Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: December 14, 2004
Buy 'SENTINEL: Descendants in Time': PC
There's a couple of ways you can look at Sentinel: Descendants In Time. If you take it purely by the merits of its gameplay, it feels and plays a great deal like the next generation of Myst style games should: full 3D worlds rich in puzzles to explore. The ability to walk around freely is very nice, and Sentinel's art design is sharp enough to carry the immersion.
That's just looking at the gameplay, though.
If we look at the plot instead, Sentinel feels like one of the best episodes of The Outer Limits ever made. First, though, let me lead into this some. There's some setup to cover before we plunge into the weird.
To start with, Sentinel does a good job of taking some basic workhorse premises of adventure gaming and doing new things with them. For example, it's set in a tomb. That's not new; there've been legions of games set in tombs. Tombs are good, tombs work. Very traditional and puzzle-encrusted things, tombs, but not very original. (It's hard to be traditional and original at the same time, yes, thank you.)
Sentinel is set in a futuristic tomb of an extinct race, filled with holographic images of the places the resident loved when they were alive, and guarded by a sentient AI defense system. Except that no one's really sure if they're really a defense system or possibly a memory imprint of the tomb's resident. Oh, and the one on Tomb 35 likes to play games with incoming treasure hunters. She plays guide, puzzle-mistress, and executioner with equal ease. Her given name is Dormeuse, which means "Sleeping Woman" in the ancient language of the Tastan, and her tomb is widely regarded as the most lethal of all discovered ruins.
What would it take to get anyone to go into a tomb with such a reputation for being lethal?
Well, they have your sister, for one thing. Rather, they have Beni's sister. Beni is the main character of this story, and "They" are the local Mafia-equivalent. They're demanding he bring them a rare artifact in trade for his sister. So off he -- and by extension you -- go, into the tombs, to solve puzzles.
Okay, so Sentinel only does a little that's new, but it's trying. I can respect that.
As you enter the tomb proper, you're going into a sort of mission hub. Sentinel has a nonlinear gameplay setup going. You solve a basic puzzle to get you going, and from there you can access one of three virtualized "worlds" from the tomb hallways. There are seven of these, and as many as three are open at any one time, so if you get bored or don't want to work on a particular puzzle anymore, you can wander out and go into another realm. The interesting thing is that plot cut scenes "dim the lights" around you, casting a sort of focus spotlight on Dormeuse as she speaks. It doesn't matter where you are when a plot scene triggers because they get fired off in a fixed order. You don't have to worry about walking past a plot scene just because you decided not to mess with the Magical World of Multicolored Lights until after you went through MazeLand. The same information comes either way.
You get seven "worlds" plus the framework tomb area, and each one is visually unique. Each area is designed around a snapshot, in a sense, building off of Dormeuse's favorite places. She gives you a bit of history as you go through each, and they do a decent enough job of invoking a sense of place, but for the most part each realm is just a placeholder for a stack of themed puzzles. In the watery world, you do a lot of puzzles involving manipulation of water and bridges. In the world based around a series of mining platforms, you use sound cues and symbol matching to get the diggers activated. These worlds look very good indeed, they're believable places. You can see ships in the distance, mist clinging to the mountaintops, smoke from the fire pits. They're very crisp, well-realized places. They look like they belong somewhere else, like hunks of reality lifted from some other world. It's a nice effect.
The problem is that the puzzles themselves are often extremely arbitrary. Why is the elevator to that mining platform at the center of a huge rotating maze? Why, because huge rotating mazes go in adventure games, of course! Why do you have to configure the mining platform using a series of animal noises and a four-part symbolic sequence? Why, because... okay, I can't think of any reason that would work that way without bashing my head against a wall a couple of times first. Maybe that's what the miners did too.
On the other hand, I called Sentinel part of the next generation of Myst-like games, way up there in the introduction. Perhaps a certain tentative grasp on the connection between puzzle and reality is to be expected in this genre, but it shouldn't be. If I stare at a machine for ten minutes trying to work out how it should logically function and why, and it turns out that it works because you play this alien tuba at it (real puzzle, folks), this is a sign that the developers and I are on different wavelengths. I'm going to start guessing wildly instead of wasting my time trying to think like them in the future. I'm also not saying all the puzzles are poorly integrated, there's one involving the walkways of an undersea research station that feels maddeningly right just as an example.
