Reviewed by Mark Hasley
Hereís a rather unique recipe for someone to attempt. Take a large amount of fairly mundane murder-mystery plot. Add to it some beautiful scenery. Place the combination in a weirdly 1930ís setting, and then fill the mixture with some very 21st century electronics. Then add some interesting puzzles, some extremely good voice acting, and a special and very interesting interface. Stir all this up, and the result will be a thoroughly pleasant adventure game called Sinking Island.
Sinking Island is the latest contribution from Benoit Sokal (he who gained fame with his two Syberia games), but it deserves to stand on its own as a clever approach to a classic story. The tale itself has been told many times. It seems that several members of the family of the incredibly wealthy Mr. Walter Jones have been called to his new, ultra posh, and rather secret tropical island hotel in order to sort out family differences, and get all the right people back in the proper positions in his will. However as the story and the game begin, he has been found dead. The entire game is spent trying to discover who killed him, why he was killed, and what to do about it. Of course, to further complicate things, there is a raging tropical storm outside and the new hotel (indeed the entire island) is slowly sinking beneath a seething ocean, so haste is a necessity. All in all, this is not a unique plotline. One notable exception to the 'common' idea is that this game ends very impressively. It is tersely effective and, after all the puzzles are solved, it makes a logical and clear identification of the murderer.
The gamer in this situation controls the character of Jack Norm. Jack is an investigator sent to ascertain what exactly happened to cause the death of Walter Jones. As Jack proceeds, he questions the various guests, relatives, and employees of Mr. Jones, finds and uses or combines clues, and just in general does a lot of 'detective stuff ' that weíve all seen detectives do on television. This is a third person game, so the player guides Jack through the island and the huge hotel by utilizing the point-and-click process that has served adventures for quite some time. The cursor takes the form of an arrow for direction, a hand if an item can be used or picked up, a magnifying glass for close-up item examination, a camera with which Jack can take various pictures, and a circle with a jewel in it if action can be taken. Anyone who played Syberia or Paradise will recognize the forms immediately. But if a player has never heard of these games, he will still pick up the various processes without difficulty.
The interface is fairly complicated to describe, but I found it very easy to use once I began playing the game. At the start there appears what seems to be a very old-fashioned television screen. This is immediately filled with the logo for the production company (White Birds). This was cute the first few times that I saw it, but it shows up every time the game is begun, and I never found a way to bypass the picture. Iíve never been a fan of this type of forced advertising. At any rate, once the birds are done flying, the gamer can proceed to the first screen where he will set up his 'profile'. Here he can decide to play the game as a standard adventure game, or as a timed game wherein the island slowly sinks, and the various characters and Jack all get more irritated (and in some cases, more irritating) as the hotel slowly lowers into the ocean. Here too the player can set his choices for sound adjustments, video settings, and whether or not he wishes to see the subtitles. Once these items are set, the player moves on to a typical screen that allows a person to load a game, save a game, start a new game, or resume the game if he has gone back for some reason. There appears to be an unlimited number of saves allowed.
Once the game begins, the player is treated to the first pleasant and unique detail. The television screen scrolls up and very tersely restates what Jack has learned up to this point in the game. This is extremely helpful if, for instance, the gamer has finally broken 90 on the golf course and then did it again the next day. As a result he hasnít played Sinking Island in two days, and could have forgotten what had been discovered. Once he is ready to actually play the game, the player sees a very a well-done cut scene that shows Jack Norm being brought to the island hotel by helicopter. The helicopter flies off, and the game finally begins. At this point, a small brown leather device called a PPA appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen. It will stay there for the entire game. If the game is played in the timed mode, a clock appears on the device to indicate how long the game has gone on. I have no idea as to what is the limit for the timed game, or what might happen if the game isnít completed on time.
