Review: Morpheus

Official web page; Soap Bubble Productions (creators); Piranha Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Good to excellent
Dialog and writing
Quite easy (but not trivially easy)
Average or superb
Mostly good
Good, but not well integrated
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake.

I shall be blunt: I wasn't excited about this game because of anything I'd heard about it; I was excited because it's a new adventure game which runs on the Mac. After sitting thumbs a-twiddle through the releases of Zork Grand Inquisitor and Starship Titanic, I'm willing to get excited over nearly anything.

So: 1953, the North Pole. Matthew Holmes is journeying into the Arctic to find out what happened to his father Thomas. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1928, the elder Holmes was trying to cross the Pole in a balloon. And he abandoned his expedition to follow a dying man, Captain Pharris -- who appeared from a storm, raving about a disaster, his son Jan, and a ship named Herculania. Dad never returned, and you want to know why.

I give this plot intro because the game needs it. It's given in voice-over at the very beginning, yes. But either it's not stressed enough, or it's dropped too abruptly -- because as the game starts, you (as Matthew Holmes) find Herculania, and from there on the story is about one man exploring a dead ship. The body of the game concerns only the discovery of what happened on board. There is no double imagery of the son following the father's footsteps. By the end, I had actually forgotten how the thing started, and I had to replay the opening to remind myself.

And this is a damn shame, because when the game does end, it pulls the beginning together beautifully. The ending ties together Matthew and his father, Captain Pharris and his son, in a story far more powerful than the typical cliched computer game climax. (I almost wrote "head and shoulders above the typical cliched game"... heh.)

It's the middle that can't hold the weight. That's why I rate the plot as "average or superb". If I consider what I saw at the end, I'm deeply impressed. If I consider the game I was playing, the interactive part, it's just an "explorer discovers horrors" story; and the story he's discovering is pretty flat. It's only one level of the two-level structure which works so well overall. So you see my problem. If things had been better tied together throughout, with reflections of the frame story showing up in the midst of the game, I would have been blown away.

So, speaking of the game, what do we find? The Herculania is a beautiful and baroque ship, which unfortunately isn't rendered with the skill it deserves. It has all the absurd luxury that wealth could put on a Twenties cruise ship: a hothouse, a ballroom, a theater, a gymnasium and sauna and mud-bath. And below, the cavernous mechanical engine rooms. And these work, mind you; the sound effects and careful lighting and color emphasize the atmosphere exquisitely, bringing out the contrast between the Arctic barrens, the luxurious public spaces, and the monstrous underpinnings. Everything is well-designed, and there are moments of really brilliant creative visualization.

The graphics models don't quite hold up, however -- at least not for me. I often (not always) got the feeling of models made too simplistic, relying too heavily on surface texture -- be that ornate wallpaper or Gigeresque alien skin. Definitely not enough dirt. Pixelization in the textures was sometimes blatantly visible. And the panning software wasn't quite up to it, either. This is an embarrassing thing to say, because I think they use Apple's Quicktime VR library, but it was distractingly low-res during panning, and took too long to start up and then settle down to hi-res. This is on a 120 MHz machine, folks, and...

Well, ok, it was probably just as slow in Secrets of the Luxor. Probably my standards have upgraded, even though my CPU hasn't. Nonetheless, this is how I react. Particularly compared to, say, Riven, which doesn't try to do anamorphic panning and therefore is always pixel-perfect.

This review is developing a solid rhythm of "terrific, but, terrific, but..." We continue with the puzzles. They're, um, terrific, but... (Sorry.)

Taken as puzzles, this is the best batch of puzzles I've come across in many moons. I solved all of them without hints, but most of them took some effort. Only a couple were mechanical button-pushers; most were thematically apt. Many involved putting together clues from all over the landscape, not just the obvious puzzle-devices; I appreciate that lots. There were visual puzzles, action puzzles, mechanical puzzles, information-matching puzzles, and no sliding-block puzzles. A couple that never made sense, while I was solving them or after, and a couple that I only solved by wild leaps that shouldn't have worked but did anyway. Overall, however, everything worked out when I concentrated on it, and not before. I had plenty of fun and I never once got bogged down in frustration.

The "but" is: not well enough integrated with the game. I should describe the overall structure here. The first few scenes are getting access to the whole ship. After that, you explore as you like; the main efforts are getting access to the passenger cabins, which are sealed with combination locks. So you're trying to figure out combinations. These are, naturally, the passengers' favorite numbers. Now the passengers' favorite numbers are hidden and clued brilliantly, don't get me wrong, and these were some of the more creative and enjoyable puzzles. But it's still figuring out a list of three-digit numbers to get some doors open.

