metzomagic.com Review

Isabelle

Developer:  Le Poisson Volant
Publisher:  Belisa
Year Released:  1999

Review by Steve Ramsey (March, 2002)

"An irritating mother, a hypocritical girlfriend, a sadistic brother in law, brutal guards, a cop for a father in law: here are some of the people who live in the village of Crison".

If anyone tries to tell you there is nothing different in adventure games, refer them to this little number.

It's extraordinary, because it is so different. I suggest you throw away most of your orderly game playing rules before you start, and begin with a completely open mind.

It's a game that is difficult to describe. Its look is the first thing that you notice - marionette like figures in a landscape of coloured shapes. The world itself is divided into blocks or chunks. It's like a flat earth - everything stops at the edge of one segment, but if you follow a path to the edge and keep going, instead of falling off, the next segment will (usually) appear.

It's also a world of shades and shadows. Colours will change, night will fall, and certain locations utilise colour to evoke the sense of place. The searing whiteness inside the hospital stands out as one such example.

Who am I?
After a short introductory animation, you find yourself (?) lying on a bed, in a dark blue world punctuated by black shapes. A voice-over between a male and female talks about an accident, which left the speaker blind and someone called Paul in a coma. It's clear from the conversation that there is tension and disagreement about the accident.

Once you get the prone character off the bed, its clear that he is the speaker. He is blind, and shambles about, with his arms outstretched in front of him. He will trip and fall in his dark world, and he evokes sympathy and sadness. His name is George.

You will soon encounter Raymond, George's little brother. These are the two characters you control, and you can switch between the two at will. The co-operation between the two main characters in Schizm added an interesting dimension to that game, and the co-operation between George and Raymond in Isabelle is an important and integral element of this game.

Raymond is sighted, so it is mostly through him that you will explore the world, at least at first as you find your bearings. George is able to venture out into the world, but also has the capacity to be involved through a model of the world he has in his room. He can "enter" this model, and interact with things in the real world. He can assist Raymond by doing so, although George is never really present in the real world when he does so. Raymond certainly cannot see George in this state, even if they happen to be in the same "place". Yet George's actions can be present in the real world, and can effect what Raymond might be able to do.

George can in fact "fall off" the world, when he reaches the limit of his model. He can also only spend a limited time in the model world on each occasion he enters. The model also shows Raymond's location.

The other main character is Isabelle, the female voice you hear in the initial voice over. You will only rarely encounter Isabelle. She will have numerous conversations with George though, always as voice-overs, and it is through these that you will gain insights into the game world and formulate objectives. It is not giving too much away to say that it becomes apparent fairly early that George and Isabelle are talking about events that have already occurred, and that you are playing those events. That is, the game is played in retrospect, and you will be guided by the discussions and disagreements between Isabelle and George as to what happened and why.

I do not want to suggest that you simply do what is talked about - that this is some sort of colouring by numbers. On occasion you will receive some obvious guidance, but more often, the conversations will be short and fragmented, and more in the nature of feelings and musings than narrative. Think of two people talking about a movie they have seen, dissecting its nuances and debating the motives and merits of the characters and the plot. It's much like that. You have to interpret what is said, and put the pieces together to discern the plot beneath.

What are you talking about?
George and Raymond will have conversations with characters in the game world, but they will (largely) be in gibberish. A sense of the conversation will be conveyed by the actions of the characters. You will know whether they are angry, or happy, or just passing the time of day. The only intelligible conversations are the voice-overs. George will comment on some of the characters you meet, telling you snippets of their stories, or aspects of their lives, some more important than others. He (and others) will very occasionally swear.

The characters they meet will interact with George and Raymond also, sometimes in mean and spiteful ways. Raymond will be hit and knocked to the ground more than once, and George can be beaten, and dragged off to gaol. What you learn about the other characters from George and Isabelle can also be less than charitable.

These emotions and motives are in essence what the game is about. It has a big and more thoughtful agenda than many games, and deals with societal issues. Revealing too much of the sub-texts would spoil the overall experience. George is clearly involved in a struggle, one that he is not going to give up despite his condition, and the power of his efforts and what the game has to say about them is heightened by not really knowing what he is trying to do.

The game is played exclusively with the keyboard, except for choosing between Raymond and George, and selecting inventory items, for which you use the mouse. There are two action keys, which depending upon the circumstance will make George or Raymond act in a variety of ways - taunt, fight, sing, dance, hug etc. The emphasis on actions is all the more interesting, as actions and consequences are at the heart of the story.

What do I do?
You won't find hotspots to tell you some action is needed; in that respect you are on your own. There are a small number of inventory items, and if you are in the right spot, clicking on an item will cause the character to use it. There are a couple of variants of timed puzzles, and you have to win the odd fight. You also have to accomplish some tasks that you may need several attempts to complete for a variety of reasons.

Some locations are barred to you at certain points in the game, but other than that you can go almost anywhere, so whilst you need to achieve certain things to advance the game, the openness of the game world adds to the challenge. The world itself is large - don't be fooled as I was. The many other characters you encounter have a life and mind of their own, and wander about popping up here and there, which is sometimes not where you want them.

It is played in the third person, and as is the case with many third person games, camera angles can occasionally make it difficult to watch where you are going. You can however force the camera to be directly behind you any time you choose. Controlling George and Raymond's movements, which is all done with the arrow keys, might take a little practice, particularly when they run. There are a series of skyway travelators which will help you get around, and which you must learn to navigate.

The printed manual provided the basics on installation. There is a help menu in the first splash screen which will provide the game control details, and which also enables you to configure them to your own liking. The voice-overs have subtitles, and gameplay is accompanied by a syncopated techno sound track which fits perfectly.

If you are tired of games that lead you down an obvious path, or if you want a game that is big in many ways (including length), then try this. If you are like me, you will be frustrated more than once. You may become exasperated trying to get Raymond to run away, you may despair of ever finding the photographer, and there will be times when you have no clue what to do next. I am still not sure I got the right end. It was a struggle, but in a way it mirrored the one faced by George, and like George's it is one worth having. Isabelle is an unusual, sometimes surreal experience, one that I found compelling and one that is well worth a look.

metzomagic.com rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98
Pentium 166
32 MB RAM
4x CD ROM
DirectX 7