Review: Return to Mysterious Island

Official game site; Kheops Studio (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Very thin
Writing and dialogue
Pretty good, although with some iffy translation
Very good
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck; you can make a fatal mistake, but the game then undoes the fatal move.

Yes, yes, I enjoy unleashing my corrosive venom on hapless, squirming game-victims. But it's even nicer when I don't have to.

RtMI was an off-the-moment purchase for me. I'd seen the ad copy, which talked a lot about "combining items", and also said it was "inspired by the Jules Verne classic". (Which I took to mean "title by Jules Verne", and anyhow I've never read The Mysterious Island.) And the screenshot on the back of the box looks like a slot machine on overdrive. So I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.

Turns out RtMI is a sweet little primitive-castaway adventure which goes all-out on two motifs: creating tools, and allowing multiple solutions to puzzles. Those two ideas are nothing new in adventureland -- as ideas. But I've never seen a graphical game pursue them with such determination, and RtMI makes them work very well.

You're a spunky girl navigator (can you think of a better term? I can't) who's been competing for the Jules Verne trophy -- sailing around the world solo. Then a storm wrecks you and washes you up on a deserted beach. You've got nothing but your clothes, your freckles, and a juiceless satellite phone. (And a priceless ruby necklace, according to the graphics, but that doesn't play any part in the game. Pity.)

So it's off to survey the area and start collecting Stuff. And oh, this game has Stuff. Food is the first priority, which means coconuts, turtle eggs, and crabs; and also a way to crack the coconuts and cook the eggs and crabs. And also something sharp. Definitely something sharp.

That's a decent handful of puzzles already; and you'll have a dozen items before you leave the first section of the game. The Stuff builds up rapidly thereafter. I didn't count, but I must have had fifty items at the peak of the game. More than that over its course, since some things get used up and others created. The game gives you a nice tabbed interface with eight screens worth of slots. Plenty of room to sort and categorize -- plants, animals products, wood, tools, etc. If some items get more play than others (hello knife) that's only logical. You'll have plenty of chances to contemplate the value of the more obscure ones.

There's a nice arc from scavenged raw materials to Stone Age constructions (flint and steel, slingshot), through the agricultural revolution (steeping herbs, grinding grain), and into the modern era (as you explore more of the island and find metal tools and devices. And an abandoned chemical laboratory. They couldn't skip that.) Eventually you're discovering lost relics of Captain Nemo, that anachronistic old scoundrel, which means mad-scientific technologies for all.

Plus, there's a monkey. Yes! A monkey!

The nifty thing is that the designers have deliberately (I believe) switched the focus of the game from the world panorama to the inventory window. Of course there's still a world to explore, and you'll need to pay attention to gather all the resources you'll need. But when you ask "what do I spend my time doing?", the answer is "contemplating my bounty of Stuff, and trying different combinations". The question of using Stuff on the scenery is still present, but it's definitely secondary. Sometimes it's obvious, given the tool combinations that you've discovered, what to use them on. Sometimes it's not obvious, but looking at the scenery is still -- er -- not what you spend most of your time doing.

The extra-nifty thing is that this is not a weakness. Having decided to use this game focus, the designers followed through on it. They put in enough Stuff, and enough interesting combinations, that the inventory window is fun to play with. It works. You can't just look at it and see the solutions to all your desires. There are two-step and three-step combinations; there are obscure uses for things. You don't fall immediately into "use everything on everything", because there are so many possibilities. You have to inhabit the world -- consider the Stuff as real-world objects, not as menu tokens.

It's the same mimetic leap that good adventures games have always required. The only difference is that it's about what you're carrying, not what you're standing next to.

(In case you're wondering, the monkey (once you get the monkey) acts just like all your other tools. You can "combine" him with Stuff, and send the combination -- the tool-held-by-monkey -- to out-of-reach spots, where he always does just what you want. What a smart monkey!)

This all works because the game allows a lot of combinations -- some of which are disassemblable, allowing you to recover the Stuff for other uses. And that works because of the second focus of this game: multiple solutions to puzzles. I believe every single problem in the game allows more than one approach. (Every high-level problem, I mean. There's only one way to open a coconut; but when food is required, there are many possibilities, of which coconut meat is just one. The foods I listed earlier are only half of the edible items in the first part of the game -- and more show up later.)

The upshot is that just because you've made a tool, it doesn't mean it's the solution to your current problem. Maybe it's a solution to some future problem. Maybe it's an alternate solution to a problem you've already solved. Maybe it's a possible solution to two problems (and you'll need to find an alternate for the other one). Maybe you'll have to take it apart, because it incorporates an item that you need for the actual solution. The range of choice is wide enough to explore, and indefinite enough that the sheer mechanics don't give much away. That (as I keep repeating, probably past the point of tedium) is what makes an adventure game work.

The down side of all this: you can get into an illusory stuck state. This happened to me once. I was blocked by a problem which (as it turned out) had three possible solutions. I'd already used up one solution on a previous similar problem. I didn't think of the second, and the tools I needed to create it (even accidentally) were in the blocked area. And I didn't think of the third either, because it involved something which I'd already dealt with and thus (wrongly) thought of as "finished".

