Pompeii: The Legend of Vesuvius / Timescape: Journey to Pompeii

Developer:  Arxel Tribe
Publisher:  Cryo Interactive Entertainment
Year Released:  2000

Review by Steve Ramsey (August, 2000)
Pompei (Pompeii) is an historical adventure from Cryo and Arxel Tribe, in the same vein as a number of other Cryo games, including Versailles 1685 and China; The Forbidden City. According to the Cryo website, it is also the first part of a trilogy, the plot of which is that you must save the personification of your missing fiance, Sophia, in three different time periods and places. The first of these is Pompeii.

A heavenly encounter
Your character in Pompeii (and presumably the other parts of the trilogy) is Adrian Blake, and the game commences in 1918, in a cave in France. You have returned to the cave one year after having seen a vision of the goddess Ishtar, who came to you whilst you were lost and sick in that same cave. She offered to cure you, in return for your love, but you love Sophia. Ishtar cursed you, condemning you to "wander the ages to regain that which was taken from you". The curse manifests itself on the day before your marriage to Sophia, when she mysteriously disappears. Remembering the words of Ishtar, you return to the cave, driven by the need to find Sophia, or perhaps driven by madness.

All this is revealed in a short scene immediately upon loading the game, by way of a narrative from Adrian, against a backdrop of visions of Ishtar and scenes from the game proper. At the completion of the narrative you find yourself lying in a garden dressed in Roman clothes, and you hear Ishtar's voice. She tells you that you are in Pompeii, and that Sophia lives there. You have 4 days to find Sophia, and to convince her to leave the town with you. On the fifth day, Vesuvius will erupt and will utterly destroy the town.

The game then commences, and consists of your quest to find Sophia, and to convince her to leave Pompeii prior to its destruction. You have an identity as a visitor from Marseilles who has befriended the son of a prominent Pompeii citizen, and it is his house that you are in. You very soon find yourself engaged in various discussions, which provide the opportunity to gather information about the city and its inhabitants, including Sophia. You also find yourself asked to perform various tasks, or solve problems, in return for which you learn more and move further along the path towards your ultimate goal.

In essence, the game play is essentially one of hunting and gathering. You ask questions, gather information, and collect various items and implements, which in turn are exchanged for more information or items, or are used to solve problems which in turn provide you with a way forward.

Time is of the essence
There are some puzzles to solve, but these are fairly mild in nature, and usually consist of using various inventory items in the right way to accomplish a task or resolve a dilemma for one or more of the citizens. They are more in the nature of social conundrums - there are no slider or music puzzles. Many of the tasks however are timed, and these are integrated into the situation confronting you. For example, if you do not work out how to stop an argument in time, it will develop into a fight which will result in you being arrested. This will mean you cannot get out of the city in time, and the game will end. Similarly, if you do not work out how to deal with a snake you have disturbed, it will bite you and cause your death, again ending the game. As you will often not be aware that a particular situation is going to lead to a timed requirement, it is a good idea to save often. The game interface makes this pain free, and there are plenty of save game slots.

You can also cause the game to end by giving the wrong answer to a particular question, but there are only a few occasions where this will occur. On the whole, the dialogue trees are fairly forgiving. You can extract almost all the information obtainable in a particular conversation whichever way you ask the offered questions. This can sometimes lead to disjointed answers, in that a question asked first will provide an answer that assumes some other question has already been asked. There will also be occasions where it is clear that there is a "right" answer to a question you have been asked, yet giving the wrong answer from the offered list simply means that you are offered the list again with one less possible answer available. There are certainly conversations where you will get less information depending upon the questions asked, but on most occasions simple garrulousness will mean that you wring every drop of meaningful information from every encounter with another character.

These mild puzzles and "open" interrogations will lead some players to dismiss the game as being lightweight and unchallenging. Played simply to get from beginning to end, it certainly does not offer a serious puzzle-fest. Nor is it terribly long if played that way - I played it through in no more than about 10-12 hours.

