Galapagos: Mendel's Escape might sound like a strange title for a puzzle adventure, but it becomes much clearer when you consider that Galapagos developer Anark claims the hero of the game - and I use that phrase quite loosely - is a "synthetic organism" based on "artificial life technology." After all, it was an expedition to the Galapagos Islands that inspired Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution, and it was the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel who pioneered the science of genetics. It's all about life - get it?
Sure you do. But a better name for Anark's debut title could well be "A Technology in Search of a Home," because there's nearly as much fanfare in the manual about Anark's proprietary Non-stationary Entropic Reduction Mapping (NERM) technology as about the game itself. In short, you get the feeling that Anark came up with a technology and then had to find some way to make use of it. Well, NERM technology did find a home in Galapagos, but how long the game will be welcome in your home boils down to how high your frustration threshold is.
The game revolves around a polygonal, buglike critter named Mendel, a synthetic organism created by the power-hungry inhabitants of a world called - you guessed it - Galapagos. Your goals are simple enough: First help Mendel escape the laboratory where he's about to undergo a series of experiments, then find a way to flee Galapagos itself.
But unlike in most games, you don't actually control Mendel. You see, he's got a mind of his own based on the NERM technology; to quote from the manual, "The NERM controllers contained inside Mendel accept inputs from his sensors and produce outputs that are translated into behavior or action. For example, when Mendel is walking along and sees an obstacle in his path, he may turn to avoid hitting it." In other words, about the only way you can guide Mendel is to prod him (with right mouse-clicks) to make him veer left or right.
So instead of manipulating Mendel, you manipulate his environment: Clicking on the floor might pop Mendel into the air so he can land on a platform, for instance, while clicking on two sliding platforms might link them so Mendel can cross a chasm. As you move through the five game worlds, these spatial/mechanical puzzles grow more difficult and complicated. To cross from one side of a "canyon" to another, for example, you have to coax Mendel onto a beam that slides out at a horizontal 90-degree angle to the wall, then activate the beam above him to knock him through the air and onto a beam protruding from the opposite wall. Or you might need to position him on a horizontally rotating platform and allow another platform rotating in the opposite direction to knock him off at just the right time so he'll land on a walkway. While all this is going on, the perspective is constantly changing so that you might not be able to see (or manipulate) a part of the environment.
It's pretty tricky stuff, and actually fairly engrossing, but because so much rides on whether or not Mendel does the right thing at the right time, frustration will eventually overwhelm all but the most patient gamers. Anark claims that Mendel can "learn" and "adapt," but let's face it, there's not a whole lot for Mendel to learn. I mean, come on, it's no great help that Mendel learns that an acid pit should be avoided after he's fallen into it and been melted (apparently he regenerates with that knowledge intact), especially since the manual says that repeated failures make Mendel become "more neurotic and cagey." (Translation: Failures make it even harder to get the little bugger to go where you want him to.)
But Galapagos frustrates even if you can get Mendel moving in the right direction. One annoyance is that the speed of gameplay is tied to how fast the digital insect crawls. He's a slow one, this Mendel, and his sluggish pace makes retrying even a simple obstacle unnecessarily time-consuming.
Another big problem comes from the constantly changing perspective: You're at the program's mercy as far as getting an idea on which way to go, especially when you consider that many puzzles are truly three-dimensional. The swirling viewpoint also makes it much too easy to activate an object you didn't want to - like a laser - because the perspective switched while your mouse cursor stayed in place. And sometimes you have to rapidly switch between two objects that are in close proximity, again making it way too easy to hit the wrong one at the wrong time and send Mendel to his "death" (or at least a ways back in the level).
And remember how you can prod Mendel on his left or right side to make him move in the other direction? Well, here's a noodle-scratcher for you: How do you click on his left side when he's facing to the right and his left side is "away" from you, especially if the perspective is close to ground level? The constantly changing perspective causes problems here, too, as the view can shift so suddenly that you wind up clicking on the wrong side.
I'll gladly admit there were times when I was playing Galapagos that I felt that rare "just one more" feeling that's the mark of a truly addictive puzzle game. Invariably, though, that feeling would be replaced by frustration - frustration often so great that I actually began to curse the little bug I was trying to save.
Galapagos: Mendel's Escape can be pretty much summed up in four words: great idea, questionable implementation. There'll be gamers who love it for a while; the only real question is whether they'll love it long enough to have gotten their money's worth.