So the designers were certainly providing me with plenty of options. (Even solution #2 would have worked, if I'd happened to create it earlier. Or if I'd used it on the earlier similar problem, leaving solution #1 still available for this one.) However, I was locked into thinking about solution #1, because that one had already worked. Only I'd used it up. So it felt like a classic "you lose, start over" game design. Presumably I should have had more trust, but that's the way the cookie crumbled. I wound up looking at hints to discover solution #3.

A couple of other design quibbles: the endgame involves a lot of Captain Nemo's technological gadgets, which somehow translates to a lot of puzzle locks. You know, the kind that aliens and mad wizards are always using to protect their secret lairs. Now, I like puzzle locks. And RtMI has good ones: mostly original puzzles, and pleasantly confusing while still being suspectible to careful experimentation and analysis. (And the designers even manage to allow multiple solutions in this part of the game. For example, two locked doors that ultimately lead to the same destination.)

However, after an entire game of physically realistic puzzles, the Nemo stuff is rather a sudden swerve. People with a grudge for arbitrary puzzle insertion might be turned off by the endgame. Be warned.

The other quibble is a bunch of timed sequences in the latter part of the game. All of these have multiple solutions (some with easier timing, some with harder timing). Many of them (but I believe not all) have alternate solutions which don't require any timing at all. As is usual with adventure-marketed games, all these timed actions will be easy for the average player -- you get unlimited tries, of course. (The game can show your death, but then it puts you back to try again.) If you really can't face them, you can look for the untimed solutions.

I've already said that I liked the inventory interface. (The only thing it lacks is a way to transfer several items from one tab to another. This would have been helpful, e.g., when I unloaded four pieces of cloth into the wrong tab window.) The rest of the game's interface is unassuming, but tidy. The game is pleasantly flexible about interactions; once you solve a puzzle in one spot, it's generally taken care of for the whole game, avoiding the need for mechanical repetition. For example, once you make a clay bowl, the game gives you a whole collection of clay vessels; it simply says it's as many as you need. This doesn't happen everywhere -- you'll find yourself gathering some items repeatedly -- but mostly it's very smooth.

Interesting note: the designers weren't shy about using simple ink sketches for cut scenes, instead of fully-rendered 3D animations. This allowed them to put in quite a number of brief cut scenes -- illustrating minor interactions as well as major plot events. Definitely a worthwhile tradeoff.

For example... early in the game, you encounter fresh water. This is likely before you make those clay bowls. So there's no way to take the water.

A bad design solution would be to have no hotspot for the water -- have the hotspot appear as soon as you create vessels. A decent solution would be to have a hotspot with the red "you need a tool here" cursor. A good solution would be to have a "you have no way to carry water" voiceover when you click the hotspot.

The design solution in RtMI, which I like a lot, is to have a hotspot which leads to a cut scene of you drinking some water. If you try it a second time, there's a scene of you bathing. (Nothing racy, you pervs.) The third time I tried it, I had acquired the clay bowls, so the game awarded me a bowl of water for my Stuff collection. These were ink-sketch cut scenes, so they were easy to throw into the game; and they did a good job of keeping the water "alive" in my memory until it was time for me to pick some up.

My biggest regret about RtMI is that it's very short. Even with all the Stuff, and all the variations of things to do, I finished it in about six hours. I think this is a consequence of the design, really. Most games give you a constant stream of new scenery to explore, and interactions are spread (relatively) thinly across the scenery. This game has a pretty small map; you go back and forth a lot, finding Stuff and applying it in new ways. Travelling back and forth through familiar territory is simply not time-consuming.

And, as I said, the biggest area of gameplay is your inventory, which is easy to play around with. If you're not sure what to do, you try some more combinations. I said that the sheer number of possibilities discourages "use everything on everything" brute force. It doesn't eliminate it. If you think an item is relevant to your current situation, you can reasonably test it against every reasonable possibility. (And this involves no travelling; the possibilities are what you have in your hands.) Also, once you reach a certain point in the plot, you have access to an encyclopedia, which acts as an unsubtle hint source for tool combinations. The upshot of all this is, you'll rarely be stuck.

I was almost never stuck. (The one exception, where I needed a hint, I've already described.) That meant that, for most of my six-hour session, I was rolling through the game at full speed. I nearly always had puzzles piling up faster than I could solve them! It was fun, and it was always engaging enough to keep me in the game world -- even when I was trying lots of combinations, I had to think about what I was doing. But it also explains why I finished so quickly. A game only has so much content, and when you're burning through the content as fast as it's fed to you, the game only lasts so long.

I think that covers it. I could talk about the plot, but the plot is basically wallpaper. It's there to justify a whole lot of tool use on a deserted island. Yes, the Captain Nemo stuff comes up at the end; but it's scenery, and in-joke references to the Verne book. It doesn't form a background story of its own, and it's barely relevant to your story.

(Now that I look at The Mysterious Island, I see that it really is a huge tool and chemistry geekfest. A lot of the puzzles in this game are taken straight from the book. All the backstory, too. Not sure whether this makes me more or less pleased with the game designers. Kind of like the Necronomicon situation: the background material was nice, until I realized it was all stolen. And just like in Necronomicon, the new ending they made up didn't fit very well. At least this time the stolen plot wasn't central to the game.)

Summary: Short, but exceptionally well-designed and a lot of fun to play.

I notice that Kheops Studio, the developers of Return to Mysterious Island, are credited as the programmers (but not the writers or designers) of Crystal Key 2. That game, you'll recall, I found notable for its terrible writing and design. I say Kheops should do more of its own material.

Game Reviews