Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Future Games
Release Date: August 31, 2005
Future Games has a real knack for, uhm, something. It certainly isn't making adventure games with likeable heroes, however. The Black Mirror was their last effort, and it highlighted the adventures of a rather whiny fellow who dealt with dark forces. His annoyingly snarky air made that game extremely tedious to play through.
It looks like they haven't learned their lesson, because Nibiru features a main character even less interesting and more difficult to relate to. Martin Holan, Nibiru's focal point, comes off as a sociopath bastard with an eye towards casually wrecking the day of everyone he comes across who might hinder him in his quest.
That quest happens to be researching the mysterious twelfth planet of Nibiru, the celestial body beyond the orbit of Pluto. It is theorized that the strange planet killed off the dinosaurs and flooded the Earth in ancient times. The Sumerians feared it, the Mayans possibly worshipped it, and, of course, like anything with mystical and strange powers, those Darn Wacky Nazis wanted to get their hands on it. More specifically, they wanted to get their hands on the technology of the alien creatures who lived on it.
Nazis just make the plot of any game a little better, don't they? They're the paprika in the video game spice rack.
It's a good thing that they're in there, too, because Nibiru needs the spice. In almost every respect, it's made up of the kind of filler that most adventure games use rather sparingly to stretch and bind the game together. Puzzles, game play, NPC conversations – they're all there solely to make the game last a little longer. Nibiru is a great big meatloaf of a game made entirely of bread ... and the aforementioned Nazi paprika.
All right, enough of that. Nibiru starts with Martin being sent by his uncle, a famous professor (although we only know him as "Uncle") to check out some Nazi mines uncovered recently for evidence of their secret quest to find Nibiru. Martin must meet a contact on a bridge out in Eastern Europe. When he arrives, however, he finds that she's not there.
This makes a great highlight to show the first of Nibiru's problems: Often the player can conclude something long before Martin gets there. Asking some of the painfully voice-acted NPCs around the area reveals that a woman did indeed get there long before Martin. She stood next to a statue, did something with it briefly, and then left. From this, obviously we can assume she did something to the statue that we should examine, yes? So we click on the statue. Martin makes some non-commental noises about the art style and notes that there's a space under it. It's only after clicking through more badly acted conversations and paying off a local artist that we can learn that the woman put something under the statue. Now we're allowed to look under the statue and retrieve the note.
This sort of thing crops up often throughout the game. Often what to do is obvious, or there'll be a clearly useful object sitting around in plain sight. However, you won't be allowed to pick it up or proceed until you've done something rather arbitrary. Sometimes Martin will even point out, "That could be useful." and make no move at all to take it until you trip the Plot Flag he's waiting for. I realize it could be useful, Obvious Man, that's why I've been pointing it out to you for the past 10 minutes.
At least it can be said that key items stand out against the background. I'd like to point out that Nibiru's pre-rendered backdrops are quite nice-looking and do show off potential inventory and locations to travel to rather well. Additionally, control is simple, and they've even included a nice double-click fast travel option to get you places in a hurry. Sound doesn't hold up so well, however. As I played through Nibiru, I was constantly in awe of the voice acting. Rarely have I heard such an unenthusiastic collection of janitors and programmers drowsing their way through their lines. (The bad guys in particular are cringe-worthy; one of them is faking an accent but can't decide if he's French or German. Sometimes he's both at the same time.) The exception to the dull voice acting rule is our good hero Martin, whose smarmy and smug tones manage to make his performance rather hilarious in comparison.
Let's talk about Martin for a moment more, since we've gradually wound around to him again. You remember that casual day- wrecking I mentioned? He just loves doing that. To pluck an example at random from the game itself with some details slightly tweaked to avoid too many spoilers, Martin arrives in a small seaside village with no place to stay, so he swings by the local hotel (which coincidentally some of the Bad Guys are also staying at) to find a room. Of course, the hotel is booked solid. He talks an old and extremely drunken man at the bar into giving Martin his name and room number, so Martin can phone the man's son and tell him where he'll be staying. Instead, Martin calls the hotel and cancels the man's reservation, then swings back into the hotel and happily sets up his own reservation in the mysteriously just-canceled room.
All through the game, he pulls things like that. Food poisoning, impersonating law enforcement, tying dynamite to small animals to blast open locked doors – nothing gets past Martin. His superpower is the ability to violate human rights in every way available. If this were done in an ironic sense or even with some consciousness of what was going on, I might not find it so offensive, but he and the game alike treat the people he meets as just means to an end. He alternates between amusing and painful to watch in his dealings with NPCs.
(I mentioned "tying dynamite to small animals," yes? This is a real puzzle solution. I laughed, I admit, but it was played as perfectly straight and serious. I'm not sure if that's hilarious or depressing.)
You'll be dealing a lot with NPCs, since the vast majority of game time is taken up listening to them drone on, working out how to get around them to get what you want, and then doing that. More than half of the game's characters exist solely as virtual doorstops to stop you from entering an area. Quite frequently, they'll tell you in conversation what they want you to do ("Bring me wine."), and then you'll go and do it. Sometimes this involves another layer of NPC gift-giving action, sometimes not. Then you get the reward for bringing them an item and get rewarded with the next bit of dialogue. That's not adventure gaming, that's Animal Crossing.
Look, I'm being harsh on Nibiru. I freely admit that. Perhaps I shouldn't be so rough on it, because it was kind of amusing. On the other hand, it was amusing at the expense of likeable characters, interesting dialogue, almost any actual puzzles (I was, for example, almost pathetically grateful when the game threw a pentomino puzzle at me. Finally, a chance to actually think about something!), or any plot twists that weren't telegraphed a weekend ahead of their arrival.
In the end, being "kind of amusing" isn't enough to make a game good. Adventure games tend to immerse one in a world where stuff like, "The Nazis are going to take over the Earth using alien technology!" could be presented as plausible, or at least something besides the plot of a late night Sci-Fi Channel feature presentation. Nibiru doesn't quite live up to those lofty standards, unless you add a couple of guys in theater seats cracking jokes at the bottom of the screen. Nibiru just isn't worth it unless you're hard up for an adventure game and can tolerate the interface and slow-moving pace of the game, and you're willing to ignore as much of the foreshadowing as possible so you can be surprised by the plot twists.