The PPA (this stands for 'Personal Police Assistant', which I found rather clever) is the heart of the gaming process. It contains three main sections, which are accessed by a simple left click. The first section lists all of the characters, and automatically adds material as Jack finds out more information. Each personís file also describes the various relationships, such as who is married to whom, and whether a particular person is related to Walter Jones by employment, marriage or birth. As the game proceeds, this section becomes rather convenient since Jack Norm asks all 10 of the other characters a huge amount of questions. One really valuable detail is that the PPA also indicates where each character is located. And as the game continues this becomes extremely important, because Jack often wants to speak to a specific person, and the hotel and its grounds constitute an extremely large gaming area.
The third section of the PPA lists the various Ďmandatesí that Jack must solve in order to finally solve the crime. Since the game is completely non-linear, these mandates, and the materials for them that are stored in the PPA, help the player keep track of what exactly it is that he is attempting to discover at any particular time. The second section of the PPA is where both Jack and the gamer will do most of the work. All of the physical clues, pictures, statements, and documents are stored there, and can be re-read, re-viewed, or re-heard. Here too all of the items can be combined on a special section, in order to solve a particular mandate and thereby move on to the final solution. There is also a rather clever comparison process, where Jack can compare fingerprints, strips of cloth, and fragments of various Ďstuffí to learn what matches what.
Separate from the PPA is a small wallet-type device where Jack stores all of the items he finds and picks up. Like all good adventure game characters, Jack can carry, in his jacket pocket, anything from a thirty-foot ladder to a working anvil with no observable inconvenience. This device works just fine for dealing with some of the physical puzzles in the game.
Even as I complete this section I realize that it seems that there is rather a lot of Ďstuff í, but be assured that one of the real positive elements of this game is that all of this, while sounding complicated, makes absolute easy sense in the context of the game. After playing for just a short while the gamer will have no difficulty with any of these processes and will, in fact, really enjoy being able to store material, compare clues, and finally solve the various elements of the crime with some ease. The interface works well, is quite sensible in application, and virtually eliminates the need for the player to take notes. The PPA keeps track of everything for him. I am convinced that this entire PPA device is the most effective 'mystery solving' device Iíve seen in any 'who-dun-it' game. It allows for logical thought, combination and comparison of clues, error awareness and correction, and finally makes it quite clear when the proper answer is discovered. I liked the interface a lot.
Once the interface and its quirks are worked out and understood, all else becomes simply entertaining. The music and sound effects are meticulously crafted and fit each scene perfectly. This is particularly impressive because throughout the entire game there is a huge, loud, lightning-filled storm going on outside of the hotel. The player can always hear thunder and see lightning and every once in while the lights flicker and dim. Itís always obvious that there is a storm, and yet the storm never interferes with the game. Even the lighting is notable because the game is broken into three days of investigation (Jack goes to sleep every night). As each day goes by, the light changes. There are sunrises and sunsets of significant beauty as the various parts of the storm move through on the different days.
As we have all come to expect from a Sokal game, the graphics here are simply excellent. The tropical island with its crashing waves, roiling seas and swaying palm trees, is perfectly illustrated. The hotel and its various floors, lobbies, and lounges are wonderfully drawn. The entire Hotel is exquisitely detailed as a sort of gothic art nouveau structure. It seems to combine all the best, and the most overdone parts, of Notre Dame, Grand Central Station, and a Disney resort. There are many usable floors in the hotel itself, and each suite is amazingly detailed. The game still utilizes what seems to be a slide show approach to scenery, but every scene is full of stunning detail and entertaining movement. There are crabs on the beach, flags on the flagpoles, constant raindrops hitting and splashing, birds and other fauna getting wet, lots of swaying palm trees, and countless other little things that make this game visually impressive. Anyone who likes computer games will like the look of this game. The only problem with the graphics is that the hotel area is huge. There are eight or nine playable floors. There are lots of rooms, lounges, and work areas. There are beaches and native huts outside the hotel. And what is not included in the game is a map. That means that poor Jack Norm has to walk and re-walk to all of these places. Granted that he can be made to run with a simple double left click, but wandering the hotel, and waiting again and again for the elevator, could feel a bit tedious to some people.
