Hard-core adventurers take note: If the higher production values and lower IQs of recent adventure titles have got you down, then belly up to the Space Bar, my friends, 'cause this game's for you. While not as compelling or imaginative a journey as it could have been, Space Bar makes up for it by recalling an earlier age of computer games with intricate, sophisticated gameplay that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Veteran designer Steve Meretzky gives us a soft-boiled detective story set within a decidedly multiracial alien bar. You are Alias Node, a gumshoe for a large alien corporation and the lone human on the aptly named planet of Armpit VI. One night on a patrol with your partner, Maksh, a fellow investigator slumps dying over your car hood, shot by a corporate spy who ducks into a notorious watering hole and gambling joint called the Thirsty Tentacle. The murderous thief, you soon learn, is a shapeshifter and capable of imitating the appearance of any alien form. Worse still, the killer has abducted Maksh and throws taunts over your PDA's two-way radio. You will have to question almost 40 alien characters, scour the bar's many entertainment rooms for items and clues, and decide whom to arrest. All of this must be done before the allotted game world time has expired and the killer escapes from a nearby spaceport.
The primary action all takes place within the bar itself, where you walk via point to point movement (with animated transitions) through the numerous rooms, including the bathrooms, each with toilets designed for the needs of various alien races. A 360-degree rotating view (a la Zork Nemesis) at each stop point lends the game a greater sense of realism than the Myst-style slideshow. Alias' pop-up PDA has numerous necessary tools, and an onscreen click calls up context-sensitive menus for interacting with objects and people: take, examine, stash, greet, or "ask about" options that can lead into numerous dialogue trees. Veteran adventurers will appreciate the breadth of options here, which is so much wider than more contemporary autopilot interfaces. There are so many odd characters to meet, so many leads, data, and objects to investigate, yet Space Bar refuses to offer that familiar crutch of even the better contemporary adventures: an obvious next step to take. It is wholly nonlinear, and there is very little time - which advances with each mouse click, a device that creates a nice artificial sense of tension and punishes mere sightseeing.
Space Bar is "good old-fashioned gaming" only to a point, however: The central feature is innovative and unique. Alias has the talent for mind-melding with some of the aliens in the bar, which takes you on eight mini-quests, each within the memories and perspective of an alien body. In one vignette, you are a rooted tree who must figure out how to bloom, while all you can do is swivel in place. As a smart-talking blob in a jar, you have to manipulate your mentally challenged sidekick into transporting both of you to a certain destination. The look and feel of the game's first-person point of view changes accordingly; you will encounter the world from the segmented vision of an insect in one vignette, or from a jar on the ground in another. While at times this feels like a gimmick, it encourages you to immerse yourself in these worlds, and even think in the alien ways that ultimately solve the puzzles.
Much to Meretzky's credit, the puzzles, while challenging, never suffer that contrived, stark feel of most adventure obstacles. Sure, you will need to fix a town clock in one alien world by figuring out which crystals go where and in what order. And you will need to transport an alien egg through the right series of rooms, waterways, and tracks without breaking it. But these conundrums are knit believably into the situations. While not actually played in real time, this design gives you a sense of working within a living storyline with which you need to keep pace, a bit like the recent Last Express.
But make no mistake, Space Bar seems designed mainly for experienced gamers. The solutions are intricate and difficult. Most are reasonable (in hindsight, of course), but they require a good deal of trial and error that some gamers may find laborious. And you can make a lot of wrong moves, which either get you bumped back to the beginning of an alien flashback episode or bumped off altogether. Meretzky and Co. have provided numerous blind alleys as well, so you could be on the wrong path for a while before something tips you off.
So much is just right about the gameplay and design of The Space Bar that the limitations, alas, are all the more glaring and make the game altogether less entertaining than it could be. The SVGA graphics are sharp and the animations serviceable, but the graphic design is generally uninspired and bland. Ron Cobb of Star Wars cantina fame did the art direction, but don't expect that film's rich atmosphere here. The writing is flat as well. There are no intriguing twists to the plot - just a shallow whodunit plot that empties into a mildly clever final solution for your detective-hero. Likewise, the character art and dialogue are sterile and underdone. Gluing a stock character type on a cockroach or a fruit-bearing plant, pretty much the method here, is not exactly a creative stretch. Meretzky has a reputation among some gamers for comic designs, but most of the dialogue comes off more silly and strained than genuinely funny, the sort of geek humor that grows tedious quickly. Figures like a dim-witted, obese lizard who is struggling to board a bus or a June Cleaver plant-mom who waxes sentimental over her daughter's imminent "blooming" seem pitched to an arrested adolescent.
While it is a disappointment that Rocket Science and Boffo Games fail to exploit that alien cantina premise a bit more, the triumphant aspect of The Space Bar is that it is a true gamer's game. It recalls the depth and general feel of the best text-based adventures of old. You are compelled onward not so much by storyline and character as by a desire to crack a master designer's code, to see how weird and devious the next obstacle will be.