Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Exile - Journey Through Darkness

I acquired a new cell phone last summer and haven't really done much with it gaming-wise -- while I appreciate the wide range of games available, phones aren't really designed for playing games.  The buttons are small and aren't configured for the purpose, and although displays have come a long way, it's still a very small screen.

But I had a little time to kill a few weeks back, and cellphone games are relatively inexpensive, so I purchased and downloaded Exile: Journey Through Darkness, an adventure game developed by Longtail Studios.  It's presented in an isometric perspective, with closeup character portraits during dialogue, and is constructed out of small rooms with limited exits and objects in each.  The story has to do with a man who washes up on shore and must try to find his lost daughter in a land where dark politics hold sway... which makes the game sound much more interesting than it actually is.

Now, my first mistake was browsing for a new game using the phone itself.  There are no screenshots or other details hidden behind the little (i) information icon, just a brief text description written for marketing purposes.  If I had planned my purchase and done a little research ahead of time, I might have been able to find something worthwhile.  But when you're buying in impulse, you spends your money and takes your chances, as they say.  And so it was that I found myself $5.99 poorer, and not particularly entertained.

It's not that Exile: Journey Through Darkness is a very bad game.  But it's not a very good one either.

I have myself to blame, of course, for hoping I was purchasing a sequel to, or even a remake of, the Exile videogame console RPGs of the early 1990's.  But Exile is not a trademarked name, it transpires, and if deception was the publisher's intent, I fell for the ruse.  All's fair in love and marketing.

What really bugs me about Exile is that it's so elementary that it comes off as condescending.  I've played a lot of adventure games, and this one is so linear it's not the least bit fun.  Most games allow the player to collect all the random items encountered, secure in the knowledge that many of the objects will prove useful eventually.  Exile's odd design only allows the player to inspect each item -- if the item is KNOWN to be useful for a puzzle already discovered, the game will transfer the item to inventory.  But if the specific situation hasn't arisen yet, there's a bit of description given, but the object stays in situ.  I was really annoyed when I found a board with nails in it; the description even says that someone swinging it around could do a lot of damage.  Being stuck in a strange land with no weapons or other means of defense, it seemed a very useful thing to take along.  But the game will not do so until our hero talks to someone else a few screens away, who mentions that a weapon might be needed.

This sort of scripted ignorance constantly gets in the way of anything spontaneous, or interesting, actually happening.  Want to identify the names on some gravestones?  Not until someone tells you you need to do that.  And not until you've looked again at the gravestones and been told that some sort of rubbing would be a useful technique.  And not until looking at the campsite again, and THIS time being allowed to take some ashes along.  And finally revisiting the gravestones, where the rubbing takes place automatically without so much as a verb being invoked.

The designers try to liven things up with a conversation mechanism for negotiating with other characters in the game.  One can Lie, Plead, Threaten, or Deal during each round of conversation, with each player's willpower gauge being whittled down by the interactions.  But the execution doesn't live up to the concept -- it's basically a game of rock-paper-scissors, with no way to tell what the other player's intent is, and no real way to influence the course of the conversation.  A solid dialogue system could have made the rest of the gameplay bearable, but the approach here is based completely on luck, and while the conversations vary a little bit based on the negotiation process, the player never really feels in control.

I'm not covering this one as an Adventure of the Week, because I really don't think I can bring myself to finish it, or to take the trouble to capture screenshots from my phone.  Exile: Journey Through Darkness is dark, yes; and it's a journey, all right.  It just isn't worth the trip.

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