Every time the pundits declare adventure games dead, a new game appears to prove them wrong. Microids' graphic adventure, Road to India, weaves fact and fiction into a colorful tapestry that offers solid entertainment. To many in the West, India has for centuries seemed a mysterious land that's beckoned to travelers, adventurers, and seekers. Road to India builds on that mystique to craft an engaging tale filled with enjoyable challenges that put the focus on exploration and story over excessive, frustrating puzzles.
You play as Fred Reynolds, an American who meets a beautiful young Indian woman, Anusha, at Yale. Not long after the happy couple gets engaged, Anusha returns to India and then suddenly and inexplicably sends Fred a letter saying she's leaving him. Naturally, Fred jets after her, only to find her kidnapped. Evidence quickly points to the infamous Thugs, a cult of brutal murderers who venerate the Hindu goddess Kali, or "the black one," frequently portrayed in her destructive aspect with a necklace of skulls and a belt of severed arms. Centering the story on the Thugs, probably best known in the West from the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, won't win points for originality, but you can't beat it for instant drama and intrigue.
To find Anusha, you'll hit the streets of New Delhi, but not before a detour into Fred's dreams, where you'll visit the glorious Taj Mahal. In fact, the game has you play through a number of dream sequences in addition to solving puzzles and dilemmas in the "real world." That's a fitting storytelling choice since events and locations in the dreaming and the waking worlds mirror each other, and the dream segments allow the exotic side of India to show through.
To explore the gameworld, you'll move from one discrete zone or section to the next with a simple mouse click, though you can pan the camera freely and fluidly in any direction in each area to simulate a 3D experience. Road to India's interface on the whole couldn't be more intuitive and unobtrusive, thanks to a contextual cursor. The cursor changes from a standard dot to a footprint icon when moved in a direction in which you can travel. The cursor similarly assumes a new shape when you're able to talk with someone, manipulate an object, and so forth. It's a logical, elegant scheme that keeps you from guessing where you're allowed to go or what items you can use.
When you do pick up an object, you'll see it listed visually in a PDA that Fred carries. Here you'll also find the text of his diary, any documents or photos he's picked up, dialogue response choices, and access to previous cutscenes. When you're not using it, the PDA conveniently disappears from sight for future use. Its only real problem is that it doesn't describe the items you pick up. Based on their looks alone, you'll sometimes wonder what on earth you just added to your inventory.
To solve Road to India's mysteries, you'll of course need to solve plenty of puzzles. Instead of lots of logic puzzles, you get puzzles that are refreshingly logical. In other words, you won't have to laboriously figure out countless patterns and codes that would seem equally at home on an IQ test, as in the recent Myst III: Exile. Instead, you simply apply common sense to the inventory items you've picked up. If you should spot the proverbial sacred cow in the middle of a road, and you've already picked up a handful of grass, it's pretty easy to put two and two together.
While many of the puzzles may seem rather easy to adventure game veterans, they may seem refreshingly sensible too. They have the advantage of letting you uncover bits of the story and explore interesting new areas in a rational fashion at a reasonable pace. While there are a few arbitrary pattern-recognition puzzles and the obligatory mazes, you probably won't find yourself banging your head against the wall too often in Road to India, as long as you don't overlook items. Unfortunately, that's easy to do in a few sections of the game that are set at night.
Even if you do get stuck for a while, Road to India's fine presentation gives you plenty to enjoy while you're thinking. The visuals are realistic and colorful, as befits the setting. You can almost reach out and touch the Taj Mahal's massive stones and fine latticework in the opening dream sequence. However, during the game's waking sequences, you'll notice that the teeming populace of India seems to have vanished. The streets are almost entirely devoid of life, other than a few select characters with whom you interact. This makes a really odd impression and has nothing to do with the story; presumably it's due to technical limitations. Still, decent character animations and nicely directed cutscenes add some life to a game that, true to its genre, is fundamentally static and cerebral.
Minimal but effective sound effects help add a little ambience, as does the Indian-tinged electronic score, though the latter grows repetitious quickly. Voice-over quality varies, though on the whole, the actors do a credible job and avoid easy Indian-accent stereotypes. Unfortunately, the weakest voice-over is that of Fred, who always sounds like he's overenunciating, as if trying to make things clear to a little child.
Road to India has its share of ruts and potholes, but it will take you to truly memorable places. The story won't win a Pulitzer Prize, especially with its melodramatic ending, but for a game it's entertaining, thanks to its exotic setting and the emotional "hook" of trying to rescue a lover. The puzzles usually provide plausible challenges without becoming frustrating, though some may seem a bit too simple. While the game isn't very long (somewhere around 10 hours) and doesn't offer much replay value thanks to its essentially linear progression, it's a fine example of old-school adventure gaming with a modern presentation.