Review: Amerzone

Official web page; Microïds (creators); Casterman (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Starts well, but doesn't really go anywhere
Dialogue and writing
Very good, but clumsy translation
Mostly okay
Pretty good
Very easy
Pretty good
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or get into an unwinnable state.

The trouble with translations is that you never quite know what the original author meant. The English-dubbed dialogue in Princess Mononoke is pretty good -- most places -- but I can't escape the feeling that I'm watching someone else watch the movie, instead of watching it myself. And the same is true in Amerzone... even its title. What connotations does L'Amerzone have in French? Is it a homophone of the river Amazon? Does that tempting particle "zone" have the same meaning it does to me? Is it a game of America, or of the Americas, or of the Amazon? Of a fictional country, or of a fictional river?

Or does it not mean a damn thing? I trawl for meaning, sometimes. Sorry about that.

In the 1930's, an eccentric young French scientist, Alexandre Valembois, took his newly-invented hydroplane into the depths of the Amerzone. He sought the the White Birds, which flew in the legends of the Indians of the undisturbed jungles. He was accompanied by a Jesuit missionary and a Hispanic native Amerzonian. He came out alone, two years later, carrying what he said was the sole egg of the White Birds. Naturally, nobody believed a word of it.

Now, in 1998, he repents of his theft and wants to return the egg. Unfortunately, he has become an eccentric old French scientist. So he has asked you, a journalist friend, to take up the task. Everything has changed, of course. Amerzone is a military dictatorship, being dragged into the twentieth century; the Indian tribes are decimated.

But what the heck; it's a plot. And he's built a new hydroplane. You head off in the explorers' tracks.

I wish I liked the story more. It's unusual, in a commercial game. Explicitly not science fiction or fantasy. The author wanted to portray progress, wilderness and civilization; a cultural symbiosis between wildlife and humans living close to Nature; and, I guess, the three viewpoints of the three original explorers.

But I really have to guess at that interpretation, because the game doesn't do much with it. You meet all three characters, but you get no sense of them -- they convey nothing more than their one-line descriptions, and a shared tendency to drop dead after speaking. And the myth of the White Birds... well, I won't give spoilers, but it aims at being purely evocative, rather than the Quest of Cosmic Importance that most games would slap on. Good try; but for me, it didn't evoke much. Sorry.

"Returning the egg won't make everything better," says one character. "But it may do some good." Mmm. Maybe if the early parts of the game had set up some contrast -- scenes of Alvarezopolis, in modern Amerzonia. Scenes of coffee-farming in razed jungle. Brutal atrocities -- or even, for depth, polite peacekeeping -- by banana-booted military thugs.

But none of that appears; just trackless jungle and marshland, rotting forts and villages, and an occasional drunk soldier in a jeep. Frankly, in Amerzone, the Amerzone has already won. Without contrast, what good does returning the egg do? That, I think, is what I miss.

A few plot holes poked their heads far enough out to annoy me. The hydroplane, while endearingly multifunctional in its charming and old-fashioned way, does have a habit of doing motorized things even after it's out of gas. And I can't quite grasp how the 1932 expedition managed to leave their navigation data behind in the form of 3.5-inch floppy disks.

To the game itself. The interface is an interesting variant on anamorphic panning. Instead of a standard mouse-cursor, with a click-and-drag command to pan, the cursor is locked in the center of the screen. Any mouse motion pans the view. To select a hotspot, you pan it under the cursor and then click. (Closeups, and the inventory screen, use the traditional moving cursor on a fixed view.)

This ought to work pretty well. It does imply that there are no view-frame decorations in the panning view -- no "inventory" or "load" or "save" buttons to click on. That's tolerable. Unfortunately, I was playing on a Macintosh under Virtual PC; and the emulator just didn't handle the mouse right. (I suspect that the game wanted to constantly reposition the invisible hardware cursor to keep it centered, and VPC wouldn't oblige.) The result was that any mouse motion put me in a wild spin. Even the standard mouse screens were like steering a unicycle with an accelerometer. I had to discard the mouse entirely and use the arrow keys. Tolerable, but tedious.

