Amerzone (Second Opinion)

Developer:  Microids
Publisher:  Casterman/Ubisoft
Year Released:  1998

Review by Steve Metzler (April, 1999)

Celtica screenshotAmerzone is a quirky little French title that reminds me a lot of Cryo games, only it's better produced. Based on original ideas from Benoit Sokal's own comic books, Amerzone attempts to appeal to the adventurous soul in all of us. There is some great imaginary wildlife scattered throughout the game, and at times you really feel like you're there, exploring uncharted territory at the source of the Amazon (to which Amerzone itself owes more than a passing homage, though it's supposed to be Central American rather than South). You play the part of a faceless adventurer, carrying out the last wish of a dying old man. It seems that way back in 1932, this chap Valembois set out to explore the then virgin Amerzone territory. You inherit his legacy, a miraculously still alive egg that he smuggled out of the place all those years ago. The indians of the Amerzone worship the birds that hatch from these eggs: huge albatross-like creatures that, as legend has it, spend their entire lives in the air. It is your task to find the egg and return it to the Amerzone, thus restoring hope to the people of this fictitious Central American dictatorship. Oh, and there are a few complications, like the present dictator was once Valembois' friend! But first, this being an adventure game, you have to find the egg...

I see trouble ahead
Celtica screenshotValembois lives in a fancy lighthouse at the edge of nowhere. His place is filled with Amerzonian memorabilia, not to mention all kinds of neat Brobdingnagian contraptions, most of which are used to impede your progress towards the egg. And... wait for it... Valembois invented 3.5 inch floppy disks, not to mention computers to use them! (unless Valembois has been mailing the disks to his friends ahead of you, but I don't think so). Anyway, I suppose we can forgive Mr. Sokal this little bit of revisionist technological history, because apart from that, all the machines and mechanical artefacts are wonderfully depicted and blend in well with the milieux throughout the game. Speaking of blending in, therein lies one of the first problems you will encounter with Amerzone. I wasted hours looking for objects that were indiscernible from the background. You see, this is one of these beautiful modern games featuring 360 degree panning, not to mention a full 180 degree tilting capability. You still move about 'on rails', but unless you pause at each location and do your panning around, being sure to look down, and up, you are going to miss important objects. And in some cases, you can be looking straight at an object not realising that you can interact with it! Designers need to take more care nowadays in this respect, because instead of just having to search static screens for hot spots, gamers have a whole lot more visual territory to cover, and I got tired of this very quickly. The other annoying thing about the graphical interface was that 'steel ball from hell' that's plonked right in the middle of your view, spoiling all the otherwise brilliant visuals. You can see it in the second screenshot.

Celtica screenshotThe puzzles in Amerzone weren't very difficult, but I'm beginning to realise that this is less of a drawback to a game now than I would have thought a few years ago. After all, we're never going to drag our favourite genre kicking and screaming into the next century if the average game is so difficult that only us seasoned die-hard types can solve the thing without resorting constantly to a walkthrough. However, what did eventually get to me was the linearity of this game. The first two locales in the game were passable in this regard, but about halfway through, when you get to the Amerzone proper, things really go downhill. Pretty soon you realise that you never have to bother saving your game (unless you need to go to sleep, or are afraid of the game crashing), because you're not allowed to make a mistake. Even things you do that seem wrong, like stumbling upon a guard, and getting your vessel irreparably damaged by a water beast are meant to happen. Worse yet, most of the time there's only one possible course of action. And when that's the case, you've become the star of your very own movie... but all you're doing is turning the handle of the projector! For instance, the focal point, or theme, of Amerzone is this wonderful multi-purpose craft that Valembois has designed called the Hydraflot. It's featured there in the first two screenshots. It has six different modes of operation (plane, boat, submarine, etc.), but at any one time only one mode is available. It's just a matter of pressing buttons and pulling levers until you find the one that works. At one point towards the end, you have to use one mode exclusively, about 15 times in a row. Yawn. There are some terrible jungle mazes too, there only for purposes of superficially lengthening the game, I'm sure.

Celtica screenshotAt least Amerzone isn't totally devoid of people you can talk to, though to be honest, they do all the talking while you remain faceless and speechless (as in Riven). The nice touch here is that the characters are fully animated from scratch, rather than being shots of live actors superimposed on the background. These scenes were quite well done, the characters animated in painstaking detail. Voice acting was over the top, but we're used to that. People seemed to have a nasty habit of popping their clogs right after they spoke their final words to you, though. How convenient. Also worth a mention are the ambient sounds throughout, especially in the jungle regions. They're directional too, which means that sometimes you can get aural clues as to where to go next because they become louder as your character turns to face the source.

Let's wrap it up
All in all, then, Amerzone is a well presented package, albeit a bit on the short side. The feeling that you're being inexorably dragged through the second half of the game, not to mention a swamp, er... dampens the experience somewhat. But if you're looking for a fun bit of escapism along the lines of a Wilbur Smith novel, then you might want to check it out. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 1999. All rights reserved.