Boïnihi: The K’i Codex review
Despite being a card-carrying adventure gamer for nearly two decades now (and a huge Myst fan, no less), Simon Mesnard’s work in the genre had only quietly inhabited the periphery of my awareness until now. That was clearly an oversight, because upon finishing Boïnihi: The K’i Codex, I can see why the Black Cube series is now on its fifth installment. Fortunately for newcomers like me, Boïnihi stands as a fantastic adventure game in its own right, with ingenious, logical puzzles, a promising plot that further builds out the larger sci-fi saga for series veterans, and environments that, while not as exotic as titles such as Riven or Schizm, certainly hold their own atmospheric charms.
The story begins with an unnamed astronaut stranded in space and sure to die. However, a mysterious spirit named Boïnihi guides him in his ship to a nearby moon, and offers to help if the astronaut will assist Boïnihi in bringing peace and balance to something the spirit calls “K’a and K’i.” The eponymous K’i Codex is central to completing this goal, but there is one problem: it is in an alien language, and must be translated before you can use it. Only by unlocking the secrets of the Codex can the protagonist hope to understand more about the spirit who saved his life and, perhaps, find a way back home.
For the most part, the narrative managed to keep me interested throughout my time with Boïnihi. Although your central mission is to explore the moon’s four islands in order to find the tools and information needed to successfully translate the Codex, along the way certain background details about Boïnihi, the moon you are on, and the game’s place within the Black Cube mythos are revealed through various methods, including via diary entries you can find, videos that can be unlocked, and in conversation with Boïnihi himself. Even though I had no prior experience with the Black Cube series, the game’s stand-alone nature meant that the central plot points surrounding the Codex and its purpose made sense to me. In fact, the story behind the moon and its lone inhabitant was reminiscent of some of the first adventure games I played.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I did feel somewhat left behind in terms of understanding the various callbacks and references to the other entries in the series, as well as the black cubes themselves. That’s not to say that such background information isn’t presented, as it definitely is, as a sort of abridged retelling of the events in prior games that led to the events of Boïnihi. While appreciated and somewhat helpful for filling me in on the sheer depth of this universe, such summarizing ultimately raised more questions than it answered. On the bright side, the nagging questions have only made me more interested in the rest of the Black Cube games that I missed previously.
Puzzles run the gamut from logic-based to inventory combination, and Boïnihi features some of the most…well, logical logic puzzles I’ve seen in a very long time, and are pleasantly challenging to boot. One word of advice, however: true to its old-school roots, you will want to have a notepad and pencil handy while playing. Taking notes is fairly crucial in this game, and I have to admit that, spoiled as I’ve become by in-game journals and other hint-friendly modern innovations of the genre, in retrospect I didn’t take down enough notes for puzzles that really would have benefitted from it! That said, I managed just fine with the notes I did jot down.
Tasks you will be expected to accomplish are quite varied and creative, comprising such things as manufacturing your own writing instruments using a large machine, figuring out the coordinates of locations you need to enter into your ship’s navigation system using strange devices and scientific information gleaned from the environment, and acquiring enough knowledge about the Codex’s alphabet in order to translate it. This latter task, in particular, is quite fascinating in the way it is executed, and although it really isn’t that complicated, it gave me the impression of working through alien linguistics in an entertaining way. Inventory puzzles are likewise quite intuitive, and there isn’t really a moment where the try-everything-on-everything approach is necessary. Even if you aren’t exactly sure what to do next, you never feel as though the answer is beyond your ability to eventually grasp, given the information at hand. At times your ship’s AI system, MAIDEN, assists you in identifying an item, or in providing you with more information needed to progress, whether by presenting it with an item for analysis, or through brief dialogues.
Aside from the instances that the AI’s assistance is required, a rudimentary hint system is also implemented via MAIDEN, although the (very) few times I needed help, hints were not available for those puzzles. In fact, the offer of hints seemed only to activate after a particularly significant event in the game, and appeared to be limited to general tips about what to do and where to go, things which I already knew. Nevertheless, I only had to resort to a walkthrough, graciously provided by the developer, twice in the approximately 10-11 hours it took to finish the game, and both times the fault rested with my overthinking a puzzle, or not quite grasping the meaning of an intended clue, rather than with the design of the puzzles themselves.
