Using a combination of live actors and computer-generated 3D environments, this interactive movie leads players through the disturbing tale of Nick Delios, a gifted technologist who has had some bad luck. The game is set in a near future, at a time when a single world government rules in name, and organized crime rules in practice. When Nick's research is stolen by his fiancÚ's brother, who presents the work it as his own, the hero slips down a path of despair that leads him to abandon his promising career in medical software development. Now he earns his living as a private detective on the streets of Greece. The plot begins when Nick is clandestinely asked by his old friend, Police Inspector Thanos Pekas, for help in solving a troubling crime of industrial espionage.
It's a common human trait to emulate those whom we admire, I suppose. Girls emulate their moms, boys their dads. Most writers, artists, musicians and, for all I know, insurance salesmen, start their careers aping the works of those they hold in high regard. When you are in the trenches struggling to create a voice, a look, a sound, whatever, it helps to be working on something you like, something you have an affinity for. You'll be more motivated and you'll have more fun, you'll make a better product.
The folks at Anima ppd-Interactive might have had this in mind as they worked on their first adventure game, Nick Delios: Conspiracies. Simply put, it's the next Tex Murphy game everyone has been waiting for, except, of course, it's really not. It's not about Tex Murphy, it's about Nick Delios, it's not set in San Francisco in a dystopian future, it's set in Greece in a dystopian future. The earth is now a single federation run by the Higher Federation Government, the HFG, and each country is the equivalent of a city-state helmed by an emperor-president with unparalled powers to administrate. Life for the little guys and gals is gray and drab. The environment is shot; overpopulation, crime and unemployment have rendered the populace permanently depressed. In an attempt to rectify the situation the HFG is trying to join the big leagues, the Regional Galaxy Alliance. However, sinister forces with much to lose are working counter to the HFG, doing everything possible to sabotage the merger. Central to this battle is a new family of nonaddictive antidepressants that would bolster mankind's flagging spirit. Bane or boon? Savior of mankind or opiate of the masses? No one knows for sure, least of all Nick Delios, private investigator.
Once a brilliant young up-and-comer in the field of medical software, Nick has been betrayed by the head of his own research team, the not-so-nice Dimitris Argyriou. Dimitris took Nick's groundbreaking research, presented it as his own and got all the credit and glory, not to mention profit margins. When Nick reacted angrily, he not only lost his position on the research team but also the chance to marry the love of his life, Anita Argyriou, Dimitris's sister. No money, no honey, so what's a guy to do? Become a bitter, down-on-his-luck detective, apparently. Almost broke, about to take up residence beneath the nearest bridge or whatever serves for one in the future, Nick's pal in the police department, Thanos Pekas, brings him in to help solve a seemingly simple murder of a small-time hood. From here on out it's your basic futuristic private eye caper, chasing down leads, dodging bullets, getting hit over the head and zipping into the past to track down mad scientists on the verge of earth-shattering breakthroughs.
If you've ever played any of the later Tex Murphy games, you'll be familiar with the interface. You use the mouse to steer and the keyboard for movement forward, backward, right and left, though sadly no up and down. As far as I'm concerned, this control system is the only way to go, vastly superior to either point-and-click only or keyboard only and hopefully the wave of the future. You left-click to interact with objects and people, right-click to hear descriptions. To bring up the inventory you hit the space bar. The inventory screen scrolls up from the bottom of the screen, pretty much covering the entire viewing area. Once in inventory, left-click on objects to interact and use on the game world, right-click to hear descriptions and occasionally manipulate the item via mouse and the control key. You have a game map of course, in this case a four-sided cube that you can rotate using the mouse. As you interview NPCs and explore, more areas open up on the map. This is also the sole means of travel between locations, and at times it felt pretty restrictive. I wanted to get out a little more, walk the streets, poke my head in doors, stumble down alleys. As it was, I was almost always confined to interiors.
