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.Continued on the next page...