Before starting this review I have to confess that I haven't read a single Rama novel so I can't make any judgment as to how this game 'shapes up' against the written word. I can, however, say with complete confidence, that you don't need to have read any of the novels to get maximum enjoyment.
Just in case you are in the same boat as me and don't know much about this saga, the basic story revolves around a huge cylindrical object (named Rama by Earth scientists) that suddenly appeared in our solar system. A team of scientists, engineers and media personnel are sent to investigate and their mission is to answer the big questions: Who built Rama, and why? What's it doing here? Where did it come from and where is it going?
In this first person perspective adventure you join the team aboard Rama as a replacement for one of the original crew who "mysteriously" died, though, as far as I could tell this merely seemed to be a plot device to get you aboard after the others as there is no investigation of the mysterious death. Once your shuttle docks inside Rama and you have viewed the messages sent to you by some of the other crew members you are pretty much left to your own devices and are able to explore at will.
Occasionally you will bump into the other characters in brief video sequences and they will talk to you, but these interludes are short and merely serve to move the story along and give you an insight into the personalities, politics and philosophies of your fellow travellers in space. You take no part in the conversations. As for the story itself, it develops slowly in the background and I won't discuss it here as it is better to experience it for yourself. Basically, as one of the crew your mission is to explore and learn, so you will need to investigate the Raman creation in minute detail, examine everything and piece together whatever clues you may find.
Now, Rama is no mere 'spaceship', it's a monster mechanical world with city-size structures dotted around an artificial landscape complete with alien life forms. It would probably make the USS Enterprise look like a flea in comparison. Alien spacecraft are fascinating, of course, so there is a good deal to explore and an equally fascinating collection of alien artefacts to examine. To help you along the way, Wakefield, one of your fellow astronauts, gives you a tiny robot character named Puck (Wakefield's a literary type and is into Shakespeare). Puck lives in your inventory and is able to give you information about the alien structures and devices you encounter. You should remember to use him at every opportunity as his observations can be very useful and may assist you in understanding what it is you are seeing. He more or less acts as a super astute 'eye' icon.
In this sense, Puck is the only 'action icon' in the game as there is no bank of icons for any other actions such as 'use' or 'pick up'. To pick up or use items the cursor changes shape into a hand and for movement it turns into an arrow. This system works amazingly well, though I usually prefer to make my own choices from a selection of action icons.
The action window in Rama takes up about two thirds of the screen with one icon above to access the usual game controls such as save, load, sound and colour adjustment, etc. Below the action window is a small direction indicator together with a scrolling inventory and three "Raman" eyes that enable you to look at an item more closely. There are many, many fascinating items to collect (including heaps of red herrings) so the inventory eventually gets very cluttered. I didn't mind this in the least as you can organise it to find things easily, and having so many items adds complexity to the game, though I know some of you may disagree about this.
Your wrist computer is your communicator, though you can only receive messages not send them. It also doubles as a mapping device that you may find useful, especially in the second half of the game.
The game is divided into two parts, each contained on a single CD (1 and 2) so there is no problem with disk swapping. The third CD does not contain any gameplay but has a prologue and interviews with Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee as well as "in character" interviews with some of your fellow crew members.
Much of the gameplay in the first part revolves around finding the "keys" to open up new locations. These keys comprise patterned tiles that fit into a grid in a specific sequence, though there are many other devices to manipulate and in-context logic puzzles to solve. I thought this was the easier section, although one location does present a series of numerical or mathematical type problems which I know have caused some players headaches.
As the manual stipulates, you don't need to be a mathematician to solve these numerical puzzles. I have no background in mathematics apart from simple arithmetic and, after the initial shock, I didn't find them too problematic. If you are one of those people who freaks out at the mere thought of mathematics then my advice is to treat these problems not as mathematics but simply as 'logic puzzles'. (Is that a tautology?) The puzzles themselves are demonstrated, so try not to panic, take a deep breath and follow the examples.
The second part of Rama, inside the area known as "New York", I really enjoyed. Here there are also a lot of 'doors' to open, but it's not just a matter of finding a key nearby. There are many locations to search, things to find and puzzles to complete as you learn more about the alien life forms that inhabit this strange craft. Many of the problems involve variations on the numerical codes and building on your knowledge of the number systems you learned earlier, whilst for others you must simply observe and learn.
Rama has some similarities to Lighthouse in that you are exploring an alien environment and in many ways the puzzles are even more abstract, but I enjoyed them much more. Puck is a great help here as he helps you to make sense out of many of the devices you find. I thought the game was excellent, though I know it isn't for everyone. Some of the puzzles are quite tricky and it does involve very careful observation to operate many of the weird devices, so I wouldn't recommend it for novice players. Also the video sequences don't have text translations so those of you with hearing difficulties will surely be infuriated. You'll have to stick to the books, I'm afraid.
My major complaint is the race against time at the end. This 'feature' didn't add to the game for me, quite the reverse. When will game writers realise that adventure game players like to explore and think about problems without the hassle of racing against the clock?
It's difficult to explain, but for me Rama had some of the 'feel' of the old text adventures. And that's a compliment. It seemed to provide the same sense of achievement each time I opened a door and gained access to a new location. Also, with text descriptions my imagination can paint the most vivid canvass, in Rama it seemed to work in reverse. I could imagine it in text "... this is a massive hall. In the middle is a creature with multiple appendages and in front of it is a small multi-coloured tower and a transparent display device. The device is now showing seven red dots ..."
Rama is eminently suitable for fans of intelligent science fiction, but many adventurers will find much to enjoy. As you are not identified you can play it as yourself (male or female) and really immerse yourself in the story. It doesn't answer the 'big' questions posed at the beginning, I think we'll have to wait for Rama II or maybe even Rama III for that, and I hope the wait isn't too long. I have my own theory, but I'm interested to know exactly what is happening ... and what did happen to my predecessor...?
Copyright © Rosemary Young 1996.
All rights reserved.
DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1. Windows '95 recommended. IBM/100% compatible 486 33Mhz and up. 8MB of RAM. 2x CD-ROM drive. VGA, SVGA 256 color display with 640x480 resolution. 64K (16-bit) color display recommended. Windows compatible sound card (SoundBlaster, ProAudio Spectrum, etc.). Mouse. Published in the following languages -- English, German, French and Italian. It is also available for the Mac.