Review: Voyage / Journey to the Moon

Kheops Studio (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Atmosphere (heh)
Writing and dialogue
Pretty good
Not too hard (because many paths are possible)
Brilliant (because many paths are possible)
Forgiveness rating
You cannot get stuck; you can make a fatal mistake, but the game then undoes the fatal move.

When Dreamcatcher first announced the US release of this game, it was going to be called Journey to the Center of the Moon. I moaned and clutched at my head until someone pointed out that it was not, in fact, a sequel to the (fairly execrable) Journey to the Center of the Earth; it was Kheops Studio's follow-up to Return to Mysterious Island. That got me to unclutch.

It also saves me a lot of time reviewing, because Voyage sticks closely to the design of RtMI. You've got a big inventory full of stuff that combines in various ways. You have a serious dedication to puzzles that are solvable from multiple angles. You have cut-scenes handled inexpensively (and therefore generously) via narration and ink-sketches. And you have a story based on Jules Verne... although Voyage begins at the end of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, and diverges immediately from A Trip Around It. One would hardly be satisfied with a trip around the Moon. So you quickly find yourself walking on its surface, coping with weird Lunar flora, and encountering the mysterious, puzzle-mad Selenites.

Well, of course they're puzzle-mad.

RtMI was focussed intensely on real technology -- from sticks and fire up to chemical and electrical engineering. Voyage uses the same game interface, but it isn't nearly so scientific. To some extent this must be because RtMI did it all -- how many more games need to make you hunt up sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal? But also, Voyage has a more fantastic setting. The science is explicitly Vernian; which is to say, sometimes wrong. But hey, it's the Moon. It's an excuse for strange plants and undiscovered alien ores.

In fact, Voyage feels more like a game of alchemy than of technology. Instead of a crescendo of technological advancement, you're thrown straight in with several species of Lunar plants. And since you have no sense of what's reasonable (as you would with a gunpowder puzzle), you get to experiment. As the game continues, you acquire more ways to mutate and transform the elements you've already got.

If you think of these games as "tech trees", then RtMI was a series of long branches: primitive tech, metalworking, chemistry, electricity. Voyage, in contrast, is a tangled thicket. You don't get too lost, because the game gives you signposts -- recipes -- at least for the important paths. Anyhow, isn't getting lost the fun part?

Voyage relies much less heavily on resource limitations than RtMI did. Oh, there are some singular items, sure; particularly in the early game. But very often, you'll find a backup later on. And perhaps a spare for sale in the Lunar store. And the basic elements -- the ones I'm calling "alchemical" -- quickly turn up in inexhaustible supply. Which was another reason that word kept popping into my head. You're not (mostly) focussed on finding individual items; you're focussed on finding sources of items, so that you can get to the fun part, which is playing around with them.

(The inventory system limits you to carrying three copies of any item. This gets a bit annoying at times, but it doesn't slow the game down much; navigation is fast and easy, so you can always fetch more. And it prevents the typical acquisitive gamer (e.g., me) from reflexively clogging his inventory with barrels of useless stuff. Really, if there weren't a limit, I'd spend more time managing my junk than I could ever spend running back and forth for spares.)

And then there are the set-piece puzzles. One wonderful thing about a game that's willing to offer you multiple pathways is this: it can make some of the pathways really outrageous.

For example, some parts of the map require you to jump long distances. (Lunar gravity, right?) This is handled with a timing control, a "click when the light is green" sort of thing. Now, this sort of reflex puzzle adds a sense of immersion and immediacy, but inevitably it alienates some players. It's always risky in adventure game design.

But: (a) you can keep trying until you succeed; (b) there's a way you can find to make the timing easier; (c) if the long jumps are too hard, you can make any trip in a series of shorter, easier jumps; and (d) once you succeed at any particular jump, you can repeat it "for free" for the rest of the game. So, while the sense of danger remains, the people who need to bypass the puzzle can -- largely -- do so.

