PC Review - 'Atlantis Evolution'

by Gordy Wheeler on Nov. 11, 2004 @ 12:56 a.m. PST

In 1904, Curtis Hewitt, an adventurous photographer, becomes caught in a vortex that brings him to the heart of the lost city of Atlantis. A stranger in a land of high-end technology and archaic faith, Curtis begins an extraordinary adventure, assisting with the Atlantians' plight for survival as they overthrow their gods. Atlantis Evolution is the first episode of a new Atlantis series, following the original, world-renowned series.

Genre: Adventure
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Atlantis Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 18, 2004

Ah, Atlantis. City 'neath the waves. Since its invention, or chronicling depending on your beliefs, at the hands of Plato, no other lost continent has inspired so much attention and mythology. There have been claims of a highly advanced technofuturistic society living there, claims of alien involvement in its collapse, claims of people having led past lives there, and claims that Atlantis is in fact the capital of Georgia. (No one pays much attention to that last myth.) There's also been a smattering of games devoted to the famous legend, and Atlantis Evolution is the latest in a long running series. It's unrelated to the games before it, starting a new plot arc entirely. It's also not very good.

Let's start with the beginning. I like doing that.

We're told offhand that the year is 1904. (This doesn't really matter, except to make the speech patterns of the characters seem weirdly anachronistic.) Our hero is a man named Curtis Hewitt, a passenger on the ship Lemuria. (A little lost continent humor there.) In rapid succession, Curtis' ship is destroyed by a tidal wave, his lifeboat is sucked down a whirlpool into shark-infested waters, he's attacked -- or more accurately, kind of looked at funny before he drives it off -- by a two-headed vulture, and is finally sucked into what appears to be a spaceship and dragged off to the lost continent of Atlantis itself, where he's accosted by the local lawkeepers and snubbed by the common people, who proclaim him a Deviant. So, yeah. Curtis is having a really bad day.

This in the first ten, maybe fifteen minutes of the game, and by now it's either driven you away or drawn you in. It's not like this game doesn't have any effort put into it, and that's why I'm going to go ahead and talk about the good points. This game has a lot of energy and enthusiasm behind it, and that's nowhere more obvious than in the visuals, which are pretty stunning up to a point. Everything in the actual game enviornment looks fantastic and well detailed, and it's presented in a full-3D panning interface much like that of Myst IV. The problem... wait, we're staying positive. Okay. The music isn't half bad either, it ranges from sweeping dramatic orchestral numbers to what I can only describe as "celtic techno-funk". This works sometimes, other times it sounds like what would happen if you gave some Gregorian-chanting monks a mid-range Casio keyboard with no instruction manual and told them to wing it. The voice acting is just plain hilarious. Cartoonishly overdone. The actors chew through the script like a team of dedicated eardrum-busters who love their work. I have no idea how you're supposed to take these guys seriously. Yes, that's a positive for me, in a way. Yes, I'm strange.

You might have noticed that by now I can't be nice anymore. There is one point I'm holding out on, though, and that's being saved as counterpoint further down.

The problems with this game start with the opening cinematics, which are unskippable and too long. It's a minor thing, so I forgive this. Then we reach the very first impression the game should be making on a player: The menu. They say a picture is worth a thousand cliche rantings, so let's have one.

Remember folks: The swoopy U shape is for Game Options, which are all labeled with their own cryptic icons. One of the dots is 'save game', there is no load game button. I can't remember what the other buttons do, in spite of having hammered at this game for hours and hours, I had to rely on the mouse-over text. This takes about five seconds to pop up, which is almost infuriatingly long when you just want to pop a quick save off. Also, it's occasionally just plain wrong. That button I'm hovering over that claims to be "Exit Game"? That's actually the button to start a new game. I deeply hope that's just a problem with my review copy. Once you enter the "Start New Game" menu, you're greeted with... you got it. Five more unlabeled sygils, each representing a new game slot. Clicking one either starts a new game or loads the game you were last playing in that slot. If there's a method of deleting a saved game besides mucking about in the save directory, I sure can't find it.

