Ever since I first saw the pre-release promotional materials for Morpheus at E3 this year, I've wanted to get my hands on this game. Even at that rough stage, the game looked spectacular. I so hoped it would live up to the hype and to my expectations of what a good adventure game should be --challenging, immersive, addicting, utterly believable.
Well, I just finished playing Morpheus and I'm pleased to say it was worth the wait. It's a beautiful, eerie game, with gorgeous visuals, luscious audio and a compelling storyline that drew me in from the first moment of gameplay.
Players take the part of Matthew Holmes, a young explorer resolving the mystery of his father's death. In 1928, when Matthew was just a baby, his father made an attempt to cross the North Pole by balloon. Instead, the party came across a raving, badly frostbitten, dying man, murmuring something about a luxurious abandoned ship called Herculania. Intrigued by the old man's story, Matthew's father set out to find the ship and was never seen again. In a strange case of repeating history, Matthew, too, becomes separated from his group and is lost on the polar ice pack, wandering for days. The constant exposure to the elements takes its toll, and he begins to have strange, dreamlike visions. Just as he has given up hope and is recording his final words, he catches sight of a shadow in the ice. Could it be the hull of the Herculania?
Once Matthew is aboard, he begins to see other visions -- but this time, they're ghostly manifestations of the long-dead passengers of Herculania. Or are they really dead? As Matthew ventures further into the ship, he begins to fit together the pieces, one at a time. Slowly, he discovers the links the passengers have to each other, the hidden secrets of their lives, and the true nature of a device called the Neurographicon, which operates on the dreams of others.
Morpheus is unusually full of psychological elements, looking into the minds of a number of selfish, disturbed, dysfunctional people. Many clues can be read on a number of levels, adding to the richness of the game experience. Because of these elements, some frightening sequences, a few implied instances of gory deaths, some mild oaths and the overall eerie quality of the game, I wholeheartedly agree with the ESRB Teen rating.
Controls in Morpheus are simple and intuitive, designed to immerse the player immediately in the virtual world without a need to consult the manual first. All controls operate on a click or click-and-drag basis. The mouse cursor automatically changes, depending on the objects at hand: it becomes a magnifying glass if there's something to examine closely, a microphone if the Explorer has something to say, or a hand or pointing finger when there are objects to push, pull or pick up.
One of the areas where Morpheus really shines is the integration of puzzles into the storyline. Unlike earlier puzzle games such as The 7th Guest, where puzzles seemed to exist purely for their own sake, the puzzles in Morpheus are tightly and seamlessly bound into the game. The very first puzzle involves finding a way to get out of the bitter Arctic cold and inside the Herculania. Once that's accomplished, the ghostly manifestations and the items found inside the ship inexorably lead the player deeper into the game and into the mystery: what became of the crew and passengers? Solving the puzzles requires an observant eye, a good memory (or a piece of paper and pencil), and the ability to pick up on a number of verbal and visual clues. It often requires the player to get inside the minds of the dead passengers, a motley crew of disreputable and sometimes outright murderous individuals, to try to think as they would.
I appreciate the design philosophy of the folks at Soap Bubble, which appears to be: Try Everything. There are no buttons which accidentally launch you into space or process you into ground round. Death is not lurking around every corner. As the player, you are encouraged to explore everything without fear of sudden, messy recrimination, a common problem in adventure games released by other companies. In Morpheus, you are free to let common sense be your guide. If it wouldn't kill you in Real Life, chances are good that it won't kill you here.
When Myst, the first successful VR adventure game, arrived on the market, the most frequent complaint against it was that it seemed devoid of life. The creators of Morpheus neatly sidestep this issue in two ways. First, they place the player in an environment (a long-abandoned, icebound yacht in the middle of the Arctic) where one would hardly expect to find life. Second, they fill Herculania with frequent ghostly manifestations of its dead passengers, helping to fill in what took place so many years before. Indeed, the dreamworlds within the game often feel more creepy and haunted than the Herculania, precisely because of their emptiness. All the public areas designed for human traffic -- market bazaars, cobbled streets lined with row houses, carnival midways and so forth -- take on a surreal, nightmarish aspect when there are no people to be found anywhere.
