On April 15, 1912, the H.M.S Titanic sank in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, taking 1,503 passengers with her and leaving behind a legend. There have been worse nautical disasters, yet none holds the same fascination. Maybe it's because at the time the Titanic disaster was seen as one of the failures of technology and industry in a world still coming to terms with the industrial revolution. Many viewed it as divine retribution, since Captain E.G. Smith had claimed, "God himself could not sink this ship." Many are still puzzled about why she sank so fast, why there weren't enough lifeboats, and how the ship failed to see the fatal iceberg. What people remember most of all, though, are the individual stories of heroism and human tragedy: Captain Smith returning to the bridge of his sinking ship after seeing the women and children to safety, the band continuing the play, men saying goodbye to their wives and children and returning to the grand salon to die with dignity.
CyberFlix has managed to capture a small piece of this dramatic and oft-told tale in Titanic: Adventure out of Time. They haven't wholly succeeded, but they have created a title that is certainly interesting and often well-crafted. You can buy Titanic either as an adventure game or as a virtual recreation of the ship itself. In the former, CyberFlix sometimes falls flat, but in the latter they have accomplished something quite remarkable.
Titanic the adventure game begins with you in a small apartment in England at the beginning of the Blitz. You walk around for a few minutes, reading your mail and filling in the pieces of your character's past as an agent dismissed from the British Secret Service for his failure in a mission on the Titanic. Sent aboard the ship to trail a possible German agent in the years before World War I, your character, it's implied, may have been responsible not only for that war, but for the one that England, and the rest of the world, is set to enter in 1939.
As you contemplate the postcards and notes that tell this story, a German bomb explodes outside your window. Somehow, you are propelled back in time, waking in your cabin on the Titanic just as she sets sail. You have been given a chance to go back in time and successfully complete your mission once again.
Navigation through the game is fairly simple: the keys are your feet, and the mouse your hands. The view is a high-res SVGA window on the Titanic itself, and you can walk almost anywhere in the ship, talk to people, and interact with objects by clicking on them. This is a fully realized, fairly dynamic environment, though more of it should have been implemented (for instance, I saw the same guy walking the same hallway over and over again). Still, what has been done helps really bring the ship to life: You can inspect the china, walk the deck, and see people come and go. without even playing the game portion, and many Titanic buffs may want to pick it up for that purpose alone.
But that's not the real purpose: the adventure game is. And it's here that CyberFlix runs into problems from their past titles, most notably Dust. Their Dream Factory tool set allows the developers to create environments and populate them with "people" that are in effect digital sock puppets. Using a sequence of still photos of actors, they overlay expressions and mouth movements Clutch Cargo-like. (What game reviewers would do without the venerable Clutch as an insult I shudder to think.) The effect is...ineffective. Characters' heads twitch and grimace and talk at you like demented animatrons from the Hall of Presidents at Disney. The system allows writers to create and refine character dialog better than if they just shot and digitized video, which makes for more interactive exchanges. But visually it just doesn't work.
This is a pretty big problem, since a lot of game time and play is based around lengthy (veeeeery lengthy) dialogs with characters. There are a couple dozen characters to talk to, and they will give you clues, help with your mission, and send you spinning into all sorts of subplots, from the Irish maid and her illegitimate baby to the bad steel that may be in the Titanic. Social climbers, bon vivants, third class characters, aristocracy, businessmen, and other spies abound, and there is plenty to learn. I enjoyed exploring despite the twitching, talking heads, but after a time the protracted dialog sequences became tiresome. As interesting as some of these quirky characters can be, I simply got sick of hearing them yatter on.
Aside from talking to people, there are also objects to pick up and use to help solve puzzles and advance the story. For the traditional adventure gamer, there is not nearly enough of this, however, and the inventory management system makes what there is somewhat cumbersome. You'll find yourself running around the ship on a long list of errands and subplots, but most involve dialog sequences, not real puzzle solving. (Thankfully, you can hop from place to place using a map.)
Once you get through all these plots, you come to the actual point where the ship hits the iceberg. From then to the end of the game, you are racing against the clock to perform a number of tasks before the ship sinks, or your mission will fail. This part of the game can be a bit frustrating. I normally don't care for time limits in adventure games (they're just an artificial attempt to lengthen play time while you go through the sequence time and again), but it works okay here and fits nicely with the story. After all, if the ship were sinking, you'd have to hie your ass pretty damn fast to get things done.
Is Titanic a good game? Yes and no. Yes, there is an interesting story, a visually sumptuous and often thrilling re-creation of the ship, and much to do and see. But a disproportionate amount of time is taken up watching twitchy talking heads natter endlessly. How much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like interactive dialog. I was willing to go along with CyberFlix on this journey because they had a worthwhile tale to tell, but it certainly tried my patience at times.