Reviewed by Mark Hasley
Lately there have been a fairly large number of new adventure games released. It also seems that lately there have been a great many negative reviews of new adventure games released. It seems as though every new game must either be "Great" or "Groundbreaking", or it is summarily torn to shreds in a review. That hardly seems fair. When I purchased and played Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life, I wasnít looking for the next Riven, URU or Syberia. I didnít really need a "Great" game, and I didnít get one. However, I did get a game that I found to be good, solid, and thoroughly entertaining. I was treated to excellent visuals, a truly interesting and unique story, and a wide-ranging collection of puzzles. All in all, I was pleasantly entertained for several hours and, quite simply, felt that I had gotten my moneyís worth. This is really a very good game.
The plot of The Tree of Life is commendable for many reasons. It follows the further exploits of the archaeologist Sylvie Leroux (to whom many gamers were introduced in The Scorpio Ritual) as she seeks to discover the truth about something called "the tree of life". The tale is a fairly straightforward mystery wherein Miss Leroux moves from one unique location after another in search of the truth. Of course Sylvie is part of a game, so she must deal with difficulties. She is hampered in the mystery-solving process by the need to decode ancient secrets while being harassed by a secret society that doesnít want her to succeed. She must face dangers, deal with a mysterious Count, witness a few murders, and solve a few complicated mysteries as she proceeds. There is admittedly little that is new in these concepts, but the fun is in the varied and quite different locations, as well as the clean and unique plotlines.
The gamer finds himself not wandering the often-trod areas of Egyptian monuments, Mexican pyramids, or Roman catacombs. Instead, Sylvie must seek information and clues in the most ancient parts of Venice, the city of Cairo, a village in Gibraltar, and the island of Bimini. Along the way, she finds herself in a very expensive yacht, and the neatest-looking airship since Kate Walker fired one up in Syberia. In all of these different and well detailed spots, Sylvie seeks answers that somehow seem to connect Ponce de Leon, the Fountain of Youth, and the mysterious and long-missing captain and crew of a famous ghost-ship: the 'Mary Celeste'. While all of this is going on, Sylvie gets to do actual archaeological work, work on some clever puzzles, understand a few mysterious symbols, and milk a camel.
As anyone can see, there are lots of things here that have not appeared in adventure games before. And the beauty of this entire collection of material is that it all actually fits into a nicely woven, logically told, story. The plot was typical, but all of the plot elements were fresh, interesting, and fun. Even more importantly, there was a real honest-to-goodness conclusion, and it actually occurred at the end of the game. All in all, I found the story to be simple, clear, and completely entertaining.
The game DVD must in the computer to operate the game. Once the game begins, the player is taken via a page with commercial logos, to the usual startup page. Here are listed buttons for Resume Game, New Game, Load Game, Save, View Cutscenes, Credits, Quit, and Options. The Options available are shown on two separate pages. There are 4 volume adjustments for various types of sounds, and there are 6 different adjustments for various graphic elements. Most important to me is the fact that one of the graphic elements is 'Subtitles'. They are available. There also appeared to be unlimited save slots available. I used fifteen and the game would readily have provided more.
Once the actual game is begun, any adventure gamer will be in a very comfortable place. Like the plot, there is little that is new with the interface of the game. The gamer controls Sylvie in a third person point-and-click system that is completely controlled by the mouse. The cursor moves and changes into several different shapes to indicate different possibilities. It becomes a hand if something can be utilized, an eyeball if something can be looked at, and a comic book style conversation balloon if a given character can be spoken to. Most times the cursor is simply an arrow that is pointed in whatever direction Sylvie may go. The player moves Sylvie with a left click on one of the direction arrows. A double left click makes her run from point to point. There is also the usual magnifying glass icon for a close up examination, and a spinning hourglass if the game is loading something. In addition, there are three or four icons that are unique, and used only to solve a particular puzzle. Without exception these are easily understood. In all cases, conversations can be skipped over at any time by simply left clicking.
Gameplay is fairly linear. By that I mean that Sylvie can wander all over a particular area and find items and solve puzzles in any random order. However, the gamer canít move her to a different part of the game until everything in his present area has been completed. Sylvie doesnít complicate things here either. She simply says, "No need to go there" or "I canít leave yet". Itís simple to follow.
While playing the game, the inventory is constantly available at the bottom of the screen. Items are shown clearly and the entire collection of 'stuff ' can be scanned easily. Items are picked up, combined, and/or utilized by simply left clicking on them. The other item of interest in the inventory is a big question mark in the lower right corner. This item is constantly available, and if the gamer clicks on it, all of the hotspots in a particular frame are illuminated. I have found this to be a very useful feature in many games.
