Zelenhgorm: The Land of the Blue Moon Episode 1: The Great Ship

Developer:  Moloto Productions
Publisher:  Federation X
Year Released:  2002

Review by Rosemary Young (October, 2002)
Back in April this year when I was lucky enough to have a peek at the beta version of this first Zelenhgorm episode subtitled The Great Ship, I had very little idea of the scope of this project. I knew that other episodes were in the pipeline but the vastness of the undertaking is only now becoming clear. The whole concept is of a trilogy that is further divided into three or more episodes in each part, so we are looking at nine episodes at least, and very likely more.

The first step of the journey begins in the small island group of Senava that can be found in the northeast corner of the large continent that is Zelenhgorm. Senava is populated by the Deyrec, simple and superstitious folk who have lived in relative isolation for a very long time. Among them is a young man named Arrikk Vaheirr, an orphan raised by his grandmother. Arrikk is afflicted with left-handedness and his presence among the Deyrec has been tolerated only because of his family's good name - but all that is about to dramatically change.

The phantom ship
The introduction features a marvellous dream sequence that reveals a little of Zelenhgorm's past and conveys with brief, disturbing images and strange voices the message that you, Arrikk Vaheirr, "must follow the water ... the powers of the water have chosen you ..."

Arrikk awakens from his dream to discover that a massive ship has suddenly appeared and berthed itself at the bottom of his garden. You, as Arrikk, must find out why it has come and how it relates to your strange dreams. This won't be easy as many of your neighbours are now openly hostile towards you as their ignorance and prejudice bubbles to the surface. They blame you for the appearance of the ship and the reawakening of a strange beacon, and some will call the sullen guards if you so much as try to talk to them.

Who's on board?
This first person perspective fantasy adventure is mouse controlled and features live actors and full motion video. It's been a while now since we have seen live actors in an adventure and they contribute greatly to this one. And this praise comes from 'someone' who used to bitterly complain about live actors and full motion video limiting interactivity in adventure games. Just when game designers were learning how to take appropriate advantage of this technique (Tex Murphy and Black Dahlia) its use disappeared. I must say it's good to see it back and working well, both for the sake of diversity and because there are many players who appreciate it.

There's a whole collection of notable actors to spot on this journey including a handful from the Star Wars movies (Jeremy Bulloch, Kenny Baker and David Prowse), and the acting is mostly very good. Arrikk is played by Jesper Malm who, unfortunately, is relatively 'flat' in this episode especially compared with Birgitta Sotheran Fernstrom who plays his grandmother. In my opinion Arrikk is soundly upstaged by his wise and feisty grandmother and considering he is the main character, I hope that he will grow with the series and stamp his personality more strongly.

Land navigation and exploration
Movement in Zelenhgorm is smooth and the rustic and slightly misty landscape flows around you as you move from place to place or 'node' to node' Sometimes short cinematic cut scenes take over during transitions and you see Arrikk doing the walking. At other appropriate times you might see him being placed in the stocks, or awaiting his fate as the council of elders discuss if he should live or die. Yes, you can die on this journey if you fight too often and kill a guard (you will be sentenced to death by drowning) or if you get greedy and spend too long underwater collecting pearls. However fighting is not compulsory, most of the time you'll be calmly exploring and interacting with the gameworld in first person mode.

Everything is point and click with freedom of panning as you move the mouse vertically or horizontally. You can pan at your own pace so it's very easy to control. It works rather like the Dracula games except that there is no cursor on screen until the camera orientation is such that the active areas are focused at the centre of your view. Only then will you get a cursor for movement, for a close-up, or for some other interaction with an object. Although the lack of a constant cursor on screen does make for a more realistic gameworld there is a trade-off against ease of interaction as it's more exacting to adjust your view than it is to move a cursor on screen.

It's disconcerting at first chasing the elusive cursor, but you do get used it very quickly. There is some relief in that when in close-up mode the screen is fixed and you have an independently moving cursor to interact with the gameworld. In fact you can stop the panning at any time by right clicking and opening your inventory. Pity all interactions don't happen in this view especially as some hotspots or active areas only respond when acted upon with an inventory object. (For example a door lock doesn't highlight until you use a key.) This can mean that you will occasionally miss things, although I should note that most objects that can be acted upon are fairly obvious, only a few might have you climbing the wall.

Taking the trip
The above aside you can collect goodies to your heart's content as there are plenty of items to pick up or purchase in this game, and your inventory simply expands to accommodate them all. You can scroll through all the items by moving your cursor to the left or right edge of the inventory bar. Select an item and it is enlarged on screen.

You will need to manipulate inventory items, and combine them as well. You'll pick up lots of clues in the game environment, so watch out for them. And don't forget your handy notebook. Not only has Arrikk already made some useful sketches before you start the game but you can also add sketches and notes so try clicking the book on whatever looks interesting.

Your home village is a quaint little place and fascinating to explore. You'll need to do some shopping in the market place which in turn means diving for pearls because they are the local currency. Of course you'll want to explore that gigantic ship that now resides in your back garden but it will take some ingenuity to get past the guards and to open the door once on board. You might also want to have a drink in the local tavern. Let down your hair, over indulge, and see what happens. Talk to everyone to gauge their response, but don't 'pester' or you might pay the price! There are subtitles for all dialogue except for some of the 'distant' chatter that comes more under the heading of ambient sound. Speaking of which you can hear the birds chirping and the wind lightly moaning in various locations, and the music, I thought, was just right. It isn't continuous, but it cuts in at appropriate times and the tempo builds up the atmosphere.

Closing thoughts
I'm a huge fantasy fan so I enjoyed this game. It has the odd blemish and there's some room for improvement with identifying hotspots, but for a first effort Moloto has done an exceptional job. It's a mammoth undertaking with a fantastic story of lost legends, of demons and prophets and mysterious lands, and it's captured my imagination. The Great Ship itself is a great place to explore. I loved the navigational contraptions and looking through the books. Will the flora and fauna of a distant land be significant sometime, and am I going to have to learn that lost alphabet? These are only questions because the Great Ship was just a tantalising teaser in this game.

And talking of teasers ... the biggest teaser of all was the abrupt ending. I was just settling in for the journey when it ended. It had been very pleasant up until then but the game could have been longer. I hope this doesn't deter any players but it's something I must point out even though it certainly isn't the shortest game on record. Also remember that Zelenhgorm: The Great Ship is the first step in a series so just like you wouldn't pick up the first or, maybe, the middle book in a massive fantasy saga and feel totally satisfied, the same will go for this series. You'll need to take the episodes one at a time ... and if you are anything like me you will have your berth booked by the end of this journey.

See the Zelenhgorm walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Pentium II (or compatible) 400 MHz, 96 MB RAM, DirectX-compatible 8 MB Video Card, 12x CD-ROM Drive, 700 MB of Hard Drive Space, DirectX 8.1 or later (on CD).