When SouthPeak Interactive released its first adventure game, Temujin, back in 1997, it achieved only a few of the lofty goals it had set for the project. Utilizing a proprietary game engine called Video Reality, Temujin was designed to combine the high level of interaction of traditional graphic adventures with the realistic look of digitized video sequences.
But instead of giving gamers the best of both worlds, Temujin wound up giving them very little of either: Movement and character interaction were limited, the digitized backgrounds blurry and hazy. And while the story was undeniably a gripping affair, the puzzles were of the boilerplate variety - the kind designers tend to ladle on top of a product when the lion's share of the budget has gone toward film shoots and developing new technologies (can you say The 7th Guest?).
Now, after a year of tweaking, the Video Reality engine is back in Dark Side of the Moon - a game that proves not only that phrases in the public domain can't be copyrighted no matter how popular a rock album is, but also that SouthPeak learned some valuable lessons from Temujin. Unfortunately, SouthPeak will also learn a lesson from this game: The Video Reality engine, at least as it stands now, is woefully inadequate in handling exploration and movement, two of the most critical components in an adventure game.
Part sci-fi thriller and part murder mystery, Dark Side of the Moon casts you as Jake Wright, a young man whose uncle supposedly committed suicide on a moon called Luna Crysta in the Cepheus-6 star system. A megacompany called Brave Hope Corporation has set up shop on Luna Crysta to reap the bounty of minerals and ores residing in the multitude of underground caves; besides company employees, the moon's also home to a collection of fortune hunters looking to strike it rich. And then there are the Cepheids, the natives that Brave Hope hires because of their tireless work ethic and knowledge of the moon.
Your uncle's left you his mining claim on Luna Crysta, but even before you arrive on the moon to settle the inheritance, you receive a scathing vidmail from your sister wherein she says the claim should have passed to her. And things only get more suspicious when you disembark the space shuttle: The president of Brave Hope wants to buy your claim, and a PI hired by your sister finally admits he's there to make an offer on her behalf as well. Hmm... that's a lot of interest in a claim that, to the best of your knowledge, never brought your uncle anything but long hours and hard work. Eventually, you'll meet up with that PI to talk things over - and when you do, the plot begins to take some wicked twists that I can't reveal here.
Like Temujin, the acting in Dark Side of the Moon is generally good, and the video clips used during conversations are crisp and clear; unlike Temujin, nearly all Dark Side of the Moon's puzzles are integrated solidly into the plot and gameplay. Many involve finding ways to surreptitiously enter offices, where you can locate clues about your uncle, the Brave Hope Corporation, and the Cepheids working in the mines. But there are also lots of object-based puzzles in which you have to figure out creative combinations of inventory objects - and while the clues are definitely there, keeping track of everything can be daunting. Nearly everything you see, hear, or read contains at least a kernel of useful information - especially when it comes to the item descriptions at the General Outfitters, the only place you can acquire a couple of very necessary pieces of equipment. And because there's no type of description displayed when you access inventory items, you'll need to keep notes of what each device is and what it can do.
But there are a few instances where Dark Side of the Moon doesn't exactly play fair and square. When you pass your cursor over an object in the environment that you can manipulate - a door, for instance - it usually turns green to let you know you can interact with it. But for some reason this doesn't happen in a couple of very sticky spots; instead, you have to have an inventory object selected and then pass the cursor over the thing in the environment you want to act upon. The net effect? When you get stuck, you wind up looking around and wondering if you've exhausted all the options at a locale, or if instead you need to start dragging out inventory items to see what might work in conjunction with something you're trying to use. Believe me, this game would still be plenty tough even if it gave adventurers a little nudge in the right direction.
Still, it's probably better to make the puzzles more rather than less difficult, especially given the easy availability of hints and tips on the Net to get you through rough spots. And the plot has enough surprising developments to make you want to keep playing to find out the whole story. But Dark Side of the Moon falls short of being great for one simple reason: The Video Reality engine isn't up to the task of handling a gameworld as large as this one, particularly when success often depends on walking around until you find the right object or clue needed to keep advancing.
Digitized video takes up a lot of space, so it's no surprise that the game comes on six CDs. But what is surprising is how much disc swapping is required just to move around Luna Crysta. As you get deeper in the game and discover a warren of secret passages that give you access to every location, you'll be amazed at how frequently you've got to switch discs to traverse the facility. Near the end of the game, you'll have to move from a secret underground area to the shuttle terminal and back again - and that means swapping discs around ten times! Because the game is to a large degree nonlinear, I'm not sure how this problem can be addressed. But considering just how much exploration you've got to do to acquire objects and the impact the constant disc swapping has on the game's pacing, it's definitely a major problem.
Actual character movement is a lot faster than in Temujin, but it still takes painfully long just to turn around and survey your environment, and your ability to look up and down is still confined to only places where key objects or new directional paths are located. Background scenery is little improved over the blurry and hazy images of Temujin, making it difficult to pinpoint landmarks and spot important objects. And should you encounter the technical anomalies I ran into on my rather standard system - digitized speech crackling and dropping in and out, video speeding up and slowing down - you might have real trouble gathering important information.
Dark Side of the Moon's interface has a few other glitches - lots of scrolling to find inventory objects, awkward methods of reading scanned documents in your digital assistant, disc swapping when viewing stored video clips (also in the digital assistant), and a paltry number of characters for a "boomtown" like Luna Crysta - but these are minor blemishes compared with the problems of navigation and exploration. If SouthPeak corrects those for its next game - or creates a new engine more along the lines of the ones used in Black Dahlia or Atlantis: The Lost Tales - it could easily move into the elite class of adventure-game developers.