You glean information from the people you talk to using a dialogue tree. Paths can vary as you talk to each person, and, as in the Tex Murphy games, you navigate through the opening conversation via attitude choices, i.e., serious, flippant, surly. Make the wrong choice and the game can end abruptly. Cop the right attitude and you are rewarded with a topic list that allows you to interrogate the NPC. Nothing you haven't seen before, which isn't a bad thing, but in this case there was an annoying bug (is there any other kind?) where a few times I had to click on a topic line repeatedly to get a response. Other times all of the interviewee's responses played back unprompted, one after the other. And yet other times I only got that last word or two of a reply and so had to click on the line repeatedly to be sure I heard it all. It got confusing, and often I wasn't sure whether I had heard all of the responses as there isn't a conversation log to fall back on. Not such a good start. Luckily I had no sound problems anywhere else in the game.
Another complaint (I have a lot of complaints about this game, by the way) was the lack of a smart cursor. Now, I know, not having the cursor change as you glide over a hotspot isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes a smart cursor can make a game too easy, the puzzle solutions too obvious. Conspiracies is not one of the those games. Trust me. First of all, the graphics were so elementary, so simply rendered, so lacking in depth that many times the object I was looking for was literally nothing more than a couple of colored pixels. Objects and items were so seamlessly embedded in the game world as to be utterly indistinguishable from the background. This meant a lot, and I mean a lot, of clicking. This is part of playing an adventure game and not a design flaw per se, but a bit of cursor response would have been nice considering the rudimentary graphics. Another annoyance cropped up when searching inside boxes, waste cans and other containers with lids. Since the cursor didn't respond to hot spots, I had to click on everything in the container. The problem arose when I clicked on something I couldn't use, couldn't pick up, in which case the lid would close. This meant I had to reopen the lid, move the cursor over a few pixels to the next smudged, unidentifiable blotch of color, click again, hit nothing, watch the lid close, open the lid, move the cursor over again, click again and over and over until I finally found an object. Or not.
I also hit a bug in one particular location where I could literally walk through a building wall, out into midair, down the side of the exterior and back in through the wall into a locked room I wasn't supposed to be in yet. This bug was repeatable and present in a large area of that location. Not very reassuring.
The puzzles in Conspiracies tended to be on the nonintuitive side at times, especially when it came to opening locks. And there were a lot of locks. So many that even Nick began to verbally despair by the end of the game. Several times I was stopped dead by a door lock and had to return to past locations to try to decide what, if anything, was a clue. I think a lot of people are going to have trouble with the lock solutions - then again, maybe it's just me. Some of the solutions bordered on obscure for obscurity's sake, to put it mildly. Add to that the fact that several puzzles could only be solved by placing Nick on an exact spot and then clicking the cursor on another exact, non-hot spot and you have a recipe for some frustrating gameplay. It's one thing to create clever, infernally hard puzzles and quite another to make them awkward and difficult to manipulate. Sometimes even the simplest action, like climbing a ladder out of a sewer, turned into a needlessly agonizing bout of trial and error. I did finally figure out what I was doing wrong, but it shouldn't have been an issue at all. Simple actions like moving the character from A to B should be transparent, instinctive, especially in an adventure game.
It's not all bad news, though. In fact there was much to enjoy. Conspiracies is a game where you will want (will have) to take your time and look at everything and think about everything. There are clues scattered about, especially when you right-click to hear Nick's descriptions. He tells you things, asks pertinent questions. He's no dummy. Pay attention to this guy. Also have a pen and paper handy as you will get clues and passwords in conversations that you will not get anywhere else or ever hear again. These are clues that never go into inventory, clues that don't exist in material form in a conversation log. Since there is no text option, or at least none for the dubbed English version I played, and since Nick's accents and diction, not to mention that of the other actors, can be hard to catch at times, it's important to listen critically. If you hear something that might be important, it probably is. If you don't jot it down immediately, you'll more likely than not be restoring a saved game later on.
You can die a lot in this game. I probably saw that subtly taunting GAME OVER YOU LOST !!! screen 60 times in the course of the game. After lingering on the Game Over screen much longer than necessary, the game returns you to the save/load screen, and here again there be dragons. When you start the game you create a player by typing in a name. When you return to the game you click on Player, see the Player Screen, and click on your chosen name, which brings up the saved games in the form of screenshots. Click on the screenshot you want and click on Load. The problem, again maybe just for me, was that there were three different places on the Player Screen where I saw my player's name listed. I had a hard time at first figuring out which buttons to click on and in what sequence and at one point ended up deleting my only saved game. Again, a small thing, but again, something that should have been a no-brainer.
