The recent and very distressing news that SouthPeak was canceling its almost-finished new adventure game, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Adventure Continues, got me to thinking about the company's first two outings with their proprietary "Video Reality" engine. Yep, I want to get you even more depressed. So stroll with me down memory lane while we revisit one of the most notorious adventure games ever released.
The "Video Reality Engine" was actually a very cool idea. At the time, video-based games were peaking (Gabriel Knight 2, Phantasmagoria), and one thing most players agreed about that video lacked was any sense of freedom in movement. The filmed environments simply felt too restrictive. SouthPeak's Video Reality was supposed to deliver the realistic feel of video but with a much more fluid and free sense of movement.
Temüjin, the first Video Reality Engine adventure, was released in late 1997 to much fanfare and the worst set of reviews of any adventure game in memory.
Because of these reviews, and the game's generally terrible reputation, I would imagine many adventurers have steered clear of this notorious title.
You know what? That's a shame, because even though it does have big problems, it's also daring and innovative. I'm not at all sorry I played it.
Temüjin is a first-person adventure that begins very promisingly with a terrific cinematic of Genghis Khan's funeral ("Temüjin" was his real name). There's some mysterious goings on about an evil spirit being trapped in an artifact ... then cut to modern day, where you find yourself in a small private museum. Something is very wrong here at the Stevenson museum, and it's up to you-know-who to work out the mystery.
Okay. First let's talk about what sucks in the game. Sadly, the Video Reality engine has three big problems here. Number one, it can only be displayed on a very small fraction of the screen, which is absolutely maddening. Second, the images are often blurry. Third, and by far the worst, the navigation is enough to make you shave your head and enter a monastery. You spend the whole game feeling like you have all the motor control of a spastic on roller skates on a oiled surface. It's just exhausting.
Unfortunately, Temüjin's problems don't end there. This game has some of the most arcane, obtuse puzzles I've ever seen in a game. Two of them, in fact, make my all-time clunker list. One involves a ridiculous task of creating a Rube Goldberg device to make a cup of tea; the other involves some wildly nonintuitive nonsense regarding a catapult, a gong, and a helmet. Eeeesh.
Okay ... so, sucky visuals, terrible puzzles ... why the heck am I even talking about this game? What's wrong with me?
Hang on. Let me tell you about the cool stuff in Temüjin.
First of all, despite its limitations, I found the Video Reality engine very promising. Why? Because I love video-based games, and I think it really is a good idea to create a video format with fluid and free movement. Despite its awkwardness, I really felt like I was traveling around and exploring a truly real place.
Second, this game has a lot of terrific writing in it. The story is good, and the characters are sharp and interesting. Like the next VR game, Dark Side of the Moon, Temüjin has some of the best game acting I've seen.
The game also has a brilliant gimmick regarding the character you play: you don't know who you are for nearly two-thirds of the game! Your own identity is a big part of the mystery, and this element is handled brilliantly. Your character can't speak (why? Hmm ...), but you are constantly spoken to by the other characters. Think how tricky this would be to pull off, script-wise. It's quite a neat trick.
I like an adventure game to take me to a compelling place, and in this game I really felt like the experience was happening to me.
Temüjin gave me the feeling that SouthPeak was really onto something. So, while I can't give this game a high grade or anything, I would challenge adventurous adventurers to consider taking a deep breath, rolling up their sleeves, and checking this flawed but interesting game out.
Final Grade: D+
If you liked Temüjin:
Watch: Dressed to Kill (for the great museum sequence!)
Read: The Magus
Play: Dark Side of the Moon
2x CD-ROM drive
30 MB free hard drive space
16-bit sound card