Kheops Studio’s Return to Mysterious Island came as something of a revelation in 2004. Flying well under the radar prior to release, the game looked to be much the same as countless others we’d already seen so many times before. Return to Familiar Island seemed more like it, and not just because it was set in the tropical locale first made famous by author Jules Verne. But anyone considering it nothing more than a “Myst clone with a health bar” was left eating their words – and a whole bunch of other self-prepared delectables – as the creative little adventure combined engaging real-world survivalist challenges with a clever use of inventory to make for one of the more delightful genre surprises in recent memory.
Now a half-decade later, the French studio is… uhh… returning to the… umm… mysterious island in Return to Mysterious Island 2: Mina’s Fate. Little did we realize that the young protagonist’s so-called “rescue” at the end of the first game would land her right back where she started, and more than a little worse for wear. But what of the game itself? Is it able to MacGyverishly build on the strengths of its predecessor, or is a sequel going back to the source once too often? The answer is a bit of both, as the second game shows flashes of the same charm while managing to introduce a welcome new feature, yet strays a little too far from the simple appeal of the original with an increasingly bizarre storyline that detracts from the overall experience.
The game’s primary addition is on display as soon as the action touches off. Or “splashes down”, to be more accurate, as a crash landing leaves players frantically seeking escape from a submerged helicopter while an unconscious Mina is helplessly oblivious of her impending doom. The playable character, you see, is Jep, the cute little monkey that Mina befriended in the first game. You won’t spend the whole game playing a simian, as you’ll control Mina alone on occasion, and the two pals together the rest of the time, but the inclusion of Jep as a second playable character does add some strategic twists and even an important narrative slant that gets RTMI2 off to a very promising start.
As you’d expect of a monkey, Jep is small, agile, has keen animal instincts, and is the only one that can communicate with the island’s other primates. His size is relevant, as only he can climb trees and fit into small spaces, and his nose alerts him to the presence of particularly important details. A small icon appears to indicate that a useful or dangerous object is nearby, coming into focus as you narrow in on its location. It’s an interesting concept, though it’s largely underused and only sporadically implemented, as most items don’t generate this sensory alert, and those that do can plainly be seen anyway. Still, it’s a nice touch to help create the illusion of playing a non-human character.
The ability to communicate with other monkeys is another such an attempt, though if my experience is any indication, Jep doesn’t understand his fellow creatures much better than I do. The animals’ basic emotions are indicated textually, such as “angry”, “saddened”, or “concerned”, and a reputation gauge appears onscreen to establish their current attitude towards you. To interact with each, a selection of pre-determined icons is available, allowing you to try such things as pacifying, grooming (yum, love those ticks!), offering gifts or even bullying them. However, there’s really no consistent way to predict the reaction, making the process seem like guesswork more than deductive reasoning.
There are limitations to being a monkey as well, most notably the inability to combine objects. As fans of the original game will remember, inventory connections were an essential part of the island experience, as Kheops introduced a unique interface that highlighted formulas for partially-completed combinations. This feature returns in RTMI2, but only when playing as Mina. This isn’t a significant hindrance, as the two protagonists (inexplicably) share all inventory anyway, but it does seem that complex experimentation is less emphasized this time around, often limited to the many optional tasks available to you. You can still bake cakes, paint cliffside murals with homemade paints, and go fishing for dinner with a makeshift rod, but you can skip these actions entirely if you so desire. I commend the developers for including non-essential activities, though having said that, I often found the side quests far more interesting than the required ones.
Survival is still the first order of business, of course, especially since Mina is wounded to start. As with the last game, an energy bar indicates each character’s health status, and you’ll need to scavenge for items so you can feed and sometimes nurse them back to full strength. It’s at these times where the game really shines. So many adventure game obstacles seem like blatantly contrived puzzles, and having players face real dilemmas with (more or less) real-world solutions is a welcome change. Stitching up Mina’s cut is guaranteed to be one of the more memorable inventory puzzle solutions ever, and chasing off a prowling jaguar is always satisfying. Even a little TLC goes a long way, as a hug between Mina and Jep is good for them and can’t help but warm even a jaded player’s heart a bit.
Along the way, you’ll need to successfully overcome a variety of minigames as well. These aren’t typically “win or lose” activities, but “keep trying until you get it right” types. You’ll need a quick hand to snag scurrying ants, a steady aim to fire a blowgun, and a proper sense of timing to navigate a series of tree jumps, to name just a few. You’ll also get to help Mina make some pottery, though even those who are all thumbs can’t fail at that. You’ll need more than thumbs to play a simple ocarina, however, if you plan to use tune-matching music to calm any savage beasts (there are other ways). None of the minigames are very difficult, requiring just a touch of patience more than anything else, but an “easy” option appears after a few failed attempts if you do have trouble. Regrettably, most of these activities aren’t overly engaging, either, and some are clearly better and more organic than others – slapping a rogue monkey’s thieving hands from your multi-tabbed inventory stops being fun the moment it starts – but they do add a bit of variety. No particular minigame is overused and some aren’t even required at all. There are occasions where you can “die”, but you’re instantly restored to the point before death, so it’s a very temporary setback.
Somewhere along the line, though, the focus begins to change, as if Kheops realized that a survivalist premise wouldn’t carry them through another complete game. The characters may be hungry, but will refuse to eat certain food types more than once, axes and knives won’t cut through thorny roadblocks, and Mina won’t even agree to carry Jep unless he cleans himself off each time. Such arbitrary busywork then gives way to even more abstract obstacles in the form of tile puzzles, circuit patterns, and other standalone challenges. You’ll even have to deduce a symbol code to open an underwater airlock. Who does that?! In the original game, the impulse to include these sorts of brainteasers was held off until the very end, but here it’s introduced sooner with a storyline twist that takes the game in an increasingly bizarre direction. Don’t get me wrong: while some are far too reliant on trial-and-error, the logic puzzles can be quite clever in isolation, but when conducting the latest scientific experiment, solving another mechanical breakdown, or interpreting strange runes, you can’t help but wonder when you started playing a different, far more traditional game altogether.Continued on the next page...
|Download||July 1 2009||Microïds|
|United Kingdom||October 1 2009||Iceberg Interactive|