Review for The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime
Adventure games by Presto Studios
My personal journey to play the recently (re-)released The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime was a rather long and circuitous one, as the game has a complicated legacy. Back in the magical time known as the early ‘90s, game developers were trying to sort out what to do with the nascent CD-ROM format. While many would eventually go the obvious route (i.e. FMV), leading to an unprecedented glut of insufferable crap masquerading as “interactive movies”, a few developers invested some time and imagination to create actual adventure games that took advantage of the format’s capabilities.
One such company was a fledgling developer known as Presto Studios, who released a game called The Journeyman Project for the Mac in 1992 (the PC version was released in 1993). TJP was a rather impressive bit of technological showmanship, using high-quality (for the time) pre-rendered 3D environments and models, with FMV (sparingly) mixed in. Unfortunately, it also ran like an inebriated sloth with a touch of gout, prompting Presto to spend the next year overhauling the game engine. In 1994, a “playable” version of the game was released as the inconspicuously-titled The Journeyman Project Turbo.
Of course, around this same time, another scrappy fledgling developer released a game called Myst, which was a similar showcase of whiz-bang CD-ROM technology. Comparing the two is a very apples-and-oranges and ultimately fruitless (no pun intended) exercise, as they espoused two completely different gameplay philosophies. But (for better or worse) Myst went on to become the standard-bearer for the new generation of computer games, while TJP was (fairly or unfairly) relegated to more of a footnote in the annals of adventure gaming history. Despite that, TJP went on to spawn two well-received sequels, as well as a remake of the original game. Originally announced as a “Director’s Cut”, the remake was released in 1997 (in between the second and third installments) as The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime, replete with updated graphics, sound, video and puzzles. Unlike the other installments, however, it was released for Mac only and a subsequent PC version never materialized.
Despite not being overly impressed by TJP Turbo when I first played it, I was nonetheless quite a fan of the sequels and was looking forward to Pegasus Prime at the time, but being a PC person, I eventually had to resign myself to the unfortunate reality that it was not meant to be. Fast-forward some 17 years later and I’m suddenly feeling very old, but more importantly, The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime has finally been released for the PC (i.e. Windows, along with OSX and Linux versions). This unexpected rebirth is largely due to the selfless efforts of a couple of dedicated series fans who’ve been working since 2005 (with the support of former Presto Studios designers) to update and port the game to modern OSes (via the old-school gamer’s best friend, ScummVM). The newly released version of Pegasus Prime is a port of a previously unreleased DVD-ROM version of the game, which sports some features left out of the original CD-ROM release, as well as higher-quality cinematics and audio, plus additional “lost features” from a little-known PlayStation version (only released in Japan).
Set in the 24th century (2318, to be precise) The Journeyman Project casts you in the role of Gage Blackwood, an agent in the Temporal Security Agency. Shortly after the discovery of time travel, the government decided that it was actually a bad idea and no one should ever use it (begging the question of why they even bothered). They formed the TSA to safeguard the only known time machine (code-named Pegasus) and generally make certain that no one is screwing around with the space-time continuum, which essentially makes you a timecop. As the game begins, humanity is on the verge of making “first contact” with an alien race known as the Cyrollans, who are visiting Earth to invite the human race to join the Symbiotry of Peaceful Beings (which almost certainly won’t come into play later on). Amidst this backdrop, you’re tasked with babysitting the time machine while everyone else in the TSA goes to the Cyrollans’ welcoming parade. Naturally, as soon as you show up for work, all hell breaks loose, and it’s your job to hop in the time machine and fix the timeline before everyone in the future turns into monkey-lizards. Over the course of your investigation, you’ll eventually come across the culprit behind the time-altering shenanigans and unravel their nefarious plans as the fate of the human race hangs in the balance (or something like that).
Although the story sounds a little odd or even contrived in its condensed format, one of Presto Studio’s relative strengths was storytelling, and while the first Journeyman game is probably the weakest of the lot, it is still fairly compelling once you get into it, and it was certainly a notch or two above most of its peers at the time of its initial release. A particularly admirable aspect was Presto’s commitment to world-building. A number of environments are filled with (mostly) throwaway details, such as watching a newscast on the television in your apartment or browsing various information kiosks or brochures. Few of these are necessary to complete the game, but they go a long way towards immersing you in the environment. After a time, it becomes obvious that quite a bit of effort was put into making the game world feel authentic.
The bulk of the gameplay in Pegasus Prime consists of using the time machine to hop between the different points in time that were altered, and basically fix history – for example, preventing an assassination or the launch of a nuclear missile. The premise is quite promising, but its actual execution is the first disappointment. In a game where the central conceit revolves around time travel, I initially had a (perfectly natural, I believe) expectation that jumping about in time would involve visiting “familiar” historical settings. But aside from a very brief jaunt to the prehistoric era at the beginning of the game, the three other points in time you visit (where you’ll spend most of the game) are “future history” set in the 22nd or 23rd centuries, like an underwater military base and a mining colony on Mars. These settings also give the environments a feeling of sameness, in that you’re mostly wandering through a series of generic-looking “futuristic” corridors. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it short-changes the whole time travel premise.
As you jump around through history, the task of restoring the proper timeline mainly boils down to solving a series of inventory puzzles, along with a couple of the standard-issue arbitrary logic puzzles masquerading as some type of user interface. The inventory puzzles are all pretty rational and don’t require any special feats of “adventure-game-logic”, although the game comes equipped with a built-in hint system and the ability to switch to “Walkthu” difficulty mode, which will solve puzzles for you if you’re really at an impasse. Pegasus Prime isn’t a difficult game by any means for a veteran adventure gamer, but it’s always nice to have the option. It is possible to die in the game, and in fact, death can come with a frequency reminiscent of classic Sierra games (even including the familiar mocking descriptions of your ignominious demise). Thankfully, there’s no real penalty involved, as the death presents you with a “Continue” option that usually drops you back into the game just before your ill-fated decision.
