Cydonia: Mars: The First Manned Mission / Lightbringer

Developer:  Aneiva
Publisher:  DreamCatcher Interactive
Year Released:  1998

Review by Gordon Aplin (October, 1998)

cydonia.jpgMars has long held a fascination for many people. Named, in Western culture, after the Roman God of War it has provided the inspiration for music, books, films and computer games. Not that long ago some people believed there were canals on Mars, conjuring up visions of advanced civilisations creating oases in the desert - an early type of terra-forming. Advances in our knowledge and understanding of the Red Planet have effectively destroyed this myth, yet the fascination continues and more recently some claim that evidence of an ancient civilisation can be seen in photographs suggesting a gigantic face and a pyramid in the Martian region known as Cydonia Mensae.

Exploring the future
It is this premise that provides the background for Cydonia. The introduction paints a bleak, not-so-distant, future for the Earth where most of the remnants of humanity live aboard orbiting spaceships. Having polluted our own world a new home must be found where, hopefully, we won't make the same mistakes. As part of a three-member crew you are sent to investigate the Cydonia Mensae region to assess the suitability of terra-forming Mars and making it habitable for humans. However, disaster strikes as your landing craft is about to touch down when it falls foul of a previously undetected force field. You are unhurt, but your two companions need help. Oh, and the landing craft is about to explode.

Your problems begin
Here, at the very outset, you will encounter the only timed sequence of the game. Maybe a bit cruel considering this is the time when you are coming to grips with the interface. But don't panic, there is time, and even if you fail in your appointed tasks there's not a lot of gameplay to repeat to get started. I must admit I fiddled around at first exploring the craft and experimenting with the interface so I did witness the result of my failure on one occasion.

However, the real game begins once you start exploring the Martian landscape. Your objective is to find a way to turn off the force field so that you can leave the planet, but first you will need to learn a little about the civilisation that left it behind.

Cydonia is a first-person perspective game with third-person cut sequences. Your character is not named and the space suit you wear is suitably androgynous so you can simply play as yourself. Conversation doesn't play a large part though you can talk to three other characters; two aliens and your Mission Commander. Your voice is not heard and text is provided on-screen for your questions and the replies of the aliens, but not for the Commander's conversation. However, you can view the text of the conversations you have had in your suit computer's 'Recorded Dialog' database. Voice-overs in the introduction and end sequences are not displayed as on-screen text and there is a further challenge for hearing-impaired players when the dreaded, tonal puzzle impedes progress.

Looking around
The game provides 360 degree panning and you can look up and down in most places, though movement is restricted to just a few positions in any location. The cursor undulates when you can move to a new spot and transition sequences cut in to transport you there. These transitions are exceptionally well done and convey a sense of the immense distances you travel on the Martian surface or the sheer size of the underground locations. However, as good as they are, I suspect that many adventure gamers will watch a couple and then simply click through them to speed up gameplay and get down to the real stuff of exploration and puzzle solving.

Although you do have an inventory and you can collect items at various times Cydonia is not wholly an inventory-based adventure game, nor is it a purely abstract logic puzzle game. Most of the puzzles are fairly well integrated and have some sort of context that aids in the solution, but later in the game you must travel in time and space where, for me at least, the context for the puzzles was less obvious. Perhaps this was intentional. Or perhaps I missed the vital clues. Fortunately, it is possible to get an in-game hint at each puzzle to nudge you in the right direction, but I would have preferred to solve them solely by seeking clues in the game world.

This aside, most of the puzzles are interesting and aren't too difficult to solve if you are observant and willing to experiment a little. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed learning to use the aUI Space Language and I spent a lot of time deciphering all the enigmatic symbols I could find, though this wasn't completely necessary to finish the game. Because I enjoyed this so much it was quite a disappointment that I didn't have to put my newly acquired language skills to the test more often. More encrypted language to decipher would have added depth to the game and this device could have been used to make the whole experience more immersive. However, despite its limited use, you will find the aUI feature in your suit computer and it is worthwhile having a play with it, indeed, it is absolutely necessary that you do so or you won't understand much of what is going on and you won't be able to solve some puzzles.

Game controls
The game takes up five CDs so be prepared for a lot of disk swapping, though I believe a DVD version is planned for release shortly which should eliminate this for those of you lucky enough to have a DVD player. Plenty of save game slots are provided and the point and click interface is easy to use with the cursor changing shape to the relevant option when you move it over the screen. A click of the right mouse button brings up your inventory and from there you need only double click on an item to select it for use.

Graphically Cydonia is very impressive and the music and sound effects add to the ambience though at times the third-person cut sequences tended to work against that 'being there' feeling during the exploration of new locations. For my part I would have preferred more puzzles and fewer cut sequences to heighten my involvement in the game.

As noted above, I thought more could have been made of the aUI Space Language feature to add further complexity to some of the puzzles and, maybe, even provide some more information on the society, culture and motivations of the long-departed Martians who left behind a massive, carved face staring forever skyward. Still, I can live with the mystery for now in the hope that one day there will be a sequel which may reveal more. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1998. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
Windows 98/95, Pentium 166, 16 MBytes RAM, 8X CD-ROM drive.