Review: Zork Nemesis

Official web page at Activision

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good to excellent (with some irregularities)
Varies from fairly easy to fairly hard
Mostly good
Dialog and writing
Fair to good
You can die. You can't get stuck for lack of an object, but you can get stuck if you forget to write down a clue the first (only) time it appears.

I will state my prejudice and my big gripe up front, and get them out of the way. I am an old fan of the original, all-text, Infocom Zork games; and I say Zork Nemesis should not have been a Zork game. ZN was written by different authors, in a different medium. It has a distinct atmosphere and style, which I liked. But the authors went to a great deal of effort to work in references to the Infocom games. There are dozens. And every time I found one, it clashed. I can't reconcile a world of granola mines and Flatheads with this baroque and shaded work. Nor can I wedge the Hermetic alchemy of ZN into my conception of the magical laws of Quendor. (The alchemical laws were too Earth-like, for one thing. The symbols, the diagrams, the correspondences of elements, planets, and metals, were all completely familiar. Ok, they changed the planet names a little. It didn't work for me.)

And yes, I have been reminded that the Infocom Zork games varied quite a lot in tone, and had plenty of dark scenes. They weren't like this. This wasn't like those. Zork Nemesis should have been simply Nemesis, a game taking place in a fantasy Europe of a century or so past. The strengths of the game and its designers would have shone free, not burdened by other people's handed-down vision.

I'll shut up about this topic now.

The first thing you see on the ZN disc is a long diary: the "Alchemy Book." What, again? [The last game I reviewed, Secrets of the Luxor, also started out with a long diary.] This time, however, you can read it or leave it, as you like. Just about all the information -- certainly all the important stuff -- is information that you encounter slowly, a piece at a time, as you play the game. I get the impression that the diary was an afterthought, put in to acquaint confused newcomers to the ZN scenario. So if you feel in need of orientation, or just want to plow through it, go ahead. If you enjoy piecing together dribbets of insight into a coherent whole -- as I do -- ignore the diary and start up the game.

(Oops, one exception. The map sketch on page 46 of the diary is important, and I don't believe it appears in the game itself. It does appear on page 11 of the paper manual that comes in the CD case, however. You can stick with just looking at that.)

And so you start. The first thing you notice is the interface. Most of the game is in panoramic panning -- the same algorithm as QuickTime VR, although ZN uses a custom engine rather than QTVR. You can stand at a spot and rotate through 360 degrees of smoothly-turning scenery. Animated scenery, where appropriate. Sometimes you can pitch up and down, too. It does indeed look terrific.

You have the usual set of arrow cursors to indicate object and navigation hotspots. (Hotspots rotate along with your view, of course.) Since you can turn freely, all navigation hotspots are "move straight forward", which is an unutterable relief. I almost never got lost. Most object hotspots take you to a close-up view, which does not rotate, and always has a "back away" spot at the bottom of the screen. Consistent and easy to get used to.

Object manipulation is the usual -- click to take an object, and you can cycle through your inventory to use an object on something you see. There's no way to list all your inventory at once, but since most objects disappear when used correctly, you rarely have more than two or three objects at a time. Although it did go up to six or eight on a couple of occasions. Hmm.

One caveat: the manual says that a "hand" cursor appears anywhere you can pick up an object, or put down or use an object from your inventory. This is not always true. There are places where you are supposed to put down an object, but the cursor there is the common "activate" arrow rather than the "hand."

Did I say it looks terrific? It looks terrific. I liked some of the areas more than others -- if I read the credits aright, different areas were done by different groups of artists -- but the worst of them was still very good, and it's probably just a matter of taste anyway. ZN was loaded full of my two very favorite things in graphical environments: paintings and dirt. Honest. No bare walls anywhere; there were paintings, maps, posters, tapestries, diagrams, murals; and in all sorts of styles. Some are actual historic art (Bosch, Botticelli, and others show up in the credits. :) All of them added to the richness of the world. Carpets! Lots of oriental carpets. (One Zork reference I didn't mind.) And dirt. Things that were supposed to be decayed, were decayed and stained and worn. I love it. I think the reason I didn't like some of the areas was that they were sterile and spotless. I mean, that was how they were supposed to be; but I just like dirt.

The biggest graphical flaw was the matching-up. There are generally three kinds of art in ZN: panoramic scenes, fixed-view closeups, and animation. No two matched very well. The fineness of detail, the lighting, and the color balance could change violently as you moved close to an object, or made it start to animate. Icky.

The puzzles in ZN start out fairly easy. You spend a lot of time learning the elemental correspondences of alchemy, and putting that knowledge to use. Lots of books to read. Take notes; you'll be checking them frequently. And there are the usual number of strange magical mechanisms. Ok, more than the usual number. This is alchemy, after all, and you are not only exploring laboratories, but trying to use them yourself.

There is a lot of variation, actually. Sometimes you're just looking up the right symbol to get through a combination lock. Sometimes you're working a machine. (Most of which are very interesting machines, and great puzzles -- don't get me wrong.) But there are some really beautiful situation puzzles, things which flow perfectly out of the situation and the looking-glass logic of alchemy. (I won't give spoilers, but a roomful of candles comes to mind.) There were things which made me think in angles that I never have had to, in any previous game. Yay!

On the other hand, a few of the puzzles go over the edge, into the land of things you need telepathic contact with the author to understand. These aren't necessarily hard, mind you. You often have a limited set of tools, and it's easy to stumble onto a solution by clicking everything onto everything else. This is, in fact, the problem. Solving a problem by brute force is no fun; solving a problem by accident is worse. If a puzzle makes no sense in the game world, but simply gives you all the tools, you will solve it by accident. This happens here and there in ZN. I found it frustrating.

And don't get complacent. For example, most of the game is free of time limits; there are a few places where you encounter an explicit time limit (a voice saying "You have 45 seconds..." is hard to miss.) But in one place, you have to click in one place and then, in the midst of the reaction-animation, immediately click in another. If you've gotten used to taking your time to watch results, you'll get severely stuck, and never know why. I got past this by sheer luck, and decided it was an unfair puzzle. Now I'm not so sure. Maybe it's fair if you've been warned not to be complacent. So I'm warning you.

The forgiveness level of the game also varies a lot, and that is definitely unfair. Forgiveness? The standard of the genre was set by Myst, in which the player simply could not die or get stuck. There were no mistakes; only things you had not yet done. ZN mostly follows that rule; but "mostly" is a harsh mistress. There are very few ways to die -- but you can die, sometimes unexpectedly. That means that you probably weren't in the habit of saving your game frequently. Which means you can lose literally hours of playing time. Save often, even if you don't want to. Another example: You can't truly get stuck in ZN; you can't get locked into a situation with no way to get the object you need. But you can get locked into a situation with no way to get back to information you need. There is also information which appears exactly once. If you have a good memory, or take lots of notes, you have no problem. But don't overwrite your old saved games; you never know when you may need to back up just to check a book or something.

I could also log a complaint about the way some puzzles are implemented. Some actions are unavailable when you're halfway through something -- and this is done by making a hotspot disappear. Or, worse, killing you for no good reason when you venture outside the bounds of the puzzle. This is just bad planning. Maybe it's not clear what I mean. To be vague about one puzzle: you are doing some alchemical thing, and you get a result which is hot. At this point I wanted to open the thingie and get the result; I didn't realize it was too hot to touch. But the hotspot that opened the thingie was gone. The part was still visible on the screen, but it didn't get an "active" cursor and click it did nothing. Now, maybe they didn't have room for a "too hot" animation, or they couldn't figure out how to animate it, or they didn't have time to make it. But when the hotspot disappeared, I didn't think, "Oh! It must be too hot to touch!" Instead, I thought "Oh! There's a bug in this damn game!" Bleah. There weren't a lot of these situations, and not all of them were that ugly, but the problem did crop up fairly regularly.

Thus, we come to the plot. Now in some senses, ZN's plot follows some heavily Myst-trodden trails. There is a big lonely world to explore, abandoned by characters that you learn about only through their ghosts and relics. Sometimes they appear to beg favors and give cryptic hints. And the game starts with the Mysterious Plot-Inducing Voice-Over, which frankly I'm getting really tired of.

But this merely technique. Zork Nemesis, wonder of wonders, has a plot. It has characters. They come to life, or something resembling it, as you learn about them. This is accomplished mostly through flashbacks, or rather magical visions of the past associated with their possessions. These are short, well-placed, and well-paced. You do get to know these people, even though your actual in-game interactions with them are brief. They have lives. It works.

I'm not talking an astonishing brilliant plot here; Guy Gavriel Kay and Patricia McKillip are not writing computer games. (Although Diane Duane did, once... hmm.) But it is not a plot which hurt to read. It would not have made a terrible book, or even a below-average movie. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

(Perhaps it's rude to say that the best computer games have to offer is "not terrible." Well, I've said before that I'm cynical. I also just finished three really good books in a row. Blame my high standards on John M. Ford, Iain M. Banks, and Robin not-M. Hobbs.)

Ok, this is getting really long. I shall wrap it up. The wrap-up is, Zork Nemesis is really good. It occupied two entirely enjoyable days of my life, and yes, I played straight through with only a single six-hour break for sleep. It has a few flaws in its graphics and a few more in its puzzle design, but don't let that stop you from snatching it. And I really hope this team build another game in the future.

I just wish they wouldn't call it a Zork.

Availability: Doesn't seem to be in MacWarehouse; I ordered from MacMall.

System requirements: Uh, ever since I upgraded my 9500/120 to 48 megs, it's been hard to tell what the minimum requirements of games are. :) ZN does require a PowerMac, and won't run at all on a 68K machine. 16-bit color ("thousands") also required. The box says you need 8 megs free, no VM, but users report it runs acceptably with VM turned on. And -- I can't think of anywhere else to put this, so call it a wetware requirement -- the game has several audio puzzles. If you have hearing problems, play with a friend.

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