The voice acting was well done throughout. Usually, when there are a great many speaking characters, some of them are weaker that others. Here however, every character spoke clearly, was different from the other people, and established a particular personality. It is rather odd to find the voice acting so effective, because for some reason the developers of this game did something I have never seen before. There are many close-up scenes where the player watches as the characters speak to one another. Their hands move, their bodies react to the conversation, their facial expressions change, but their lips donít move a bit. The gamer hears the conversation clearly and without difficulty, but the characters are clearly not speaking. At first it seemed as though all the characters were telepathic. Later it just seemed weird. As I proceeded, I realized that it didnít diminish the game a bit, but it never really became Ďnormalí.
Describing the puzzles in this game is a bit more difficult. Most of the puzzles here are inventory based. They arenít very difficult, and they all are based on Jackís ability and willingness to pick up stuff that seems to be lying around. Every adventure gamer has dealt with several of these kinds of puzzles, and will have little difficulty with the individual tasks. However it must be noted that the entire game is obviously one large puzzle. The player must solve all the little puzzles, and then combine these solutions with various other clues, pictures and statements, in order to finish each of the twelve Ďmandatesí and thereby discover who the murderer is. These Ďmandatesí are rather difficult and often a bit complicated, since they might require the player to combine a dozen different elements to reach a particular conclusion. The important thing about all of these 'solvings' is that, once the problem is solved, the solution is reasonable and logical. The player will never feel that he has been cheated or that some evidence was ignored. Once the answer is found, it seems clear that it is, indeed, the answer. Playing in the standard adventure mode, there were no timed puzzles and Jack couldnít die. Of course when playing in the timed mode, the entire game becomes a timed puzzle, and I donít know what happens if the game isnít completed on schedule. Perhaps the hotel sinks beneath the waves and everyone drowns.
Before I end this, there are few very odd things in the game that need to be mentioned. These donít really detract from the game, but Iím not convinced that they add to it either. There are several times during the game when someone receives a cell phone call. This doesnít sound too strange, but be aware that the conversations, which are clearly audible and must be listened to (they canít be skipped) seem to have absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in the game. They are completely off topic and, to me, pointless. Also, every once in awhile Jack gets a call from his wife (or his mistress... itís not clear). When this happens, he stops whatever heís doing and goes to his room and talks to her. Be aware that this may well happen even in the middle of a sentence. When the call comes, Jack goes to his room. After the call, he must find the person to whom he was speaking and the game goes on. Finally, and really strangely, there are at least three times when Jack gets hungry and goes to the dining room for a sandwich. Again, this has nothing to do with gathering clues or solving the case. He just arbitrarily gets hungry, immediately stops whatever heís doing, and leaves. Once heís had a meal, the player must direct him back to where he was. Iím aware that all this may seem pointless to mention, but none of these happenstances seem to have anything to do with the story. They simply... occur.
And that is pretty much that. Sinking Island was, first of all, fun. The tale is a bit trite, but anyone who reads a lot of mysteries knows that the process of getting to the conclusion is really what is important. The game operated smoothly on my Windows XP, kept my attention, and was absolutely beautiful. There were a few 'oddities' about the game, but nothing detracted from my enjoyment. Gameplay was smooth and efficient, the characters were well acted, and I liked it. Indeed, after I finish the other new game that I have acquired, I intend to play this game again in the 'timed' mode. Iíll already know the identity of the murderer, but it will still be gorgeous, operate smoothly, and be loaded with interesting characters. (Perhaps Iíll even learn why Jack Norm is the only one who gets hungry.) Anyone looking for a big, slower-paced and visually impressive game will thoroughly enjoy Sinking Island.
© October 2008 Mark Hasley
Visit the Official Sinking Island Website to learn more about this game, download video trailers or demos, see other fantastic screenshots, and much more.
Developed (2007) by Benoit Sokal & White Bird Productions and coproduced with Microids. Published in North America by Encore Software, Inc and in Europe by Micro Applications.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (mild blood, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium IV 1.5 GHz Processor; Windows 2000 / XP / Vista; 512 MB RAM; DirectX 9.0c Compatible DVD-ROM Drive; DirectX 9.0c Compatible, 64 MB, 3D Video Card; DirectX 9.0 Compatible Sound Card; 3 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0c; Mouse
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