While the title eschews its predecessors’ purely first-person perspective, the hybrid third-person/first-person scheme utilized in Boïnihi delivers a fine experience with a minimum of issues. The keyboard-and-mouse interface is simple and works well with the hybrid-perspective presentation. To navigate, you’ll use the keyboard to move the astronaut with the camera maintaining a fixed view of the scene. Moving close to a point of interest causes a shimmering hotspot to appear on the interactive object or area, and clicking on it causes a first-person, zoomed-in view of the selection to appear onscreen. The hand-shaped cursor changes to indicate what kinds of interactions can be performed, such as taking an item, getting more information, or backing out of a scene. You can also press a helpful hotkey to momentarily reveal all of the current scene’s hotspots.
Each location is accompanied by a minimap in the corner of the screen (which can be toggled off if you wish), complete with a red view cone showing the current camera orientation and paths, also marked in red, that you will follow as you enter and exit the various scenes. This feature is theoretically quite useful, and certainly welcome, though the locales featured throughout Boïnihi are compact enough that even without it, getting truly lost is extremely unlikely for all but the most directionally maladroit.
A hidden menu can be revealed by right-clicking anywhere or hovering the cursor near the top of the screen. This features various icons for the inventory, settings (where saving and loading is done), and a variety of documents you will need to access over the course of the game, including the K’i Codex itself and other, more spoilerish items. The inventory is easy to use, with selecting and combining items achievable with a few simple mouse-clicks, while dragging the cursor to the edges of the inventory window after selecting an item allows you to use it in the world. A few times you will be asked to enter strings of text for various purposes, but when this is necessary a mouse-based keyboard appears.
Visually Boïnihi is impressive, especially considering that, from concept art to final render, all the work was done by one person. The pages of the Codex itself, featuring illustrations hand-drawn and painted by the developer, are appropriately reminiscent of ancient manuscripts, and the islands you explore are surprisingly varied for a game that takes place on a single moon, from vast desert environments to a jungle clearing. I can’t say that I was blown away by the quality of the graphics themselves, but Mesnard deserves kudos for achieving marvelous atmosphere in many scenes, populated as they are by everything from small huts with personal touches to a futuristic control room that hides a strangely beautiful passageway. In addition, the brief “making of” unlockable video left me absolutely astounded at the care that went into crafting the environments and scenery, and I highly recommend that players solve the optional, not-too-difficult puzzle that provides access to it.
Boïnihi is quite diverse and enjoyable musically, too. I never found myself tiring of the score’s omnipresence, although a few tracks were not to my taste. Many pieces feature unmistakable Eastern influences and are orchestral in nature, but a few piano-based tunes and electronic textures provide variety. In general, the soundtrack succeeds at enhancing immersion, especially because it changes depending on the setting. For instance, it seems that each island gets its own theme, and for areas where a more futuristic tone is needed, such as inside the cockpit of your ship, electronica sets the appropriate mood.
Sound effects are numerous and provide appropriate feedback, as do environmental factors such as rushing water or the sound of MAIDEN responding to your presence. Partial voice-overs are present and generally quite good, with credible performances. An exception to this is MAIDEN’s delivery, which is supplied via what sounds to be a standard voice synthesizer. While a robotic monotone may seem an appropriate choice for an AI character, this particular synthesizer annoyed me and at times it even mispronounces words. This isn’t a huge problem, but it did pull me out of the game somewhat, and on the few occasions where MAIDEN had long lines to recite, remaining focused on what was being communicated was tiring. Being only partially voiced, it was also jarring to expect a voice-over and not have one, and vice versa.
Boïnihi: The K’i Codex took a risk by stepping away from the purely first-person perspective of previous Black Cube titles to deliver a hybrid first/third-person presentation, with few guarantees that it would improve the experience, and a significant risk of diminishing it. While I can’t compare it to the previous entries, not only does Boïnihi’s hybrid perspective and keyboard-and-mouse interface work well, the game as a whole is a remarkably well-designed adventure, with extremely logical, creative puzzles that are satisfying to solve, all wrapped up in rather impressive production values given the obvious budget limitations. The story also succeeds, providing an intriguing stand-alone experience with enough references to the larger series mythos for newcomers and veterans alike. While some confusion remains regarding the eponymous cubes and their role in the game’s universe, in my case it only heightened the intrigue and desire to explore the franchise further.
Ultimately, whether you are a newcomer to the Black Cube games or an old hand who has already played any or all of ASA: A Space Adventure, Catyph: The Kunci Experiment, Myha: Return to the Lost Island, and the freeware entry Kitrinos: Inside the Cube, Boïnihi: The K’i Codex is almost sure to hold your interest, especially if you are a fan of sci-fi adventuring and fair but challenging gameplay that requires some notetaking to succeed. Having completed this game, I am now looking forward to going back and exploring more of the Black Cube series. If that isn’t praise enough from a newcomer, then I don’t know what is.