A funny thing happened while I was playing VOYAGE, the newest game from Kheops Studio. I had this weird thought that at some point, a long time ago, adventure games died.
I'm the last person I'd ever expect to say that, let alone put it in print. But a scene in VOYAGE put the idea in my head, and I haven't been able to shake it. It started when, exploring an all-but-deserted lunar landscape, explorer Michel Ardan stumbled upon a desolate alien necropolis. There, in crumbling tombs flanking a distant view of planet Earth, lay heaps of long-neglected Selenite bones. What happened to this once magnificent race, between their last contact with ancient humanity and their apparent disappearance? What tragedy befell these proud people, leaving behind only a few primitive creatures in the forest and these skeletons long since stripped of their marrow? It's a powerful image, not only because of the loneliness and despair that shrouds this eerie resting ground, but also because of its resonance with that ill-conceived assertion we adventure game fans are never going to be able to escape. The disappearance of a once-great race… the death of a once-dominant genre… the link was impossible to ignore. But no sooner had I thought it, I, like Ardan, saw a glimmer of hope. A suggestion that these legendary beings had not been wiped out completely. A possibility that what seemed to be lost was, in fact, merely hiding beneath another layer of mystery.
It's no coincidence that I had the death of adventure games on the brain. Whether or not the genre's viability was ever truly in question, Kheops Studio has done a lot to change public perception. Last year, the developer's sleeper hit Return to Mysterious Island surprised reviewers and fans alike with an approach that was at once extremely traditional and refreshingly new. Earlier this summer, ECHO: Secrets of the Lost Cavern created some buzz even among mainstream websites. Now, with VOYAGE, Kheops is poised to deal another blow to those critics who insist on likening the adventure genre to a dusty pile of bones.
If you've ever bemoaned the fact that they just don't make adventure games like they used to, with flexible, open-ended gameplay and a heavy emphasis on exploring new worlds, you're in for a treat. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the game borrows liberally from two novels by Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon), but the bulk of its creativity comes directly from the minds of the developers. It uses the same first-person perspective and node-based, 360-degree panning from previous games, but the setting is entirely different than anything we've seen out of Kheops so far. Although not a sequel to Return to Mysterious Island, VOYAGE employs a similar interface and method of gameplay. RtMI fans are going to be thrilled to find more of the same. And those who never played RtMI get to experience for the first time what makes this style of game so good.
If you're a Verne fan, or were forced to read him in school, you're probably familiar with the game's premise: a renowned French adventurer named Michel Ardan has agreed to accompany two colleagues, Barbicane and Nicholl, to the moon on a space capsule shot out of a giant cannon. But that's where the similarities between the game and Verne's books end. In Kheops' re-imagining of the story, the capsule makes it to the moon, but Ardan is the only survivor. Our hero awakens, groggy, to find the shell dangerously low on oxygen and too heavy to land on the lunar surface. Your immediate concern, as you take control of Ardan, is to get past these challenges and safely onto solid ground.
Once you have, the capsule's hatch opens to reveal a stunningly surreal landscape of brightly colored plants and cratered ledges, set against the backdrop of a star-filled sky. This is not the moon as we know it, but as it was imagined by Jules Verne's contemporaries and by Kheops' own visionaries. At first glance, the crater appears to be inhabited only by the aggressive, towering plants that dominate the vicinity where Ardan's capsule landed, but a bit of exploration reveals a few creatures walking among them. What's their relationship to the ancient Selenite civilization that, according to legend, once lived here? This is the question Ardan seeks to answer as he makes his way across the landscape and begins to decipher the language and culture of its onetime inhabitants.
Many of VOYAGE's early challenges involve studying the behavior of the lunar plants and finding uses for the fruit they produce. Some can be cooked into compotes that provide you with special skills when eaten. Others must be planted and grafted together before Ardan will find a use for them. As the game progresses, Ardan gains access to a laboratory for more advanced experiments that help him repair his capsule and procure needed supplies. For me, these tasks were a lot of fun, but Kheops understands that not everyone plays the same way. Many of the items you can make can also be found or purchased. In fact, most of the game's critical actions have two or more possible solutions, which means VOYAGE may well appeal to a broader audience than many of the more linear adventures released these days. This game has a little something for everyone.
In addition to the agriculture and chemistry experiments, the game includes a number of mechanical puzzles, two extensive sound puzzles (one that's completely random and doesn't have an alternate solution, so if you're tone-deaf, you're in trouble), and a bit of math that ranges from elementary to head-scratching. VOYAGE also has several simple dexterity challenges, such as collecting potassium bubbles that are floating around the weightless capsule, and trying to master the moon's unfamiliar gravitational force while jumping from one lunar ledge to another. And brace yourself: there are a few timed sequences near the beginning of the game. Don't let these scare you off. The timed sequences are very forgiving, and the dexterity challenges are much more puzzle-like than action-like. Although dying is possible, the game immediately brings you back to a point just beforehand, with your inventory items and progress in tact.
If you played Return to Mysterious Island, VOYAGE's interface will be old hat. If not, there's a little bit of a learning curve, but tips in the game's initial sequence (such as being told to right-click to access the inventory, and prompted to save your game for the first time) will help you get over the hump. Not having played RtMI, I came at VOYAGE fresh—and, I'll admit, a little cynical. Combining one inventory item with another to create a third has become a bit of a joke in adventure games (syrup + cat hair, rubber duckie + band-aid… need I go on?), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Kheops' system retains the fun of tinkering without making the process too formulaic or mundane. A lot has already been said about the ins and outs of this inventory system, so I won't go into too much detail. What was good about it in RtMI is good in VOYAGE, too. However, some minor interface annoyances—such as the fact that the player must organize the dozens of items in the inventory by hand—are still present.
I do have one specific gripe about the inventory: it has loads of empty slots, yet you can only carry three of any one item at a time. This was problematic when I first started experimenting with the plants, because it required me to travel back and forth, often across several screens, to pick up what I needed. It gets better as the game goes on and Ardan discovers alternative places to pick up certain ingredients, but even then, sometimes the three-item limit just wasn't enough. Of course, the ability to carry more of each item could make an already unwieldy inventory worse, but I wouldn't have minded if the game represented stores of items with just one icon and a number to show how many Ardan was carrying, rather than displaying an icon for every single thing in his pockets.Continued on the next page...