The City of Lost Children is an adventure game with no adventure and no game. What it does have is extraordinary and gorgeous 3-D graphics, lush music, and some terrific motion-captured animation. But that sensuous beauty does not begin to make up for the disappointing lack of real puzzle solving.
The game is based on the bizarre and captivating film of the same title. You play Miette, a 12-year-old orphan girl who is sent on various illegal errands by her Siamese twin headmistresses. Each task is replete with gameplay frustrations and tedium.
Using only arrow keys, you navigate Miette through the dismal streets, elevated metal walkways, and dark alleys of a foreboding city set sometime in the near future. While you will quickly tire of the necessary but time-consuming meandering, you can't help but be captivated by Miette's appearance. Her motions are lifelike, her dress flows as she moves, she throws real-time shadows, and as she passes from darkness to light, her appearance changes accordingly. Additionally, you have many opportunities to view Miette and the city from multiple camera angles, each more stunning than the last. Despite its gameplay drawbacks, City is a graphical tour de force.
There is a story that is obliquely alluded to in the difficult-to-follow opening sequence. The world's gone to hell and some mad scientist has created an evil man who can't dream. That dreamless man kidnaps children to tap into their dreams then pickles them when their dreams don't meet his expectations. But damned if you can figure that out. And, unlike the film, Miette's wanderings through this game have little or nothing to do with that story.
Inventory gathering is an arduous and excruciating process. Virtually all needed items are hidden from view. You'll find most behind objects or in darkened foyers. As Miette wanders near an unseen object, it appears in a small box on the screen. Then you click to put it in your inventory. This means you have to move Miette everywhere, and if you don't happen to move her over the specific pixel, the item won't show up onscreen. Even with a step-by-step walk-through, you'll have a hard time finding the objects. Good luck to those flying blind.
There are several actions Miette needs to take, such as hiding behind some boxes, ringing a bell, operating a periscope, or giving a tin can to a fisherman. Each requires that you not only know you're supposed to do something but that you find the specific pixel on which to do it. Completing the fisherman sequence requires starting three steps behind him, asking a question, moving one step closer, asking another question, then moving another step closer and giving him the can. This is an incredibly nonintuitive game that seems to have been released with no play testing.
The game appears greatly truncated when compared to the movie. All the game's action takes place in the city, but the film has a lengthy closing act in the offshore oil rig that served as the madman's experimental laboratory. In the film's closing sequences, Miette and her strongman friend One have to solve many additional problems leading to a spectacular, pyrotechnic conclusion. But in the game, the problems and accompanying plot development are all neatly wrapped up into a brief cutscene, minus the fireworks. It appears the developers ran out of time and money and cut their losses. It's a most unsatisfying denouement to a frustrating but beautiful game.