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Traitors Gate II: Cypher

Reviewed by  Laura MacDonald

After I finished this game and started to write the review, it was difficult to know where to start. Now on good days this means that there are so many positives to talk about, it is difficult to organize them. That's not the case with this game. I feel like someone who has just attended some highly touted event, where there was much to-do about the décor and the honored guests. But when you get there, you discover it is very different from what you were expecting. I am not sure how the developers could start out with such a great idea and end up with this game, but I can tell you that Traitors Gate II disappointed on a variety of levels.

We first met our super spy guy, Raven, in a great adventure involving the crown jewels of England. A secret organization within the U.S. intelligence community learned that it had a rogue agent. Our mission was to replace the real treasure with brilliantly crafted fakes and trap the renegade. At no time could we be caught or detected. If we were, then the agency, in true covert style, would disavow all knowledge of our existence. That was a wonderful game for those who like a stealth and strategy-based adventure. The graphics were exceptional, and have held up extremely well over time. Perhaps you spent more time down in the sewers than some would have wished, but it was a solidly crafted game and one that I enjoyed enough to play twice.

Now we move on to the present day and the release of Traitors Gate II. Nigel Papworth, one of the founders of Daydream and the lead designer for Traitors Gate I, was onboard and the early news looked very promising. Let's look at the published pre-release info.

First we learned that our agent has a name, Raven, and that he has a new high-risk assignment, code-named 'Cypher'. A terrorist threat has surfaced from deep within the sands of the Middle East. With all of the Babylonian references, the location is suggestive of Iraq. Regardless, there's trouble brewing for the world and we have to sort it out. The bad guys have gotten their hands on a virus that will destroy or create chaos in the world's computer networks. They intend to up link it to a satellite and then transmit it to all of the known international databases and computers. Our mission is to infiltrate their compound, locate the virus, copy it for analysis, and then sabotage the system by replacing the motherboard with one provided by our employers. The front entrance is out of the question, so we are going to sneak in through an ancient complex that is buried and forgotten beneath the shifting sands. We will have to negotiate its labyrinth of corridors and chambers, and defeat ancient trials and puzzles to gain access to the terrorist compound. And to aid in our quest, Raven has a new array of high tech gadgets at his disposal.

Well all of this sounds pretty good. But I found that the reality of the game falls short of the hype in many ways.

Appearances are not always deceptive

You never really meet Raven in the first game, and after seeing him in this game, perhaps there are some things that are better left unseen. There have been a number of advancements in 3D technology over the last 4 years, since the first game was released. But none of them were evident in this game.

Now I am one of those who think that the freedom of movement in 3D is a plus for an adventure game. When it is done well, the positives gained offset any minor loss in graphic detail. In fact, with the advanced game engines around today, these games look better than many of the older 2D games, or at least it is now technically possible to have eye-popping graphics in a 3D world. So not to be harsh, but a game released in today's market should look as good, if not better than the designers' earlier efforts.

In Cypher, the reverse holds true. The first Traitors Gate had graphics that are superior to its own sequel. The graphics in Cypher are grainy and blocky. The cinematics in the game look great and the opening/closing segments are well done. But the contrast between them and the in-game look is significant. Although some of the puzzles and rooms are interesting and detailed, the coloration is uniformly drab. Let's just say that I am one of those gamers who really doesn't bring huge expectations to any given game. Even so, the game should have looked much better.

Sliced and diced

If I had to give you just one reason to lock up your dollars, hide in a closet and run away if this game knocked on your door, here it is. The puzzles. Not all of the puzzles, because there were some amazingly good ones. But there were also some of the most hideous challenges I have ever been unable to beat in a game.

Some point of reference is needed here. I am no stranger to keyboard or action games. My first love is adventure games. But I do love to stroll on the dark side, and from time to time really enjoy a well-crafted story based 3rd person shooter. Splinter Cell, Deus Ex, NOLF and Max Payne are all lovingly displayed on my game shelf. The point being that my difficulties with these puzzles has nothing to do with the fact that the game is allegedly keyboard controlled, or that they were 'action'-based. You don't get to shoot anyone in the game or use any weapons at all. A shame because otherwise I could have shot something and probably would have felt a bit better.

No, these puzzles were sadistic. Imagine you are in a room. You must retrieve an object to advance in the game. Fair enough. The object is on a stand in the middle of the room. As you walk over to the stand you notice that there are holes in the metal floor. As you grab the item, you learn the reason for all those holes. It is so walls with spikes can crash down along 3 sides of the room. The 4th section, which lies right in front of the door, has spikes that rise up from the floor. In the door itself is a swinging blade of death. And should you get your timing down and survive the skewering and smashing, then you face the corridor beyond the room. Here you have metal spiked blocks that crash together, with a razor-sharp swinging blade between each set of blocks.

Come on!!  What were they thinking!?  I didn't even bother trying this route of pain. In Walkthroughs (how did they ever write them?), this is now known as the "slice and dice" puzzle.  I tried to get my youngest son to give this puzzle a go, as he is my in-house console action expert and gaming partner. He took one look, made some impolite remarks about the game, and fled. And there are a few other puzzles along these same lines. That's a shame, because the game also has some puzzles that are great, assuming that you last long enough in the game to get there. But like the Piano end puzzle in Nine, there are some challenges so horrible that they can ruin a game. Or as in this case, 'slice and dice' it.

