Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Episode One: " The London Scene "
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
Private Moon Studios, based in Hungary, is the creative force behind this new game series. AGON, in production for a year before the release of Episode One, is their first project. According to the developers, AGON was originally conceived as a large group of culturally driven board games, supplemented by a bare hint of plot. Fortunately for us, AGON evolved far beyond its original scope. What we have now is far more complex in concept and design.
I find AGON fascinating on many levels. First of all, there is the method of marketing and sales. At present, AGON is offered as a download game, in a serialized format. This first episode is not what you would call a full-length game, but rather an extended level, or chapter. There will be a total of 14 such episodes offered for purchase over the next two years. Many will react to this serialized approach with a big 'Why on earth would someone release a game this way?' I initially wondered myself what was up. Well it makes sense when you think about it, from several viewpoints. Private Moon Studios went with the serialized mode of distribution for a number of reasons.
One, it allowed them to circumvent the more typical publisher route, so that the game could be released as it is finished rather than waiting 2 to 3 years for the full version. This method of production also allows each episode to take advantage of any technical advancement that arises during the development process, and thus keep pace with current graphic/gaming standards. This is a big advantage for such a huge game, which altogether will have over 60 hours of game time. How many times have games with lengthy development schedules (due to their detailed storylines and length) been far behind the production value curve by the time they come to market? The technology that exists at the start of the process would surely be dated by the time of release.
The chapter approach is also central to the logic flow of the complete story, as each adventure takes place in one of 12 different areas of the world and focuses on one of 12 different ancient games. Based upon my own experience of Episode One and comments from the developers, each new chapter will be a self-contained story within the larger tale of AGON. The exceptions to this are the first episode, which sets the stage for the entire series, and the final episode, which is the grand finale to this saga. This 14th and last episode will be Private Moon's gift to gamers and will be available at no cost.
Finally, this mode of delivery allows for intentional responsiveness to gamers input as the story progresses. This will be implemented through the AGON online gamers club, which I will get back to later in this review.
AGON: Episode One
The first episode of AGON has a wonderful introduction. Any thought that Private Moon, as an independent developer, is a 'garage game group' is immediately demolished by the intro cut scene to this game. I was reminded of the intro film bits for PBS 'Mystery' or 'Masterpiece Theatre': it is that impressive. But given the varied backgrounds of the AGON team, it is not surprising that they have a strong talent for presentation, musical composition and film quality graphics.
The sweeping open carries you across London streets and down through the open window of an academic’s office. It is in this small chamber that we meet our alter ego, Professor Samuel Hunt. Professor Hunt is a British historian, employed by the venerable British Museum of History, and initially he does not seem like much of a hero-adventurer. However we soon learn that our professor is a man of unique persistence, with a thirst for the truth and a wistful yearning for adventure. As fate would have it, he quickly finds himself caught up in a mystery of global proportions. It seems that along with the ordinary correspondence and papers associated with his position, a mysterious letter has found its way into his hands. A lesser man might have merely noted its contents and moved on. But he is a bit bored with the routine existence of his job within the museum, and so he quickly embraces the mission hinted at by this strange document. I have no doubt that his newfound enthusiasm for the exotic will be well met by his future travels and adventures.
Additional characters are introduced in this first chapter. There is Dr. Thomas Smythe, who is secretary to the Museum Director. Despite his obligations in that capacity, it is obvious that he holds Professor Hunt in high regard. Smythe warms to the task of being a behind the scenes, covert assistant. In this episode, our sole contact with Smythe is via phone and written communiqués. However in future episodes Smythe will make a personal appearance, and I look forward to that encounter. We are also informed about Hunt's wife, and the Director of the Museum. There are other characters that play a minor role in this first level and are unique to this environment. Throughout the series there will be recurrent characters who will make appearances in person or via correspondence, as well as a cast of characters unique to each new chapter and its self-contained storyline.
I am deliberately avoiding discussion of the plot specifics in this episode, as I would not wish to spoil any part of the discoveries that await the player. I can say that the plot is detailed, and hints broadly at many possible twists and turns that await the player in future episodes. At the same time, I felt well settled as to why the Professor had been captivated by this mystery and what he had uncovered in the opening scenario.
Challenges And Other Game Features
One of the enjoyable aspects of this first episode was the ability to roam and interact with a number of items that might not be central to the mysteries at hand. There were a large variety of printed materials to look through. I felt compelled to take special note of these, as they might be significant for later chapters. Personal items, pictures along the way, and any number of items could be looked at and were subject to comment from Hunt. Much of it was not essential to immediate tasks, but served to build depth to the storyline and environment. These interactions also enriched the personalities of Hunt and others within the episode, as well as those who were not active within the chapter itself.
As mentioned earlier, in future episodes there will be a board game introduced or discovered. Each of these games will be culturally unique to the environment, circumstances and storyline of each chapter. In addition to that individual game there will be puzzles and or challenges integrated within the storyline of that chapter, plus the sub-mystery or quests inherent to that plot path. Episode One had only these challenges, since it is the only chapter (aside from the last) that will not have an ancient game included. These puzzles were logical to the storyline and were well crafted. There was a bit of running back and forth for part of this, though it made sense given the details. It is the one small flaw in an otherwise well conceived game. But I enjoyed my foraging and the wide range of activities that I had to engage in to solve my way through this first episode, and I look forward to more of the same in Episode Two.
I also thought the voice talent was well chosen. It was great to hear English characters that sounded legitimately British. Rather than the arch pseudo upper crust English of old movies, these ran the gamut of English accents. It was refreshing, and added great credibility to the characters and gameplay. The dialogue was similarly well chosen. Hunt had a wide range of private responses to items or events, and conversations between characters never felt strained or overblown. It all had such a natural flow.
