Review: Reah

Official web page; L.K.Avalon (creators); Project Two Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Ought to be good, but deflated by the voice-overs
Writing and dialogue
Mediocre to awful
Requires telepathy in places
Good, with some flaws
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck or make a mistake, though you can accidentally skip important animations

"There are dumb things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold..." So says Robert Service, modulo a word or two. I've played a lot of games now. I've seen authors do a lot of dumb things. I want to tell you about... but hold, not yet.

I should warn you, first, that I have broken from my policy of reviewing only games that are released for the Macintosh. Reah is available only for Windows. That annoys me, for the usual reflexive reasons.

But I've decided that it's about the games, not the OS -- at least in this space of reviews. So I bought a copy of Virtual PC 3.0. Actually, I got Virtual PC 2.1.2, but that wasn't good enough; I couldn't get Reah to run until I upgraded to 3.0. Then it ran. And you know, since adventure games supersede the usual UI entirely, it didn't really make much difference.

(Well, except for something called "WIN386.SWP", which grew slowly and inevitably and forced me to restart Windows about every four hours. But then, there are compensations. Now that I'm done playing, I can trash my entire Windows installation -- OS, drivers, registry, files, and all. If I feel like playing a different Windows game, I'll reinstall a fresh setup. Every game will be the first application ever installed... tech support drones everywhere rejoice!)

So Reah: a planet on which an interdimensional portal is discovered. A few researchers have gone through to explore. You're the first journalist to follow them. Unfortunately (if inevitably), the portal is turning unstable, and collapses as soon as you step through. Welcome to somewhere else.

Somewhere else is a desert city; narrow streets, high walls of frescoed plaster; columns and towers and fountains. All abandoned, of course, except for a few people, who speak a language you don't understand.

All ought to be bizarre, atmospheric and strange -- a thematic steal from Myst, perhaps, but that's what I was in the mood for. However.

The first clue I had, as it were, was when I picked up some kind of ceramic thing from a dry water-trough. "Hmm," said voice-over, "it's some kind of ceramic thing!" The abrasive, whiny, stupid voice-over. I'm probably misquoting the exact words of that comment, but they were all like that. Through the whole game. "Whoa, that sure is hot!" "I bet that slab conceals something!" "Nothing here works!" "I do love lockpicks!" "I do love solving puzzles!"

I swear, I took to growling "You goddamn idiot" at the screen every time a voice-over went past. If that was the characterization of the protagonist, then he was an idiot. And any hope of being immersed in the strangeness of the world was punctured. Repeatedly. With violence.

Please note: voice-over is a valuable technique in graphical adventure design. It can convey shades of information which could never be managed in sound effect or animation. (See my comments on Starship Titanic.) One of the great advantages of the text adventure genre is that it has those words, giving detailed feedback, explaining failures -- even explaining successes, if you didn't understand exactly what you did right.

So I shouldn't be objecting to the use of voice-overs in general. "The key doesn't fit" is useful information. "I think it's a power screwdriver" is useful information. But to hear, "Oh, no, the key doesn't fit!" with just the same whiny quaver that Luke Skywalker used on his Uncle Owen... or "Well, at least I won't have to drive in the screws with my bare hands!" The forced jocularity got old really fast. Within minutes. Arghh.

(Some of this may have been translation. The game's designers are Polish, if I read aright. All of the dialogue was translated; in a few places, I could tell it had been badly translated. And the voices I heard were probably not what the authors had in mind -- like a dubbed movie. In which case, perhaps subtitles would have been a better choice. I could deal with subtitled Polish, if the voices were portraying interesting people. As opposed to goddamn idiots.)

All of which says nothing about the game itself. And by that, I mean puzzles. Reah is not, let us say, a work of carefully integrated puzzles and storyline. It's soup cans from beginning to end. Everything has puzzles built in -- the doors, the fountains, the temples, the bathhouses. No particular explanation for any of it.

(Footnote: "Soup cans" -- a comment about The Seventh Guest, now passed into legend among game designers. "What kind of evil genius thwarts his enemies with soup cans?")

I've enjoyed puzzle games. Some "adventure" games are purely puzzle collections (Jewels of the Oracle, for example); some have plots, but are at root puzzle-fests (Shivers, Timelapse). An unabashed puzzle game doesn't bother me.

