Review: Jewels of the Oracle 2

Bardworks (creators); H+a (publishers); Dreamcatcher Interactive (distributors).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Easy to hard (harder if you don't use hints)
Plot and gameplay
Dialog and writing
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake.

Once upon a time, I described Jewels of the Oracle as "one-third recycled standard puzzles, one-third interesting variants of standard puzzles, and one-third new puzzles." I think the ratio holds up in this sequel.

Jewels 2 (like Jewels) is an unabashed puzzle-fest. You're in an archaeological site -- a complex of underground chambers filled with pre-Sumerian devices. Each device is a puzzle. Each puzzle gives you a token when you solve it. When you get all 24 tokens, you get to the final puzzle, and when you solve that, it's over. There is no pretense at storyline here. There are no characters either, except for Professor Bhandam, the kindly framing device who tells you what's going on and nudges you occasionally.

No plot, no people; that leaves atmosphere and the puzzles themselves. I shouldn't neglect atmosphere, because I did enjoy it. Everything is dark, cavernous, echoing, and worn. Dirty and chipped and eroded. By now, you probably know how much that pleases me. The game area is nicely designed, and you get a good sense of it as you move around. It's a generally empty and abandoned scene -- there isn't much around except puzzle devices -- but most rooms have a bit of added interaction somewhere. Sometimes this is a hint; sometimes it's entirely whimsical. (I didn't much care for the whimsical bits; they felt patched on and they broke the mood. But, I suppose, better that than an unrelieved progression of one-device rooms.)

The interface is a standard pre-rendered (not panning) 3D setup. All your moves have transition movies, including turning in place. Which looks great, but I have to register a complaint here: there's no way to turn these movies off or abort them. That makes navigation awfully slow. Particularly later in the game, when you're going back into familiar rooms to re-try puzzles you postponed. Yes, the feeling of patient exploration is part of the atmosphere; no, that's not an excuse. And yes, there's a quick-jump map to take you from one room to another without navigation the central chamber; but it doesn't speed up movement within a room. All I want to do is hit Escape or Space to jump ahead. Sigh.

There were some other interface annoyances as well. If you're working on a puzzle, and you open any of the inventory tools (the map, token-box, or hint journal), the puzzle resets. Argh! (The manual warns about this... once. And I missed it; who'd expect this behavior from a tool that effectively acts like a modal dialog?) Also, the load/save system is very badly designed from a Mac standpoint. You can't start a saved game by double-clicking it. Worse, once you "Open" a saved game, it does not become the default save file; the "Save" menu item acts like "Save As" the first time you use it, instead of overwriting. Double sigh. No, triple. This is the easy stuff, folks.

Ok, I think I've gotten everything else out of the way, so puzzles. There sure are a bunch of them. Twenty-four total, as I said; and most have two or more variants, of varying difficulty. (You only need to solve one variant of each type to win.)

The puzzles are... generally entertaining. Most took some amount of work. A few took actual thought. A few required only brute force, generally because I'd seen the gimmick so many times since age 7 that no thought was involved whatsoever. (Yes, jumping pegs. I give them a point for the two-way interlaced jumping pegs puzzle, and take it away again for the bog-standard triangular jumping pegs puzzle. At least there wasn't an exact implementation of the 15-puzzle.)

Most of the ideas were pretty well cast as stone-age devices, stone and wood and paint. A couple of the puzzles were blatant steals of old classics, redrawn as 7000 years older... ok, most of them were, but a couple were blatant enough that my disbelief snapped and fell into the river. (Remember the cowboys and the two ponies? No, really.)

I solved eighteen of the puzzles with no hints. Then I started paging through the on-line hint manual (the good Professor's journal, full of sketches and instructions alternating with incredibly bad faux philosophy and worse attempts at silliness. Not particularly funny; just badly written. Sorry. I skipped the text wherever possible.)

The puzzles I couldn't solve... well, I'm not very happy. Two were just too much work (a blind jigsaw puzzle, for example, where you can see only one piece at a time. The hint showed a completed image.) Two were too vague to tell what the goal was; that's what I had to look up. And two were just incomprehensible. The hints said that the clues were scattered in other rooms of the complex, which should have been nice -- an overlying structure tying the puzzle areas together -- but one set of clues was insufficiently clear, and I still can't find the other set. Really. I went back and looked around the game, after finding the solution in the journal. Nothing. For all I can tell, the designer forgot about those clues entirely.

And the final puzzle was the same way. There are no journal hints for that one; I had to pry through the CD data when I got stuck. I copied down the solution, went back to the device, and it didn't help a bit. Ok, it helped some; I can see correlations between the clues and the solutions; but the pattern is neither complete nor coherent. If you figure this out, I'd love a full explanation.

Summary: Worthy in sheer mass of brainteasers, and it'll kill a few hours for you, but with some annoyances and not much payoff at the end. If Jewels of the Oracle and Karma: Curse of the Twelve Caves really tickled you, this probably will too, but it's not that exciting from a standard start.

Availability: Should be easy to find, with two hurdles. First, the title: It may be listed under "Jewels of the Oracle 2", "Jewels 2", or "Gems of Darkness". Second, and this astounds even a Mac gaming cynic like me, there is no mention of Macintosh on the game box. Even though it's a hybrid PC/Mac toy. The box lists Wintel system requirements, and that's it. It will certainly be in the PC-only section of every store and catalog. If you want this game, steel your nerves and buy the package anyhow.

Mac-ness: I listed a couple of problems above. Here's one more, which seems minor but is still inexcusable: when you're told to put in a new CD, the "Ok" button is a standard rounded-rectangle surrounded by a heavy line. The spitting image, in fact, of a Macintosh default button (albeit gold-on-black instead of black-on-white.) But guess what? The Return key doesn't trigger it. You have to use the mouse.


Game Reviews