Sunday, September 13, 2009

Game Reviews: Iron Roses, Mata Hari

Well, if I spend all my time on thesis-related work I'll likely fuse every neuron in my brain. So today we'll be looking at two contemporary adventure games, Iron Roses and Mata Hari.

The adventure game genre has always been something of a double-edged sword. It's ideal for telling stories because adventure games typically require only a minimum amount of interaction with the player, which means you can sit back (for the most part) and let the plot unfold without being distracted by gameplay mechanisms.

Unfortunately, this also means that once the story's over you have little reason to replay the game. Even if multiple endings are possible, the narrative experience just won't change that much. Contrast this to strategy games where any tactic can change the course of a battle, or RPGs that let you develop characters a dozen different ways, resulting in a dozen different play-throughs, and so on.

In the olden days, the Sierra paradigm dealt with this problem by really making you work to complete the story. Oh, all you had to do was click the PICK UP command and then click on the fire extinguisher... but if you didn't get the insulated gloves from the shelf three hours ago, a burst of static electricity will detonate the extinguisher as soon as you touch it, and the foam will suffocate you. Sierra games were particularly brutal: you could die eighty times before leaving the first screen, or waste half an hour pixel-hunting for a coin on a beach, or get stuck in a no-win scenario because you didn't pick up a key item and you can't backtrack.

The only way to effectively cope with this (without using a walkthrough) would be to constantly save and reload, inching your way towards victory through a very lengthy series of trials and errors. This had the effect of making Sierra games seem at least three times longer than they actually were, and since the death scenes were usually humorous, you didn't mind so much when your character turned left instead of right and literally fell off the screen. Unless you forgot to save, in which case you'd be very frustrated.

With Sierra's decline, a more forgiving trend emerged, pioneered by companies such as LucasArts ("Sam & Max Hit The Road"): gamers weren't punished for making a mistake or overlooking an important inventory item. You could always go back to a previous area and search more thoroughly. This allowed the story to flow more smoothly; it also made the genre much less challenging, which in turn made them much shorter.

"Iron Roses" and "Mata Hari" are examples of the current model in the adventure genre: the gameplay is largely simplistic in that someone tells you to do something, you go to the appropriate location, you do it, you report back and receive a reward of some kind that moves you a step closer to the endgame. I'm probably generous in estimating that neither game takes more than six hours from start to finish.

To be fair, both games try to pad things out with mandatory mini-games: whether it's waiting tables or performing a dance, the plot pauses at certain points to break up the "fetch quest" routine. In theory, it's a good idea that can maintain a player's interest if the core game is too monotonous; in practice, these mini-games just aren't compelling enough.

"Iron Roses" tells the story of Alex, a sympathetic young woman who wants one last crack at fame and fortune. Her band, the Iron Roses, disbanded years ago due to the drunken antics of their faux-British lead singer; the group split up and went their separate ways. When Alex finds out about an upcoming Battle of the Bands, she is determined to reunite the band (sans lead singer) and reclaim their lost glory.

It's a solid, down-to-earth premise that works nicely with the adventure game format: to reassemble the Iron Roses, Alex has to run around town from one ex-member to another, helping them out with their problems so they'll have time to hear her out. There's even a bit of sardonic lampshade-hanging regarding the fact that Alex is expected to solve everyone else's issues before they're willing to lift a finger for her. Being a game about a rock band, it's worth noting that the game's soundtrack is quite good and helps set the mood during various scenes.

Unfortunately, as I said above, the story's dreadfully abbreviated, and leaves some awkward plot holes: Alex's roommate Lynn disappears after the second act, and there's a last-minute development with her father that seems to come out of nowhere. I would've liked to see more of the band's past rather than just be told how awesome they were and how John (the lead singer) ruined everything; I rarely encourage padding, but it might've done more good than harm here. And though the ending tries to loop back to the beginning, it actually falls short by not showing us whether the Iron Roses actually win the contest. Considering that it's the lynchpin of everything Alex does, that's a rather striking omission.

"Mata Hari" faces an entirely different problem: it's too sedate. Based on the life story of the infamous Mata Hari - now immortalized as the archetypal femme fatale - the game promises intrigue and adventure, but you'll spend most of your time either talking to people or playing some rather dull minigames. I was actually surprised at how placid this game turned out to be: granted, it's probably a more realistic depiction of Margaretha Zelle's biography, but that doesn't make it especially entertaining.

The game also features a rather poorly-constructed quasi-RPG system wherein you can perform certain acts to increase Mata's spycraft, wealth and skill, either through minigames or uncovering hidden objects. You'd be forgiven for ignoring it altogether, except that higher final scores unlock alternate endings regarding Mata Hari's ultimate fate. The bigger problem is that you'd have to spend an absurd amount of time - far more than is really necessary for the story - to get more than halfway there. And there's really only the one minigame per category: to attain wealth you have to play a minigame with a hilariously subdued recreation of Mata Hari's provocative dances, and to raise your skill you need to evade agents while running up and down train tracks across Europe (not as much fun as it sounds, believe me).

Both these games left me feeling like they hadn't achieved much with the tools they had: decent graphics, (mostly) solid voice acting, strong premises... but they fall short. And maybe the problem does have to do with challenge, or lack thereof. If the puzzles are easily solved, and the plot just isn't lengthy enough to hold the player's attention for very long, the solution isn't to throw in a bunch of tangentially-related minigames: clearly, that's not helping. Crimson Cow's "A Vampyre Story" was a much stronger game than either of these, simply by virtue of having a really good story that - while segmented across several games - still accomplishes a lot more than either of the two we've looked at today...