What bothers me is an abashed puzzle game, if you will. Reah acts like a game with a plot. Clues go past; plot threads; pieces of a picture. You meet other researchers from your world. You keep meeting people who remembering seeing you before, or someone like you. An apparition in a hood keeps popping up.

But -- be clear about this -- there is no plot. No two plot threads ever tie together. No clues about the world ever turn out to be meaningful. The apparition is obviously Evil, but that fact is irrelevant. The resolution, such as it is, reveals secrets which have nothing to do with anything you've done. I suppose it explains the soup cans, but not by bringing the whole game into focus; rather, it renders the whole game pointless.

I'm being harsh, here, but I really felt as if the authors had seen plots, and played story games, without ever having the faintest idea what a plot or story was.

Right, I was talking about puzzles. Which don't work either. (Look, I'm sorry -- but there it is.)

Okay, they vary. Some of the puzzles are good. I liked the one with the gongs; vivid use of imagery there. I liked several of the logic puzzles, never mind the lack of integration. (The Nim game, though an oldie, was well-presented; you have to win a majority of several games, and a perfect strategy lets you win two-thirds.)

Others... I did not like. Rare it is that I get through a puzzle, read the walkthrough (or vice versa), look at the results, and say "What the hell just happened?" A very bad sign for the game design. In Reah, this happened a lot.

I'm pretty sure the telescope symbols were just badly drawn, so I didn't recognize them except in hindsight. I found two of the clues for the fountain, though I had to guess the third, and it didn't bother me -- much -- that the outcome made no sense. And I actually figured out the alchemy courtyard, once someone explained the goal to me.

The oasis, however, is hopeless. I think there were supposed to be clues, but the clues didn't actually say anything. I tried quite a lot of combinations by brute force, gave up, and checked a walkthrough. It was still hopeless. I solved it, sure. I could write a theory as to why. But then I could write a theory proving that any of the failed solutions were right.

I should stop a moment and say that the in-game hint system was quite impressive. The hooded apparition interjects comments, every so often. If you seem to be stuck, he pops in and tells you something else. It felt fairly natural, and kept me moving in places I otherwise would have been stuck. Of course, there are only so many hints per puzzle, but that's true of any hint system.

But, oh lords, you want to know what not to do in a game? A thing so dumb that I nearly microwaved the CDs on the spot? A thing dumber than a jumping-pegs puzzle? A thing so dumb that I spent the rest of the game (fortunately it was near the end) muttering "There are dumb things done, in the midnight sun..."?

Do not, for your soul's sake, put a seven-disk Tower of Hanoi in the climactic scene of your game.

Enough said about that.

The interface too was mostly good. They managed to work an inventory into a simple-click interface by automatically highlighting the appropriate inventory object; no mess about choosing an object and then choosing where to use it. The view is anamorphic-panning, though you can only stop facing the eight compass points, so I guess it's not true anamorphic display code. The effect is the same, though.

I did have some problems. There are keyboard equivalents to turn-left and turn-right, but not face-up and face-down, even though those have the same mouse interface.

You can't skip over walking animations, so moving around can get quite tedious, and in some parts of the game you do move around a lot. Contrariwise, you can abort dialogue animations -- by clicking the mouse button or typing an arrow key -- i.e., the navigation controls. Since dialogue can start up without warning, it's very easy to skip some without meaning to, as you run around. And those animations can contain vital clues. In a couple of places, I had to restore to an earlier game just to replay those.

Worse, I sometimes managed to confuse the game engine by turning or moving at the wrong time. (For example, try to turn while the telescope is lowered. Or do any movement in the middle of a move-turn-move navigation sequence, of which there are a few.) In these cases, movement animations would play out of order, or the screen would fill up with garbage. I could usually recover by pausing and unpausing the game -- that pushed me back to a legal state -- but it was annoying. The fault might have lain with the Virtual PC emulation, but I'm guessing not.

But what about the graphics, I hear you cry? What about the graphics?

(Yes, that's irony.)

Reah is pretty. Yep. A sense of scale pervades it, large cities and small ones. The water-temple is a terrific piece of visual and sound design; I could smell the humidity. I was impressed.

Now imagine how much that helped.

Summary: Incoherent and not particularly enjoyable.

Availability: Reah is on shelves in the usual PC game outlets. You can play it on the Mac under Virtual PC 3.0 (but no earlier version). I haven't tried any other PC emulator.

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