Reviewed by Mark Hasley
There was a time when reviewing an adventure game was a fairly simple process. An individual went to a store, bought a game, played it a few times, and then wrote about it. But the introduction of 'episodic gaming' has definitely altered that reality, and has made the reviewer’s task a bit more complicated. AGON: The Mysterious Codex may well be the harbinger of a newer and more complicated gaming world. AGON is a game produced and made available by Private Moon. According to various unreliable sources, the game will eventually consist of either twelve or fourteen individual episodes that will be available in the future for a fee as downloads. The apparent plan is to create and release each individual episode as it is completed. The first three have been completed and were released. These first three have also been combined as a single package and were released through retailers as a CD game entitled AGON: The Mysterious Codex. It is that version of the game that I am attempting to review here. This immediately presents a problem. I am attempting to comment on a game that is not completed. Indeed, no one has played to its conclusion because that conclusion doesn’t exist. This is, in some ways, like attempting to review a production of Macbeth after seeing only two acts. However, all that being said, the following is my evaluation of AGON: The Mysterious Codex.
The plot of the game seems promising. The player takes the role of Professor Samuel Hunt, who is a historian employed by the British Museum of History. As a first person gamer, the player also learns that this professor Hunt is a pretty intrepid fellow, because as soon as the professor discovers a mysterious letter mixed in with his normal correspondence, said professor decides to travel all over the world seeking parts of this secret document. As the tale moves along, the professor learns that various pages of this document have been hidden at exotic places around the planet. Further, it seems that each page of the document was hidden long ago and has been guarded by a different family who will only turn over their page to the individual who can defeat the family’s representative in a particular (and different each time) board game.
It seems a fairly simple premise: go to these areas, play a board game, get a page of the codex and move on to the next location. And it appears that the basic plot is, indeed, that simple. Once the first chapter is completed and all the expository information is set up, the next two available chapters and, I assume, the next ten or so, will involve a visit to a different part of the globe in order to acquire a different part of the codex by playing a different board game. There are other characters as professor Hunt moves through the game, but he seems to be the only consistent character. A certain Dr. Thomas Smythe is evidently a close friend of Professor Hunt. The two men speak on the phone, and Dr. Smythe is, as a part of all three episodes, constantly writing detailed and important letters to the professor. However, at least through the first three episodes, he is not seen. This is also true of Hunt’s wife, and the museum director. The player knows they exist, because Hunt speaks of and writes to them, but they are not (at least not yet) part of the game.
The plot is structured in episodes and this will apparently continue throughout the game. The first episode takes place in the Museum building. Here there are only a few people to deal with, no exotic settings to confront, and some very simple puzzles to solve. This part of the game simply serves as exposition to make the gamer ready for Professor Hunt’s first trip. He, and the gamer, then head to Lapland. I really enjoyed this second episode of the game. First of all, I don’t remember any game at any time that took a player to Lapland. Secondly, there were some fairly interesting characters here and the puzzles got a bit more complicated. At the completion of this section, the gamer must deal with the first of what will apparently be several new board games. Once the game is won, the professor moves on to the third episode. This one takes place in Madagascar. Again the puzzles become a bit more complex, and there are a few new types of puzzles. Once solved, a new board game is dealt with. The next page of the codex is received and the professor moves on to another part of the world. And since the title of the next section of the game is 'The Sword of Toledo', I assume he’ll be moving on to Spain, rather than Ohio... but that is strictly an assumption.
That is the plot. If the description seems to end abruptly, that is because the plot is not finished. With at least ten chapters to go, it’s reasonable to assume that the professor will go to a lot of places and see a lot of unique things, but there’s not even a rumor as to how the quest will end. There may be a villain, there will certainly be more puzzles and more letters from Smythe, and no doubt lots of other 'stuff' will occur, but there is no real way of knowing what may result.
This version of AGON came with all three portions of the game contained on one CD. It loaded easily and once loaded the disk was not required to play the game. The game opens to a main menu that contains a few new and slightly odd wrinkles. The initial Main Menu is simple and allows the player to start a new game, resume the game, play the board game(s), or quit. Note that there is no place to ‘save’ or ‘load’ a game. There is also an Options connection that allows you to adjust for the inclusion of subtitles, and to set the volume individually for speech, background noise, and music. And there is a choice of either 'Easy' or 'Normal' difficulty as well as an adjustment for 'Panoramic Speed'. While I tend to play games at the default settings, here I did adjust the volumes and apply subtitles, and I chose to play at 'Normal' difficulty. All of the adjustments did what they were supposed to do. The only odd thing about the whole Main Menu system was that after the player has either resumed his game or started a new game, he can then, and only then, return to a 'Game Menu' page. It is here that he can Save a game or Load a game as he chooses. It is noteworthy that I tended to save often but never really needed to replay a section. AGON is an extremely linear game and the 'Resume' button always put me where I needed to be in order to continue playing. The final strangeness was that when leaving the game a player must click on 'Exit' and then, when a collage of the game comes up on the screen, must click again in order to exit. However none of these odd quirks was irritating and everything worked perfectly. It simply took a bit of time to understand what had to occur when.
