Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: February 26, 2008
If 9 p.m. on Thursday nights (8 p.m. Central) are an almost obsessive ritual for you, you'll no doubt have been keenly anticipating the release of Ubisoft Montreal's Lost: Via Domus, the adventure game based on the ABC television drama. The series follows the lives of the survivors of an airplane crash after it went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This somewhat-short game is almost entirely a gift for fans, yet it doesn't really reveal any new plot points or answer any of the hundreds of questions that "Lost" has left in its wake. What it offers instead is the chance to interactively explore the "Lost" universe and chat with some familiar faces.
You play as a brand-new and previously unseen character, Elliot Maslow, a photojournalist and survivor of Oceanic Flight 815. You have amnesia brought on as a result of trauma from the crash, and through a series of reconstructive memory flashbacks, your goal in Via Domus is to try to remember who you are and what brought you to this point. These trips down memory lane are very similar to the way the flashbacks work in the TV series to fill in the background details of the characters. Rediscovering who you are is also important because Jack and his crew start to become suspicious that you might be one of "The Others" and that you are just using the amnesia as an excuse.
Elliot's flashbacks are a gameplay highlight, and they occur whenever another character or event jolts his memory. During a flashback sequence, you'll get a brief glimpse of a torn-up photograph that you must reconstruct using a camera. A scene from Elliot's memory will play and loop continuously until you nail the shot. To do this, you must analyze what is relevant about the scene and frame and focus the moment so that it's just right. Some of these sequences are fairly simple, but they get more challenging as the game progresses. In each flashback, you learn a little more about Elliot's past and the events that brought him to the island. It's a pretty unique narrative technique and works well to tell a satisfying story full of Lost-like twists and turns. Moreover, it achieves the remarkable task of making Elliot fit in as a believable part of the characters and events that occur on the island without affecting what's already happened to date.
Gameplay takes place over the first 70 days or so, through the first three seasons of the television series. When you talk to other characters, they'll often reference events from the show that will trigger moments of smug recognition if you're a fan and moments of dumbfounded blankness if you usually spend Thursday nights practicing your clarinet.
Fans will also get a kick out of the fact that the core characters make their appearances in the game including Ben, Charlie, Claire, Desmond, Hurley, Jack, Jin, Juliet, Kate, Locke, Mikhail, Sawyer, Sayid, Sun and Tom. You'll get to spend a lot of time shooting the breeze with some of these characters, whereas you'll only see others make a brief appearance and inexplicably never be seen again. The character models are all instantly recognizable, but while some look pretty close to the real deal, others look like a stunt double stood in for them. The actors for Ben, Claire, Desmond, Mikhail, Sun and Tom lend their talents to the game's voice acting, while the other characters' voices are provided by substitutes, which, despite some valiant efforts, is both distracting and disappointing. Talking to the characters is fun for a few minutes, but after a while, you realize you're just mouthing the dull same one-liners to them and asking them all about the mundane objects in your inventory instead of having any enlightening sort of dialogue. You tend to walk away from most of these conversations feeling that the character with whom you just spoke couldn't care whether you lived or had a fatal fall down a hatch.
The music and sound effects are pitch perfect and go a long way toward increasing the dramatic tension at the right moments and making the game feel as close as possible to the TV series. Adding to this, each portion of gameplay is split into chapters, which play out similar to how a weekly episode might unfold. Each ends on a cliffhanger and begins with a recap that lets you know what happened last time on "Lost," complete with the blurry floating logo intro.
Anyone looking over your shoulder while you play Via Domus might assume, solely from the graphics, that it's a good game. Its strongest assets are the gorgeous visuals and environments that do a great job of conveying the feeling of wondering around the actual sets of the TV series. The hatch, the crash site and the black rock all have a wonderfully authentic feel to them, thanks to some great lighting and careful attention to detail. The leafy jungle paths, breathtaking vistas and picturesque white sand beaches are enough to make you wonder why everyone's so desperate to escape.
It might have something to do with the black smoke monster that prowls around the forest. The only thing perhaps more frightening than this mysterious death-inflicting entity is the minigame inspired by it. It requires you to make your way through the dark jungle following markings and taking shelter in well-placed banyan tree groves to escape the clutches of the black smoke monster. This doesn't sound particularly good on paper, so it's no surprise that the minigame just falls kind of flat and quickly becomes the opposite of fun.
Other minigames are equally meaningless and uninspiring, such as meandering through maze-like darkened caves with a limited light source that can be affected by flying bats. There's a bartering system that you use to get necessary quest items from Sawyer and Charlie, but this is mostly pointless because the traded items are lying about in copious quantities all over the place. You can even get a gun, but the game only allows you to use it in scripted sequences so this isn't Grand Theft Auto on an island, which is a real shame. Many locked door style puzzles rely on an electrical puzzle where you place fuses that you've collected during the course of your adventure into the appropriate slots to make the current add up correctly at various switches. This starts off as a pretty neat, albeit artificial, way of making you think, but it becomes repetitive and tedious by the time the game ends.
This brings me to Via Domus' major flaw: It's way too short. You can complete Elliot's story in four to six hours, and while the storyline is engaging, the ending might leave you feeling a little cheated. Unless you're a concept art addict, there's little reason to replay the game only to unlock these.
For gamers who don't watch "Lost," the experience in Via Domus is something similar to what you might feel if you turned up at someone else's high school reunion where everyone else knows each other and keeps laughing at all the inside jokes about polar bears that you just don't get. Via Domus is crafted almost exclusively and unapologetically for the fans who are treated to some unique moments, such as being able to explore Oceanic 815's mangled cockpit or getting to actually enter the numbers and push the button on the antique computer at the Swan station. Because it's over almost as soon as it starts, there's no way of justifying the console version's $60 price tag. If you have the choice, check that you're really a huge fan of the show by reciting Hurley's winning lottery numbers, and then either play Via Domus on a PC or rent it.