As for the other side of this game, about two thirds of the way through you do finally gain entry to the lair of the bad guys. But whereas the majority of the game at least had the varied chambers of an ancient temple complex, this part of the game is just a maze of drab industrial-military rooms and hallways. It is also the area of the game where your high tech gadgets come into play, but they were predominantly eye scans and pre-gassing rooms. On the plus side, there were more plot details imbedded here, and the game actually started achieving some personality. Which makes me wonder if the game would have fared better if they had focused entirely on this side of the story. There were items to read, examine and look at. It felt more like an adventure game to me at this point. But it also seemed too little, too late.

Story... uhmm, what story?

We have been spoiled lately by a number of adventure games, flawed or not, that had decent to great stories. I can't recall a game ever released in this genre that has less of a story than TG2. If you read the box and watch the opening cinematic, that's about all the story you are going to get, except for at the end of the game when you finally do make entry into the terrorist compound. For those who thought The Longest Journey was dialogue heavy, here is your alternative. Normally as you move through a game, your character will comment and objects will highlight. I am not exactly sure, but I believe there were only 5 or 6 places where Raven said anything at all. And his comments were only about 4 or 5 words long, and amazingly dense. Plus you have no smart cursor, no items that highlight, no reaction at all to anything as you walk around a room. So you are left with moving Raven up to items and then clicking the 'Action' or Enter key. He either does something or he doesn't. And this is something you must go through over and over and over again.

Now there is a journal, belonging to some long gone explorer, which provides bits and pieces of clues to rooms and objects within the ancient compound. But here's another example of a poor design choice. You cannot access this journal from within the game. No, instead you have to exit to the main menu to bring up the journal. Now once you do this, it does pop up inside the game. But still, this is a major inconvenience. On a positive note, the clues are so cryptic that you really won't miss using the journal anyway. If the game had held my interest better, I might have worked around the interface by copying the journal's 100+ pages into my game notes. But since what I read was of little help, I ditched the journal and never went back. I fared better just blundering my way through.

I should add that wandering and blundering is common throughout this game. You see they designed the ancient complex as a vast, multi-level maze. As best I can tell it has 3 levels, and there are secret doors that take you all over the place. So if you are a maze addict, here's your environment. It is a large place, and has some great rooms, passageways and places. But with so little plot, no characters, scant dialogue and a poor interface, I have to admit that maneuvering through this maze was not a high point for me.

Technical babble and interface

I also ran into a number of glitches while playing the game. For one thing, you are supposed to retrieve a copy of the virus. I reloaded 3 different saved games and got the copy. Raven, in one of his rare verbal moments, even commented on it. Despite this, I was rated a failure at the end because I hadn't copied the virus. So I gave up on even the thought of a successful ending, enjoyed the end cut scene for the last time, and closed the game down.

There were also moments when the game just wouldn't work. There were a few timed puzzles where the time slipped, and other moments where the graphics went wild, I stepped into nothing, or the device just didn't work. Now the game never crashed... it just didn't work. I don't have the expertise to describe it any better than that. I just got a saved game and trudged on. Plus you can get stuck in places if you don't maneuver well. There may be other glitches, but these are the ones that stand out to me.

The interface is awkward at best. For one thing there was no description in the manual, or anywhere else, of what keyboard commands you have in the game. I kept thinking that there had to be a 'Look' feature, and so searched the manual, the game files and the Internet. But there are only the arrow keys and the Enter or 'Action' key. Raven always runs by default. If you want him to walk, you have to push the Shift key. The Space Bar makes Raven leap or jump. That's it. On the positive side, this is the simplest keyboard configuration out there. But on the negative side, with all the action parts I certainly could have used more options. Positioning your character to interact with things was not always an easy task, and it made gameplay awkward.

The good parts... yes, there were some

In some ways, the best part of this game for me was the final cut scene. One, it contained the first human voices that I had heard in hours and two, it meant the game was over.

But I do have to admit that there were some interesting places and puzzles in the game. It was suggested to me that the game is better appreciated if it is approached as a pure puzzler. And after reflection, it does make a difference. Is it enough of a difference for me to recommend this game? Probably not. But I do think that people who are not easily frustrated, don't mind using saved games to finish, and love intricate environments and tons of puzzles might consider getting this game. It does have some intriguing challenges.

For example, there was one where you used fans to maneuver a boat. It was a bit obscure as to which key or keys you needed, but you couldn't die, it wasn't timed and it was an interesting chamber. You had to observe the rooms, note their structure and visual clues. And many of the mechanical puzzles were well designed and unique from what you find in other games.

I found the journal less than helpful, but those who have a patience and love for the obscure would probably read the entire thing and gain a lot from it. And although the graphics lacked clarity, the individual chambers were varied with giant statuary, vistas and ambiance. The musical overlay also helped create some of the better points of the game. I ended up saving some of the music files to my hard drive, for later enjoyment. So I think if they created a patch for the glitches, a saved game download for several areas, and a detailed map for download, then I would say that there are those who would find value in the game.

How do I put this?

Well let's keep it simple. My bottom line on Traitors Gate II: Cypher is... don't buy this game. Or at least, don't buy it now. It does have some great puzzles among the debris. And if you like wandering around for a long time, it is one vast place. Otherwise, save your money for some of the great titles already released or coming soon.

With Broken Sword 3, The Black Mirror, Jack the Ripper, Jane Jenson's game and many more, the Adventure Company has an impressive game list. They can't all be home runs, or even just a solid hit. Anyone can have a lesser moment and Traitors Gate II: Cypher is it.

© 2003  Laura MacDonald

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Developed (2003) by 258 Productions and published by The Adventure Company.

Rated:   T   for Teen 13+  (mild violence)

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

Where To Buy This Game:

Walkthroughs or Hints:

"Walkthrough" available here!

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