The interface is about as simple as an interface can be. The game is strictly linear and works on the old and much loved (by me) ‘point & click’ system. Virtually all movement and function is handled with the mouse. With it the player chooses a direction, picks up an item, uses an item, etc. The cursor will change into twelve different configurations, but not one of them is new or different. Any reasonably experienced gamer has seen them all before. In the upper right corner of all screens is seen what the game calls 'The Dial' (see Full View Screenshot below). It has three different buttons that can be used to access the inventory, check on papers and notes that have been collected, or to exit the game. When playing a board game, the dial looks the same but the capability of each button changes a bit. Again, the interface is smooth, simple and effective.
The presentation of the story was generally very well done. The voice acting seemed impressive throughout. For me, it was most important that even though the chapters took place in Britain, Lapland, and Madagascar, there were very few attempts at the cheap, silly vocal accents that are present in many adventure games. There were a fairly large number of very minor characters, but their voices made them function as individuals and not as simple lumps with lines. And there were several cut scenes in the game. They were always well placed and smoothly integrated.
I fear that I have lost any interest I may have had in the background music. I tend to lower that particular volume so that I can hear the voices better. I can’t even remember if there was background music, so I clearly wasn’t impressed by it. However, I really enjoyed what have come to be known as 'ambient sounds'. There were bird, bee, lemur and even reindeer noises that added a great deal of entertainment and atmosphere. Most importantly here, there were footsteps. I like hearing footsteps, and in AGON they changed wonderfully with whatever surface was being trod. These sounds added a lot for me.
The graphics were quite effective. The rain in London, the snow in Lapland, and the jungles of Madagascar were all effectively rendered. Be aware that all of the scenery is a bit stylized, but I found that to be entertaining, since lately every game that I’ve played has been attempting to provide some sort of photographic reality. It was pleasant to see ‘unreality’ look like ‘unreality’ for a change. It should be noted that virtually all of the cut scenes were beautifully detailed and flat out gorgeous. They definitely enhanced the look of the game.
Thus far, I’ve been writing about an adventure game that operates smoothly, is well acted, sounds really good, and looks beautiful. None of this would matter very much if the puzzles weren’t interesting, but that is not a concern with AGON. This game, which is only 20% complete, will give any gamer all of the puzzles, with all of the difficulties and styles, that one could want.
The puzzles in episode one are all fairly simple. This simplicity allows a player to practice with and get used to the interface. There are a few codes to figure out as well as several inventory puzzles. Most are easily solved, but there is an extremely clever and, when solved, cute map puzzle that any adventure gamer will love.
As Professor Hunt continues to Lapland and beyond, the puzzles become more complicated and varied. In Madagascar, for instance, there is a fairly long sound puzzle that took me several days even after I figured out what I was supposed to do. Again the game operates smoothly. The inventory puzzles work as they should, and there are plenty of times when the player will be irritated with himself because he should have figured that puzzle out quite a bit sooner than he did. There is also a new wrinkle to the time-tested idea of solving coded puzzles. Once the player is fairly sure he has the code message figured out, a device appears which closely resembles a typewriter keyboard. It is here that the gamer must type the exact coded message. If he is correct the game will continue. If the player has not calculated the code exactly, he’ll have to try again. It’s a clever device that fits in perfectly with the style and the setting of the game.
One thing must be made clear here. All of the various puzzles and their solutions serve to allow Professor Hunt to get to the end of an episode and to a board game. The board games are what are really important. It appears that the end of every chapter will be a different board game. And if the last ten episodes are analogous to the first two, each board game will provide plenty of frustration and thought. Both episode two and episode three end with these board games, and apparently all of the other episodes will too. (Perhaps I should mention here that AGON stands for 'Ancient Games of Nations', and I admit I think that’s cute.) The games in these two episodes were named 'Tablut' and 'Fanorona', and each was completely new to me. They took a good bit of time each, and when each was completed, the good professor got a new page of the codex and then moved on to a new and different location.
And that, as they say, is that. I have no idea how the game will turn out. It’s well done, fun to play, and has some very inventive elements to it. I highly recommend it, but I do have some concerns. There is, at this point, no conclusion. What if it doesn’t sell enough games to warrant its completion? We’ve all had favorite television shows that were cancelled. Could that happen here? What if there is some sort of tragic occurrence? I once read the first two books of a wonderful trilogy, then the author died….! What if the complete game only winds up being average? This is a big concern since at about $10.00 per episode, AGON will cost about $140.00. That will make it about the most expensive adventure game that I’ve ever played.
These are a few things to consider, but I hope the reader also understands this: I will purchase at least the next three episodes of AGON as soon as they become available. I can’t wait to see where Professor Hunt is going next. I’m even looking forward to learning and then playing another new and irksome board game. No matter the dangerous potentials, I had a great time searching in weird and exotic places for pages of the codex. I liked this game. I just wish those people at Private Moon Studios would hurry up.
© January 2007 Mark Hasley
Developed (2004) by Private Moon Studios. Published (2006) in North America by Viva Media.
Rated: E for Everyone 10+ (language, use of alcohol)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC and Mac versions are on separate CDs
PC: Pentium III 800 MHz Processor; Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 128 MB RAM; 12X CD-ROM Drive; 32 MB DirectX 8.0 Compatible 3D Video Card (GeForce2 or Equal); DirectX Compatible Sound Card + Stereo Speakers; Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 8.0; Mouse
Mac: 700MHz PowerPC G3 processor; OS X 10.2 or Higher; 16MB Video RAM (32MB Recommended); Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space
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Walkthroughs or Hints: