Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Release Date: February 9, 2008
Adventure games may be few and far between on store shelves, but The Adventure Company keeps the genre alive by importing choice titles from Europe's thriving PC market. The Experiment, from French developer Lexis Numerique, has a story that mixes sci-fi flick "The Abyss" with the voyeuristic tendencies of an interactive movie. It's the '90s all over again.
As a nameless protagonist, you take control of the security system on a beached and rusting tanker. You discover that a young woman, Lea Nichols, is still alive and has awakened to find her world changed. She sees that the camera is working and discovers that you are behind the lens and can possibly help her. By working together, you have to figure out what happened to everyone else and discover the secrets that the ship is hiding.
The sci-fi story is packed with some interesting twists that ramp up the sense of discovery that you'll experience as you and Lea explore your surroundings. The Experiment has a few gaping plot holes that you'll have to take at face value, such as how advanced the ship's technology is, given its age. The B-movie dialogue and dodgy voice acting during the flashback cinematics try to add a few more details to the plot, although everyone sounds as if they're reading from cue cards. Lea's less-than-compelling tone throughout most of the game is most disappointing, since she's supposed to be the leading lady.
Rusty walls, high-tech conduits, rotting crates, and flickering lights create plenty of claustrophobic moments. Strange creatures flap and caw at Lea as she stiffly stumbles away (some of the animations can appear stiff), taps at a keypad to update your objectives, and mouths her lines with a face that's frozen in the exact same expression for the entirety of the game. While sound effects are sparse, the music is a great mix of fast-moving synth and slower-paced, sci-fi flavored pieces that evoke the eerie atmosphere that's suggested in the narrative.
Lea continues to plod along at the same slow speed throughout the adventure, which can make you dread having to send her up or down stairs, or through long corridors. At one point, she'll even suggest that you should read through some of the files that you may have access to while she walks to another location. I prepared some cereal instead and came back with plenty of time to spare before she had reached her destination, as there is no way to make her go any faster. It feels as if you spend most of the title just waiting for Lea to reach her destinations.
The Experiment pulls you directly into the game by presenting you with a Windows-style interface that links you to the security system, which will act as your only means of interacting with Lea as you guide her through the decaying ship. In working with her as your partner in the "real" world on the other side of the screen, you'll eventually be able to log into an ever-present network and delve into the lives of those who had worked with her. You'll get to nose through people's files, e-mails, and recordings to find clues to the mystery that Lea is depending on you to solve.
Puzzles consist of ciphers that you will need to decode, password clues buried in files, or simply getting Lea to where she needs to go in order to pick up a key card or a piece of equipment. Occasionally, you'll also be able to take remote control of certain devices, such as using a robot to enter a hazardous area or steering a bathysphere through an underwater canyon of hazards. The cameras can also be enhanced with upgrades that Lea will discover along the way, which brightens up an area or allows you to see in infrared, but not every camera will be functional. Fortunately, the tanker seems as if it were designed by Big Brother, so there are plenty of cameras to choose from, in case one isn't working.
Areas are on separate networks, so as Lea moves from deck to deck, she'll trip the switch that will take you over. As the next area loads, the screen is filled with techspeak to keep you immersed. Lea will also ask you a few questions, and you can reply by nodding or shaking the camera that she's looking at, which makes her more than a parser on two legs. She'll also comment on what you'll be doing, give you hints and ideas on what to try next, or make suggestions about what you should look for as you explore your surroundings. By using the interface, you'll help her negotiate darkened rooms and obstacles by lighting up equipment to create a path.
Saves are handled through the sidebar menu as long as the game isn't "processing data," which is indicated by a small bottle icon in the upper right-hand corner. Processing data usually involves Lea doing something at the time, but it is also the first indicator that something is buggy. Problems with the save system were among the first issues that I encountered, as it would appear that Lea wasn't doing anything, but I couldn't save because it was "processing data." Attempting to get her to do something else became a fruitless exercise, as she appeared to be stuck, leaving me to exit the game and get back in and make up lost time. Moral of the story: Save often.
Most everything is interconnected in some way, creating a breadcrumb trail of clues and information through which your gray matter can sift. Clues start becoming more scarce as the game progresses, although many of the puzzles are simple enough and only require you to mix and match phrases and letters. The title has a nasty habit of suddenly asking you for information that you may have never been clued into or been led to explore. It's not unusual to run into a figurative brick wall, only to have Lea remember something or suggest a clue. You can also stumble upon something helpful by simply going everywhere that you can, even if it means revisiting previous areas that you thought you'd searched. Newcomers might become easily frustrated by how the title can often jump off its own tracks.
Despite the potential threat of tetanus that Lea runs by walking barefoot on rusty floors, she won't die when she enters a dark room and hears something munch on her like a Snickers bar. Even when you splash around underwater canyons in a bathysphere with Lea yelling out that she might actually get killed, rest assured that you won't suddenly implode. The Experiment is extremely friendly to players who like poking around in places they don't belong, and death is something you won't have to worry about, although the title has other problems that can give you the bends.
Buggy gameplay can make you question whether you may have missed something, and when Lea doesn't move, you may wonder if you haven't clicked on the correct light. Crashes to the desktop occasionally occur, and at one point, I couldn't read a vital clue because the window I was viewing wouldn't scroll all the way down. Other times, you may have to flash a light over a spot multiple times just to get Lea to do a better job of searching for what you need. This "feature" can easily cause you to miss important clues, which is actually something of a design decision rather than a bug. You'd think that Lea is smart enough to be thorough, but you'd be surprised at how often that isn't the case.
The fun didn't stop there. At one point, a node on which I needed to click had disappeared, and it was needed in order to get Lea over to the next area on the map. It didn't reappear until I quit and reloaded the game. It's also easy to clutter the security system's desktop, leaving you to deal with having to shuffle, shrink and close obscured windows. It turns some of your tasks into an exercise in multitasking because suddenly, you're reading e-mails, scanning reports for clues, and looking for the login field at the same time. It can be annoying to deal with what can often feel like a crippled version of Windows.
The deeper into The Experiment that I went, the worse the issues seemed to become. I can forgive the clipping and the occasional crash, but other problems made themselves much more difficult to ignore because they affected a puzzle. During my trip in the bathysphere, I had to connect to a "key" plug with the robot arm in order to bring up a login screen, only nothing came up even when Lea kept repeating that it worked. When it finally allowed me to punch in the code, I couldn't back away from the interface because the arm had gotten stuck on the object. I was unable to move again until the underwater current swung me away and peeled the arm from the collision box.
Then there was the time when I had to disarm a bomb and indicate to Lea using another device whether or not to cut the wire that she was holding. I only had five minutes to do this, most of which was spent fighting the unresponsive menu that would stop working after telling Lea what to do. Clicking on other menus, closing and reopening windows, and basically fiddling with everything else would wake up the critically important piece of software that allowed me to beat the clock at the very last second.
As intriguing as the concept is, the climax is not as nearly as exciting, and the weak ending makes the problem-plagued trip hardly worth the effort. There are moments of genuine discovery and surprise within The Experiment as you peel back the layers and find another mystery to solve, or find out what's behind the next door ... when the game worked, anyway. As it is, The Experiment's hole-riddled plot and buggy gameplay bury some of the promise that could have filled the experience with the kind of giddy wonder that comes with peering into the unknown. This is one experiment that you may want to conduct at your own risk.