My Second Chance
Yesterday I wrote an extensive review of Gemini Rue, the latest point-and-click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye Games. I hit on all the points I wanted in that review, and was just adding links right before I was going to send, when an accidental click effectively erased the entire review. I usually remind myself that that sort of suffering is small compared to the suffering in the world in general, and I did some of that here, but I also found it a perfect compliment to the game I was trying to review. One of the main themes in Gemini Rue is about what, beyond memory, makes us human. In a sense, I'll never have that essay I wrote back; even if I tried to write a copy of what I'd written before, the haziness of human memory would practically demand that things would change. Yet, I wonder if the essence will still be there with the review I'm writing now. This game explores that idea, too.
Players are given two roles to play in Gemini Rue, one of inmate Delta-Six, who is trapped in a facility watched over by the parental Director, whose plight reminds me a bit of the film THX-1138, at least in terms of starkness and oppression. The other role is Azriel Odin, veteran of the Gemini Wars, on the trail of his missing brother, who heavily telegraphs gray-area neo-noir anti-hero Deckard from the film version of Blade Runner. At one point players can actually switch between the two characters, helping free you up to solve different puzzles and explore different locations if you find you're stuck. This, along with the very welcome if ultimately underutilized drag-and-drop mechanic for looking up information on a database makes Azriel's detective work a fun diversion, especially since you can actually type keywords into the database yourself and once in a while get rewarded with background information or useful tidbits.
The puzzles in general vary in difficulty, with a couple lamentable pixel hunts mixed in with environmental exploration, conversation, and item use. I was never stuck on anything for very long, aided in part by the mouse cursor having pop-up words to describe what you see in brief. You can right click for a small amount of verbs, reminiscent of Full Throttle's compact interface (you can use your foot on stuff, use things or ask people to do things for you, look, and speak to people). The rest of the interactions are dictated by your inventory, which never exceeds 9 items or so (and is usually much less than that), and you can examine an inventory item by right-clicking while the inventory's onscreen. It's a very efficient system.
Both the dialogue and the puzzles at times suffer from clichés and a bit of cheese, but it's not as big a deal when you realize that the game was written by one guy, Joshua Neurnberger, a student at UCLA, who originally intended Gemini Rue as freeware until he made a deal with the producers at Wadjet Eye to make a full commercial release. Neurnberger also drew the art assets for the game, including some rather spectacular setpieces that set the mood beautifully, with a relatively low screen resolution that reminds us how an efficient use of pixels still creates the illusion of depth and detail. What makes this game especially outstanding in the effects department is the musical score by Nathan Allen Pinard, which could not have been better and perfectly captures the mood of every location. The game also features full voice acting, which varies in quality but is thankfully reliably capable for the voices you hear the most; you're never really in a situation where you don't want to talk to someone because you can't stand the actor, although at times the dialog feels like it could have used another draft or a stern editor.
In addition to the more traditional puzzles, the game features a combat minigame that helps heighten the tension in key scenes. Your character hides behind cover and can pop his head out to take a shot, with a meter that lets you try for an instant kill, and limited ammunition to help make things a bit more tense. After a while savvy players will figure out how to game the system and these will be little more than action puzzles, but players who are afraid of action in their adventure games shouldn't be too worried. Thanks to the very welcome autosave feature these lethal encounters are rarely frustrating, even during the occasional glitch. Glitches in general are never game breaking, but they can at times lead to a bit of confusion when navigating or puzzling, or some wasted ammunition.
The story itself, while not pitch perfect, has heart behind it, and it's clear through playing the game and listening to the commentary included that the designer set out to innovate while making a accessible adventure game. Gemini Rue is not very long, and at times it overlaps in on itself, preferring to re-use a few locations rather than take players to new spots that would require new art and scene construction, but given that this is pretty much a one-man show it's not as irritating as it might be for a high-price industry release. With smaller games like this come a bit more risky attempts at philosophy and character development, which is fine by me; even if they don't quite manage to find adequate conclusions to the questions they raise, they get high marks for trying.
It's difficult to give an unqualified recommendation because of its rough edges, but its tone and style were like a warm drink on a cold day for me. The music, the visuals, and the attitude fill a nice niche left empty by most triple-A titles of late. Here's hoping Joshua Neurnberger and Wadjet Eye Games are willing to revisit this world again. If planned from the beginning as a major title, they could really take us some interesting places.
Note: When attempting to play the demo I found it was impossible to get it running on my older XP machine, but none of those problems occurred with the full game, and the system requirements listed on the information page seem rather steep compared to what we have since it worked just fine. Both the demo and the full game are available on Wadjet Eye's website . Check out the Quick Look to get an idea of the mood, although there'll be some spoilers, a'course. When coming up with the star rating I felt like it was between 4 and 3.5 stars, which is sort of impossible to grade. I went with the lower of the two because there's room for improvement-- I'd rather encourage someone to move forward and do even better next time than worry about whether or not I'd come off as too harsh.