Review for Mutropolis
While the 21st century has seen the definition of adventure games take an increasingly amorphous shape, there are still some developers faithfully sticking with the point-and-click fundamentals that many of us first fell in love with. This is fortunate, as a game like Pirita Studio’s Mutropolis demonstrates that a well-crafted traditional adventure can be just as enjoyable today as it was in the age of Sierra On-Line and LucasArts greatness. An archaeological mystery set in a fun futuristic setting, Mutropolis boasts a series of creative and challenging puzzles, a compelling story full of twists and turns, and an atmosphere as refined as it is quirky. With only a few minor missteps in the third act, this game is sure to appeal to classic adventure enthusiasts, offering an immersive experience with engaging gameplay to match.
It is the year 5000, and most of humanity has long since fled from Earth to Mars following a disastrous event known as the cataclysm. For almost three millennia, humanity has by and large ignored its original home world, but in recent years Earth has begun attracting the interest of adventurers and academics once again. You play as university archaeology student and researcher Henry Dijon, and the action kicks off in the middle of an expedition to an uncharted region of the blue planet. There your party makes an intriguing discovery: a mural providing evidence of the legendary lost city of Mutropolis. But celebrations are cut short when your leader, Totel, is kidnapped under mysterious circumstances.
Totel’s disappearance leaves you and your party in a vulnerable position, so you use what resources you have left to return to the university. Taking the investigation into your own hands, you discover a set of coordinates in Totel’s ransacked office. You and your colleagues believe that following them will get you one step closer to both Totel and the fabled Mutropolis, so you set about securing the necessary passage and supplies for another voyage to Earth. As you work your way through a variety of puzzles of increasing complexity, you’ll stumble across a startling revelation of betrayal and encounter a strange new ally: the Egyptian goddess Isis, who warns you that Totel’s kidnapping is part of a cosmic conspiracy.
One of the major highlights of Mutropolis is its setting—or rather dual-world settings, which are both meticulously detailed and driven by great humor and imagination. The plot is divided into three acts, each taking place in a broad location divided into various subsections. Act I is the shortest of the three, serving mostly to introduce the premise, taking place at an archaeological excavation site. Act II takes place at the Martian university, while Act III returns to Earth in search of Totel and the titular lost city. Each environment is rich and varied, offering many contrasting locales to explore, from jungles, underground caves and grave sites on Earth, to the university’s futuristic halls and hi-tech marvels, such as a courtyard that changes seasons at the push of the button.
Mutropolis presents a future in which humanity has seriously lost touch with the world as we know it, and one of the most charming aspects of the game is how it introduces familiar concepts and figures in a way that is comically skewed. For example, in a book on ancient history, the image of the familiar star-shaped Sheriff badge is said to be a “deadly throwing star;” another book states that Al Capone may have been (historians speculate) “a popular quiz show host or soap actor.” There is a hilarious geology-based reference to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and part of the plot revolves around sorting through archaeological samples from the site where Jimmy Hoffa’s body was (finally) found. In addition to fun twists on the real world like this, the game’s mythos is further enriched by details unique to its setting, such as robotic trash cans that threaten you if you try to steal their refuse, and a catchphrase oath Henry makes throughout to “the Supreme Squid.”
Henry is a lovable protagonist who is witty, endearing, and just a bit awkward—not to mention obsessed with a piece of ancient technology: his trowel, which serves as a running gag. He is supported by a cast of equally fascinating secondary characters, including his fellow researchers: the bubbly Carlata, twins Luc (super serious) and Micro (a bit mischievous), and Cobra (a mysterious, intimidating presence). The one who steals the show, however, is Isis, whose sheltered divinity has rendered her largely devoid of social skills. When Henry tells her that he is head of expeditions for team Sigma, she mistakes his title for part of his name and calls him “Henry, Head of Expeditions” from that point on. She obliviously stands uncomfortably close to others and admires a lab coat as though it were an elegant, regal garment. She is an important source of Mutropolis’s humor and charm, but she is also an intelligent character who makes poetic observations about her surroundings. And while the theme of Egyptian mythology at first seems a bit random, it fits in well with the focus on archaeology and ultimately helps anchor the game’s world in its own zaniness.
Using the mouse on different areas of the screen allows you to easily move through the environments. Interactive objects and their labels are revealed when you hover the cursor over them—you can also hold down the space key to reveal where all the hotspots are. The interface is simple, with a left mouse click encompassing whatever possibilities exist, whether an item can be examined, picked up, etc. A simple keystroke (or the middle mouse button) pulls up an inventory where you can combine items, select them for use, or drag them to an eyeball on one side of the screen to hear Henry describe them. There are no surprises or innovations here, but there are no problems either. The control system is perfectly serviceable and well executed, making for a smooth gameplay experience.
