Reviewed by Mark Hasley
In the beginning, there was Pong. It was a stunningly dumb game, but it changed how we looked at our television screens. Then, in the late 70ís came the ATARI games, and the world went gaga over Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Missile Command. For rather a while after that, we waited while the home computer caught up with TV gaming until, in the early 90ís, MYST was introduced, and Adventure Gaming became a major genre in the gaming world. Since then there have been many other MYST games; lots of thriller, horror and simply weird games; and dozens of what we now recognize as ĎMYST Clonesí. However, those of us who thought and still think that the MYST series was and is the ultimate Adventure Gaming experience, have been waiting for the return of MYST-type games, but with no real faith that it could happen. Let it now be known that type of game has returned. The Five Cores is here and, with all of its flaws, it may just be the game for which many adventurers have been waiting.
This game begins with the player taking the first-person role of the proverbial ďStrangerĒ. It opens with the player arriving at an island. There is no indication of where he is, who he is, or how he got there. Once ashore he finds a rather terse note, stating that the people who were on the island had to leave because a childís dreams have terrible magical powers and these dreams are somehow destroying the world. The note asks the stranger to help them (whoever 'they' are) by finding the Five Cores and restarting them so that the disaster can be averted. Thatís it. There are no details and no clues. Itís simply, ďHi there, would you please save our world?Ē Itís a wonderfully vague beginning for a game.
From that point on, the player will spend a great deal of time wandering all over the island, going to and from other islands, solving puzzles of greatly varied difficulty, and slowly, but not very surely, beginning to understand what he is attempting to do and a bit of why he is attempting to do it. There are a great many more questions than answers to the game, but thatís really one of the joys of the experience.
The game is available only as a download. Since it is the first and only game that I have downloaded, I canít say if the process went better or worse than it should have. I can say that while I have been playing games for a great while, I know I am still a techno-dolt about computer capabilities. That said, the download went without a problem and the game ran without difficulty on my newer Windows 7 program. Once the game is started, the player is taken to an opening screen with several of the usual settings. These include 'Screen Mode' (Full Screen or Windows); 'Screen Resolution' (several different possibilities here, but I didnít change anything); 'V Sync' (On or Off); 'Shadow quality' (Low, Med, High); 'Anisotropic Filtering' (Five Settings); 'Ambient Occlusion' (On or Off); and 'Motion Blur' (On or Off). Since I have no idea what most of these items are, I left everything at the settings provided and the game ran nicely.
The interface is extremely basic. All movement is controlled by the arrows or the AWSD buttons on the keyboard. The mouse is used to scan and change the direction, but there is usually no cursor. The player simply moves the mouse until he is facing the direction he wishes to go and then he presses the proper key and walks there. The spacer bar enables the character to jump, but I never found a place where I needed or wanted to jump, so it meant very little. A hand cursor will appear only when there is something in the area with which the stranger can interact, but otherwise the screen is clean. There is no inventory because there are no inventory pieces or puzzles. At the end of a session, hitting the Escape key sends a gamer to a simple screen with the option to Resume, Save, Load, or Quit. It is worth noting that there are only three slots for saved games, so saving often, which should be done for reasons Iíll note later, is virtually impossible. The simple truth here is that the game is, in the context of interface and playing, very basic. The developers have kept it extremely uncomplicated and, while this will cause some concerns in newer gamers, I found the simplicity very refreshing. Unlike many newer adventure games, the process of playing the game never interfered with the joy of the game itself. This concept is admittedly 'old school' and much appreciated. The game play itself is fairly (but not completely) linear. The player will soon find that he must pursue each core separately and one at a time, but in my two play-throughs of the game, I was able to change the order of the recharging of the cores with little problem.
The puzzles in the game are basically of only two types. There are lots of mechanical-logic problems which require the player to think carefully about what he has previously seen or done, and then apply these experiences in order to reach a logical conclusion as to what to do next. As is usual with this kind of puzzle, the gamer will say "Aha! That was obvious", and not feel cheated. Note that he will do this and feel this only after he has solved the puzzle. Some of them will take a long time to solve because the hints in the game are often pretty vague. There are also several trial and error puzzles wherein the player keeps attempting things and eliminating possibilities until the correct answer is discovered. These often take patience, and sometimes will tempt the player to simply scream and throw his computer down the stairs. I promise that they are all solvable, and finding the right answer is actually pretty exciting.
