Koei's first venture into graphic adventures is a beautiful game in which players take on the role of an American reporter searching for a missing professor who was kidnapped right on the brink of making a major discovery. In order to find the scholar, players must explore several exotic locales including Stonehenge and Easter Island. Clues are gained by interacting with characters, solving puzzles, and searching the surrounding area in standard point and click fashion.
The one thing that makes this game stand out from other adventures on the market is the background scenery, as all ingame locales have been modeled after their real life counterparts and are breathtakingly beautiful. Over one hundred locations can be explored in total, spanning eight levels which are divided into chapters of the overall story. Three hours worth of digitized speech helps enhance the game, bringing the inhabitants of the places players visit to life before their eyes.
In 300 BC Plato framed a cautionary tale about the downfall of a once-noble race by setting it in an imaginary land he called Atlantis. A proud, mighty people, the Atlanteans became so corrupt that the gods had no other choice but to send the whole mess to the bottom of the ocean. Things remained peacefully submerged until the 1870s, when Jules Verne's Captain Nemo rediscovered Atlantis in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Edgar Cayce checked in soon after, claiming that the Atlanteans had possessed atomic power and death rays. The rush was on. Plato's innocent lesson in civic manners somehow captured the imagination of a century of storytellers and hucksters. Atlantis has turned up in movies, books, theology and advertising. There are Atlantis Soaps, Atlantis Snowboards and Atlantis Diaper Stackers. Atlantis also happens to be a favorite setting in adventure games. It's the crescent wrench of adventure game settings, the place every other adventure game hero wants to find, where anything is possible and phantasmagoric undersea creatures drift through ruined buildings and nest in strange mechanisms whose functions are a mystery to us mere mortals. And by the way, what's that humming sound I hear? Is it Plato spinning in his grave or just my computer laboring to deliver the 800,000,000,000,009 Google hits on my "Atlantis Computer Game" search?
Ark of Time, developed by Trecision in 1997, is all about Atlantis. Or more accurately, the search for Atlantis. You play Richard Kendal, a sports reporter for a London newspaper. One day Richard gets called into the editor's office and handed an assignment to track down and locate Professor Caldwell, London's latest crackpot academician on the trail of the Lost City of Atlantis. Never mind that both the football-obsessed Kendal and the editor have heavy American accents - in fact don't mind the voice acting, period, but more about that in a minute. To be fair Kendal later admits to being American, but in the UK football is soccer and ... well ... it didn't seem very convincing. Kendal's boss gives him a plane ticket and a bottle of rum (?) and tells him to get down to Rum Cay Island in the Bermuda Triangle and find Professor Caldwell. The game is on.
The interface is straightforward. Point and click. Pick up items you find laying around, talk to everyone you meet, make your way from location to location. The hotspots are conveniently tagged with white text that appears when you run the cursor over them. The save slots are limited to twelve, though it never felt restricting. You can't die and there are no action scenes requiring jumping, shooting or fighting. You can left-click through the dialogue and after the first few listens-through your index finger will be itching, not because the dialogue is long but because it is so awkwardly delivered, especially the main character's.
Richard Kendal is the sort of hero who taps life on the shoulder and clears his throat. Here's what I mean. Mismatch inventory items, and Richard will mourn that he "can't do anything right." Try again and he wonders out loud if "he's the right man for the job." Again. He's "wasting his time." Or "it's a useless attempt." All of these lines are delivered in an adenoidal, whining tone that grated on my nerves. And it's not just the character's tone. It's the execution. I had the text option on throughout the game, and time and time again the pauses in Kendal's voice dialogue coincided perfectly with the slugs of text appearing on the screen, leaving me to conclude that the actor was reading his lines directly off the monitor. Add to that the odd stresses on random words and the off-kilter translation from Italian to English, and you better start finding ways to appreciate the overall weirdness or you will not like this game. In the end I decided to decide that the voice acting was "whimsical." Once I had rearranged my thinking in that regard things smoothed out.
The graphics are well done though obviously dated. The colors are like cake icing, sweet and sometimes cloying. There's a dreamy quality too, all held together with a smooth airbrushed feel. The characters resemble volumetric shapes, filled with air. Body parts hinge in the oddest places and the characters all move as if they are underwater, but this isn't as distracting as it might seem. The sound effects are great, adding a much-needed extra layer to the game. I especially appreciated the way the audio track was used to introduce a scene, fading in a beat or two before the graphics. It wasn't long before I could identify a location by the audio cues even before it appeared on the screen. This made the game more fun.
The game world opens up slowly, and early on some of the verbal triggers required to bring up a new location pass by so quickly you don't notice them. It's only by checking your map that you will find a new area is available for exploration. And once you arrive, there often isn't a lot to do. Much of the gameplay entails returning to other locations and checking and rechecking that you have picked up everything and done everything and talked to everyone.
The puzzles are of medium to hard difficulty. In retrospect I realized that there were a lot of verbal clues that I missed the first time around. Several times I thought I had done everything possible only to be told that I hadn't. So back to all the locations I went - back to the inventory, back to the desert and the island and the English countryside, and back to poor Richard's ceaseless whining. I was especially frustrated trying to prove a hapless desert prince innocent of murder so his jailers would free him, so he would give me the magic words that would open a critical location.
This game can be hard in places. In fact there's a mini walkthrough for the first few scenes in the manual to get you started. I managed to do without it, though I spent a lot of time trying everything with everything in the game world as well as in the inventory. Speaking of inventory, there's a right and wrong way to combine certain inventory items. Use A with B and nothing happens. Use B with A, however, and you have success. I was stumped a couple of times before I figured this little trick out. The puzzles are logical for the most part and in a few cases they are ingenious. There appeared to be a dead end at one point, though I didn't play on long enough to find out. Being the paranoiac I am, I backed up and restarted from a previous save. There's also a tricky part at the end involving drawers as a means to climb up to a pipe that seemed more an interface glitch than any operator error.
There's a sly humor running through Ark of Time. In a time capsule recording, one of the Atlanteans identifies himself as Bizze-R. Two mobbed-up bad guys banter hilariously in some of the most over-the-top voice acting of the game. A shaman dives into a lake and emerges with the sought-after sacred items and a rusted beer can. The magic words to open a locked door turn out to be taken directly from a bad Arabian Nights movie. Nothing overt or scene-stealing, but time and time again I found myself smiling at a remark or reaction.
Only the last fourth of the last act takes place in Atlantis and other than a few murky glimpses through portholes, you're restricted to a single area and a few rooms. With a few script changes this could have just as easily been a pyramid in Egypt, a deserted space station or a haunted house. There's no real reason you end up in Atlantis other than you do. The fun in this game is in the getting there. You visit the desert of Algiers, stare up at the giant heads on Easter Island, climb pyramids in the Yucatan, find secret pirate booty on Rum Cay Island, recharge your lithium crystals at Stonehenge, visit a ruined church in the English countryside, milk a cow. It's like a 40s sci-fi road movie where all of the actors are cast from the local asylum and the locations picked from a travel brochure. I was on the fence forever with this game, and in the end the quirky dialogue, nice art and the few bits of "sang-froid" surviving the translation from Italian to English all succeeded in nudging the rating up from a reluctant stinky egg to a hesitant thumb up.
I liked it. I would say play it. Just don't ask me what it all means.
People who downloaded Ark of Time have also downloaded:
Amazon: Guardians of Eden, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, Atlantis 2 (a.k.a. Beyond Atlantis), Alien Incident, Armaeth: The Lost Kingdom, Apprentice, Apprentice II: The Knight's Move, Beyond Time
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