The graphics and ambiance of the game was quite exceptional. The musical overlay had good variety and was beautifully written. I tend to capture musical pieces that I enjoy in games, for enjoyment independent of gameplay. The AGON musical pieces are such quality compositions. Not that the graphics were slighted by the developers. As with the opening scene, the care taken with the graphics was evident throughout this episode. Even in the little touches, the game impressed. For example, reflective surfaces were used well in the game to add a note of realism. Not only would you see yourself in character whenever you passed a closed window, a glass-fronted cabinet, and so on, but the perspective also shifted as you moved. I was fascinated by this detail and checked it out for consistency in a variety of locations. It is difficult for me to find places for improvement in these areas of the game. Well done, team AGON!
AGON is mouse controlled with a point and click interface. The scenes are explored using a first person view and panoramic views of the surrounding environment. Characters and interactive objects are depicted in real time 3D. The puzzles are fully integrated in the same graphic mode. There is a menu access along the top right corner of the game screen. Here you have what appear to be typewriter keys. There is one for the inventory, a documents button, main menu, and so on. You also have a smart cursor that indicates with a magnifying glass when closer interaction with an object is possible. An 'X' button appears on the lower screen in close-up mode. Click on it to exit that view. If there is an inventory item that can be interacted with directly, clicking on it will take you to a close-up mode. Items that can be used are taken into hand by clicking on them.
Each episode features interaction with other characters, multiple puzzles, and as a master puzzle, a board game to be played against one of the characters. The developers took great pains to include relatively unknown board games that also fit within the cultural context of where the given episode is taking place. This is reinforced by soundtracks that are mirrored and grounded in the related culture of each episode. What adds great value to these chapters is that you have several layers of gameplay. One, you have the internal chapter mystery and side quests. Two, you have the added knowledge that involves the larger series-wide mystery and story. Three, you have the ancient game featured in that chapter that you play against an internal character. Once you have completed each episode, you may play any and all of these accumulated games online with other gamers. The online AGON server that allows the downloading, installation and activation of each episode is also set up to facilitate this online play. The interface online will be the same as that used in the game. You can also play the games on your own computer in a stand-alone fashion. And last but hardly least, is the added feature of the AGON online club.
The AGON Online Community
Membership in the online AGON community is free with purchase of the initial episode. All you have to do is register the first episode. When you do this, the same ID and 'pop code' that activates the game is also the sign-in for the club pages. There will be added game materials on those pages that will provide insight into the professor’s quest and the events surrounding his journeys. There will be letters from Professor Hunt and others, as well as additional supplemental information.
What is really exciting is the adaptive nature of the development process. Input from players at the AGON club pages is actively sought, and will be considered in shaping future episodes. So this is a pre-designed game, but with a unique built-in responsiveness as the game is developed chapter by chapter. In a further unusual twist, the 14th and last episode will be free. The grand finale to the AGON story will serve as a reward for all those who have traveled with the professor, and uncovered the secrets entwined within the Ancient Games of Nations.
It is true that by making this game available only through a large download and in chapters, Private Moon has excluded certain groups of gamers. Those with slower online access will be daunted by the 200+ Mb file size. Private Moon has tried to make this process less cumbersome for these players by also having segmented downloading available. Early word of mouth has been positive from the intrepid dial-ups who have purchased the game and used this download method. I think the quality of this game makes it worthwhile to try out the first two episodes. Episode Two, which is indicative of the majority of the future AGON episodes and will feature the first of 12 unique ancient games, will be available for purchase in a few weeks.
There are others who fear getting attached to the series and then seeing it only partially completed over time. That is a valid point. But I figured that at under $10 per episode, the value of the game was well worth that chance. And now that Episode Two is soon to be released, the first ancient game will be introduced, and it has value as a stand-alone game both on your PC and online against others. So there is internal replay value exclusive of the larger series' mystery. Besides, each episode has its own internal story that is resolved by successful completion of that episode. I suppose the bottom line for me was the attention to every detail that shone brightly in this first episode. With the promise of an entire series this well crafted, future episodes will be a joy to experience.
© 2003 Laura MacDonald
Developed (2003) and published in Europe by Private Moon Studios. Episodes 1 through 3 of Agon are now available on CD under the name Agon: The Mysterious Codex and is published in North America by Viva Media.
Rated: E for Everyone 10+ (language, use of alcohol)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC and Mac versions are on separate CDs or as separate downloads
ORIGINAL DOWNLOAD VERSION of EPISODE 1:
PC: Pentium II 400 MHz Processor (Pentium III 800 MHz Recommended); Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 64 MB RAM (128 MB RAM Recommended); 16 MB DirectX 8.0 Compatible 3D Video Card - TNT2 or equal) (32 MB DirectX 8.0 Compatible 3D Video Card Recommended - GeForce2 or Equal); DirectX Compatible Sound Card; 200 - 300 MB of Free Hard Drive Space / Episode; Highspeed Internet Access; Mouse
Mac: 700 MHz PowerPC G3 processor; OS X 10.2 or Higher; 16MB Video RAM (32MB Recommended); Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space
CD VERSION - THE MYSTERIOUS CODEX:
PC: Pentium III 800 MHz Processor; Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 128 MB RAM; 12X CD-ROM Drive; 32 MB DirectX 8.0 Compatible 3D Video Card (GeForce2 or Equal); DirectX Compatible Sound Card + Stereo Speakers; Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 8.0; Mouse
Mac: 700 MHz PowerPC G3 processor; OS X 10.2 or Higher; 16MB Video RAM (32MB Recommended); Approximately 1 GB of Free Hard Drive Space
Where To Buy This Game:
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Walkthroughs or Hints: