When you talk about retro-gaming for graphical adventure titles, it doesn’t get more retro than Déjà Vu, a title released in the era of King’s Quest et al. Sierra, of course, went on to reap millions as it ran its King’s Quest pedigree to the ground but the adventures of Ace Harding, while short, played second fiddle to no one during their time. Infinite Ventures brings both titles back to the Pocket PC, giving you a chance of stepping into film noir sleuth, Ace Harding.
Let’s get this straight though: this has been done before. The Déjà Vu franchise is no stranger to ports as it saw its incarnation on the NES, as well as on the handheld format via the Game Boy Color. When it came to transporting the ‘verb’-influenced adventure title of yesteryear, Déjà Vu appears to be a natural; at least on paper. Sporting color graphics, moveable objects and windows (for inventory) as well as being one of the first games to support the mouse, you’d think the PDA plus stylus would be a better fit for this game than with a game console controller. That seems to hold up true for the action part. You can click on Look and simply tap on the object you want. That part is seamless.
What’s troubling is the manipulation of windows and inventory, particularly when neither are smart-dockable, making it a chore to sort through the items available to you. Most people will start with the first game, which was notorious for leaving around plenty of “useless” items in dozens and dozens of locations. Without a sort feature, it becomes cumbersome more than handy. This was originally a feature in Déjà Vu for the PC, arguably to take advantage of the mouse. Unfortunately, it just makes everything a hassle here. The developers should have stuck with the old inventory slot system.
What drives Déjà Vu, however, is the story, which plays out almost entirely in text. There’s very little animation in the static locations and you move from one locale to another along a grid-based system, much like old RPG titles of Eye of Beholder vein. The writing is a top notch representation of the golden glory days of adventure titles.
The first Déjà Vu title begins ignominiously in a toilet stall. Harding wakes up with no memory at all and he proceeds to find himself accused of a murder that he has no recollection of committing. That he has a gun and a gunshot victim is found somewhere near his washroom doesn’t help. Convinced he isn’t at fault for the crime, Harding then trudges through the streets of Chicago trying to piece everything together.
The puzzles and objectives in the game are more about patient observation and some actual cleverness on the part of the player. This isn’t one of those games where it’s trial and error: the ones where you are presented five items and one place to use them on. With so many errant items you can collect (especially in the first title), you’ll find yourself overwhelmed if you simply skip all the text and poke at everything on the screen. Despite the simplicity (or complexity, back in those days) of the graphics, every small object has value if you interact with it. And in them may be the very clue you’re looking for to get ahead in the case.
Most people will probably play the first game. That would probably be a mistake because the second title is much tighter in story. It polishes some of the rough edges (particularly with inventory, evidence and making money) of its predecessor but it lacks the raw intensity of waking up as an amnesiac.
Some people may think the logical puzzles actually make the game tougher. Being drugged and on the run from the police doesn’t help. I imagine it is easier when you have a sack of items and randomly combining them will give you the solution to the problem at hand. In that, it really differs from what adventure gaming eventually turned into; where conversation, rather than items, solved the case.
The last great film noir title is indisputably LucasArts’ Grim Fandango. While that title’s puzzles were zany and sometimes off the wall dumb, it was interesting because its characters were able to attract people. Harding does that as well but he has the bulk of the job since none of the characters in Déjà Vu are seriously developed.
Ultimately, it is difficult to envision Déjà Vu wooing our trigger happy audience of today. It’s not very dynamic and there’s questionable value beyond playing the game once through. People, moreover, might not have the patience to go through an adventure title like this anymore. Perhaps that’s the reason why the adventure genre and via extension, the adventure audience is constantly shrinking, now nearly abandoned by firms like Sierra. But if you’re willing to take up the task, Harding’s adventure should provide a few days of solid fun and a glimpse of a different kind of game, where text and graphics co-existed in relative harmony. These days, it seems like every other title is a lot of flash and not enough substance.
[06/10] Program Size
[11/15] Learning Curve