Sliding the cursor to the top of the screen drops another collection of bars. Thereís a bar that takes the player to the main menu, one to save a game, one to load a game, another to return to the options list, and a button for Sylvieís notebook. This too was a feature I found very helpful. The notebook is where Sylvie has (automatically) recorded all of her important dialogs, filed all the documents she has found, and is where she has written, by date, all of the valuable conclusions and questions that she has garnered thus far. I tend to play games for long stretches, and then not get back to them for a few days. I found this notebook very helpful to 'get back into it' when I started again.
One other note about some material that isnít actually part of the game, but which I found it to be unique. Some players may be impressed with the fact that when the game has been loaded on to a computer, a walkthrough has also been loaded, and is accessible. Itís not part of the game, but is found as a 'read me' file in the gameís large file. This seemed to be at least an interesting idea.
As is usual for me, the evaluation of ambient sounds and the gameís soundtrack poses a bit of a problem. This is true because generally, given my minor hearing problems, these elements donít mean a great deal to me. In The Tree of Life this again holds true. The music in the background seems adequate. It helps set the mood for the scene on the screen, but it never really intrudes into or distracts from the game. This seems to me to be exactly what a soundtrack should do. The really effective use of sound comes in what are usually described as 'ambient sounds'. Here the game is quite good. The background noises sound realistic and completely reasonable. Doors opening and closing sound like doors opening and closing. Things click, squeak, thump and whistle just as they should. The regular background noises sound just like things do in normal situations. Again, the noises are reasonable and effective, but donít intrude into the game. The player never stops and asks "What was that?" unless itís a question that should be asked at that point. I found this to be a very impressive element of game construction.
It is much simpler for me to evaluate the graphics in this game. They are quite impressive and very nicely detailed. All the various areas are presented in a realistic manner, with just a slight touch of the romantic in them. All that really means is that everything looks like it should look, but the places are just a bit cleaner, neater, and perhaps a bit prettier than they would be in real life. In addition, there are several cutscenes that fit smoothly into the story and operate without problems. Added to that situation is the fact that every scene has some sort of animation that adds to the look of the game. Birds fly in the background. Flags or pennants flutter. There is always a moving sign or a flapping shutter to provide an element of depth and realism. The scenes in Venice take place during sort of a carnival, so there are some rather lovely fireworks in the background of all those scenes. The scenery is always pleasant to look at, except when it is supposed to be grim and foreboding. The artists for this game have done an effective job of making it look extremely attractive, especially when the player considers the abovementioned fact that these are generally scenes of places that most games have not visited before. The clarity of the images, and the large amount of entertaining detail, make for a visually effective game.
As in any adventure game, the final evaluation must give major consideration to the puzzles inherent in completing it. Here is where some gamers might be a bit irked. While most of the puzzles in The Tree of Life are inventory based, there are plenty of different types of problems here. There are codes to break, secret locks to unlock, and a slider to solve. These puzzles range in difficulty from very simple to strikingly difficult. Either by accident or design, they seem to get more difficult as the game progresses. This culminates in a 'windmill puzzle' at the end, which cost me several hours of frustration before I finally figured out what was what. But virtually all of these problems fit into the plot without awkwardness or difficulty. I always felt that what Sylvie had to figure out made perfect sense for her at that time and in that place. There were a few timed sequences, but if the gamer doesnít reach the solution in the proper time, he doesnít 'die'. The game simply (and rather abruptly) resets everything to the beginning, which makes it clear that Sylvie must go back and start again from the beginning of that particular problem. Failure to succeed in a timed puzzle doesnít result in any lost play time. Again, there is little that is new here, but all the problems are well and cleverly placed, and all the puzzles are reasonable in difficulty. The only problem was that a few of the puzzles require 'solutions' that seemed oddly placed. I wasnít always convinced that what I did to solve the puzzle was at all logical. It also seemed that every once in a while, I found a needed inventory item in a really strange place. Too much comment here would provide a bit too much spoiler material, so just suffice it to say that every once in a while, the 'solution' to a puzzle was not as reasonable as was the location or the difficulty of the puzzle.
There seems little else to say. I very much liked this game. It was not brilliant or cutting edge. It was lightweight, but very entertaining. It had generally reasonable puzzles that were well and effectively placed in a refreshingly new and interesting plot. It sounded fine and looked wonderful. It cost less than twenty dollars, and provided much more enjoyment than many recent games Iíve played. It was exactly what the second adventure of Sylvie Laroux should have been. I applaud City Interactive for its consistent quality, and am already looking forward to the third in the series of Chronicles of Mystery. If the next is as good as this one, it too will be well worth my time and money.
© January 2010 Mark Hasley
Developed (2009) and published by City Interactive.
Rated: T for Teen 13+ (language, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: 2.0 GHz Processor (Dual Core 1.6 Ghz); Windows XP / Vista; 512 MB RAM; DVD-ROM Drive; Nvidia GeForce or ATI Radeon 64 MB RAM, DirectX 9 Compatible Video Card; DirectX 9.0 Compatible Sound Card; 4 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; DirectX 9.0c; Mouse and Keyboard
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