Review written by Andrew Plotkin
On hand A, the first three chapters of Beyond Atlantis -- set in the milieus of Irish, Chinese, and Mayan myth -- are as perfectly conceived as any interactive fiction I've seen, text or graphical. The designers got the tone right. Rather, the tones. Three very different worldviews, each clear and distinct. The Celtic sequence is wild, rambling, full of mad poets and jealous dead gods. The scenes in China are polite, officious, and careful of the rules. (I've never felt closer to living in a Barry Hughart novel.) And the Mayan chapter is all predators, politics, and blood.
I'm talking about all the elements here. Not just the characters and settings, but the tasks you undertake. It's easy to steal names from a mythology text; it's harder to invent actions and goals that fit the setting. For that alone I would recommend Beyond Atlantis.
And then there's hand B. Hand B is the puzzles, which are, to the best of my estimation, junk. Unsolvable by humans. Not necessarily bad ideas; I have the feeling that good ideas went into the mix, and after a long process of implementation and compromise, junk came out.
Little implementation details. At one point, you're selecting from a set of five marks, trying to duplicate a particular symbol. I clicked my tool on one of the marks. Nothing happened. I decided I was on the wrong track. In fact it was the correct track and the correct tool, but you have to click marks from bottom to top or they don't react. (What?) Also, the paper that holds the clues isn't readable in all locations. You can carry it around, but if you select it in the wrong area, you don't get the closeup view. (That one happened not to catch me, but I bet it caught someone.)
Somewhere in a BA design document is the instruction "Mosaic, showing X with this sequence of colors: A, B, C, D." This is a clue. Fine idea. The artist, however, seems to have decorated the X with some extra C at one end, and added a bit more A and B at the other. Pretty, but no longer a fine idea. Someone has the job of preventing these breakdowns of communication. Someone needs to get with it.
You can't quite see anything. The graphics are great -- objects and animations are seamlessly integrated into the panning views. So seamlessly, in fact, that you can't pick out small important objects. A couple of the puzzle mechanisms are so compressed that they're nearly illegible.
Puzzles that aren't fully determined...
I must now diverge from hand B and get down to finger 4, knuckle VII, and wrinkle $. You see, my ideal of a puzzle -- in general, not just in computer adventure games -- is a puzzle where the rules aren't clear. You should have to stretch. Try a few things. Look at the patterns forwards, backwards, and sideways. In the ideal, one combination of ideas will be right -- and you know it from both ends, as the rules make sense and the answer leaps out.
Maze, the first puzzle-book I ever worked on, managed this. I didn't get far with it, but I noticed the first gotcha. A moment of triumph. Some Infocom games had it; some didn't. Obsidian did it in spots. Diana Wynne Jones used to do it consistently. I don't think anyone else ever did.
The problem is, the magic requires faith. And patience. And then luck. If you don't expect the puzzle to make sense, you won't sort through the first N wrong answers to try the right one. And even if you do persist, if your brain never then matches up with the designer's brain, you'll never get out of stuckness. By the nature of the thing, you get no partial credit. (Even if you show your work.) It'll just be a case of "I didn't solve it" -- and when you finally go to the walkthrough, "I was supposed to what?"
In my opinion, the worst puzzles in Beyond Atlantis don't have the magic. They're just not clear enough.
But -- I could be blinding myself here. My first bad experience in a game tends to wreck my faith in the designers. And I was operating with some technical handicaps, as well. My machine was rather underpowered. (The system requirements say 200 MHz Pentium; my Virtual PC setup rates about a 133 at best.) The mouse control didn't work right (VPC bug). And I was playing in 640x480 resolution; the manual describes an 800x600 mode which I couldn't turn on, and which would have been too slow for me anyway.
None of these are fatal handicaps, but they all reduced my willingness to experiment. And with the kind of game BA wanted to be, if the player doesn't experiment, he's dead meat.
I don't mean that I completely stonewalled it. I did try things; I experimented. But I don't know how much more I would have tried if the game had been fluid instead of slow and clunky.
My point, I guess, is that I don't know how good the puzzles in BA are. I can report my reaction, which is strongly negative. But I'm less certain than usual of how well that correlates with my usual game-judgement. If you have a Pentium 133 or slower, or VPC on a 333 MHz Mac, I'd definitely recommend against it. If you're within the box requirements, I still think you'll find the game frustrating, but my error bars loom large.
(Except I forgot to mention the visual puzzle of the orb, which is instantiated in all three chapters, and which I'm pretty sure is flatly beyond human capacity. CPU speed don't enter into it. I can't imagine why the little action-clicky puzzle at the end is a good idea either.)
Anyway, now I've recommended both that you play this game and that you avoid it. Sorry. Maybe you should make a date with a walkthrough. (But the faster machine is still a requirement. Some of the puzzles were agonizing on my slow box, even with a walkthrough in front of me.)
Enough. The graphics are, as I said, very good. The design of the locations is terrific, in places. (You'll know the one I mean, in Ireland. Shambhala is nice too.) Characters shift and move even when they're at rest. The sight of the king's daughter leaning on the arm of the throne for a few seconds gladdened my heart -- very natural motion. The faces move when they talk (on a fast machine they're probably even lip-synched) and have expressions, and, like, everything. You can make out some polygon-ness in the models, but the facial textures are fantastic. Even the music managed to impress me a couple of times, and soundtracks rarely attract my attention.
The storyline is, well, pretty generic stuff. You do the stuff and defeat the Evil. Big light show, game over. The light show was painfully derivative of 2001, too, I'm afraid. A cute twist at the end (watch the credits all the way through!) but not enough to count as a story.
Let me see my notes... ah, yes. The very first notation I wrote about this game: "Main menu interface sucks ass". Shall I even lower myself to explain that? Nah. It's obvious. How not to design menu systems: this. (It's getting late, yes, and that's not an apology.)
With that, you can probably discern, my review-writing energy is done.
Overall: Beyond Atlantis has a few aspects which are brilliant, and a few which I hated. If you want to know how to evoke a worldview, with contrasting examples, take a look. If you want to see the ending, bring hints.
System requirements: Win 95/98, 200 MHz Pentium, 8x CD drive, 32 meg RAM, 70 meg free hard drive space. Can be made to run on slower machines, but don't.