Feodor's, and sometimes her accent, though also British, is tough to understand. Ramon is bland and monotonous unless someone mentions Zerzura, which perks him up briefly, while Uncle Tabith's gruffness has an undertone of genuine warmth. The remaining cast has a mish-mash of accents whose effectiveness is inversely proportional to how over-the-top the rendition is.
String-and-percussion-based Mediterranean-style music plays during noteworthy events and cutscenes. Pleasant, breezy tunes buoy the happier times, while heavier chords indicate crises and a flourish celebrates Feodor's eureka moments. Sound effects take centre stage during the quiet interludes and complement the graphics to create a realistic ambience, be it the rushing winds on a seashore or the chitter of rats in a dungeon. They also accompany Feodor's activities, like gurgling water when he fills or empties a bottle. However, the use of echoes in a cavernous temple, while conceptually apt, makes the conversations there tough to understand.
While Lost Chronicles of Zerzura retraces the well-trodden routes of classics like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, it succeeds in establishing its own identity by investing in a story that does more than just trample through trap-infested terrain. It integrates factual history with a real world legend to create a plausible plot, then goes a step further to populate it with characters who have well-developed personalities and strong emotional connections with each other. Feodor is a capable and charming hero and it would be interesting to see him in another adventure after his sojourn at Zerzura. The intuitive gameplay and plentiful well-designed quests which keep the action rolling, the fantastic art and animation, and the thoughtful, satisfying conclusion are sure to delight anyone seeking an impressive, entertaining traditional adventure.