Xiama is described by its maker, Peter Hewitt, as a labour of love involving 2000 cups of coffee and a years work. It also involves over 100 still photographs of the Australian bush, specifically a place called Alligator Creek Falls.
The game cover exhorts you to "puzzle your way through the Australian rainforest", and that is a good description of what this game involves. I have always found it difficult to know where to draw the line between an adventure game and a puzzle game, but there is no doubt that Xiama is the latter. It is a 2D first-person perspective game, and the photos provide the forest through which you trek. The sounds of the bush are present, in birds calls, animal noises, flowing rivers, and even the occasional crackling campfire.
However all of this is essentially the backdrop to a collection of 24 puzzles that you will come across as you go. The sights and sounds of the Australian bush are unquestionably a wonderful setting for a puzzle romp, but there is no doubting that this game is about doing (and finding) the puzzles.
Some of the puzzles do involve the bush setting. For example, in one you must identify bird calls, in another you have to re-assemble the scene you "broke" when you stumbled into it. Other puzzles have an Australian flavour - Waltzing Matilda is featured, and a game of concentration uses Australian birds and animals. Many puzzles though have nothing whatsoever to do with the bush. It just happens to be where you find them.
Amongst these were my favourites, the "turtle" puzzles (pictured right). There are three of these, and once I worked out what I was doing (via a trip to Peter's website I must confess), I couldn't wait to find the next one.
Nearly all the puzzles are self contained, and you can do them as you find them. You can leave one and come back, but you can't save a game in mid-puzzle, so there is no sneaking up on a solution. Be warned though, some puzzles will be different if you come back to them - different shaped pieces, different starting positions and so on. A few puzzles have to be completed before others, so there will be little bit of backtracking amongst the scavenging. Also, to get the 24th puzzle, you must complete the other 23. Do all 24 and you get a short story.
The puzzles range from easy to extremely difficult, which was apparently deliberate in order to make Xiama accessible to as many people as possible. Some of the puzzles are variants on old favourites, but many I had not encountered elsewhere. A component of many of the puzzles is in fact working out what to do. Even the name" Xiama" is a puzzle. As is common in such games, some I liked more than others, but only one did I find annoying.
As you complete a puzzle, you obtain a score in your play book. You also get a little note from Peter, providing a snippet of background information or encouragement. You can save after completing a puzzle, and your high scores for each will be retained. Some puzzles have a flat score for finishing them, others give you more points depending upon how well you did. One even offers more points if you can find the alternative solution. Given that some puzzles change, and others are simply about getting the most points, you can always come back and try to beat your current best score. There are also eight different "play books" available, so you can beat your family and friends as well.
The game loaded easily, and can in fact be played directly from the CD. Navigation through the bush is simple; click on a set of directional arrows that appear at the bottom right of each screen in order to decide which way to go. You may get lost more than once as you try to find all the puzzles, but it won't be for long, and the bush that has been created is not a terrible place to be lost for a while.
I did think the game could have provided a bit more information prior to getting started. Most gamers will work it out, but I would suggest reading the FAQ on the CD before starting, and then reading the note in the first scene and then the play book (by hitting the tab button) as soon as you start. From that point on it is fairly simple - other than for the puzzles of course.
There was also the one bug that I encountered where you got thrown back to the desk top if you don't complete the concentration puzzle in the allowed number of attempts, but that one is apparently being worked on as I write. It only happens once, so on the second attempt if you still haven't solved the puzzle it will not recur. It is therefore not fatal to continuing or completing the game.
If you get stuck with the puzzles, there are hints on the Xiama website. The website will also tell you that one puzzle has two solutions not recognised by the game - clever players worked these out afterwards. Peter (and his helpers) are also very prompt at providing information, hints and even full solutions via e-mail, and I have seen them post to at least one internet game board where this game is being played and discussed.
This is not an adventure game. There is no inventory, nothing to collect and no unfolding story. If you want all that, you will have to play something else. If however you want a collection of challenging and interesting puzzles, hidden in a unique setting, then you should enjoy this.
You can only purchase the game through the Xiama website.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2000.
All rights reserved.
Win 95/98/00 Direct X 6 or above, CD ROM.