The exotic, futuristic settings are brought to life by beautiful hand-drawn art with a whimsical cartoon-like nature even during the game’s more serious moments. Depicting a wide variety of locations with style and care, the developers have incorporated a rich, bright color palette through much of the game, though often contrasts in lighting are used to good effect. For example, amid the ruins of an amusement park, a dilapidated roller coaster that Henry mistakes for an ancient mode of public transportation bursts with an inviting bright red, the overgrown shrubbery invading the track equally vivid in its radiant green. But tall trees tower over all, casting shadows that consume much of the screen, allowing the sun’s golden rays to accentuate certain objects of importance, such as a crumbling, defunct fountain with a baby Cupid statue in the center and the skeleton of an unlucky adventurer hanging from the side. Sometimes the view switches to a close-up perspective from Henry’s point of view, such as several books in Totel’s office that you can look through to ogle their lovely full-page art. There are a few other visual flourishes to enhance specific moments in the story as well. One of my favorites is a sequence in which you play as Micro’s robot pal, Max, in which suddenly the environment is rendered in old-school 8-bit graphics.
The soundscape may call less attention to itself, but it is no less effective. Musical selections are comprised of lo-fi, bass-heavy synth tunes. While capable of expressing drama and tension when necessary, for the most part the tone is appropriately chill and laid-back. The score helps make for a relaxing experience, and some of the melodies are rather catchy. There is a lot of subtle attention paid to ambient sound too, and whether it’s birds chirping in a courtyard or the dull industrial rumble of a hangar, it all serves to establish a sense of place. The real audio highlight, however, is the excellent and smartly utilized voice cast. All characters are voiced, and each actor delivers an exemplary performance, capturing the distinct personality of their respective role. Henry’s voice is gentle and refined, at times charmingly exasperated. Isis sounds vaguely robotic, as though she learned human speech from listening to recordings of it and is able to mostly imitate the proper cadences. These are just two examples of many that combine to lend the voice-overs an air of professionalism.
In addition to its strong narrative and stylish aesthetics, Mutropolis offers no shortage of engaging gameplay. In line with its traditional point-and-click presentation, most of what you will be doing is solving inventory-based puzzles and navigating dialogue trees. There is no hint system, though clues are sometimes built in organically through conversation with other characters. The pacing of the first and second acts are as near-perfect as one could hope for, with each act comprised of a series of smaller puzzles that form a cohesive whole as you work toward a larger concrete goal.
At the opening excavation site on Earth, for example, Totel stands before an ancient door that he cannot gain access to. Henry quickly surmises that the clay surface and inscriptions on the door are considerably more modern than the door itself, so your first task will be looking around for an item that will allow you to verify that. Once your theory is confirmed (and thus the clay can be destroyed in good conscience to gain access to the door), your overarching goal for this act is to find a way to dispose of it. That may sound straightforward, but in the process of tracking down the necessary items, you will need to accomplish other objectives as well, such as piecing together the combination to a nearby safe. You must also solve a minor mystery to figure out who moved your beloved trowel by closely observing the environment and light-heartedly interrogating other members of your party.
Henry’s role as detective does not carry into later acts, but there are a variety of other interesting and entertaining deviations throughout to help complement the more familiar adventure game fare. One part requires using pattern recognition skills to decipher the pages of a book on ancient mummies. A couple different sections function as memory games subtly disguised as, say, a rain dance or an internet search. There is also a very funny and endearing bit where you must search the jungles of Earth for dark holes of increasing depth so that Henry can, in baby steps, conquer his paralyzing fear of sticking his hand into them.
As far as diversity is concerned, though, the aforementioned segment where you play as Micro’s robot pal Max is the most inspired. Here the interface changes entirely, and instead of accessing an inventory you pull up a sort of retro desktop screen. Since you can only do simple things like push buttons in the main environment, you must make use of the apps Max has installed (like a sound recorder) to help you achieve your goal. This sequence follows a sort of stripped-down-to-the-bare-essentials adventure logic that reminded me of navigating the LINC system in Beneath a Steel Sky. It’s a creative twist on what such an experience might be like for a robot in a sci-fi story, and more impressively, it’s achieved without much in the way of dialogue or words.
While for the most part you won’t encounter any of the potential pitfalls of classic adventuring, there is one particularly bad pixel hunt in the final act. It occurs during a sequence in which hotspots are not labelled and each click of the mouse causes an animation that is just lengthy enough to make methodically working your way through the screen impractical. I tried my hardest to find the place where I was supposed to click, but I eventually caved and looked it up in a walkthrough. This is somewhat emblematic, as although it never really becomes a problem, the final act loses some of the momentum that made the first two so enjoyable, feeling a bit less organized with a bit more filler. Another example is when you must undergo three trials to be accepted by a village of Earthlings who stayed behind following the cataclysm. There’s nothing wrong with the trials themselves, except that they involve a considerable amount of busywork that has you trekking all across the map before you can proceed.
These are rather minor concerns, though, and overall Mutropolis maintains more than enough energy to see its way through to a strong conclusion that will take you a substantial ten to fifteen hours or so to reach. And where it ultimately arrives in the end is unexpected, satisfying, and consistent with the archaeological theme explored throughout. Bolstered by its strong narrative, delightful sense of humor, superb voice acting, beautiful visuals, and several fun twists on the otherwise traditional point-and-click formula, Mutropolis is an admirable achievement that is sure to entice adventure game veterans and newcomers alike, wonderfully demonstrating the genre’s continued capacity for great storytelling and puzzle-driven gameplay that is destined to endure well into the distant future.