I expect most players will find the game very easy. The puzzles are very much a natural outgrowth of the story; you have to navigate a course, find fuel for the hydroplane, pass natural obstacles. (The final chapters, which might seem a bit contrived, are apparently part of a challenge ritual designed by the Indians.) But all the actions are pretty obvious. When they weren't, a simple try-every-item or push-every-button strategy usually worked.

Actually, I looked at a walkthrough several times (my patience level was low, for obvious reasons) and every time I found one of two answers. Either I had forgotten to search the floor in some room, and just missed some object -- or I had already figured out what to do, but failed to make the game do it.

That latter problem was the worst, I found. Most of the game design -- the layout of hotspots and navigation and so on -- was acceptable. But several scenes were just painful. Places where you had to look at object A in order to manipulate control B. Controls that only worked in closeups, where the closeup only existed to work the control, and could have been deleted. Awkward navigation. In one memorable scene, you have to click in the Right Place with a grapnel cursor -- and then pull a separate grapnel lever to test whether it was Right. No cursor feedback. The grapnel graphic doesn't even fire at where you click; it's a generic center-shot unless you get it Right. There's no indication that clicking does anything at all, in fact. I tried five or six spots, saw no difference, checked the walkthrough, and discovered that I had simply not gotten it Right yet. A few more tries, and it worked. I still don't know whether I was supposed to click on the top or center of the target object, or maybe somewhere above it.

I seem to have drifted from the "easy puzzles" point. Let me jump back long enough to say that this is no bad thing. Miracle secret of the ancient game-designers: solving an easy puzzle is 95 percent as satisfying as solving a hard one. Really! You're interacting with the world, you're making progress. You're seeing around the next corner. That's the fun part. The balance in Amerzone wasn't quite right; I found the last couple of chapters to have the least interesting actions (ignoring the hotspot and navigation annoyances). But overall, I wasn't bored.

On the other hand, a puzzle that you stumble through isn't satisfying. The very last scene had me doing things that I just didn't understand. Only a few objects and a few places to use them, so I tried everything-on-everything and won. But I still don't know why.

On the other other hand, easy puzzles do make the game go by quickly. I finished in just two evenings. The game has zillions of locations -- the designers eschew transition videos, which leaves lots of room for pan-views. But you don't spend much time in any one.

On the other other other hand, they're gorgeous. Did I mention that? I liked the jungle in Crystal Key last week, but this is a better jungle. And a better desert island, marshland, and rain-shrouded lighthouse. Terrific jungle critters. Lots of rotten wood and puddles. After wading in the marsh, I wanted to check myself for leeches. All credit to the artists. Scenery animations are perfectly blended into the panning-view, which is nice; things happen even as you look around. And, my favorite sneaky design detail of the year: a telescope surrounded by a ring of crushed cigarette butts. That tells you more about the room, and the guy who used it, than any amount of bongo-synth background music.

Great, I've drifted away from the puzzles again, and I forgot to complain about the maze. Everyone knows that mazes are Right Out, yes? Well, there's the one marsh of about a dozen locations, and the only purpose I can tell is to get you lost. It got me lost. In a gorgeous way, but oh, I got sick of trying to get through it. There's no trick; you just plow through. At least hedge-mazes are classy. Swamps is swamps.

And then there's the translation. It's clumsy. Not bad, per se; the English is just awkward. Which is a pity, because I get the feeling that the original writing is pretty good.

Or maybe it's clunky, and the translator is shielding me. I'll never know of my own eyes, will I? I'm not about to learn French. Too many damn games to play. Heh.

Conclusion: Very pretty, and enjoyable, but perhaps too lightweight to pay full price for. On the other hand, perhaps the story will work for you. It didn't for me.

System requirements: 166 MHz Pentium, 32 meg RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 60 megs of hard drive space. They recommend 200 MHz, 64 meg RAM, and as fast a CD drive as you can find. On the Mac side, a 333 MHz machine running VPC had plenty of CPU power, but -- as I said -- the emulation bugs make the game almost unplayable. Not recommended to Mac folks, except completists. Like me.

Availability: On store shelves.

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