Amerzone: The Explorer's Legacy
Comic author Benoit Sokal is revered in his native France and throughout Europe, but is not well known in the United States. Amerzone: The Explorer's Legacy hopes to change that. A new game billed as a graphic adventure and distributed by Ubi Soft, Amerzone is almost totally Sokal's brainchild. It begins on the cold, gray Brittany coast and ends in the fictitious South American country of Amerzone, a lush tropical paradise ruled by a tin-pot dictator.
You play the game as a journalist (is it just me, or is the journalist character becoming ubiquitous in adventure games?) who has come to interview Professor Alexandre Valembois. In the 1930s, Prof. Valembois made a journey to Amerzone and discovered the existence of some white birds, once thought to be mythological, which spend their entire lives in flight. While there, he stole the only egg of the white birds and returned with it to France, only to be mocked and discredited by his peers. When you find him, Prof. Valembois is a broken man, sick, feeble and near death. He begs you to take the egg and return to Amerzone in his stead, to right the wrong he feels he has caused.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Amerzone is probably best described as a Myst-style adventure, but with stronger emphasis on a single quest -- to return the egg of the white birds to its natural environment. It is populated, however sparsely, with characters -- the local postman, the professor, a fisherman, a village priest, etc. -- but interaction with these characters is limited to cut scenes. This works out well, though, as your character says nothing throughout the entire game.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the hydrafloat, created by Prof. Valembois to journey to Amerzone. This multifaceted vehicle, a cross between the creations of Jules Verne and Miyazaki, can function as a boat, a plane, a glider, a helicopter and a submersible. Some of the game’s best visual sequences involve the hydrafloat transforming and zipping away on another leg of the quest. (There are a couple of head-scratchers associated with this craft -- for instance, it runs on modern-looking floppy disks even though it was designed in the 1930s -- but perhaps it’s best not to over-analyze a plot point.)
Puzzles, for the most part, are smoothly integrated into gameplay and make sense within the context of the story. You won’t find logic puzzles randomly thrown together here. However, the puzzles are very simple to complete; experienced adventure gamers will not find Amerzone to be much of a challenge. In fact, although the game spans four CDs and I don’t consider myself a game wizard, I finished Amerzone in a weekend; had I really put some effort into it, I could have finished it in one sitting.
The game is mouse-driven and relatively straightforward to control. The 360-degree movement within each area is a little on the touchy side, though. I was beginning to feel seasick when I finally discovered the controls to slow down the mouse scrolling movement. It also seemed to me that the response time was a little sluggish. Often I would click to advance a screen, wait, and discover the game hadn't accepted my mouse click.
Here's a personal pet peeve: I believe that when you set up a control method in a game, it needs to be consistent throughout. Literally everywhere else in Amerzone, you can control objects and items with a single mouse click. In one particular section, however, you must click and drag an item to continue. This drove me nearly crazy until I had my husband sit down and fiddle with the game for a while, and he discovered how to work the controls through trial and error.
The interface is simple enough -- an arrow indicates you can move in a certain direction, a hand to pick up or manipulate objects, a magnifying glass to focus in on a scene, a series of cogs to show an action can be performed with an item from your inventory. I’m not particularly impressed by the default cursor, a large silver-grey ball resembling a compass; it seems to have been designed solely to block your vision. I was also surprised to find that there are no transition sequences in Amerzone; as far as I can tell, your character seems to move from place to place in a series of teleport-hops.
This is where Amerzone really shines -- the graphics are nothing short of breathtaking. In fact, the superlative quality of the graphics saves this game from a much lower rating. The smooth, believable animation of the human characters, the attention to detail evident in the creation of Amerzonian native creatures, and the gorgeous cut scenes all add up to a game with real visual punch. Additionally, the game doesn’t require video acceleration -- a plus for those of us who still haven’t upgraded -- although I did get visual noise and speckling in some of the video sequences. I suspect this has more to do with the refresh rate limitations of my monitor than with any faults in the software.
The audio is subtle and understated. There's very little background music; instead you hear the howl of the winds, the sounds of insects and jungle birds, the soft lapping of water. There's been some attempt, too, at directional audio -- if there's a waterfall ahead of you and you turn to your left, you'll hear the sound of the falls to your right. For the most part, the voice acting is equally subtle -- a welcome change from the blatant overacting of so many games. However, it's sometimes difficult to make out what the characters are saying. The recurring theme song in Amerzone is reminiscent of slow French cafe music with a Latin rhythm section.
Amerzone has been rated E, suitable for all ages. However, parents should be aware that there are several death scenes in the game -- in fact, it seems almost all the people you encounter are teetering on the brink of death -- and some nude sketches of an Indian woman with whom the explorer has a romantic interest. In my opinion, the game would be neither appropriate nor interesting for young children.
Minimum: Windows 95/98, Pentium 166 MHz, 32 MB RAM, SoundBlaster or compatible sound card, 4 MB graphics card, 60 MB hard disk installation, 4X CD-ROM drive.
Reviewed on: P5-200, Windows 95, 24X CD-ROM drive, no video acceleration.
There's a fold-over sheet in the CD case describing installation, gameplay, the inventory, on-screen icons, and how to save your game. It's barely adequate -- I guess Ubi Soft assumed nobody would run into trouble or need to contact technical support.
Room for Improvement
The game is terribly linear. There's usually only one puzzle at a time to be solved, and every area is plotted out as rigorously as any package tour, complete with stops for gas. Despite this linearity, your chances of getting stuck in _Amerzone are relatively small, as the majority of the puzzles are very simple. Rarely will you find an item that cannot be used right away, and in some obvious way, to move things along. This does cut down on possible frustration, but it also makes the game very short.
There are also several places where the game, originally in French, has not been clearly or completely translated. For example, in one area where your hydrafloat is in Boat Mode, you can look down and clearly see the words "Mode Bateau" on the screen.
Good graphic adventures are few and far between. I really, really wanted to be able to recommend this game to fellow adventure buffs. Because of its linear nature and the simplicity of its puzzles, however, Amerzone is more an interactive graphic novel than a graphic adventure. It's stylistically beautiful and certainly worthy of your attention, but will likely be a disappointment to those who measure the value of an adventure game in terms of hours played.