For another example: Voyage contains the holy mother of all audio puzzles. Not only do you have to distinguish pitches; you have to distinguish chords. I have a non-zero level of musical training (not much, but more than most gamers, I guess) and I was hopeless at that puzzle.

Does that mean I got stuck? No indeed. I bulled through using brute force (a deaf player could have done the same) and solved the puzzle at the lowest level. The Selenites lambasted my lack of skill -- but it didn't matter, because I'd impressed them with my mastery of a mathematical puzzle elsewhere in the game. If you suck at math and music, you can work on systematically discovering all the possible combinations of chemicals. Or sell items to that Lunar store I mentioned, and simply buy your way through puzzles. The game tracks a "lunar intelligence quotient" -- your score -- and while certain point levels are needed to advance, the game offers plenty of alternatives to reach them.

This works in reverse, too: when your score is sufficiently high -- or when you achieve sufficient progress through the game -- various puzzles get easier. One of your measures of progress is a collection of graded keys. And you'll often see keyholes by puzzle devices, which unlock easier modes (or bypass the puzzles entirely).

It's an interesting mechanic, because it circumvents my usual problem with multi-solution puzzles. In most "multiple solution" games, you see only one solution -- the one that you actually discover. A solution which you never stumble across might as well not be part of the game. But Voyage is more systematic. A keyhole is an open offer: work on this puzzle now, or come back later and get a boost. Similarly, a requirement for a particular score level (or money level) is a "puzzle", but the "multiple solutions" are all visible. Well, at least in general. You can still fail to realize that a particular (score-giving) puzzle exists, but you're not blind to the idea that solving puzzles raises your score.

I don't mean to imply that Voyage has turned into a CRPG-style, "turn the crank" kind of game. Each puzzle is unique -- that is, an adventure-game challenge, not a CRPG challenge -- and you are solving each major puzzle just once. Okay, you wind up making multiple batches of certain chemical compounds, but it isn't too many repetitions. (Unless you're a freak like me who insists on keeping One Of Everything prepared in the inventory. Hint: this doesn't actually make the game easier.)

The idea of selling items at the store to gain money is CRPG-like, yes. But the game is set up to minimize that. You get the best price for an item the first time you sell it. If you sell multiple copies, the price declines rapidly. So although cranking out piles of stuff for cash is possible, it's very tedious compared to exploring more of the game or experimenting with new item combinations. I usually hold as an axiom that any player would rather get bored than start thinking -- but Voyage manages to tilt the balance the other way. Impressive.

Perhaps it's just that I had plenty of money, once I hit my stride in the "alchemy" part of the game. But no: even after that, I was deliberately avoiding the store; I was doing my best to solve puzzles without spending money. I guess it just worked for me. Which is a backhand way of saying that I'm not sure why it worked, and maybe it won't work for you.

Perhaps it's just that the exploring is fun. I've always been fond of random stuff that you can discover in a game. Random optional stuff, that is. The kind of stuff that game designers hate to put in, because -- bluntly -- it's a waste of development effort. Your typical player plays until he's solved the game. If you put in a reward that 50% of players miss, then you're giving each player an average of half a Fun Unit. You could have spent the same amount of effort (money) on a puzzle that was required to finish the game; and then each player would have gotten an average of one Fun Unit. Which is a better design decision?

But there are optional quests in CRPGs and other major game genres. I figure that completist players and other obsessive-compulsives are a significant chunk of the market. I'm not sure why it's so rare in adventure games. Possibly because the development teams are small, and every puzzle and scene is such a large effort.

At any rate, Voyage is one of those rare adventures with plenty of extra stuff to do. (Quite aside from the self-selected challenges of finishing the game without using keyholes or bribes.) And since they're extras, the designers were free to make them unusually tricky. I found one puzzle whose solution was not only obscure, but was clued only by the solution to a different obscure (and optional) puzzle. Quite possibly there were more that I overlooked entirely. It was great.

So -- a game which contains not only difficult puzzles, but puzzles I found completely impossible. And I am commending the game design. Take that, world!

Summary: Plenty of fun for all types of players. Even sneaky players like me.

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