The inventory is limited to 27 slots. That may seem like a lot but not so in Conspiracies. Several times my inventory was full, and in order for Nick to acquire a new object, he had to drop something on the ground to make room. This can lead to trouble further along in the game as you suddenly find yourself lacking an inventory item and don't remember where you dropped it. The wise gamer will keep all extra items in one spot. I used Nick's apartment. A tip here: drop something in the waste can in Nick's apartment and if it's a red herring it will go into the can. You can also use your lighter to burn the trash, either in the can or directly in inventory. With this much inventory, this was a nice feature. Not so nice is the fact that if you tried to use an inventory item on something in the game world and the object is noninteractive, the inventory item drops to the floor. This means you can't do anything here, and since there is no smart cursor that's a good thing. But it's also easy to walk away and forget and leave the item behind. Especially if you are cycling through the inventory at a rapid clip. Another annoyance is that if you drop something, half the time you can't reach it from where you are standing and have to move a step away to pick it up. Realistic, I guess, and once I got used to it didn't really pose much of a problem. Now I like realism as much as the next person but I also play games to escape the real world where I have to do dishes, make the bed, do laundry. Menial chores in my gameplay aren't high on my wish list.
I really can't comment on the original acting as I played the English version, which was all dubbed voiceover from the original Greek. The voice acting covered the usual spectrum of terrible to good you find in these kind of games, and since I have a high tolerance for bad acting in adventure games, even to the point of finding it kind of sweet and funny, it didn't bother me much. Some of the translation seemed a little odd but nothing particularly game-stopping.
All of the third-person scenes are full-motion video, shot on blue screen with the backgrounds added later. Much of the footage was soft and blurry, and though it didn't impair gameplay, it was a little tough on the eyes at times. Graphics aren't the number one reason people play adventure games, right? Right? Right. But they are becoming more important and I found myself occasionally pining for a visual style with, say, a little more panache.
By now it may seem like I didn't care much for Conspiracies, and I confess I was on the fence forever as to giving it a thumb up or a stinky egg. Despite its difficulties, Conspiracies still has a lot to recommend it. If you are persistent and keep some of what I've told you in mind, you will find at the heart some pretty entertaining hours ahead. There were long stretches where I thoroughly enjoyed myself, where the puzzle design, the writing, and the forward motion of the plot caught me up and kept me engaged.
For one thing, quite a bit of the game is nonlinear in that you can solve most of the puzzles in any order, though there is a limit to how far astray the game will let you go. This semi-open gameplay kept me going long after I would have bogged down in a more linear game. There is also an entire chapter where Nick travels to the past on a seemingly random assignment, which helps to open the game up. You also get to travel to an orbiting space station. Of course, once you arrive you encounter a big old maze, but if you remember the days of Zork and how to use inventory items to find your way around you should have no trouble. It's a hedge maze set in a huge dome and all you have to do is look up and out to reference your position. I did have to take an hour to map it out on paper, but once I did it turned out to be pretty simple. If there is such a thing as a fun maze, Conspiracies has it.
As I mentioned above, I was really on the fence with this game for most of the time I played it. There were days when I wanted to sail the DVD out the window and days when I couldn't wait to get back to Nick and Anita and the gang. This is a big game, with lots of locations, many well thought out puzzles that will be certain to please and enough likeable characters to keep you entertained. The story isn't the strongest, and in fact in places it gets pretty confusing, but so do all complex, plot-driven vehicles. The main complaint I had with Conspiracies was an underlying lack of balance, a predominant unevenness that ran throughout the game right up to the admittedly rather flat ending. I finally gave Conspiracies a half-hearted thumb up mainly because of the tremendous effort, honest striving and plain old chutzpah the developers showed by even attempting something of this scope.
There are a lot of gamers who will want to play this game and a lot who will enjoy it more than I did. Others will come away immensely frustrated. Still, Anestis Kokkindis, the driving force behind Conspiracies, got a lot of things right. He obviously knows adventure games and just as obviously was working with limited resources. If he takes what he has done with Conspiracies, comes up with a more original premise, works on making his puzzles more intuitive and user-friendly and the interface a little more transparent, gets the graphics into the Twenty-First Century, I think he is going to make a great game someday. Conspiracies, unfortunately, is not that game, but it's a pretty good start.
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