Schizm: Mysterious Journey (First Impressions)

Developer:  LK Avalon
Publisher:  Project 3 Interactive
Year Released:  2001

Review by Steve Ramsey (November, 2001)
(A Work in Progress)
SchizmAt the time of writing I have not finished this game. Yet I felt compelled to write this first instalment without waiting.

This is one hell of a game, literally and figuratively.

It was a long time coming. I had been reading about it and waiting for it for what seemed like years. The anticipation quotient was therefore set to high, which can be a bad thing. High expectations can unfairly result in reduced impressions.

Then I saw the box. The expectation quotient went off the scale. Even if I had known nothing about the game, from the packaging this had to be Riven-like. If it wasn't, it was in trouble.

I still had to get it running. Some of the message boards suggested some problems, so I was now in a very agitated state. It had finally arrived, it looked and smelt like Riven, and yet I almost feared putting it in the disk-drive.

But a friend was waiting to play along by e-mail so I couldn't dither. Twenty five minutes later I landed without a hitch on Argilus, had my eyes seared by the orange and purple sky, my ears bathed by a wash of haunting music, and the agitation levels plummeted into the soothing sea as sharply as the imposing structures reared above me.

Sight and sound
I have not seen a game where the palette of colours is as large, or as vibrant and vivid, as it is here. Yet the colours look not only right, but real in the surreal settings in which they are used. A sky created from a loud fusion of orange and purple and pink, dotted with blazing white stars and smudged with cloud, would look wrong above most settings, but looks absolutely perfect draped over the metal(?) and gossamer world where Hannah sets down.

Fittingly, the ears are rewarded almost as richly as the eyes. Ambient sound affects are clear and crisp, and are spatially accurate - I use headphones to play, and as I turned, I could hear a horn off to my left "move" into both ears and then to my right once I was facing the other direction. The music tracks are many and varied, and perfectly complement the mood of the place.

SchizmWhat is that place? Argilus is a restricted planet, restricted because upon first contact by humans it was abandoned, seemingly only recently. This is all the more mysterious because of the obviously advanced Argilus technology. Scientific teams were dispatched and 4 months later, the supply ship Angel, crewed by Sam Mainey and Hannah Grant, cannot make contact. Intending to inform Earth, their systems fail, and they are forced to abandon ship and land separately on Argilus. You play both Sam and Hannah, being able to switch between the two, as they try to unravel the mystery that is Argilus. You start just after they have both landed.

Go large
I mentioned before that it took 25 minutes from inserting the CD to planet fall. That was because I chose the full install option, which requires just over 3GB of disc space. I have no idea how game play compares to a lesser install, but I have not encountered a single stutter or a pause as a result of a CD read, and movement from place to place is uninterruptedly fluid. As far as I can tell the game never accesses the CD. There is also no need to ever swap CDs (the game comes on 5), a reason in itself to install fully if you have the space.

The game uses a first person perspective, with point and click and 360 degree panning. You can occasionally look up and/or down. Your view stays centred, and you "drag" the scene around you by holding the mouse. I initially wanted a slower pan speed, but got used to it fairly quickly.

You can adjust the sound of the music and ambient sounds separately, and can turn subtitles on and off at will. The subtitles however do not extend to the sound puzzles. You can save wherever you want, although the game will remember where you are up to and you can return to that point by selecting continue on the start menu next time you play.

You have an inventory, and the cursor will tell you when you have to use an item. If you have the necessary one, it will light up, so inventory use is not a big factor, at least as far as being difficult is concerned. And certainly not compared to the puzzles.

Heaven or hell?
I doubt I have ever encountered more difficult puzzles, and certainly never in the same game. Some of them are indeed hellish. Are they too difficult? Rosemary would say there is no such thing, and she is probably right, difficulty being a very personal thing. Let's just say that of those I have encountered so far, some have been too difficult for me, at least without a nudge (or at times a shove).

SchizmBut they are of a kind that has made me want to keep trying. All have been logical, and as such, I am always certain that if I pick at them a bit more, or go away and come back later, or try something else, that I will find the key - or at least a piece that will advance the cause. Some have required finding and then interpreting the right item, so many times I have back-tracked to make sure I hadn't missed something, or have continued in my exploration to see whether in parts yet discovered a piece of information will be revealed. At times, I have been rewarded with just such a piece; at times, that same piece has proved just as baffling.

On occasion, I felt that the difficulty of the puzzle was increased by the intricacies of the machinery that I was trying to operate. An instruction manual might have made the logic of the puzzle more apparent. Yet determining what the machines do, and how they work, is a puzzle in itself. The world is alien, so the machinery is unlikely to be familiar.

Even where I resorted to some help, I was pleased with what I had accomplished. One puzzle, I confess, I would never have worked out, yet I had the components and was on the right track. The right formula is what had eluded me. Having obtained the formula, I completed it from the parts I had. I didn't kick myself for having missed the obvious. I was beaten by a better puzzle. What's more, I understood where the answer had come from. I felt good.

Not every puzzle is mind-wrenching, at least not so far. All, though, require thought, and observation, and attendance to detail. You will need to take notes, and draw pictures, and go back over what you have done. You will also need to listen.

I know that some people find this game too hard. It is certainly a challenge. I find it engrossing, all the more so because of the settings. If it were a drab and boring place, then maybe the puzzles would wear me down quicker. Conversely, if the puzzles were easier, the wonder of Argilus - its machines, its vehicles (you will go on some breathtaking rides), its general strangeness - could perhaps be so much less. Neither has been compromised.

They say that the test of a good bottle of wine is that you enjoyed the last glass as much as the first. I will eventually let you know how that last glass tasted.

Continued ... Part 2

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2001. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98/ME/2000, PII 333 Mhz, (PIII 667 Mhz recommended) 32MB RAM (64MB recommended) 300MB free Hard Disk space. DirectX compatible Video card (8MB recommended) DirectX compatible Sound card, 12x CD ROM (24x recommended)