As you get to each cabin, you (eventually) gain access to a small dream-world, which contains three significant puzzles relating to that passenger's psyche. And these are, well, arbitrary. Yes, a dream-world is supposed to be arbitrary, but these were too flat. The scenery all fit the theme; the puzzle scenarios were well-integrated into the landscape, or rather vice versa; but there was never any overall direction. You walked around and did stuff until you were done.

So I contradict myself; I said the puzzles were thematically apt and fit well into the landscape, but I also said they weren't well integrated enough. Very well, I contradict myself. (I am large; I contain rhinoceroses.) There's a distinction here, although I'm having trouble expressing it. I guess it's the same problem I had with the plot; large stretches of puzzles and scenery which don't really tie in to the overall picture. Game constructed for the purpose of being game. Well-constructed, but not truly impressive.

Enough about that. I have a bigger problem, which is the way the story is presented. (The in-game story, I mean -- what happened on the ship.) See, the passengers are all dead, but their shadows haunt various places and objects, reliving scenes from the ship's maiden voyage. Es familiar? I praised this psychometric mode of narrative when I saw it in Zork Nemesis; it lets the author put in non-interactive cut scenes without breaking the player's sense of presence. Great. Now someone invent a new one. It didn't help that the ghost-dream-world motif was awfully reminiscent of Amber, which did it with more purpose, and for that matter of The Dark Eye. And I don't suppose the designers of Morpheus have played Ian Finley's text game "Babel", but the psychometry thing was used there too. Bluntly, I'm tired of it; and this game comes off looking rather derivative. It may not deserve that, but there you are.

There's also a bit of Annoying Voice-Over, particularly near the beginning and end. Yes, oh please, tell me what's going on and what I should do next -- preferably twice. I suppose they didn't want novices stuck right at the beginning, but I didn't appreciate it. Perhaps an easy / hard game preference would have been appropriate.

I've already described the game structure, but let me add that it was both good and bad, in one critical aspect: breadth of exploration. Once you get access to the whole ship (which happens early), you can explore the whole ship; the plotline spreads out to four parallel threads (the four dream-worlds you can reach) plus the general thread of determining what happened. The pacing was subtle enough that I never noticed it, which is very good. There was a steady stream of revelations as I solved puzzles; I did not bottleneck on puzzles (knowing the whole story but having to grind through the game), nor on plotline (getting to the end having missed important pieces of story.)

However, there's a flaw, which is blatant enough that I'm surprised they let it stand: once you enter a dream-world, you stay there until you solve it. You can't back out and work on something else if you get stuck. (As you can in, say, The Dark Eye.) Now, as I said, I didn't get stuck, so this only bothered me theoretically. But it could really spoil someone's game experience.

I'm out of scribbled notes now, so I must be wrapping up. The interface was the standard panning interface. No surprises there. You can hold one object at a time, but there are only a few places where this is relevant, so it isn't a problem.

Navigation was generally acceptable, although in a few places it wasn't clear which way I could go, and there was a unpleasant tendency to lead the player down long paths. For example, in one place you step through a hatch, climb a ladder, turn around in a little room, up another ladder, and out onto deck -- without any interactivity. Very frustrating in a panning game, where you generally have the freedom to look around. Similarly, some areas didn't have enough places to stand, which was frustrating for the same reason. (I got the distinct impression they ran short of disk space.)

Focus and emphasis worked fine. I always knew what was important in a scene, and a bit of cursor-waving over those things revealed exactly what was manipulable. Okay, I'm definitely down to trivia now.

Conclusion: Morpheus gave me a very enjoyable nine hours of play time, and had elements that could have made it truly brilliant, but it didn't quite follow through. This is, of course, a very faint damn. There's still plenty to appreciate. Zarf says go get it.

Availability: Weirdly limited. The only retailer that seems to carry it, on shelves or mail-order, is Electronics Boutique ( It's a Mac-PC hybrid, so you can buy the "PC" version without fear.

System Requirements: Any PowerMac, 4x CD-ROM, Sys7.5 or higher, 256-color display (thousands preferred), and QuickTime 3.0 (which is included on the CD.)

Macintosh-ness: Good. It didn't change display resolution on me without asking (as so many damn games do these days), and all the save/load commands and game options are available in the menu bar.

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