Return to Mysterious Island

Developer:  Kheops Studios
Publisher:  The Adventure Company
Year Released:  2004

Review by Rosemary Young (November, 2004)
Return to Mysterious Island is a game I've been watching for a while for two reasons. Firstly there's the Jules Verne connection, it's inspired by his classic novel, The Mysterious Island, which of course was set after 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The second reason is because it's another game with a resourceful female character in a strange, new environment. Although Egyptian Prophecy, the last game from Kheops Studios, also had a female protagonist, it's a historical tale so Maya operates on her home ground. In Return to Mysterious Island Mina is a true adventurer and world traveller who must explore and improvise in order to survive. She's more in the tradition of Doralice of Lost in Time or Ariane of Jouney to the Centre of the Earth (another game with a Jules Verne connection!) Mina shapes up pretty well, she's smart and self-sufficient, although her background could have been drawn out a bit more.

The game environment
Mysterious Island is a first person perspective game punctuated by screens with sketches of Mina in action, eating, swimming, or fixing something, rather than video cutscenes. It is mouse controlled and movement is node to node with the cursor fixed in centre screen. Just move the cursor and the screen follows as you look around.

It's not a big game world but it's amply detailed with lots of varied plant life, and animal life too, scurrying, fluttering or buzzing around. There are palm-lined beaches, towering cliff faces, steamy hot springs, as well as some derelict buildings and a cave system to explore. And, of course, there's the Nautilus too, as you get nearer to your goal.

As you move around there are sounds everywhere. Stand near the hot springs and the water gurgles and birds twitter all around. Walk along the beach and you can see and hear the waves licking the shore. The windmill's sails creak and there are crickets in the caves. There is light intermittent music too, but a lot of the time it's just the sounds of the world around you.

The gameplay
Mina is a 'solo navigator sailor' who was washed overboard in a storm and eventually stranded on the sandy shore of this Mysterious Island. Upon recovering from her ordeal she has that feeling of being 'watched'. She sets out to explore but before she can get far she'll need some sustenance to restore her energy, and then it's on with the task of checking out who might be 'watching' and, of course, finding a way to get back to civilisation.

The aim of the game is to explore and pick up anything that might be useful to progress. The puzzle-solving mostly revolves around using inventory items correctly. There are so many things to fashion from a simple knife to a fishing rod and more, although there are also a few abstract puzzles plus a quiz towards the end of the game.

Inventory management
Return to Mysterious Island has, literally, dozens of useful items to find and collect so kudos goes to Kheops Studios for designing this function of the game so well.

Firstly there are 8 separate inventory screens meaning that you can organise your copious collection of goodies for easy access, food in one section, gadgets in another, etc. In fact organization is made easy because as you pick up items they are automatically stored in a 'Transit Area' waiting for you to drop them in exactly the right spot. The Transit Area holds a number of items which means that you don't have to stop, open your inventory and attend to each one as you find it. This saves time and helps maintain the momentum of the game.

Many of the items in Return to Mysterious Island can be combined to produce a new item or substance, sometimes three, four or even five are necessary to create something new. This is done in the 'Assembly Area' immediately below the inventory. Just use one item on another and if they go together they magically appear in the Assembly Area where you can see easily if you need to add more items to make something else. It's a novel idea, works very well, and would be particularly good for novice players. Also, when you make complex objects they get a small 'spanner tag' below their icon. Pick them up and place them on the Spanner button and you can disassemble anything to its component parts. A useful option if you want something that's been fashioned into something else.

Inventory items are also clearly labelled and there is possibly extra information to glean from their description once you have access to your electronic encyclopaedia. The descriptions are crucial in some cases in order to make various things, at other times they just have a timely hint.

Not always, but sometimes, Mina comments and gives a hint when she finds objects in the gameworld that can be manipulated in some way. For instance she may need to use an inventory item on it and her comment will give an inkling as to what. This kind of feedback is something that always works well in an adventure game, it's a tried and true method of giving hints and help. It would have been even more helpful if Mina had been more attentive and commented on everything she came across that needed manipulation. I might be being overly critical here because Return to Mysterious Island is superior to many recent games in this respect, but it was so good to get this feedback, I just wished it was more consistent. And whilst being extra picky, when you pick up an item a message flashes to tell you what it is, and that it is safely procured. If only this function had been used to identify items before you picked them up, I would have been mightily impressed.

Other help on hand
As noted, Mina is clever, she's a survivor, but she can't do everything. Sometimes things are out of reach so if she can help out Jep the monkey, she'll get some help in return. He sits in the inventory and becomes an integral part of the interface. He can be combined with inventory objects and is crucial in getting out of tricky situations.

Mina also keeps a journal of Objectives which is handy for keeping track of where you are and is again good for novice players. It's here she makes notes from any letters or journals hanging around. It means you don't have to copy everything to a piece of paper, always check to see if Mina has done this for you. Then there's her phone as well for communication with the outside world which isn't that much help on a deserted island, but she can pick up a couple of news bulletins to reassure her that she's been missed.

Inventory access is simple, just click the right mouse button. From here you can access a menu for saving and loading, and continue to the game options for adjusting the volume, turning speed, and you can also enable subtitles. As far as I could determine there is no limit on save game slots.

All in all this is an interesting little game and Mina is a smart and caring companion, she's careful not to harm any creature she meets unless, of course, it's edible.

There is a lot of inventory manipulation but it's fun making up different concoctions. The healthy amount of feedback and the well designed interface mean that the game never gets too difficult. Also many of the problems have more than one way to solve them which is good in one respect but I fear there was a trade-off because Return to Mysterious Island could have been longer. I enjoyed it but I wanted a bit more, more places to explore and more opportunity to admire the Nautilus, and get to know Mina and, perhaps, Captain Nemo a little better. To compensate there is a scoring system which awards points as you solve puzzles. At various milestones there is access to a Picture Gallery of the various transitional sequences you've seen. When you make it to the end your final score is displayed and you are invited to play again and try different things. So there is that incentive to replay Return to Mysterious Island and see if you can do better. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2004. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, 800 MHz Pentium III (P4 recommended) 64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended) 16x CD ROM (24x recommended) 64 MB DirectX 9 Compliant Video Card, DirectX 9 Compatible sound card, Keyboard and Mouse.