Review: Sentinel: Descendants in Time

Official game site; Detalion (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Writing and dialogue
Not bad
Very good
Not very hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot die or make a fatal mistake.

I open the Sentinel manual and the second thing I see (after the cursor explanation, same as every other adventure cursor in history) is "Story by Terry Dowling -- based on his short story "'The Dormeuse and the Ichneumon'". Huh, I say. Dowling is not well-known in the US; he's an Australian science fiction writer, who typically deals in far-future human civilizations. I have a couple of collections of his stories, but they don't include this one.

Since most adventure games are "based on a thin idea which the designer came up with, not that he's a writer or anything, it's science fiction, how hard can it be?" I was prepared for something interesting.

Sentinel is pretty interesting. I don't think it's a great adventure-game translation of a short story. The story is a bit murky and hard to get into. But then, I'm judging it by short-story standards, not adventure standards. Which means Sentinel has crossed some kind of watershed line: I'm playing it as literate science fiction, written by an actual author, and how many games can provoke that?

The scenario (just to describe the game's opening) has you entering Tomb 35, one of the famous tombs of the lost Tastan civilization. You've been into Tastan tombs before, but 35 is apparently one of the most dangerous. You're only going in because some thug has your little sister hostage. He wants tomb treasure; you're going to have to get past the Tastan defense program, the Dormeuse ("Sleeper"), to find some.

So here's why it doesn't work: not enough text. (I bet you knew I'd say that.)

There's a lot of text. The designers are doing the right thing: the storyline is presented through a series of dialogue snippets, scattered thickly throughout the game. Some of them are voice-overs; some are full cut-scenes, in which you can see Dormeuse moving around and interacting with scenery. None of the snippets are too long, and the voice acting is quite good. (Okay, Dormeuse is quite good. You are played by an annoying whiner who never manages to get his head out of the script. But Dormeuse is the interesting one.)

Despite this, I never quite had a sense of what was going on. Or rather, I never had a sense of how the story began. The opening monologue is highly compressed. Yes, it presents everything the story needs. When I finished the game, I went back and realized that the opening provides foreshadowing as well. It's a very well-done bit of prose. But it's still too squished. The background material needs to be reinforced a couple of times, early in the game, or the player just winds up feeling lost.

Note that I'm not talking about the story which emerges through the course of the game. That develops over many dialogue interludes; the pacing works. I'm talking about the protagonist's context -- his initial state of mind, within which you must begin for the story to hold together.

For example: the game is obviously going to involve learning about the ancient Tastans. Just by showing a tomb, and saying that you're going to explore it, the designers set up that much. What they don't set up (clearly enough) is how much you know initially -- what you expect the tombs to contain. What kind of ancient tombs are guarded by a holographic defense program? Are artificial intelligences normal where you come from? Are your people even more advanced than the Tastans? Have you grown up hearing stories about the Tastan sentinels, or did you just learn about this one?

Again, it's not that the designers omit this stuff. The first time you meet the defense program, you're walking into the tomb entrance calling out "Dormeuse! Dormeuse!" So you can deduce that the protagonist does expect to encounter her.

But that goes by very quickly. Everything does. In a printed story, every line of description and narrative would convey tiny clues about the the protagonist, his background, his expectations and understanding of the world. It's the basic trick of science fiction. In Sentinel, this material is compressed into the opening and the first few pieces of dialogue, and it just doesn't quite fit.

Enough of that disgression. How does the game play out? Well, a Tastan tomb apparently contains a set of virtual worlds, which represent places the owner loved. Unsurprisingly, these worlds are full of puzzles.

(The game takes pains to stress that they're only snapshots of real worlds. This, I assume, is meant to explain the Great Adventure Convention -- that any real place would have so many perfectly-designed and arranged puzzles. Personally I recommend that designers leave the subject alone. The more you point, the more irritating the question becomes -- no matter how good your explanation. Like a Star Trek episode trying to seriously explain the Klingon forehead thing. Which, I hear, they're about to do. Sigh.)

The puzzles are a weird bunch. They are uniformly, and unashamedly, abstract puzzles. All of them. Pattern-matching, pattern analysis, combination locks; colors and symbols and sounds. (Many audio puzzles -- you don't need perfect pitch, but you'd better be good at distinguishing sounds.)

