Checkers? Nah. Chess? Nope. Backgammon? Hardly.
Fanorona... now THAT'S an obscure (yet real) board game worth crossing half the globe to play. At least, it is for Professor Samuel Hunt, the historian from the British Museum whose mission in 1903 is to track down twelve accursed games in an effort to unravel the sinister legend of the AGON. After having begun his adventure in London, before braving the trials of the wintry Lapland tundra in the previous installments, Hunt now doffs his parka and sails for tropical climes in Episode 3: Pirates of Madagascar.
The name AGON may still be unfamiliar to many people, which is a shame, because it's truly one of the pioneers of adventure gaming. Although this is not the first attempt at a serialized adventure, other efforts in the past have died a quick and inglorious death. The Forgotten and Zelenhgorm are perhaps the two highest-profile "series" that never got past the debut title, leaving players hanging with unfinished plots and bad tastes in their mouths. Such early failures have created a skeptical attitude about the viability of episodic gaming, resulting in something of a Catch-22. Gamers are reluctant to invest in the early episodes of a serial for fear of it collapsing, and the lack of player investment is the very thing that causes such projects to collapse. It takes an impressive product and a serious developer commitment to overcome that vicious cycle. So is AGON poised to become the champion of episodic adventures? The jury is still out on that question, but if Episode 3 is any indication, the Hungarian developers at Private Moon Studios are definitely on the right track, and showing no signs of going down without a fight.
In Pirates of Madagascar, our returning middle-aged professor pulls ashore near a small fishing village. Believing the board game he seeks to be in the possession of the local chief, Hunt soon discovers that the game has long since been stolen by pirates and hidden somewhere in the jungle. Accused of being a (rather well-mannered and articulate) pirate himself, but without a map where X marks the spot, Hunt must decipher clues and solve a complex series of puzzles to locate the buried "treasure".
If the plot sounds a little simplistic, that's not a criticism. Perhaps "modest" is a better word, as it serves the game's ambitions well. Each episode of AGON is a tightly focused, self-contained adventure with an emphasis on exploration and puzzles, and Madagascar is no exception. That's not to say that the overall narrative is neglected, but it's relegated to various lengthy documents that have no real impact on the individual episode. While this prevents any real sense of immersion in the larger story, it also ensures that players can pick up any episode at any time without feeling too lost, so it's a necessary tradeoff. Fortunately, the quality of Episode 3 allows it to stand successfully on its own.
Even more than the previous episodes, Pirates of Madagascar is incredibly polished, with rock-solid stability and production values that rival, and even surpass, many full-length adventures. Although independently produced and self-published, make no mistake: AGON is anything but a garage game. From the moment you arrive on the island and begin to absorb the scenery, you can't help but appreciate the care the artists have taken with the graphics. The backgrounds are remarkably detailed and vibrantly coloured, from the pastel waters and dusk skies to the dense foliage of the jungle, making each scene worthy of the attention the gameplay requires. Although using a first-person, node-based presentation, there is enough subtle animation throughout the game to remind you that this is more than a slide show. In the opening scene alone, the sea has gentle, lapping waves that regularly crawl up the beach and recede, while birds circle overhead, and fishing nets sway in the breeze.
Cutscenes have also been ramped up considerably in this episode, both in quantity and quality, so anyone thinking that a downloadable game can't be generous with cinematics couldn't be more wrong. The game also makes clever use of other techniques to vary the presentation, including an illustrated storybook depiction of a pirate's tale, while a voiceover narration fills in the details. Even the transitions from node to node seem more natural in AGON than in many other commercial titles, as one scene dissolves smoothly into another, giving the impression of movement without the need for lengthy animations. These kinds of touches may seem small individually, but together they effectively draw you into the adventure, rather than expose the game's limitations.
Aurally, Madagascar matches the excellence of its predecessors. The voice acting of the few main characters (and Hunt in particular) is skillfully performed, and ambient sounds are plentiful in creating a convincing tropical atmosphere. Music is another key area that AGON has handled wonderfully all along, and this element shines once again in Episode 3. Here the pleasant ethnic arrangements are used sporadically, but provide a distinct cultural flavour to suit the locale.Continued on the next page...