The basic idea behind Sentient is a very good one: to make you one of the crew of a space station that's in extreme peril. Executed properly, it could make for a compelling experience - but unfortunately, there's very little about Sentient that's done well.
Set in the distant future, Sentient casts you as medic Garrit Sherova. You've been assigned to the Icarus, a huge "corona raking station" that mines subatomic particles called Kenyons, which are the most powerful - and among the last - energy sources known to mankind. Your mission gets off to a rocky beginning as your shuttle crashes into the Icarus' docking bay, but that's just the start of the troubles on the Icarus. For one thing, the Icarus is a regular cosmic Peyton Place - crew members are openly suspicious and hostile toward each other, with some harboring a growing belief that the medical staff is using them as guinea pigs in drug tests. The captain's been assassinated, more and more of the crew are falling prey to a mysterious radiation illness, and last but not least, the station is being pulled into the sun it's orbiting.
Probably the most interesting thing about Sentient is that it does make you feel as if you're onboard a space station (given the correct video card - more on that later). As you roam the decks from a first-person perspective, you'll see crew members going about their business or chatting with one another, and you can stop and talk with (or eavesdrop on) any of them. Another intriguing feature is the ability to change your attitude when talking to characters - hit the H key (for happy) repeatedly when conversing, and you'll see a broad grin begin to form on the "mood indicator" at the bottom of the screen; hitting the S (sad) key causes Sherova's face to scowl in an expression of anger. And with so many subplots, you certainly can't say Sentient doesn't give you a lot to do: You've definitely got your work cut out for you, if you hope to resolve all the mysteries and save the Icarus from destruction.
The catch, though, is that Sentient plays and feels just like that: work. The main culprit is an incredibly cumbersome dialogue menu system - just asking a character where a particular crew member's quarters are located involves making five or six menu selections. And while this complex system makes for a huge number of possible questions, finding a way to ask a question you really need answered is often simply impossible because the structure of the dialogue menu doesn't allow for it. When a character tells you he's concerned about the doctors injecting crew members with stimulants, for instance, there's no way for you to ask him who was injected or which doctors were involved, or what happened as a result of the injections. Another character might tell you that "Bartle is a big idiot," but when you ask him immediately after that statement what he thinks of Bartle, he says, "I have no opinion of him." Situations just like these pop up all the time, and what should be fun turns into an exercise in frustration.
A bigger problem is that these characters are about as sterile as you'll find in a game. They walk like people, they look like people, but they sure don't talk like people. Amazingly, there's no spoken dialogue in Sentient: All conversations are displayed in cartoon-style text bubbles, and the stuff that appears in those text bubbles will have you scratching your head. If you ask someone who he is, you'll get responses like "I get called Bor Gunny" or "I am often called Trini Gallahi." Anger someone with an insult, and you might have to endure a withering comeback like "Eat my feet!" or "You smell like a deep space pilot." With writing this mediocre and no voice acting to give the characters personality, Sentient turns into a routine of fact-gathering rather than exploration and interaction.
Sentient supports the Matrox Mystique and Creative Labs 3D Blaster, and if you're lucky enough to own of those cards the animation is very smooth. But without a supported 3-D card, Sentient is a visual disappointment. Graphics on the periphery bend and tear, and in full-screen mode (non-3-D, that is) the pixels are huge - even with a 3-D card the graphics are nothing to write home about. For a game that looks as dated this one, it's hard to understand why the frame rate is so abysmal: Running in non-3-D mode on a Pentium-133 with 32MB of RAM and 4MB of video memory, you'd guess that Sentient was sentient was screaming along at five or six frames per second. While this is improved somewhat by playing in a 320 x 200 window, the view is so small in that mode that it's hardly worth the improvement in frame rate. And the annoyances go on and on. Text descriptions rather than icons are used for inventory items, which leads to yet more menu selections. There's no way to name saved games (they're identified by your location on the ship at the time you saved), and you have to click up and down arrows to move to the correct save/load position instead of simply clicking the saved game name with the mouse (the mouse does work for the first saved game you load, for some reason). The ship layout is confusing, and you'll wind up doing so much virtual walking just to run a simple errand that you'll soon grow tired of the whole affair.
The premise behind Sentient is admirable, and there will be some very patient gamers who get so wrapped up in solving the mysteries that they'll look past the wind-up characters and clumsy interface. Even if you think you fall into that category, though, you should check it out on a system comparable to your own before you buy it.