For many adventure gamers, Schizm will be a comfortable fit. It seems more suited to five years ago, when Myst clones were a dime a dozen, when every adventure game dropped you in a desolate world filled with strange technology. But even five years ago, Schizm would have stood out from the crowd. It's more like Sierra's Rama or Rocket Science's Obsidian--it's definitely inspired by Myst, but the puzzles set it apart. Schizm has a thin story, but the puzzles were obviously created by and for people who love a daunting task.
Schizm, like almost every science fiction-themed adventure game since Infocom's Planetfall, takes place on a seemingly abandoned planet. There is technology--organic technology no less--and signs of habitation on Argilus. But there's no life. A science team, sent to study the planet, has disappeared. You control two characters, Sam and Hannah, sent to find out what has happened, both to the science team and the inhabitants. Throughout the game, you switch back and forth between the two characters to solve the strange riddles and contraptions and occasionally switch back and forth between the two to solve individual puzzles.
There's only enough story to thread together some very, very challenging puzzles. Occasionally you'll find a mission log or encounter a ghostly figure, and they'll impart some information. Sometimes it will clue you in to what's going on. Most times it will just give you vague clues as to how to proceed. You'll want to pay attention, because the puzzles in Schizm are very difficult. They are the rare kind of difficult that requires a good deal of logic, note taking, and inspiration to solve. Casual adventure gamers, except those with a propensity for mathematics and engineering, will likely find some of them impossible. But it's a compliment to the design that the difficulty never seems out of place. You are, after all, trying to comprehend alien technology, and so long as you can believe aliens would protect that technology with a series of puzzles (as opposed to, say, with a key) then the difficulty of the puzzles makes perfect sense.
The puzzles are difficult because, in most cases, you will need to be working at several levels at once. You will need to decode cryptic diagrams and learn to work complex machines with all the significant figures and symbols in an alien language. You will need to make mathematical and geometrical calculations. One puzzle requires you to listen to and memorize a group of alien words and the symbols that match them, then, later, listen to a ghostly figure shout at you in his native language, and then match the sequence he tells you on a prayer wheel-like device. It's a strange puzzle and one of the most challenging in the game--the apparition will only speak to you once, and the many steps you need to take to solve the puzzle can be overwhelming.
Most of the puzzles follow this formula: You must find the key that decodes a specific gadget and then use the information from the key to get the gadget working. If there's any complaint about the puzzles in Schizm, it's not that they are too difficult, but that they are too similar. Once you figure out a few, you'll know what you generally need to do for the others. They will still be difficult, but a bit of the groundwork will be obvious.
There are more puzzles in the DVD-ROM version of the game. The DVD-ROM version also looks much better than the CD-ROM version, which is ugly at times, with huge blocks of color filling the screen. The problems are most notable in darker areas. The scenery and design are good looking, if a bit generic--all big floating islands, dirigibles, and underground caverns. It's strange when an alien world feels familiar because you've been to a few just like it.
The apparitions appear as video sequences over the prerendered backgrounds, and the video looks decent but is not well integrated with the game. The acting makes the video look worse. In one of the first mission logs you find, the person is so clearly reading her lines that it's a bit ridiculous. It's as if the designers used audition tapes for the actual game. The voices are no better, and occasionally the person speaking is quite obviously not the person you are watching. The music is a bit better and somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter's electronic soundtracks.
Schizm is unlike most adventure games. The puzzles make sense, after a good deal of brain gymnastics, and yet they are difficult. It's nothing but a series of locked-door puzzles, and yet in most cases the puzzles are well thought out, original, and interesting. Many will find the game very difficult, as they did the aforementioned Rama and Obsidian, and the lack of a story means the game is all about the puzzles. But they are good, and so those who like a challenge, or miss the days of the Myst clone, will find much to like in Schizm. It goes through the motions with confidence.