Relax and look around
However the game is clearly not meant to be played in that way. The strength of the game is in its historical perspective. It is a game in which you are meant to stop and look, not for the next clue but at the city itself. There is an extraordinary amount of visual detail in all of the scenes, and historical detail is not far away. Very early in the game you will find an amulet, and clicking on the amulet at any time will bring up an "encyclopedic" article about the building you are currently in, or the fresco you are examining, or even the social purpose of the graffiti you are reading. The article will in turn hot-link you to related information, and there are images of the real Pompeii available as well.

There are also photos and images of the excavated site and its artifacts linked to the information, and an examination of any of the photos will indicate just how truly the game has recreated the city that was Pompeii. Enter a tavern and examine a fresco and then click on the amulet. The information will include a photo of the "real" tavern and the fresco. The detail in the photo is all present in the game - the tavern you are in is clearly the tavern in the photo. The rest of the game environment is the same, from the smallest detail to the layout of the city. You are not just exploring a simulation named Pompeii, you exploring Pompeii itself.

You can spend as long or as little time as you like examining this historical information. Whilst some of the game tasks are timed, the 4 days you have in which to find Sophia are not themselves timed. The days play like chapters, and time does not move on until you finish the chapter.

The historical information is not altogether just a fascinating sideline. Whilst the game could be completed without ever accessing the amulet, more than once the information gave me clues that assisted the tasks at hand, including knowing that a building had two exits or learning the rules of a game of chance.

Graphics ... the good and the not so good
The game is visually stunning, which is not surprising given its pedigree. What is at first surprising given that same pedigree is that there is no lip movement on any of the characters in the game when they are speaking. Nor are any of the characters terribly animated when they are speaking with you. It would be unfair to label them as statues, but whilst I stopped noticing the lack of lip movement after a while, the stillness of the characters when engaged in conversation was something I always noticed.

The cut-scenes are however far more active, and there is a nice use of first and third person perspective. Your game is predominantly played from a first person perspective, but when engaged in conversation you often see an image of yourself, and will sometimes view the conversation from several angles.

You have full 360 degree rotation when you are exploring the city and its buildings, as well as up and down panning. You explore the city at street level, so you have to learn your way around. This is aided by being able to access a map which will show your current location as well as the location of other relevant buildings and city landmarks. Not all parts of the map are accessible, and some parts only become accessible as you progress in the game.

Subtitles and sound
Subtitles are available whenever there is dialogue, and these can be easily turned on and off at any stage. Whilst I usually play games with the subtitles turned off, I found it helpful to have them turned on, as objects and places are described using their "Roman" words, and for which there is no "English" translation. Having the subtitles on made accessing information about those places and objects that much easier.

The soundtrack is also impressive, with almost every location, including the street, having its own piece of background music. Very few places are silent, and the music is mainly quiet and lilting. It does its part in encouraging you to stay a while, and only rarely does it stir you to frenetic activity.

The game is on two CDs and installed easily from CD 1. Only the initial narrative and the final eruption are on CD1, so once you have commenced playing, only the second CD is needed. Nor do you need the first CD to get the game going again - the desktop icon will take you straight to the menu from which you can load a saved game, so disc swapping is non-existent. Except of course for the final eruption, which should not be missed.

Finally, the menu allows you to access the encyclopedia, so you do not have to go through the amulet, and it also allows you to "visit" the city. In this mode, you can simply wander around without any of the "pressures" of game play. You do not have to have completed the game to be able to visit the city. There are no characters other than yourself, and you can access all the locations that you are able to access at any stage of the game. Disappointingly, you cannot access any location you couldn't go in the game. There were plenty of temples and parts of the city which I would have liked to explore.

Pompeii is a game to be lingered over. It is not a game to be played simply to find Sophia and escape. To get everything out of it, you need to stop and look and - dare I say it - perhaps even learn. An interest in history and this period in particular would be a bonus. As such, it won't be for everyone, and if you are looking for the next Faust you won't find it here. However if you hanker to experience a bygone age, and solve a few puzzles whilst you are at it, you will be well rewarded. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2000. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
Pentium 200MMX or higher, 32 MB RAM, 12x CD ROM (24 recommended) 290MB disc space, 16 bit colour graphic card (24 bit recommended) 2MB video memory, Soundblaster compatible sound card, Direct X 6 or higher.
MAC: Power PC 200 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, 8x CD ROM, thousand colours screen 640x480, System 7.5 or higher, Sound Manager 3 or higher.