The Space Bar
When I heard that Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, etc.) was involved with the making of The Space Bar I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Wait I did, however, as this game has only recently been released here in Australia, hence this review is not as timely as it might have been. But, still, the wait was worth it.
The Space Bar in question is not a warm, cosy, friendly watering-hole like Callahan's, but a seedy spaceport transit lounge called The Thirsty Tentacle on the aptly-named planet of Armpit VI. This is a company-controlled mining planet and you are Alias Node, a company cop and, being the only human around, you are strangely alien to the other life-forms that you meet. Worse still, they think you look like Jerry Lewis, but then, all humans look alike, don't they? And, what would a Zzazzl know? Or a Neblitzi who lives in a mayonnaise jar, or a Vedj, for that matter? Well, this game gives you the chance to find out exactly what these and other life-forms know as, at some stage, you will experience the last few 'time-periods' of eight quirky characters in their own environments.
In this first-person perspective adventure (we never do get to see if you really look like Jerry Lewis) you are investigating the theft of company secrets and the murder of one of your colleagues who, with her dramatic, dying breath, points you in the direction of The Thirsty Tentacle. As the introduction ends and you take control of the game your multi-appendaged partner, Maksh, enters the bar first and tells you to wait outside. Of course, if you heed Maksh's instructions you won't get anywhere, so you must follow him to find out what is going on. And finding out isn't easy, believe me.
Soon after entering you learn that Maksh has been captured by the criminal and is being held hostage, so now you are on your own. In the bar you will meet lots of characters to engage in conversation, so pick out a likely looking suspect and talk to him or her or it. As a company cop you have been trained to use 'Empathy Telepathy' so after talking for a while you may trigger a flashback where you re-live that character's recent memory. Usefully, this involves the sequence of events that lead up to the character arriving at the Space Bar and takes place on their home world. These flashbacks are actually mini-adventures where you 'become' the character and see things from their perspective. Each story is self-contained and you must solve the puzzles and overcome the obstacles that each character faced, as you learn of their motives for travelling to the Space Bar.
For example, as a Vedj called Seedrot, you are a young, sentient plant-form who is not allowed to leave home and join the 'rebels' until you have dropped your first fruit. Or, as Fleebix, a Neblitzi, you share a rather frustrating symbiotic (or possibly, parasitic) relationship with a Salivraster called Thud. Living in a jar of dirty water you have to get Thud to do everything for you. Now Thud, like the rest of his species, is a little on the slow side, but ever anxious to please. Hey, I liked Thud, and I've met a few Salivrasters in my time. For a while there I even thought I might be related to them as it took me ages to work out how to get on a bus.
And there were a few other problems that occupied some considerable time too, though nothing is insurmountable if you stay alert. I particularly enjoyed the Auditon vine maze and, even though it didn't tempt me to change occupations, the wheeling and dealing for the sale of a planet kept me busy for ages.
As each flashback segment is completed you are rewarded with a piece of information that will ultimately assist you to track down the criminal in the bar. Remember, that's what you came here to do. Remember, too, to save your game regularly as it is easy to be thrown out of a flashback and this will enable you to avoid repeating huge chunks of play.
There are a few things about The Space Bar that I didn't like so I'll run through them here. Firstly, you must catch the criminal by a particular time and just about everything you do in the bar moves time along. I always feel pressured by time constraints and this is enough to spoil my complete enjoyment of any adventure game so that's exactly what happened with Space Bar. Fortunately, with one exception, time isn't really a factor while you are in a flashback so the pressure is not constant. All the time I was in the bar, though, I was forever saving and restoring trying to do things in the fewest possible moves, petrified that I would run out of time at the end. This tended to break up the play and is definitely not conducive to relaxed exploration and puzzle solving.
The game also lacks a text option which, given Steve Meretzky's text adventure pedigree, is unforgivable, and not only for hearing-impaired players. I, too, had difficulty understanding what was said at times and particularly when conversations were competing with sound-effects. As well as text captions a separate control for voices and sound-effects would have helped out here. Finally, there was an awful lot of disk swapping even after I copied more than 600MB to my hard drive, although I did learn to cope with this quite effectively after some initial frustration.
Despite these criticisms I still enjoyed the game. The interface is easy to use and when you click on an object or character a menu of options pops up which allows you to perform a variety of actions depending on the context. This gives much more control than the standard 'look', 'use' and 'talk' that we have become used to and allows for a greater complexity in the puzzles. Talk to a character here and you can 'greet', 'ask about', 'order to' or simply 'chat'. Allied to this is your Personal Digital Assistant which enables you to access a map of your location, your inventory, your log for information and your system menu for saving, restoring and changing settings, etc.
The Space Bar is one of the most challenging graphic adventure games I have played in a long while with some quite complex and absorbing puzzles. However, not all of the game is fiendishly difficult and there is plenty to do to keep you moving, as long as you pick up the clues and anything else that isn't nailed down. Adventurer's weaned on text games will find much to delight them here and so will any player who is looking for variety, humour and the occasional brick wall to hit their head against. This one will test you.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1997.
All rights reserved.
Pentium 75, Windows 95, 16MB RAM, 16-Bit SVGA (640x480) 4XCD ROM, 50 MB Hard drive space, 8-Bit Windows 95 DirectX compatible sound card, mouse.