You will find no puzzles based on physical reality. No heating things with fire; no chilling with ice; no objects pushing or bumping or leaning on other objects. No levers. Certainly no chemical or biological properties. Not even any pipes or wires to trace from location A to location B. A couple of the puzzles touch on the geometry of the locations, but only in the most abstract way. There's a floating bridge at one point, whose height varies with the height of the water; but you could just as well think of it as a three-position switch.

In short, Sentinel has scenery and puzzles, and the two have practically nothing to do with each other. The game worlds are pretty, but you don't have to inhabit them to understand the puzzles. They're just a tray to serve forth the symbolic information you need.

The puzzles don't relate to the storyline, either. They're built into the domains of Tomb 35, and at the end of each domain you get a crystal which advances the game state. But there's no thematic relation between the puzzles and the domains (or the Dormeuse, or the plot). Your actions do not tie into the storytelling. Not until the very last puzzle, and even there the thematic relation is optional -- you can simply solve it as a pattern puzzle.

I'd compare it to Jewels of the Oracle, except that Sentinel does have a story.

Also, now that I think about it, Jewels had some very complex puzzles -- ornate slider variations which required multiple levels of manipulation. The puzzles in Sentinel never get that fiendish. Some of them are complicated, in the sense of requiring you to discover and organize a lot of information; but once you have it all written down, the puzzle mechanism itself is usually simplistic.

This is not exactly a complaint. I like abstract puzzles. I enjoyed Sentinel as a puzzle collection -- with some high spots and low spots, of course. I just prefer games in which the challenges are inextricably tied to the world. The pattern-matching is not the reason I keep going back to the adventure wellhead.

(The worst puzzle in Sentinel is a blinky-lights affair in which thirty-two switches control twenty lights. You have to pick the four correct switches. As far as I can tell, there's no way to solve this except to write down all 32 switch patterns, and then start combining them by brute force. I wound up writing a program to solve it for me, which at least saved the brute-force step.)

Sentinel has a fully 3D environment. This is a recent trick which I expect to see more of in adventure games, and Sentinel does it very well, although not brilliantly. The necessary comparison is to Uru, and -- well -- Uru looks better. Sentinel has a lot of excellent scenery, and there's plenty of model detail. But the designers rarely added that one extra layer of dirt, gloss, wear, or glow which made Uru so stunning. The surfaces look just a bit flat and repetitive.

Navigation is no problem; you run around in the usual first-person 3D manner. Mouse to turn, arrow keys to move or sidestep, left-click to trigger whatever's directly in front of you. (The cursor is locked to the center of the screen.) My only problem was that the mouse was very jittery; I had to turn the sensitivity all the way down. Oh, and there is a jump key -- but it's a tiny hop, not any part of the gameplay. I think jumping is only there in case you get wedged against a floor polygon in a funny way. (Which you can probably also solve by backing up and trying again from a different angle.)

One odd interface addition is a "directional hint" -- a translucent arrow which floats near your cursor and points at the nearest interactable hotspot. (Or several arrows, if you're near several machines.) I'm not sure I like it. It's effective, in that it's usually easy to follow it to a nearby clue or puzzle. But it's also somewhat distracting. And if the "nearest" hotspot is on the other side of a wall, it can become frustratingly useless -- you're on your own as far as reaching the item, if it's even reachable at that point in the game.

I'm not necessarily opposed to out-of-game interface mechanisms like this. But I worry that they can become substitutes for exploring, rather than helpful additions. The directional arrows in Sentinel rarely told me anything useful, because the game design was generally good enough to make important objects stand out. And the arrows may have added to my sense of disconnection with the game world. On the other hand, I didn't need to feel connected to the game world, since Sentinel is all about the puzzles. So maybe I'm playing the game correctly, and just unloading my discomfort on the directional arrows.

Overall: A mixed report. Sentinel has an interesting story, which is imperfectly presented. It has a lot of enjoyable puzzles, but it doesn't even try to integrate them into the story or the world. Exploring it is cool, but the scenery is just background art, and it didn't knock my socks very far off. Sentinel is very well done for what it is: a pretty puzzle collection with a bonus story included. You should play it if that's what you like. But I wish it had been more.

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