One of the things I enjoyed about playing Morpheus is that, unlike other games where every shred of storyline is eventually exposed, there's no evidence of a compelling need on the part of the game designers to spell everything out, to make all our suspicions concrete. For instance, a letter found in one passenger's Bible makes a reference to some episode which required the intervention of the Boston Police; however, the particulars are not divulged and the incident is not mentioned again, allowing the player to draw any number of conclusions. This sensation of uncertainty, of things left incompletely resolved, gave the game a more realistic feel; after all, in reality there are mysteries which are never fully explained. I did take issue with the final resolution of the game, which seemed needlessly abrupt. Although I hear rumors that the good people at Soap Bubble and Piranha are already working on another title, it is, alas, not a sequel.
NOTE: I found at least one serious bug in the final version of Morpheus, an area in Belle Swan's dreamworld which dumps the player completely out of the game. This bug has been logged, and Soap Bubble Productions has issued a patch to fix it. Remember, it's always a good idea to save often.
Morpheus is one of the most visually rich games I've ever had the pleasure to play. The Herculania is a masterpiece of 1920s Art Deco design, with arched sliding doors, an old-fashioned elevator complete with safety grille, a magnificent ballroom, a Turkish bath, and a grand staircase reminiscent of the one featured in the movie Titanic. The guests' staterooms are exquisitely rendered; the furnishings and decoration, as well as their personal belongings, all contain clues to their psychological profiles and create an unusual depth of gameplay.
Scenes throughout the game show the loving attention to detail evidenced in similar titles such as Myst _and Riven, with clear, focused objects that look just as sharp and lifelike up close. Unlike either of the previous titles, however, _Morpheus has avoided falling into the "slide show" trap by allowing full 360-degree movement within a scene and smooth, full-motion QuickTime video from place to place. The results are dramatic: a powerful illusion of reality in which the player has much more freedom to explore the VR world and manipulate objects within it.
There are a few times during gameplay where animated "hot spots" on the screen are discolored or slightly out of alignment with the rest of the visuals. These are jarring, only because the majority of the still scenes and QuickTime video are so smoothly integrated elsewhere that it's sometimes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Touch a door, and it slides softly open with a chiming sound. Push a button, and it makes a satisfying "shloop." Pull a handle, and it whines rustily. Attempt to open a locker, and it makes a familiar jiggly rattle you probably remember from high school. Such realistic sound effects are masterfully woven into Morpheus, understated and completely believable.
The music is perfectly suited to the game, otherworldly and inobtrusive. In one particular dreamworld, within a police station, the soundtrack blended the sounds of footsteps, cell doors being locked, and other ambient noises perfectly into the slightly disquieting score. In another, an Islamic palace, there are soft sounds of the bazaar outside, and a faint repetitive chant reminiscent of a call to prayer. The score adds an aural richness to the experience without ever threatening to overwhelm it. The game's audio defaults to the loudest setting, but the main control panel allows for easy adjustment.
Voice acting was first-rate, with excellent casting for both full-motion video and voice-overs. There were a few times, notably during episodes of spiritual manifestations, where it was difficult to catch what the characters were saying. I would have appreciated an option to display text as well as voice, just to make sure I didn't miss anything.
Minimum system requirements for PC are a Pentium processor, 8 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM drive, mouse, 640x480 display (256 colors or higher), Windows 95 and a Windows-compatible sound card. Morpheus also runs on a PowerMac running System 7.5 or higher. The game was reviewed on a Pentium-200 with 64 MB RAM, a 24X CD-ROM drive and a SoundBlaster AWE 64 card. Although I normally run the screen resolution at 1024x768, the transitions seemed unusually sluggish at the higher resolution and I lost some visual and verbal clues. These problems cleared up when I dropped the resolution down to 640x480 before playing.
A slim nine-page manual is included in the jewel case, covering the basics of installation, system requirements, menu options, game controls and technical support. Storyline information is extremely brief, focusing mainly on the nature of your character and the main object of the game. This lack of information does not pose a real problem, as the opening scenes of the game provide sufficient background to draw the player in immediately. It would have been thoughtful to include the standard helpful hints for gamers who are new to this genre (look for verbal and visual clues, keep a pencil and paper nearby, save often, etc.).
I originally gave this game a score of 89 because of a few serious technical difficulties. Since Soap Bubble immediately issued a patch to fix the worst bug, I brought the score up a few points. I could easily have given the game a 95; it's that good. As it stands, Morpheus succeeds in far more ways than it disappoints. If you're a die-hard adventure gamer, a fan of Titanic, a mystery buff, or just want a good puzzle to solve, it's well worth your time and money. If you're a twitch junkie, however, another title may give you the adrenaline rush you crave.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP