Combine 1 part Jules Verne classic with 5 parts survivalist challenge. Sift through semi-fine filter to remove chunky dexterity elements. Add 4 parts tropical paradise with 2 parts eye candy. Let sit for several minutes of graphic admiration. Pour in 492 inventory puzzles, and top with one obligatory cute monkey. Knead for 12-15 hours. Allow to rise above all expectations. What do you get? Return to Mysterious Island, by Kheops Studio.
If you've been starved for a hearty inventory-style adventure game to sink your teeth into, this may be just the recipe to whet your appetite. And so it should--it's a tasty and affordable gaming meal, and if not for a few issues that scream "diet!", this would be gourmet cuisine at its finest. It's not a very big serving, but it does come with second helpings and dessert. Hungry yet?
All right, all right... now that I've annoyed everyone (including myself) by overusing the food imagery, let's take a closer look at the game itself. Return to Mysterious Island opens with a young woman named Mina being washed ashore on a deserted island, shipwrecked and alone (without even a volleyball). Naturally, her sole motivation is to familiarize herself with her surroundings and figure out a way home, using nothing but her wits and whatever items she can scavenge. But weakened from her tragic ordeal, the first order of business is... finding enough to eat. (Sorry! I mean it literally this time.)
These humble beginnings devoted to sustenance are actually very representative of the gameplay throughout. The basic premise of escaping the island never wavers, and its practical simplicity is what creates both the charm and limitations of RMI. Anyone looking for diverse locations, engaging characters, scintillating storyline, or brain-scorching conundrums had best check their expectations at the beach. There is an intriguing sub-plot that creeps into the game and eventually becomes more prominent, but the primary goals are always survival and rescue. This gives Mina's adventure a sense of realism, immediacy and tangible consequence that so many larger, sprawling games lack, and it really works to the game's advantage.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish Return to Mysterious Island from any number of other point & click, first-person, node-based games with 360-degree location panning. Unless, of course, you count being graphically stunning. Oh, you do? Well then, let me gladly tell you that this is one of the best-looking games ever to use this style of presentation. From coastal shoreline to tropical forest to volcanic base to underground caves, the game's relatively few locations are all beautifully rendered, rich with detail and clarity. It's no exaggeration to say that you'll want to stop and admire the scenery throughout the island--which is good, because you'll spend most of your time exploring it thoroughly while looking for crucial items. Environmental animations are also quite generous, which go a long way towards making the gameworld feel alive and immersive. The water ripples and laps, the fish swim, the birds circle overhead, and there are many admirable individual touches, like a sea turtle slowly heaving itself across the sand. I must admit, just when I was starting to think this type of game engine should be permanently mothballed as an antiquated relic, games like RMI make me a believer again.
While you're soaking in the gorgeous sights, you'll also bask in the sounds that are equally well handled. The music is a varying blend of gentle instrumentals, but often RMI wisely relies on a different sort of symphony--the one made purely of nature's ambient sounds. Apart from the rumble of thunder or the violent island tremors (which also shake the screen in a jarring display), you'll rarely tune in to the various underlying noises of insects, birds, wind, and water, but they effectively build a believable atmosphere without being intrusive. The only notable vocal role in the game belongs to Mina, and the acting performance is first-rate, though you'll undoubtedly wish she'd speak up more often.
Thankfully, there's no drop-off in quality from production values to gameplay in RMI. In fact, this is the area where the game truly excels and sets itself apart (and above) the vast majority of adventure offerings. This uniqueness is achieved not by innovating in a bold new direction, but by taking the status quo and giving it a brilliant little tweak.
Say "inventory puzzle" to many gamers, and you'll conjure up images of using a chewed wad of gum with a spatula and a teddy bear to escape a prison. The solutions are zany and make not a lick of sense, but we gladly overlook that, because we're packrats at heart, and it's just plain fun collecting everything that isn't nailed down and stuffing it into our impossibly-sized pockets. Yet listen a little closer, and you'll likely hear some murmurs about resorting to "trying everything on everything", and exasperated questions like "why can't I cut a rope with my knife??" Yes, adventures are escapist fun, but our brains are still hardwired to the real world, and at some point many of us wish the bridge between the two were a little more reasonable. Now they are.
Return to Mysterious Island is not only the most inventory-centric game I've ever played, but fully grounded in common sense and practical application. Mina's challenge is our challenge: how would we survive? Well, we'd need to build a fire and make rudimentary tools, for starters, and RMI eases you in by giving you precisely these kinds of challenges. As you explore more, you'll discover evidence of previous island inhabitants, who left behind more advanced equipment and notes of how to construct even more useful items. This allows for a natural progression of complexity without changing the overall focus of the game.
A huge part of RMI's inventory appeal is that almost nothing is a standalone item. Which makes sense, as there really isn't a lot you can do with only a thin bamboo shoot or wet seaweed. For this reason, there's an entire area of the inventory menu dedicated to assembling the various items you acquire. Some need only a simple pairing, while others will require as many as five combinations. If more than two items are involved, once a connection is triggered, a visible formula shows you how many other items you need, though not which ones. Before long, you'll be crowning yourself champion of makeshift gadgets, towering above pretenders like MacGyver and the Professor.
Adding another layer of interest is Jep, an injured little monkey that Mina meets along the way. After nursing him back to health, Jep tags along and becomes available as a combinable inventory "item". While this begins to strain credibility in some ways, it's used in a reasonable way, such as reaching places that Mina can't get to herself, so this is a welcome addition. And he's adorable!Continued on the next page...