The game also offers a built-in hint system, which basically equates not so much to giving you a hint as telling you what the goal of the puzzle is supposed to be. I didn't need it often, but when I did turn the hint system on and it would tell me "Your goal is to aim this beam of light at each plant's bulb in sequence to energize the elevator." and I would ask it "Whose mind was I supposed to read to figure that one out?", I felt like we had reached a solid working relationship. It made the rest of the game more playable, and I had a good bit of fun once I understood what I was doing and why. I'm still trying to figure out if needing big signs reading "It works like this." floating over a puzzle means I did something wrong. I'm more inclined to believe Sentinel did something wrong, because I occasionally have something of an ego.
It should also be noted that, unlike the optional hint system, there's another level of hinting going on. In the screenshots in this review, you might notice that there's almost always at least one arrow visibly pointing somewhere. Sentinel leads you very pointedly to the next puzzle or puzzles in line, which makes it near impossible to get lost. Again, I have mixed feelings about this level of hand-holding, but I can't deny it makes it easier to find where to go next. At least, when the arrows aren't pointing towards puzzles you've already solved.
There are a lot of puzzles where you need to do something with an elevator in this, now that I think about it. If you don't like elevators, this is a game to avoid. Also, there are audio puzzles and mazes. Big warning flags to the hard-of-hearing and the easily irritated. To be fair, though, it's not much of a maze.
So that's the gameplay.
Remember way back up there when I called the plot Outer Limits-esqe? We're gonna talk about that now.
I'd never heard of science fiction author Terry Dowling before, although he appears to be very big in Australia. He wrote all the dialogue and storyline for this game, and frankly it's good enough stuff that I now wish to read more of his work. The important thing to know about the story in Sentinel is that it doesn't involve you. You get no chance to interact with the storyline of this game; most of what you get is a series of conversations, arguments and debates between Dormeuse and Beni.
What makes an entire civilization pack up and vanish, leaving only a series of numbered tombs for future generations to pick through? Does Beni actually exist, or is he a simulation of a tomb robber Dormeuse is running to entertain and amuse herself? Just what exactly is our artificially intelligent guardian program, anyway? Why isn't she stopping Beni? A lot of questions get raised, and a lot of them are answered in rather unexpected ways.
Our principle character really is Dormeuse, who needs to carry pretty much the entire plot on her back. Beni is there to react to her, to say things like "That can't be right!" and "I've got to help my sister!" and "What? I don't understand." He says "What? I don't understand." an awful lot. Beni is not our brightest shining star so far as cleverness goes.
(You would think he would have to be smart to solve these puzzles, yes? No. He says himself at one point, "I've never been this good. What's going on?" His sudden rush of intelligence throws his suspicions on himself. Is it a mark of desperation, or is it something else? Thus, the player's abilities contrast against the character's talent. A nice touch.)
While Beni is grousing and whining, Dormeuse cajoles and explains. She paces and frets with her clothing, she plays the piano as she waxes philosophical. Dormeuse is always doing something when Beni finds her, painting or reading or waiting for him pointedly. She feels more like a real person than Beni does, frankly. She's constantly pushing him to better himself, to learn and grow. She threatens him with the very real danger that if he stops being interesting, she may remember she's there to kill him. Then she swings sympathetic again. The writing here is really solidly done, although it is heavily laden with either typos or cultural oddities. ("Defence program," for example.)
Sentinel: Descendants in Time really only has a handful of problems. While playing, I experienced a number of audio related glitches along with the occasional system crash. At one point, I loaded the game to find that my saved game files had been corrupted and I would have to restart from scratch. In spite of this, I went on to replay and finish the game because of the compelling storyline. This game has the Myst feel, but not the Myst quality level. Aside from that, the puzzles are complex and detailed, but feel incredibly tacked on and arbitrary. It's clear that the storyline and the puzzles are the two reasons this game exist, but the two never touch each other. Additionally, there's no way to interact with anything besides a puzzle element. Nothing in the game is touchable just "because it's there;" all usable objects are puzzle pieces.
The reason Sentinel didn't get a higher score is simple: It really doesn't deserve one. This is a good game, but not a great game. It's one of the best written adventure games I've played in years as far as story goes, but the puzzles and the coding both failed on me more often than I'd like. It seems like for every crash or for every horrible audio glitch that left me grabbing for the speaker controls, there was a nice little detail like the complete transcript of all in-game dialogue.
At the very least, there's probably going to be a sequel, which you can tell because there's still a huge whack of detail in the world background left uncovered and untouched. I'm looking forward to that game, and I don't regret playing this one, but I do wish it were a little more polished in places. Good game, good story, flat presentation.