In some ways, Sentinel: Descendants in Time is your typical weak Myst clone. Sparse story? Check. Hardly any characters and none to really interact with? Check. Gameworld built around the puzzles instead of the other way around? Check. But there are a couple of things that set Sentinel apart from its peers, namely unusually attractive graphics and a lot of high-quality puzzles. Unfortunately, Sentinel often undermines one of its biggest strengths by taking those captivating puzzles and turning them into extremely repetitive busywork.
Sentinel was crafted by Poland's Detalion, and in many ways it resembles the developer's last adventure game, the mediocre Mysterious Journey II (aka Schizm II). Both are first-person adventures that put too much emphasis on puzzles and too little on other adventure hallmarks, like storytelling and actual adventure. But Sentinel is still a clear improvement on Mysterious Journey II in a number of important ways.
The story, while nothing great, is tighter this time around and at least tries to give you some pertinent motivation. You play as Beni, a man who grew up idolizing the great tomb explorers of his society, men who risked everything venturing into the final resting places of an ancient civilization. In one of the game's perfunctory and clunky cutscenes, you learn that Beni's sister has been kidnapped by a villain. To win her freedom, you'll need to venture into a particularly dangerous tomb guarded by a mysterious AI construct called the Dormeuse. In occasional cutscenes, this virtual woman appears and chats a lot, leaving you guessing what she's all about and what her motivations are.
While the writing won't win any awards, it's certainly better than the silliness of Mysterious Journey II. It gives you at least one moderately interesting character, the Dormeuse, in a gameworld otherwise devoid of life. It ends with a clever twist, and it also helps explain the seven wildly varied worlds you enter via the central tomb, worlds that are supposed to be little bits of the deceased's favorite places from life, preserved for eternity.
You reach these miniworlds via teleporters, exploring them from a first-person perspective. Sentinel uses the Jupiter engine, which has powered games like No One Lives Forever 2 and Tron 2.0, to good effect. Instead of jumping between fixed nodes, as in many Myst-style games, you explore locales freely, using a shooter-style WASD control setup. This increases immersion by letting you roam about more naturally.
As you make your way through Sentinel's tiny worlds, you'll find diverse, well-crafted brainteasers that are admirably challenging, usually without going over the top. You'll get to solve puzzles that challenge your skills of spatial visualization, pattern recognition, tone memorization, and more, sometimes in the same puzzle. You'll work your way through a maze with moving parts, match moving patterns on giant flowers to coded control panels, and of course align lots of bridges (a cliché in need of rethinking). Optional onscreen hints tell you your basic goals for each puzzle without giving away too much, a welcome feature all adventures should offer.
As interesting and challenging as the puzzles can be, they're far from perfect. Inventory puzzles are conspicuously absent, so it's all about manipulating strange machines. The puzzles feel rather arbitrary, too. You get the distinct impression that Detalion crafted the story simply to justify a big bundle of puzzles, rather than creating a unified gameworld first and then inventing puzzles to fit it. Then again, considering the quality of many of the puzzles, that's a fault you may be able to live with.
Some flaws are harder to swallow, though, even for dedicated puzzle fans. Some of the puzzles are relatively easy to figure out, but often a real chore to carry out. Sometimes it's hard to see how certain moving puzzle pieces are aligning in the 3D world since the game occasionally forces you to stand in one place as you work the puzzle's controls. Just as problematic is the way you might look at a puzzle, quickly say, "Eureka!" (or something less geeky), and then slump in your chair as your realize just how much traipsing back and forth you'll need to do to actually complete the challenge. Because of the way puzzle components are often spread far apart, the requisite walking can feel interminable at times.
You'll also encounter way, way too much repetition. For example, there are a handful of nearly identical puzzles in a strange fishing village that require you to move colored ropes into particular positions. After you figure out how the first set works, the others are just tedious busywork. It gets even worse later, on a series of volcanic islands where you have to align five bridges according to identical principles. Once you figure out what you're doing with the first one, you're left with an hour or so of walking back and forth, taking notes, and pressing button after button. It's pure drudgery. One such bridge would have been enough. In later segments, Sentinel similarly starts with good ideas and then drives them into the ground through loads of repetition.
Still, despite such big flaws, the overall quality of the puzzles is a cut above that in many Myst clones, and so too are the graphics. While Detalion's last game jumbled a bunch of pretty scenes together more or less randomly, Sentinel boasts a lot more cohesion, at least within each of its worlds. Not only are the graphics technically assured, with nuanced textures and believable character models (not that you see many), but each area you explore also fits together well. In the fishing village, some walkways are made from nets, and the puzzles are crafted from other simple materials you'd associate with seaside living, like rope and shells. By contrast, a strange floating observatory dazzles the eye with massive spinning machinery and metal walkways perched high amid the clouds. It's too bad Sentinel's audio doesn't match the quality of its visuals: All you get are some sparse sound effects, generic ambient music, and middling voice-overs that can't hide the clunkiness of the game's script.
Sentinel is also quite short and could have used more polish. Sometimes voice-overs unintentionally overlap or don't match the optional subtitles properly. Still, despite its problems, Sentinel can be good fun for a thinking gamer eager to analyze, ponder, and take a heck of a lot of notes. If you want memorable storytelling, characters, and exploration in your adventures, give Sentinel a wide berth. But if you're really just after interesting puzzles, and you can put up with a whole lot of repetitive busywork along the way, you'll want to test yourself against Sentinel's challenges.