You really don't know what you're in for with Pilgrim, Arxel Tribe's mind-blowing 1997 release that disappeared for a few years and now is available again. I expected to really enjoy myself by wallowing in the Year of Our Lord 1208, and I did, but I never expected anything like the mysteries Pilgrim explores. The game starts out as your standard point-and-click medieval adventure with lots of nice, logical puzzles, but it ends up as a surreal struggle against powerful forces that tempt the soul. It's an adult game, not because of any salacious content, but because of the sophistication and depth of the ideas it tackles. You will need your thinking cap for this one.
Arxel Tribe based Pilgrim on Paulo Coelho's Diary of a Magus, which should have given me a clue that the storyline eventually would depart from sweaty, earthly reality. Pilgrim fools you. Much of the game is exactly what you'd expect it to be: a traditional adventure set in the Middle Ages. Cross the broken bridge, evade the guard, escape from the dungeon, get the sword from the stone. That sort of thing. Well done for its time, fun and interesting, with some vexing puzzles, nice slideshow artwork, and nifty medieval tunes. Later, things turn weird.
If you're expecting a simple battle between good heretics and bad inquisitors, you're in for a surprise. The game goes far beyond that, eventually exploring questions for the human soul. Pilgrim will challenge you to examine your own beliefs about life, faith, and the "good fight." I stand amazed that a simple adventure game can tackle such subjects, all the while integrating them into a point-and-click slideshow with inventory-style puzzles.
It's stunning, outrageous, and constantly interesting. Pilgrim turns the adventure game into a visionary flight of imagination.
You are Simon, apparently an adolescent or young man, and your father is dying. His last wish is that you deliver a mysterious Coptic manuscript to a man called Petrus in Toulouse. Of course, as in all standard-issue adventures, you meet with obstacles. You have to get over that bridge and into the city. The plot thickens as you find yourself dumped, literally, into a dungeon, where you'll solve a series of puzzles as part of a deviously trapped escape route. All the while you'll learn about the political difficulties of the times. Remember that stuff. There will be a quiz at the end.
The game's theme begins to emerge even in those early scenes, however. A magician says that he's careful not to do tricks that are too mysterious. He's worried about the Inquisition. You'll learn that the Cathars, a major heretical sect, operate powerfully in the area of Toulouse and that the local ruler, an astute politician, might be protecting them. Why is Petrus so hard to find? Why is an officer of the Inquisition visiting, and what do he and the Pope really want? Especially, what was your father up to?
I don't want to give away the surprises you'll encounter, except to say that they grow curiouser and curiouser, and you will not guess what's coming. Toward the end of the game you'll be into surrealistic territory. Sorry. Can't say more than that. Play the game.
By today's standards, movement in Pilgrim is primitive, anchored to a grid. The inventory-based puzzles range from simple to intriguing to well-nigh impossible, but they fully integrate with the plot and stick to logic, usually. You've got three inventories, all with different purposes. First comes your "bag," into which you'll place items to carry around and use, such as that manuscript and a notebook in which you can type your own notes. Next come icons of people you've met or heard about. Finally, you have an "item inventory" that contains images of items, but not necessarily usable stuff. That distinction confused me a bit. Early in the game I found a rope, and there it was in my item inventory. I couldn't use that one, though. I had to find the rope again, and click on it again to put it in my "bag" before I could use it.
Actually the system works pretty well, despite the odd double icons. The people and item inventories are there for use in conversations, as subjects for questions you'll be asking. As you move on in the game, unnecessary stuff disappears. It's a pretty good system and not at all unwieldy once you get used to it.
I mentioned that the puzzles stick to logic, usually. Because of that "usually," I'm letting you know now that you'll probably need a walkthrough for Pilgrim's endgame, even though the game includes somewhat cryptic hints if you want them. Blundering your way through the thing will take gobs of time and cause far too much repetition, but I suppose it's possible. I was too fascinated with the plot to bulldog through the more arcane mysteries, so occasionally I used a walkthrough because after a while I just had to find out what was going to happen next. Even in the endgame you can reason things out, but you'll die plenty of times in the effort.
Yes, Pilgrim will kill you fairly often when you make a mistake, but once you die the game immediately returns you to an earlier point. However, especially in the dungeon and in the endgame, that "earlier point" is at the very beginning of the whole series of puzzles, so save, save, save your game. In the endgame, which has multiple, devious puzzles, every time you die you'll have to listen to a long dialog before you can restore your game. That was the only feature of the game that I seriously disliked.
Another warning: Pilgrim has a particularly nasty maze. The thing looks gorgeous, with carved, golden walls, but it also has staircases that might have been designed by M.C. Escher. You'll wind up going around in circles on those stairs before you realize what's happening. Now, I normally don't mind mazes. I either blunder my way through them or I take the time to map them, but not with this one. This one's built in three, or possibly more, dimensions, so mapping would be quite a challenge. I blundered around for quite a while and then grabbed the walkthrough.
I mentioned that there would be a quiz at the end of the game. Yup, really, there is. I got the impression that the quiz, along with the excellent in-game encyclopedia, was supposed to make Pilgrim into an edutainment game. Certainly, with the depth of the issues it explores, it would be difficult to play the game without learning something. The quiz reminded me of the one in Chateau d'Or, so if you hate that kind of thing, use a walkthrough. The final question, however, is one that only you can answer.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Pilgrim looks good, despite its archaic slideshow and movement grid. I especially liked the interior scenes, with flaming torches and crackling fireplaces. Toulouse looks cleaner than I imagine it really would have looked in 1208, but the game recreates the time period quite convincingly. The marvelous medieval music helps a great deal, with plenty of haunting and catchy tunes in minor chords. Later in the game, the music becomes more modern, and it nicely heightens the menace while you're battling for your soul.
The voice acting works well, although the lead actor consistently mispronounces some rather simple words, such as "faraway" (instead of "far away," he says "fairway," as though referring to a golf course). The characters come in 3D models that don't move much. I disliked that aspect of Timescape, but I was able to forgive it easily in Pilgrim because I was so fascinated by the game and the intriguing dialogue, and because there's so very much more to see and do in Pilgrim.
The graphics are nice and the puzzles will challenge you, but the superiority of Pilgrim rests on the intellectual content of the game. It doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator, that's for sure. The human issues of faith, growth, and power it explores will have you thinking long after you tuck your computer in for the night. Yet throughout, it remains just a point-and-click adventure game, moving imperceptibly but surely toward temptations that may torture your soul but that always give you choices. I most certainly don't regret the time I spent wrestling with its demons. Just remember, as one character says, "Regrets are immortal. Demons are not."
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