Schizm: Mysterious Journey is an adventure game that owes a great deal to the Myst series of adventures. It has the same sort of look and feel as the Myst games, with exotic locations to explore and strange machines to manipulate, but it’s not a clone. Schizm, from Polish developer Avalon Multimedia, is a quality adventure with dazzling sights and intricate and interesting puzzles. But it is also a very difficult adventure, and that, coupled with some other problems, prevents it from being very fun to play.
In Schizm, you get to play as Hannah Grant and Sam Mainey, the two members of the Angel supply craft. Several months before the start of the game, humanity discovers an alien civilization on the planet Argilus, but no aliens are found, and when a team of scientists is sent to investigate, they begin disappearing as well. Then the Bermuda Triangle trend continues, and the Angel supply craft develops problems while orbiting around Argilus, and it crashes to the surface. Hannah and Sam survive the crash by using the craft’s escape pods, but they end up at different locations on the planet. Then, for the rest of the game, they’ll have to work together and separately to discover what’s going on -- before they disappear themselves.
That’s almost the perfect premise for an adventure game, because it allows you to explore an interesting and unique world, and you get to solve not only the puzzles in the game, but also the bigger mystery about what happened to the aliens and the scientists. Plus, Avalon Multimedia hired a writer named Terry Dowling to write the story for the game, and so you’d expect the story to be pretty good. But you’d be wrong, and the problem has more to do with a design choice by Avalon Multimedia than it does with Dowling’s capabilities as a writer. The plot is only advanced through short spurts of dialogue from the “ghosts” of the scientists (who look far too young) and the aliens (who look far too human), and there’s only so much depth that can be provided through such a scheme, especially when the dialogue spurts also have to do double duty by providing hints for some of the puzzles. And so when you eventually learn that the planet has a living defense mechanism named Matia, and that Matia can act as the Good Servant or the Wanderer, you probably won’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. And so the plot won’t drive you on through the game; you’ll have to rely on the puzzles for that.
Unfortunately, the puzzles are a mixed bag. The DVD version of Schizm has about 20 puzzles (the CD version has a couple less), and about half of them are the right difficulty for an adventure, and about half are way too hard. The difficulty in the puzzles comes from a couple places. For starters, the puzzles aren’t localized, so half a puzzle might be on one side of the world, with the other half on the other side. That isn’t necessarily bad, and sometimes subterfuge can even be good. The problem is that the link between the halves is usually so tenuous -- and requires such a tremendous leap of logic -- that just about nobody is ever going to see it. Another problem with the puzzles is a lack of feedback. It’s no fun to try and figure out what a machine is supposed to do when you’re not given enough information for the job. For example, in one puzzle you have to focus a telescope, and to do so you have to add or remove 14 lenses. The only feedback you get is three different views from the telescope (blurry, less blurry, and clear) and an arrow that can either point upwards or downwards. That’s just not enough feedback for a puzzle that has over 16,000 possible combinations, especially when it’s not clear just what the arrows mean. As a result of the difficulty, you’ll probably have to reference a walkthrough at numerous points during the game, and you’ll probably find Schizm less fun to play for that reason.
However, while the puzzles are hit and miss, the graphics are all hit. Schizm uses the same sort of engine as Myst 3: Exile (and several other DreamCatcher titles), where the world is broken down into a series of discrete locations, and where you have (nearly) complete control over the camera at those locations. But where some games use that sort of freedom to hide inventory objects where you wouldn’t expect to find them, Avalon Multimedia allows you to move the camera just so you can better see the world -- which you’ll want to do because the world looks so good. Water is modeled wonderfully, the skylines are beautiful, and the different areas of the world are varied and interesting. Plus, every time you move from one room to another there is an animation, and all of the animations look good, especially when you get to do things like take a balloon ride or travel via rail car. The only problem with the world is that Avalon Multimedia didn’t exactly make it convenient. There is no way to move quickly from one area to another, or even skip animations, and that takes its toll for the puzzles that require a lot of walking around.
The sound is less good than the graphics. The ambient noises are great, and they help to make it feel like you’re really in the game, but the rest of the sounds are off. There are some full-motion video sequences where you get to talk to scientists and aliens, but the acting -- and the voice acting especially -- is terrible, and it’s like somebody brought in friends and relatives to play the roles rather than hiring professionals. And the background music... well, I’d characterize it more as new age “mood sounds” rather than actual music, but evidently DreamCatcher thinks much more highly of it than I do because they’re also selling the Schizm soundtrack. So your mileage may vary.
On a technical level, Schizm didn’t run especially well on my computer -- in CD or DVD format -- but I haven’t heard anybody else complaining about performance issues with the game, so I’m not sure what to make of it. For me, Schizm kept going through phases where every move or camera change resulted in a ten second delay, and that just made the game unbearably slow. My computer is a Pentium-III 600 Mhz machine, which is comfortably ahead of the Pentium-II 333 Mhz machine recommended in the minimum system requirements, and so I’m not sure if the minimum system requirements are lower than they should be, or if Schizm just didn’t get along with my computer for some reason. But if your computer is a couple years old like mine is, you might want to avoid Schizm for performance issues, if for no other reason.
Overall, Schizm is almost a good game, and I feel a little bad about giving it such a low score. Avalon Multimedia put a lot of work into the game’s puzzles, which instantly leapfrogs them above many other adventure game developers, but the puzzles are just too hard, and combining that with the weak story and poor acting, Schizm is just a tough game to recommend.