The original game was also made at a time when far too many developers had convinced themselves that forcing players to navigate pointless mazes was somehow entertaining, and Pegasus Prime unfortunately embraces that trend with its own pointless maze, which consists of nothing but wandering a series of largely identical corridors until you happen to find your way out. Fortunately, the game is kind enough to provide you with an auto-mapping feature that thankfully keeps you from wandering in circles, but does nothing to make the experience enjoyable or convince one that this section is anything but empty calories. Similarly, there are a few navigation sequences in a couple of time periods where you’re asked to pilot a submarine/mining car/shuttle. These are basically on-rails sequences where you follow a predetermined path and occasionally have to make a decision on whether to turn right or left. There’s nothing especially challenging about any of these sequences; they’re marginally amusing at first, but take a number of minutes to complete, which can make them a bit annoying if you’re ever forced to repeat them.
Although you’re given free rein to jump around time at your discretion, giving you an initial impression of non-linearity, completing each time zone often requires finding an inventory object from another time zone. The nice thing is that if you find yourself at an impasse, you can more or less jump to another time at will and explore at your discretion, and likely as not, you’ll eventually come across whatever gizmo you need to get past wherever you found yourself stuck before. The problem is that each time you jump to another time period, you’re dropped at the beginning at that level and have to slog back to wherever you left off. Unless you just happen to be prescient enough to tackle the time zones in precisely the right order, you’ll likely be doing a fair amount of backtracking. And depending on where you left off, you also might be forced to repeat some of the un-skippable navigation sequences, which makes the backtracking especially annoying after a while.
For anyone looking to draw comparisons to the original version of the game, while my memory is pretty hazy and I can’t say for certain exactly which puzzles are new or updated, everything felt very familiar to me and, overall, I would say the core gameplay of Pegasus Prime is basically identical to the original Journeyman Project. Realistically, this is essentially a cosmetic overhaul of TJP, and in that respect it delivers on its promise.
The graphics in Pegasus Prime are a substantial upgrade over the original version. A quick glance at a couple of side-by-side screenshots of the two versions reveals a pretty night-and-day difference. Whereas the original game used the standard (at the time) first-person slideshow-style presentation, walking animations have been added to transition between scenes, and the video quality is much improved. That having been said, as much improved as the graphics are, it’s still a 17-year-old game, and no amount of spit-and-polish is going to hide the fact that it’s a game from a bygone era. It runs at a native 640x480 resolution, which means that displaying the game in fullscreen mode on a modern monitor is going to look somewhat grainy and blurry. That’s certainly not an indictment of the game; just a bit of a reality check.
The music and sound effects have received similar upgrades in quality. The music has been upgraded to CD-quality level, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the soundtrack memorable, it’s enjoyable enough in its own right, even going so far as being catchy every once in a while. The sound effects are similarly well done. There’s an abundance of environmental effects that do a fine job of selling the atmosphere, even if they do get in the way every so often (for example, when you go through an automated door, the game won’t relinquish control in the next scene until the sound of the door whooshing closed behind you has finished playing).
Aside from the aesthetic overhaul, Presto has also made a number of other more subtle changes to the game, replacing the original actors with the ones used in the sequels and making some tweaks to the story, all with the intent of making the “original” game more consistent with the sequels. This isn’t of great consequence for the most part, but for longtime fans of the series, it’s a nice touch.
Unfortunately, one area that didn’t see much improvement is the control scheme. The game is controlled via a combination of keyboard and mouse. The mouse controls the onscreen cursor, which lets you interact with the world (push buttons, pick up stuff, use inventory items, etc.), while the keyboard is required to move and access your inventories (there are basically two inventories you’ll need to manage). Thankfully, the keyboard commands can be re-mapped, as the default layout is magnificently arbitrary and inconvenient if you’re not possessed of a third arm. This is a relatively minor quibble, but it seems that full mouse control would have been a nice, if not obvious, addition, since it had already become the standard in the sequels.
So then, does Pegasus Prime live up to 17 years of anticipation and much ado? Of course not, but nor would any game that stopped short of curing world hunger. My memories of playing TJP Turbo are a bit fuzzy by now, but I distinctly remember, upon finishing the game, thinking that it was “okay”. And taken on its own terms, I was left with much the same feeling upon finishing Pegasus Prime. It was okay… but not great. It feels exactly like what it is: a rookie effort from a studio that would go on to do greater things.
In the years following the release of the various incarnations of the original Journeyman Project, Presto Studios would go on to release two sequels (Buried in Time and Legacy of Time), both of which would significantly evolve the gameplay and story and address most, if not all, of the shortcomings of the original.
Although it’s definitely not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, it’s hard to fully recommend Pegasus Prime on its own merits, particularly when its older (or would it be younger?) and wiser brothers exist. For series neophytes, playing through the original isn’t particularly a prerequisite for enjoying the sequels (and a quick glance through the game manuals or Wikipedia will give you all the background you’ll need to come up to speed on the story). For fans of the The Journeyman Project series or anyone interested in checking out a flawed but important chapter in the history of the adventure genre, it’s worth a look; otherwise, your time is better spent skipping ahead to its successors instead.
Review copy provided courtesy of GOG.com.