Suppose you work in the marketing department of a computer games publisher, and suppose somebody hands you a game named Druuna: Morbus Gravis and asks you to write a catchy blurb for it. Do you pick:
A. “Free Druuna from her sick, claustrophobic world!” B. “Survive in a hostile future!” C. “Play with Druuna! She’s hot and she takes off her clothes!” D. “Solve lots of puzzles and admire the incredible graphics!” E. “Find your way through maze after fun-filled maze!”
Microids, the publisher of Druuna, picked A and B, but while those sentences are reasonable and accurate, I don’t know that “sick,” “claustrophobic,” and “hostile” are the right words to use to attract adventure game players. Choice C is also accurate, but it might give people the wrong idea about the game. I mean, Druuna only takes off her clothes twice, and she doesn’t have sex at all. Choice D, unfortunately, isn’t accurate in any way, and so we’re left with choice E as the winner. That’s right, Druuna features lots and lots of mazes, with little else in the way of adventure-related activities, and it plays much more like an interactive movie than it does an adventure. That’s not necessarily bad, but then Druuna’s graphics aren’t especially good, and its story isn’t especially captivating, and so it doesn’t work well as a movie or an adventure. It’s basically just a big mess -- a well made big mess, but a big mess nonetheless.
Druuna: Morbus Gravis is based on a comic series by Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri. I’ve never read any of the series, but after poking around on the Internet for a while, I found that the series occurs in the future, and that its main character, Druuna, tends to take off her clothes and have sex a lot. Now, if creating a game around such a character sounds alarming (or exciting) to you, then don’t worry (or run out and buy it). Italian developer Artematica toned down the content quite a bit for the game. Druuna doesn’t have sex at all, and while she does take off her clothes a couple times, she’s mostly content to wander around in a clingy halter top, showing off a lot of cleavage (and since Druuna is on the Lara Croft side of the female spectrum, I do mean a lot of cleavage). But, because of Druuna’s apparel (or lack thereof), and because of the graphic violence in the game (with heads exploding and other fun things), Druuna earned and received a mature ESRB rating. It’s not a game for kids.
Druuna the game opens up with Druuna the character in a coma. Doctors haven’t been able to determine what’s wrong with her, but you volunteer to explore her mind and see what she was up to. That’s a nice sort of twist on the usual adventure premise, since instead of guiding Druuna through her story, you get to play yourself and help Druuna relive some of her memories. In the process you learn about the plague gripping the city where Druuna lives, and how she tried to get some serum for her boyfriend, and how she discovered something sinister going on. The only problem with the premise is that successfully reliving Druuna’s memories doesn’t wake her up. All that happens is you learn the bad news that put her into a comatose state, and so the game’s ending isn’t very exciting.
Plus, Artematica made a bad decision with regard to the premise. Essentially, playing the game is like operating the “brainholder” to access Druuna’s memory, and so doing things like saving and getting Druuna killed in a memory cause damage to her comatose self. And if the comatose version of Druuna takes enough damage, it dies and you have to start over. The result is that you have to be very careful about your saves, and you have to play certain stretches of the game over and over again until you get them right, because you can’t save every time you make some progress. I don’t know why some game developers try so hard to restrict saves, but it’s doubly annoying here because Druuna dies all the time, often for arbitrary reasons.
But an unfriendly save system is just one nail in Druuna’s coffin. Another six or seven come from the gameplay itself, which is about as substantial as Druuna’s clothing. There is exactly one puzzle in the game, and it’s not very difficult to solve (but, just for fun, it’s timed, and there’s a long video sequence you have to watch each time you try it). And, while you can pick up objects, Druuna uses them and combines them automatically, so there’s nothing to do there other than make sure you always have room in your inventory. Lastly, while there are a few action sequences, controlling Druuna is more difficult than it should be, and many times all you have to do is press an arrow key at exactly the right moment. Fun, fun, fun.
So mostly what you do in Druuna the game is guide Druuna the character through mazes, so she can talk to the people she needs to talk to and pick up the objects she needs to pick up. Sometimes the mazes are short, and sometimes they’re long. Sometimes there are people chasing you or shooting at you, and sometimes you can take your time. Sometimes the mazes are lighted, and sometimes they’re dark. Sometimes you get a map, and sometimes you don’t. It’s like Artematica went to class for the first week of Adventure Making 101 (when they covered mazes), but then decided to go surfing for the rest of the semester and missed all the other stuff that can go into adventures.
So Druuna’s gameplay isn’t very exciting, and, while it has more of a story going for it than most other adventures, the story isn’t good enough to carry the game by itself. That pretty much leaves graphics -- after all, lots of adventures focus way more on looking good than on providing interesting puzzles -- but Druuna doesn’t get that part right, either. For example, for some reason Artematica chose to use an incredibly low resolution for the game -- 320x240, maybe? -- and while maybe they had to do that to fit Druuna on the six CDs it comes with, the result is that all the locations look fuzzy. Plus, Druuna takes place in one of those unfriendly futures where everything is broken and dirty, and so the game just isn’t enjoyable to look at, fuzzy or not. Plus, the 3D models of the characters don’t look very good, the shadows aren’t realistic, and the characters don’t lip synch well at all (or maybe they’re synched to the original Italian dialogue). Artematica tried to make up for the quality of the graphics by providing quantity, and, as a result, Druuna does feature an impressive number of video sequences. The problem is that they’re all mediocre video sequences, and so they’re not the eye candy they could be. If you want to play an adventure that knows how to do graphics and video sequences, try Beyond Atlantis II.
Overall, Druuna: Morbus Gravis is a game to avoid. Its puzzle elements are almost nonexistent, and its graphics are mediocre. If a developer can’t get either of those areas right, then it probably shouldn’t be making adventures at all. Yet, somehow Druuna is the highest selling game ever made in Italy (“by far” according to Artematica’s web site), and all I can wonder is why people are buying it, and how it could have gotten a publisher when a game like Simon the Sorcerer 3D can’t.