There are two things that should be noted about these puzzles. First, there are a lot of clever, lovely, environment-enhancing 'things' located all over the islands. They add depth and texture to the story, but have nothing to do with solving the puzzles. Lots of pictures appear, and a lot of 'stuff' is available to look at or play with. The gamer must be prepared to deal with the fact that these are really neat things that are, in many cases, little more than red herrings. They wonít, in any way, help with the puzzles. The other notable characteristic of the puzzles is that they vary greatly in difficulty level. It is not a spoiler to say that the 'Red Core' puzzle is easy almost to the point of silliness. It is also not a spoiler to suggest that the 'Yellow Core' problem(s) will have most players yelling, praying, perhaps cursing, and eventually (Gasp!) seeking a walkthrough. The other core-puzzle difficulties are somewhere in the middle, and are quite different from each other. The Five Cores has five different styles of puzzles, and contains five very different levels of difficulty. Most Adventure Gamers will love it.
Now, to the real reasons that I liked this game. The graphics and the music are, quite simply, wonderful. Obviously, there is no voice acting since there are no characters. The lack of speaking in the game mandates that the music and ambient sounds carry all of the aural interest here. That is accomplished very well indeed. The sounds of the game are very effective and vary nicely from one locale to another. There are constant and realistic wind noises, the various trees rustle pleasantly in the different spots, water drips, and machines and devices click, buzz, hum, and make other machine sounds. There is an impressive collection of footstep noises that change with the type of walking surface. All in all, the sound effects of the game are realistic and somehow manage to amplify the fact that the player is all alone on the island. With all of these effects, the musical score really heightens the mood and tone of the game. Depending on the location, the music is tropically rhythmic, eerily keening, or darkly somber. Throughout the entire game the music also supports the feeling of deep, lonely, melancholy.
I must admit that I have a major weakness for beautifully strange scenery. The graphics which create the scenes in The Five Cores are perfect for me. There are several different places in which you play the game, and each is rendered in wonderful detail. There is a tropical island, a group of floating (in the air) islands, a unique and complicated cave setting, and one area with a large, complex, and rather sophisticated building. Throughout the game (to add some realism to the rather surreal locales), there are barrels to kick around, chairs to move or throw, mechanical devices to click and snap, and a submarine/tram to get you where you need to go. Each of the detailed areas is filled with rustling trees or leaves and/or flowing water. There is some type of animation to add to the reality of that particular scene. Throughout several of the different gaming areas, there are these oddly unique electrical trees that make it subtly clear that "weíre not in Kansas anymore". There is always some sort of abandoned housing, different for each area, to add to the melancholy mood that the music created so well. Again the player wanders, knows something sad or bad happened, but sees no evidence of violence or brutality. All the beings who built these strangely wonderful things and places are gone, and the gamer is never quite sure why they left, or where they went.
It must be admitted that there are a few problems with the game. While I got used to it rather quickly, I have never been a real fan of keyboard controls, and this game would have been perfect for the old 'point and click' controls. Itís also worth noting that the movements are sometimes a bit awkward and rather 'jerky'. Flickering screens have never bothered me, but any player who has that problem will be uncomfortable here. There were also three different times when I slipped off a stairway or walkway and couldnít get back onto it. Even jumping didnít help. I was stuck, and had to go back to a saved game (and remember there are only three save slots, so I sometimes went back quite a ways). Finally, there are virtually no instructions, and there is no manual for this game. It took a while to figure out which button did what, and why the cursor kept appearing and disappearing.
As a final thought, be aware that I mentioned MYST on purpose. This game is clearly intended to create a warm reminder of, and even be a monument to, the game of MYST. It accomplishes that feat with skill and excellence. The player is a first-person 'stranger'. There are no books, but there are shiny lights which, when they are walked upon, will zip a player from one scene to another. There are lots of mechanical devices sitting around, but not all of them have anything to do with anything. There is even one bedroom that a gamer will swear he saw on a certain mechanical island in a certain other game. But most importantly, at the end of the game, the player is obviously finished, and yet there are so many unanswered questions, and the gamer will feel so sad about being finished, that the game practically screams for either a sequel or a series.
There are a great many old-timers out there who have long been pleading for a new MYST-type game. There are even more young-timers out there who have long wondered why there is so much fuss about a game that is nearly twenty years old. Both of these groups will be more than happy if they play The Five Cores. It really is a game that Iíve been waiting for. And it is more than worth the wait.
© November 2012 Mark Hasley
Developed (2012) and published by Neebla Games.
Rated: E for Everyone
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: 2.0+ GHz Dual-Core Processor (2.0+ GHz Multi-Core Processor Recommended); Windows XP SP3 or Higher; 2 GB RAM; NVIDIA 8000 Series or equivalent Video Card (NVIDIA GTX 460 or higher Recommended) - must be Shader Model 3 Compatible; DirectX 9.0c Compatible Sound Card; 600 MB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0c; Mouse & Keyboard
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