Journey to the Center of the Earth

Developer:  Frogwares
Publisher:  Viva Media
Year Released:  2003

Review by Rosemary Young (November, 2003)
Journey to the Center of the Earth ... a title with a ring of familiarity. However, as applied to this game it could be misleading for the uninitiated. Although the game draws inspiration, and even threads from the Jules Verne classic, it isn't a retelling of the original tale.

It's the story of Ariane, a zealous young journalist, who is on assignment for a discovery magazine when she stumbles upon the story of her life. At the top of a volcano in Iceland the helicopter carrying Ariane and her associate comes to land. No sooner are the engines cut when a rockslide wrecks the vehicle. Ariane's associate disappears (a bit of a mystery) and she is left alone to fall down a hole and discover the fantastic world beneath. Indeed, it is the start of a fantastic journey but there are a number of bumps and blind spots along the way so that it's not as smooth as it might have been.

Wonder upon wonders
It certainly is beautiful. Heaps of imagination and detail have gone into the creation of this mysterious subterranean world. The 3D graphics are inspired. There are tranquil, sandy beaches; lush, colourful gardens; long suspension bridges, a monstrous mushroom forest and, of course, a sprinkling of prehistoric creatures.

The world is also populated by two distinct civilizations or cultures, one mystical with shelters constructed of bones and stones, and foliage; the other more pragmatic, centred around a small village of picturesque buildings that line twisted, flagstone streets. Both locations are detailed and fascinating and reflect the different philosophies. Indoor locations are equally detailed: buildings with reflective wooden or marble floors, intricately patterned walls and ceilings, and windows where you can view the streets beyond.

It is truly a pleasure to visit this world and there are some fine cut scenes where you see Ariane in action. For instance, she will have an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex and take flight in a hot air balloon glimpsing the migrating dinosaurs filing by below. She'll also meet a variety of the inhabitants of the two settlements and be caught up in a conspiracy that threatens their peaceful existence.

That cursed cursor
It's a third person perspective mouse-controlled game with some abstract puzzles as well as a variety of objects to collect and use. Some objects in the game world don't become active until relevant so you need to revisit and re-search locations to solve problems.

Click the right mouse button and the inventory appears at the bottom of the screen. All inventory items are labelled and some have a small menu to use them. To the left of the inventory is Ariane's laptop and this is where she receives emails from home that flesh out her character a little, where encyclopaedia entries occasionally appear to enlighten her on various findings, and where all the documents she picks up are recorded. This works well and the laptop obligingly flashes each time new information is added to remind you to take a look, although I had problems reading some of the documents when they were hand written.

I also had problems with the navigation because of the 'versatility' of the cursor. For movement there is a unique cursor with footprints which is used for changing locations and viewpoints and also doubles as a simple walk cursor... but only sometimes. At other times Ariane will walk to where the default pointer points. This means that you never really know which bit of ground can be walked upon so you have to try everywhere just to be sure. Added to this the footprint cursor is sometimes elusive, occasionally nonexistent, so finding some locations can be tricky. You get used to it but it does interfere with the gameplay.

Other cursors in this game are temperamental too because of the occasional miniscule hot spot. A couple of times I had to scrutinise an item ultra carefully to get the 'use' cursor, and once I was stuck because the talking head failed to appear and I missed a conversation.

People and puzzles
Conversations, of course, are important for carrying this story along and there are some colourful characters to meet in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The dialogue itself is just fine, it isn't too long and drawn out and it's all subtitled. For each conversation there is a short list of topics to broach and the voice acting is pretty well done by all. Most of the characters have a little task for Ariane to do, some of which are related to the story but others felt more like errands and could have been more integrated.

The puzzles themselves are a mixed bunch ... they come in all sorts and in the extremes of difficulty. Of course, which one is difficult for you will be a personal affair but there are a number of candidates. I found the Tower of Hanoi puzzle fun and the weighing puzzle too. But other players might not feel the same. However, it was the music or tone puzzle that caught me out, it's cruel in the extreme. Not only does it require some thought to find the logic but solving it requires a lot of footslogging for Ariane, one mistake and it's back to square one to start all over again. Another puzzle that caught me involved placing tiles around a doorway. Even with the clue I thought the 'reading' of the tiles was open to interpretation. This one will likely test you too.

And there are some inventory based puzzles that are 'testers' as well because there is very little feedback from the game. Try to do something and if your action fails then nothing. No words of wisdom or encouragement from Ariane. You might have the wrong item, but maybe not, maybe it just needs modification, or maybe there is another action to be performed first. There is no way of knowing.

I should point out that on many occasions it is obvious what needs to be done in this game and the puzzles are enjoyable. But this doesn't discount the importance of feedback, which is crucial in an adventure game to keep the focus rather than players having to resort to the 'try everything' approach. It's much better to have the knowledge of why an item doesn't work so you can search for an answer rather than not knowing and stumbling across the answer.

It's your choice
So there is plenty to do and see in this game and there are some interesting puzzles to keep you busy, even if some will keep you busier than others. There's a moral choice to make too that really adds a lot to the game, and to the gameplay. I don't want to give anything away here, but one choice will considerably lengthen playing time.

Journey to the Center of the Earth has many of the ingredients that make up a great adventure game: a fascinating game world, a variety of teasing puzzles, a good story that might have some contemporary relevance (depending on your point of view), a well chosen soundtrack and a thoroughly likeable and resourceful protagonist. What a shame it is overlaid by a level of frustration owing to the temperamental cursor and lack of feedback.

My thoughts ... because of its idiosyncrasies I wouldn't recommend Journey to the Center of the Earth for novices. Experienced players, however, should have look if you want to take a fantastic journey and test your mental and moral fibre ... and if you're not averse to peeking at a walkthough. It is beautiful, and even if Ariane isn't always a lot of help when you really need her, she makes a great travelling companion. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Win 98/ME/2000/XP, PIII 500 MHz (600 MHz or higher recommended), 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended), 16 MB Video Card (32 MB 3D Accelerated Video Card recommended), 8 X CD ROM (24 X recommended), 700 MB free disk space.