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Platform: PC
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Viva Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
ESRB: T (Teen)
Released: Q2 2004

 

 

 

 

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Journey to the Center of the Earth

Score: 6.7 / 10

 

Pros:

- Good story

- Good score

- Pretty environments

 

Cons:

- Puzzles are too dependent on poorly designed item hunts that often slow the pace of the game to a crawl

 

Related Links:

Review: Syberia (PC)

Review: Syberia II (PC)

Review: Broken Sword 3 - The Sleeping Dragon (PC)

 

"Frequent adventure gamers who've acquired the sixth sense needed to navigate quickly through item hunts may enjoy Journey to the Center of the Earth for its engaging story and often-beautiful environments."

 

Drawing cues from the world envisioned by Jules Verne in his science fiction classic of the same name, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a solid but somewhat flawed adventure title that puts players in the role of Ariane, an ambitious young photojournalist who stumbles upon a mysterious new world when stranded after a helicopter crash.

 

journey to the center of the earth review          journey to the center of the earth review

 

Back in the early 1990s, when adventure games ruled the PC section of everyone's local Babbages, LucasArts and Sierra were kings. Their entire stable of adventure titles – Grim Fandango, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Kings Quest and Space Quest – all had a strong element of humor, and their puzzles required players to pay close attention not only to the their surroundings, but also to clues dropped in conversations with NPCs.  As for Leisure Suit Larry… well, let's just say that as a 13-year old, I probably would've played through Captain Novolin if there were pixelated boobs involved.

 

It may be a little unfair to compare Journey to the Center of the Earth with titles from adventure gaming's heyday. But, what disappointed me about this game was that it's got a great story, several beautifully designed environments, a solid score and decent voice acting, yet the puzzles players have to solve to move the game's action forward seem overwhelmingly dependent on inventory items.  

 

 

This leads to a couple of problems. Adventure games are all linear to some extent, but the best titles manage to skirt that problem with those "Eureka!" moments that make players feel that they are driving the story line. A missed or misleading clue in a conversation with an NPC, for example, can take players down the wrong track, but when the pieces do come together, the satisfaction makes up in spades for any frustration. An absorbing mystery does begin to unfold about a quarter of the way through Journey to the Center of the Earth, but it never quite feels like players are doing that unfolding. Instead, at many points a random assortment of items is collected and combined, essentially to manufacture keys that unlock new parts of the story.

Of course, item hunting is a longstanding tradition of the adventure genre. Who among us has not witnessed the scope – and, indeed, the sting – of the adventure game designer's wit when a spark of static electricity, prompted by a shuffle across a bearskin rug, converts a bit of pocket lint into a ring of inter-dimensional travel?

 

The combinations and uses of inventory items don't always have to make sense for a game to work, but for a game that relies heavily on items, Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn't cut players much slack in finding them. Many adventure titles assist players by having characters glance at items and points of action as players troll them around each new screen. Ariane, as a photojournalist, must be more interested in the big picture, because she spends her time admiring the scenery as you use your mouse to hunt for anything and everything that's not bolted to the floor.

 

NPCs do occasionally drop hints about items scattered throughout the game (as in, find X, Y and Z for me), but playability could have been greatly enhanced if even the most cryptic clues were provided about the location and potential usefulness of some of the other items. As it is, the game prevents you from leaving anything important behind as you progress through the story with a simple comment by Ariane. "I must have forgotten something" she'll say, and balk at moving on. That works just fine at the beginning, when you're trying to get her to descend into a cave and she hasn't gotten any equipment out of her crashed helicopter. It quickly begins to fall a little flat, though, particularly when the thing you've "forgotten" is something you won't understand how to use for another 4 hours of game play.

 

journey to the center of the earth review          journey to the center of the earth review

 

There are a handful of entertaining, well-integrated brain-teasers sprinkled throughout the game, such as one that requires players to create a sequence of sounds referencing mysterious, squiggly tablature and another that requires players to determine which ball, among a set of 12, is the lightest by using a scale only three times.

 

And, as I've mentioned, the story is actually pretty good. There's a mysterious old man that lets you loot his mastodon hut, a missing pilot, dinosaurs, a race of giants, a couple of rides in a blimp, a cool underground city and a conspiracy to solve. And with a branching story line, you, as Ariane, at one point have the opportunity to sell out the entire hidden world you've discovered for the betterment of your career, or to finish solving the conspiracy and alert others.

 

But that’s what makes the game's poorly designed item hunts such a problematic flaw, often bogging down the pace of the story with what eventually begins to feel like an artificial element of toughness. Suspense, intrigue and double-crosses are the currency of any plot revolving around a conspiracy, and throughout the game, I felt as if the NPC interaction had been tweaked just a bit – perhaps causing players to think a little more about who Ariane's real allies were – that the plot would have improved significantly. Unfortunately, too many of this game's "Eureka!" moments occur when players backtrack, pixel hunt, and see a little hand pop up next to their cursor.

 

Also, (spoiler alert?) I felt that the writers squandered an opportunity to overlay the story with a real sense of urgency and dread. Very early in the game, the leaders of the underground world caution you that there is a massive war about to break out on the surface. They also inform you that several years have inexplicably passed since you descended underground. One of the game's unique devices, e-mails to Ariane's laptop from concerned friends on the surface, could easily have been used to continue this theme throughout the game with miscommunications, but instead you find out really, really, really, really quickly that these guys underground are either lying or mistaken. (End spoiler? Does it count as a spoiler when the game's designers were the ones that spoiled it?)

 

Adventure games, supplanted by the much simpler puzzles of action-adventure and the think-on-your-feet-before-a-zombie-eats-your-face mentality of survival horror, have become something of a dying breed, although they continue to enjoy the loyalty of a small but devoted group of players. Frequent adventure gamers who've acquired the sixth sense needed to navigate quickly through item hunts may enjoy Journey to the Center of the Earth for its engaging story and often-beautiful environments. But, less experienced players are likely to find themselves frustrated by challenges that ultimately have little to do with the story.

 

- M. Enis

(July 14, 2004)

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