Sunday, April 28, 2013

Schizm: Mysterious Journey. A belated review

I mentioned Schizm: Mysterious Journey in my reflections on deceptive box art.

For everyone too lazy to click the link, back in 2002 I bought Schizm: Mysterious Journey as a way to celebrate my then-new computer. The box art featured gorgeous graphics, and I was so thrilled to have a computer that could handle them now. But when I installed the game, what I got were graphics so compressed and blocky you couldn't see a thing.

It turned out the company released two version of the game: a CD version and a DVD version. The CD version featured these awful, ugly, poorly-compressed visuals, while the DVD version contained the beautiful imagery I saw on the box. But the company used the graphics from the DVD version on the CD game's box art! Since it was 2002 and DVD drives were not standard equipment on computers back then, I was stuck. $50 I paid for what I expected to be a gorgeous game, but instead they gave me shitty graphics. One thing I was always curious about was why no one but me seemed to notice the terrible graphics. Now I have confirmation that I was not alone!

Well, I finally got the DVD version and at long last I played what I paid for.

Yes, there will be spoilers.

The premise behind the game is explorers came across a planet that was completely in tact, but deserted. No evidence of war, or desertion, or anything. The people were just... gone. An entire planet abandoned like the Mary Celeste. So scientists stayed there to learn more about it. Now they're disappearing, too. Hannah and Sam are two crewmembers on a resupply ship that crashed, and they must explore to find out where everybody is.

The graphics on the DVD version are much better, but in just the first ten minutes something becomes apparent. Something that wouldn't normally bother me too much because it's a game. Something I normally ignore because you have to be more forgiving about it in video games--but this time I couldn't help but notice the acting isn't just bad. It's atrocious.

Hannah is the first character players will listen to, so I'll talk about her. Her voice doesn't match her character's picture, and she isn't unemotional so much as she says her lines using the wrong emotions. It's so bad you have to notice. And it's not just her--it's everyone! Watch! You'll understand.

On top of that, the puzzles are not logical. They are not part of the world, the story, or the atmosphere. They are blatantly artificial and needlessly complicated. The first real puzzle you'll encounter is the tulip puzzle. Simple enough, but there is no discernible pattern to the switches. Trial and error is how everyone solves this.

The next two puzzles in the living ships segment I did figure out on my own (the lantern and the ship coordinates). Those are fine. After that, everything requires huge leaps of logic to understand. Take the gas-collector puzzle, which you can watch here. Even after reading two walkthrough solutions (1, 2) to it I didn't understand why it worked. Here's one:

Inside is a message for you and two complicated looking gas collectors. Leave them for now and go out the other passage. Outside and to the left, if you look down, is a floating something. Nothing else to do here so go back inside and experiment with the gas collectors.

The message from the scientist spoke about one of the gasses being twice as strong as the others - but which one? If you press the levers, gas is collected in the 10 bulbs. Press the central button and the indicator to the right measures the combined strength of the gas. Turn back to collector and press any lever to inflate one of the balloons in the airship (which is what you saw outside) with the gas from that collection point.

The trick here is to inflate the airship with the powerful gas - none of the other gasses are enough to keep the gasbag inflated. The problem is that there are two collectors and a mistake deflates both gasbags and changes the where the gas is collected. You can solve the problem by trial and error but there is a more elegant solution.

Press any of the levers once, its neighbour twice, the next lever three times and so on all the way round until the last (tenth) lever which needs to be pressed 10 times. This should give you a total pressure of 55 (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10). Now press the central bulb and the indicator gives the actual pressure. One notch on the outer ring is 12 units and one notch on the inner ring is 1 unit of pressure.

When I played, I had an indicated pressure of 63 (5 x 12 + 3). This meant that the powerful gas was in the 8th collection point. Pressing the 8th lever inflates one of the gasbags on the airship.
Top Tip: when you have got it right, save your game.

Now turn to the other gas collector and do the same thing again. If you have got it right, the ship will rise to the top - if not then you need to try again. Note that a failure resets both collectors, which is why you needed to save your game.

Was that supposed to be obvious?? Did anybody deduce that solution without looking at a walkthrough, or did they leave it up to trial and error? I don't get how anyone is supposed to arrive at that method on their own.

Then once you make it past that, you hit another roadblock. Prayer bells and tower height!

I understood I needed to match certain bells with certain colors to make the correct phrase that will open the trap door, but geeze, the bells are so similar they're almost impossible to tell apart, let alone draw for reference! The spoken words are so garbled and go by so quick it's damn near impossible to write them down--and fuck the sequence needed to open the trap door! The ghost says it so fast it's indecipherable!

And then you have to calculate tower heights? It's not enough to record the measurements; now you must figure out relative distance and somehow calculate it?! There is nothing that clearly indicates you need to do this, or how. The walkthrough shows a barely visible mural in the temple, but where is it stated the distance to the symbol is 10 units? How can you figure that out on your own? How can you figure out how to calculate the height of the towers on your own??!! Why would you even need to?

The symbols on the measuring device are so pixilated they're illegible even on the DVD version! How did anyone manage on the CD edition!? Why aren't the numbers here the same as the numbers on the living ships? That might've made some things clear, but no, the numbers are totally different and for no apparent reason other than to make things more complicated!

It is awful! The puzzles are completely arbitrary and obtuse. Trying too hard to be like Riven. Riven's puzzles were mean and complex, but they were also part of the world, tied to the story, so the solutions to them were discernible within that context. Schizm tries to mimic only one half of the equation, and the puzzles come across as stupid because of it. They require so many leaps to figure out I can't imagine anyone finishing this without a player's guide.

No, Schizm is not engaging, or fun, and the acting kills what little story there is, so there's no reason to be interested in what happens. I've read the game only gets worse. You then have to calculate new coordinates? I don't see how it's possible for anyone to deduce these solutions from clues in their environment.

So fuck Schizm. I'm done with it. One frustrating leap of logic after another. 50 bucks wasted either way--not only did they misrepresent the game by using the DVD-quality graphics on the CD version's box, they made a game that is nothing but a long string of frustrating, arbitrary puzzles!

It's a shining example of just how difficult it is to make a good adventure game. One person's leap of logic may be another person's insight, and it's very difficult to know which is which. Consistently striking just the right balance between the two throughout an entire game is very difficult. I think the best way to balance it out is to tie everything to the story. Puzzles will rise organically out of the environment, and within the context of an engaging story, one can find insights into what to do. That's what Schizm lacks, so the designers tried to compensate by making things really complicated. It didn't work.

The graphics are gorgeous though. Schizm was far ahead of its time in that sense. And the music is outstanding. It's the game's only redeeming quality. Really, it is.

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