Written By: Steven 'Westlake' Carter
Game Over Online - http://www.game-over.com
Jules Verne isn’t a name that comes up in conversation for me very often, but I suspect that when people think of Verne, if at all, they think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, perhaps because those novels have been turned into Disney movies. But Verne was a prolific author, and he wrote over 50 novels between 1863 and his death in 1905. One of his perhaps lesser known novels is The Mysterious Island, written in 1874. It told the story of five men who escaped from the Civil War in a hot air balloon, only to crash land on a deserted island. They then had to figure out how to survive, fend off pirates, and eventually escape. They even got to meet Captain Nemo (from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), who had chosen the island as a nice retirement spot.
The adventure game Return to Mysterious Island, from French developer Kheops Studio, picks up the story in modern times. You play Mina, a sailor participating in an around-the-world race. One night a storm destroys your ship, and you wake up alone on a seemingly deserted island. As fate would have it, the island is the same one as from The Mysterious Island, and so while you have to work to find food and create fire, eventually you stumble across the decaying remnants of past residents of the island (like a shelter and a nearly working windmill), and so your stay isn’t as difficult as might be otherwise. But you still need to figure out a way to escape, and for that you have the help of a monkey named Jep and the ghost of Captain Nemo.
As premises go, that’s not bad. There isn’t a great story arc to the game, but it puts you in a situation where you have to survive on an island, and that’s a lot of fun. When you start out, you’re on a beach with nothing in your inventory, but as you go along you start picking up things you can eat (like coconuts) and things you can use (like a hunk of metal you can pound into a knife), and before you know it the game starts feeling pretty “real,” like you’re on a combination episode of “Survivor” and “MacGuyver.”
So how does Kheops Studio achieve this sense of realism? By giving you an almost endless number of things you can do, some of which are helpful and some of which aren’t. The game isn’t so much about solving puzzles as it is about being creative and seeing what’s possible. For example, at the start of the game you’re weak and hungry, and so you need to find some food. For this puzzle alone you can break open coconuts, fry bird eggs, cook oysters, and bake a couple crabs. You can even jury-rig together a fishing pole and catch a fish. And if that’s not enough, later you can find some fruit and put together a pie!
And the options don’t stop after feeding yourself. Just about every puzzle in the game has multiple ways of being solved. That gives Return to Mysterious Island a tremendous appeal because it reduces the amount of frustration you’re likely to encounter. You won’t have to endlessly scour locations for an object you might be missing. If some dark object is hidden away in a dark corner and you don’t see it, no problem. Chances are, there is either a different object that can be used in its place, or there is an alternate puzzle you can do that doesn’t require the object at all. And if you see a location where there seems to be a puzzle, but you can’t figure out, maybe you don’t need to. Maybe you’ve done something else that makes the area immaterial. The result is an adventure where you won’t come to a screeching halt every thirty minutes and have to consult a convenient walkthrough. If you need a walkthrough for Return to Mysterious Island, it will probably be to see how many interesting things you missed during your journey.
For example, when I was playing I built a kite and a slingshot, but I never used them. (I was convinced for a while I was going to use the kite for electricity, but then I found there were two different batteries I could make instead.) So I went to a walkthrough to see if the two objects were red herrings or if they were actually used, and I found that not only were they used, they were used in puzzles that made perfect sense, but that I hadn’t thought of or needed in my game. So Return to Mysterious Island is one of the only adventure games I can think of that actually has a lot of replay value.
Of course, all the options you’re given in the game come at a price. I think at one point I was lugging around over 60 inventory objects, including three different types of bamboo and a whole host of different chemicals and gunpowder components, and it was a little daunting. But the inventory system is handled in a friendly manner, and creating “recipes” for objects is actually fun, and so the price is pretty small for a game this entertaining.
And so am I recommending Return to Mysterious Island? You bet. In a year that has been lacking in adventures and role-playing games -- the two genres I typically review -- Return to Mysterious Island is more than a welcome find, and, along with Syberia II, is one of the best adventure games of the year. So if you know an adventure game player in need of a Christmas present, here you go.
If you’d like to read The Mysterious Island, or any of Jules Verne’s other novels, you can find them at http://www.online-literature.com.