Much to my surprise, the Earth does not have a chewy nougat center filled with molten aluminum, iron, and other superheated elements, but is in fact filled with another world, complete unto itself, complete with magical creatures and dinosaurs and people who can, apparently, do absolutely nothing for themselves. Who’da thunk?
Journey to the Center of the Earth is the latest in a string of adventure games trying to revitalize the lately sluggish genre. The story begins as Our Heroine and Intrepid Reporter, Ariane, is on a story somewhere in Iceland. After a helicopter crash, she finds herself stranded and alone. Given no where else to go, she explores a Mysterious Cave, has a bit of a fall, and wakes up on a beach in a vast, underground world, populated by descendents of a group of isolationists from the above world who just wanted to get away from it all several generations ago. Ariane soon becomes embroiled in some Nefarious Plots, and must save the Inner World in the tried-and-true adventure fashion: running errands, combining random junk into useful stuff, and solving logic puzzles.
Since adventure games are all about the puzzles, I’ll touch on that aspect first. Journey has the usual complement of mind benders, including delivery/fetch missions, item recombination, and even a handful of logic games. Unfortunately, many of the puzzles are made much more difficult than necessary due to an almost complete lack of hints or responsiveness from the game while fiddling with possible solutions. Once a “hotspot” is found onscreen, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is being highlighted. In many places it would have been nice for Ariane to make some sort of comment or description of what I was looking at. For instance, at one point the cursor highlights something near a bridge. Is it the water? The wood planking? Maybe a bit of grass? There’s really no telling, and Ariane keeps mum. Only through the Cheap Method of adventure gaming (trying to use every item in the inventory with the hotspot) was I able to figure out exactly what I was doing. In fact, many of the item-type puzzles are solvable only in this manner, by methodically trying every possible combination until something works. And often, I was left wondering exactly why it worked in a particular way. Granted, there aren’t too many items in the world to play with, so this is a minor frustration.
Delivery puzzles are much more straightforward, but almost laughable in their execution. A good adventure game will at least make a half-hearted attempt to explain why Person A can’t walk half a block to Person B to get the Special Whatzit. But, no, the people encountered in Journey seem to be completely and inexplicably unable to help themselves, perhaps due to ineptitude or just plain laziness. In some cases, it’s almost, “I could walk all the way across the room to flip that switch, but I just don’t feel like it. Be a dear and do that for me.”
There are some familiar logic-type puzzles sprinkled throughout Journey, and for the most part they’re built in rather well, with no glaring “why is that here?” feeling. Unfortunately, there is one huge puzzle in the game that can make even the most die-hard adventure gamer throw their mouse out the window. I spent an hour even trying to figure out what the puzzle was all about. And even then, due to the game’s frustrating tendency of not acknowledging partial progress through the puzzle, I had no idea if I was even on the right track at any point. I can see gamers turning away from Journey and never coming back, simply for this reason alone. For those that don’t like hint guides, I wish you well.
While the puzzles are not too exciting, the graphics are really quite well done. Character animations are a bit stiff, but the backgrounds are extremely good. There’s an unfortunate tendency for the “hotspots” to be a bit on the hard-to-find side, though. The audio is not as impressive as the backdrops, but it works well enough. The musical score is nice, the sound effects appropriate, and the voice work is not too bad. Not great, but when compared to the latest crop of adventure titles, a cut above the norm. The interface, on the other hand, is a bit on the clunky side. Aside from the miniscule cursor hotspots, reading any document in the game is just more difficult than necessary. Clicking on any readable object does not, as one would expect, show the document. Instead, it “downloads” said document into Ariane’s laptop, which must then be accessed to finally see and read the item in question. This is an unnecessarily complicated step in what should be a simple process. In addition, even though the computer downloads, or processes, or does whatever it needs to do, the documents are still often difficult to read.
The story is actually fairly decent, and it manages to move everything forward rather well. The dialogue is somewhat weaker, feeling stilted on occasion, but seldom entering the realm of unintentionally funny. Amusingly, there is an “escape hatch” about two-thirds through the game, allowing players who have had enough a way to finish the game in an early, but not as satisfying, manner. I’m used to adventure titles with alternate endings, but this one severely truncates the game. Might this escape hatch be an apology for that heinous logic puzzle in the previous chapter?
Journey to the Center of the Earth falls into the “decent, but not great” category, much like most of the recent adventure game titles. It’s an enjoyable enough game with a few frustrations thrown in for good measure. And, much like the recent adventure game releases, Journey will most likely appeal somewhat to those who are already fans of the genre, but it’s not likely to work for anyone else.
Another run-of-the-mill adventure title. Journey has some high points, and perhaps more than its share of frustrations, but it manages to remain mostly enjoyable throughout.