Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life is City Interactive's follow-up to 2008's Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual. Once again, you take on the role of young female archeologist Sylvie Leroux as she begins work on a mysterious map that's been uncovered by a recently deceased colleague. The map puts her in the path of danger in a story that centers on the titular Tree of Life and a mysterious organization. It's another adventure title from City Interactive and shares similarities with the previous game, so much so that this title doesn't feel like much of an evolution for the budding franchise. There's still a surprising amount of quality and production value, and Chronicles of Mystery is blissfully devoid of the control issues that I had with Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny,another adventure title from City Interactive.
I played through the DS port of The Scorpio Ritual prior to playing this follow-up, and it featured a lot of scaled-back options, so you weren't able to directly control Sylvie. Instead, you simply went from location to location, tapping items on the screen and using them with other collected items to solve puzzles. This is really what adventure games are generally about, but it's nice to have the freedom to roam around and check out your surroundings.
There's a lot of stuff to see in The Tree of Life — you aren't limited to all items that are only related to your puzzles — and the environmental details are pretty well done. They certainly offer up more detail than Art of Murder, and the title features some slider options for the visuals so you can get some additional usage from a high-end graphics card. The character models aren't particularly detailed, and the overall animation work leaves something to be desired. Aside from walking and running, movements come off as wooden, and characters have an odd tendency to swing their arms when engaged in conversation.
Like most adventure titles, the stages or levels in The Tree of Life are revealed location by location. As Sylvie advances the plot, she'll move to different spots, each with unique characters, clues and puzzles to figure out. Sylvie is quite the globe trotter, so you'll visit a variety of locations and places during your time with the game. The locales are represented quite well, and while they're little more than static backdrops, the combination of the sound design and detailed background images conveys a sense of authenticity. The introductory location, which is a museum that overlooks a cliff setting on a small town, is one of the best examples. There isn't much noise inside the museum, and you see an array of paintings and artifacts. You can travel between a few spots inside the museum and then proceed outside. If you advance into the small town that overlooks the cliff, you'll hear the wind whistling and birds cawing in the distance. The developers were able to create great ambience without showing you very much, so there's a lot to be said for style over substance — and I don't say that very often.
It helps that the mystery surrounding the Tree of Life remains pretty compelling throughout the game. As the mystery slowly unveils, you'll start to feel more involved in what's going on, and while I won't say the dialogue is the best, the overall plot is quite intriguing. That's a big indicator of a good adventure title, and The Tree of Life does a pretty good job with the story.
The other big plus is in the puzzles and how they work together. Most of the solutions feel pretty natural, and you can piece it together over time without having to resort to online FAQs or other sources of help. Nothing feels too obtuse, and while I was stuck a couple of times, I found that it really helped to take a step back from the game and come back to it later with fresh eyes. There are some puzzle duds in the latter half of the title, but they don't occur very frequently.
Whether you're a diehard PC gamer or a newbie, controls are really easy to figure out. Almost everything is controlled with the mouse, so you can move Sylvie around, find items, solve puzzles, and do pretty much everything by moving your cursor and clicking. Inventory is handled much better than in Art of Murder. Your inventory is constantly displayed by a bar at the bottom of the screen, which is divided into your currently open slots. This takes away the guesswork of figuring out how far to drag your mouse cursor to view your inventory, and it gives you a clear line of where to click to access things. You can click on an item to view it, look at it in detail, and combine it with other items to solve puzzles. Thankfully, you can also quickly click outside of the item view to close the box or move on to the next step, so there's no needless clicking or micromanagement.
As with other adventure titles, one of the biggest drawbacks of The Tree of Life is the replay value, or lack thereof. While the game isn't an expensive purchase, there aren't multiple puzzle solutions or different choices you can make to give you a reason to check out the game again. Once you finish this adventure, which can be easily accomplished in a few days' time at most, then you've pretty much seen all there is to see. It would have been interesting to have some interactivity with this title and the previous Chronicles of Mystery offering, but aside from the main character, there isn't any connection between the games. We see so many console sequels offering bonuses to gamers, so why not have a little bit of that in adventure games on the PC?
Chronicles of Mystery: Tree of Life is one of City Interactive's better efforts to date. For adventure fans, Sylvie's continuing escapades are certainly worth checking out. If you've never played an adventure title before, then this would be a pretty ideal entry point; it's easy to pick up and play, doesn't require awesome hardware, and is relatively self-explanatory when it comes to figuring out puzzles and what to do next.
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