You'd think this would be incredibly nitpicky even for me, but it reflects a problem that goes through the entire game. The very first thing I have written in my notepad about Atlantis Evolution is "This game does not want me to play it." Hotspots in the game range from big enough to take up most of the screen to miniscule, and clicking often doesn't do what you'd expect. The first thing our hero wants to do in the game is to head back to his bedroom and check on his supplies. Clicking the trunk of camera equipment he brought opens it. Clicking it again nets a snarky "I don't have TIME to mess with that right now." reply. Clicking a third time picks the trunk up anyway. Before leaving the room Curtis orders the player to put the trunk back down before leaving, which you have to do. After leaving the room, he's told the ship is about to sink, and his first thought is "I'm not leaving my room without my camera equipment!". After this point, Curtis' trunk is never clickable or accessible again. You see it once or twice, but it's a heck of a lot of attention paid to something so utterly insignificant.

What I'm trying to convey is that the whole game is peppered with these things, little details that add up into a big pile of annoyance. Inventory items vanish mysteriously between plot points, for example. Elements of the in-game mythology are made a big point of and never shown again. The storyline and gameplay wander all over the place, much like Curtis does, and just like him they seem lost and confused and occasionally a little stupid. Additionally, Curtis himself will occasionally use his narrative position not only to crack bad jokes, an offense I can't really hold anyone accountable for, but also to lie to the player about his desires. "I wasn't leaving the town without more information." he'll say. Does he want to talk to people? Does he want to look around and gather clues and inventory? Nah. The "information" Curtis wants is a drink of water from the well. After that he's perfectly happy with waltzing right out of town. This lends him a certain less-than-reliable air, and as far as I can tell, we're supposed to trust and like the guy.

That's just one element of the gameplay, though, and alone it would be annoying but tolerable. Punch number two comes in the form of arcade minigames liberally spiced through the game world. Calling these puzzles would be generous, they're just an old-fashioned reflex tester. They're like putty to hold the plot together, every instance of these little arcade games feels like another spot where the developers said "We'll come back and add a real puzzle later." You've got knockoff clones of the Tron lightcycles, Pong, there's even a plot-critical, 'win it or fail to move on' game of Frogger.

Why can I point at an adventure game made in 2004 and say the words "This contains a plot-critical game of Frogger." without a hint of irony in my voice? That's not even the worst of it. The shoestring plot excuse for the sidescrolling arcade shooter left me gaping at the monitor long enough that Curtis died. Again.

(For the record, and this is a mild spoiler so skip this italic text if you care about that kind of thing, the entire arcade shooter sequence occurs while Curtis is strapped into a mind control chair, fighting off a brainwashing session. The man hallucinates himself up an airship and some missiles and bombs and goes to town on the New Atlantians invading his psychic personal space. I wish I didn't have to call this a bad thing, because I personally find it almost painfully hilarious.)

Again. Curtis dies an awful lot in this game. It's not really a setback and after a while it comes to be expected, and from there it goes straight to boring. Not because you bite it more times in this game than you do in a classic Sierra adventure title, although you do, and not because you have to reload from a save either, because you don't. Whenever Curtis kicks over and dies, you get to restart from the beginning of the scene you were playing through without a reload or restart, and with all the items you'd picked up doing that scene. (Come to think of it, this is probably why the developers were so free with death. It carries no real consequence. In some cases, you can make your way to an item, pick it up, die, and that actually saves you some travel time.)

Curtis dies a lot because of the timed mazes and forced stealth sequences, where if guards see you they kill you instantly. You don't even get a chance to run for it, your first cue that you've been seen is often just a shout of "Halt, Deviant! You will be Realigned!" as the game takes your control away for the "You've been shot." cutscene.

I could keep harping on problems with gameplay and puzzle design, like the fact that the Atlantians we see would have no patience for the puzzles locking the doors to, say, their own bedrooms -- or maybe the fact that late in the game, one "use item" hotspot just isn't there, you have to just kind of magically know to use something on that spot -- but this is getting to be a stale tune.

In spite of all this, I really wanted to like Atlantis Evolution. I really did. That's because in spite of having all this stuff wrong with it, the storyline... well, the storyline sucked too, but it sucked in an entertaining way. I caught myself going "Oh, that's horrible!" about each new plot twist even as I was cracking up over it. If the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang were still plying their trade, they'd have enough material in this game to keep them going through all four CDs.

That's the real value of Atlantis Evolution. In spite of the awful gameplay, the instant-death mazes, the inventory items that are nearly invisible, and the useless filler of arcade "puzzles", I kept playing because I wanted to see how this game was going to fail at being dramatic this time.

Score : 4.0/10

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