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THE SYDNEY MYSTERY

Reviewed by  Laura MacDonald


I have to admit a personal preference. I was initially attracted to this new independent game because I have a particular liking for Full Motion Video formatted games. I was also intrigued by the fact that it was using FMV at all. Twilight Software, the developer, is a small operation. So the fact that they took on this sort of format for their first game was ambitious and gained my admiration. Well, how did they do?

The plot of the game is straightforward enough: you arrive at your home in Sydney Australia, only to learn that your Uncle has gone missing. Your character, the niece, has her work cut out for her if she is to find out what has become of her Uncle and solve the mystery involved. He is a private investigator by trade, and not much more is known than that the police are treating it as an abduction. But you also learn that a series of mysterious bombings have occurred around the city. Are they related to your Uncle’s disappearance, and if so how? Is your Uncle alive... or is it something worse? And if your Uncle’s disappearance has nothing to do with his cases as a PI, or the mysterious bombings, then why was he taken? With all of these possibilities surrounding us, off we go to explore Sydney to try and find the answers to these and other questions.

Graphics and presentation

The footage shot for the game is adequate, although I wouldn’t say that the production values for this game were as good as they could have been, even given a tight budget. However the visuals around Sydney were fun, and there were many locations where you could look at a view or vista even when it was not related to gameplay. For future development, I would suggest going with a higher end camera, and perhaps including more gratuitous exploration within locations. One of the pleasures of FMV is the ability to check out new places and just explore around. In this particular instance, I would like to have seen just a bit more of Sydney. However this is a personal inclination, and may not be practical given budgetary concerns. The bottom line is that I enjoyed the game footage that was used, and would say that overall the graphics were a plus for the game.

Characters and voice talent

For obvious reasons, in a game using FMV the choice of the actors involved and their ability is a key element to the game's success, or lack thereof. I thought that the main character's (or narrator’s) voice was a little flat emotionally, but it was pleasant. The remainder of the talent ranged from adequate to very good. I thought that the people who portrayed the Uncle, the former client and friend Dame Gertrude, the Uncle’s former partner, and several others were extremely good. I was expecting perhaps lower levels of talent for the game in this area, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of acting.

I realize that few if any of them were professionals (meaning equity paid talent). Still, the developers had to choose whom they would use, and they showed a high level of creativity in this aspect of the game. Perhaps picking up a paycheck isn’t always the benchmark for professionalism. This may seem like something a reviewer shouldn’t make this much of, but given some of the recent offerings from better funded and larger organizations, it was a genuine surprise to find Twilight so talented in this area. Given what must have been scant resources, I thought Twilight showed that if the developer doesn’t have the ability to detect good from bad, then money wouldn’t help. Well done, Twilight!

Interface and game play

The game plays from the CD, so no installation is needed. I did have to lower my graphics acceleration, as I encountered some significant graphic dropouts early in the game. But once I made that slight modification, the game played flawlessly. The CD saves your games in a small directory placed in your system registry, so for those who don’t even like to keep saved games loaded on your PC, you might have to dig a bit to find them. But it is a very small file, so it is just as easy to leave them where they are. I understand that those with XP can also play this game with ease. However if you are an XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) user, you may need to download and install a small Microsoft Update.

The game is mouse controlled and has an oversized cursor icon. Actually it is a very large cursor. In my case, the larger size was a good thing, because I was stuck for an inordinate amount of time due to missed location spots. So perhaps the larger icon is a good idea. To travel within the game, you access areas from a map feature. New locations will appear as the game progresses and your character opens those sites. Once in a scene, you advance along strictly defined directed paths to various points of interest within each environment. To leave, you have to back out along the path you took into the scene.

I found this to be an acceptable design choice. It may feel a little antiquated to some, even annoying to others. But if you have to parcel out scant production dollars, then having the ability to turn around is not where I would squander my money. I think that quality videotape, decent voice transfers, and the like are better game quality enhancing choices instead. Twilight chose this better route, and I am happy that they did. But for the purposes of this review, if in-game movement linearity would be a real bother to you as a player, then it is something to take note of. However I didn’t see it as a negative that affected the quality of the game, or my enjoyment of it.

Story

Unfortunately, this is the one area where I felt Twilight fell a bit short. It was a decent story, but the plot pathways were a tad predictable. I had also hoped for a bit more detail in the ongoing plot than what I got, and I thought that the end game sequence felt a bit rushed as a result. So what otherwise would have been an excellent game was brought down a little. It is difficult to discuss this aspect of the game in greater detail, as no reviewer wants to spoil the game for the player. I just thought there were some characters that I would rather have known a bit more about, and some plot details that were hurriedly disposed of in a quick scenario at the end. A good story is a good story, regardless of how it is dressed up or presented. And in this game, I think the story could have been a bit more detailed, and perhaps have displayed more originality. But I still think the game is worthwhile, and I plan on paying close attention to Twilight's future games.

Puzzles and challenges

There were not a large number of puzzles, but then I didn’t expect a ton of them in this game. The existing challenges were all common sense scenarios that you worked out by applying inventory items secured through your journey and explorations. Now that might seem like the start of a criticism, but I liked them very much as they were presented in the game. For one thing, the inventory objects that you picked up along the way were in probable spots and logically acquired. If I were in a city, and without many resources, then I might check phone booths and gutters for items as I was running along. It felt real. And in FMV games, I think that the reality-based format must be mirrored in the inventory and challenges. So I have to give Twilight high marks for their presentation of the mystery and storyline using practical means and items.

Music and other factors

The music, sound effects, and such were decent. They didn’t really stand out that much to me. The music was on a loop track of sorts and actually became a tad annoying in places, so I turned the volume down from time to time until I ran into a character that I wanted to hear. It was nice as a side feature in the end sequence where a sense of urgency was needed. But the rest of the game would have been fine without some of the hectic sounding music that was used.

Ambient sound effects ranged from enhancing to distracting. There is one scene where a bad choice of background noise levels swamped the characters dialogue almost completely. So I think that if an interface to turn down background sounds and music was not possible, then at least an option for subtitles should have been possible. Now this suggestion may be misplaced, because my technical knowledge is not the best. But it is the one real negative that I found in the game.

Bottom line

Recently, there has been a good deal of interest in review standards for games. Particularly about whether 'Indies' should be held to lesser standards than higher end production game developers. The Sydney Mystery is an independent game from a very small design group. It is also their first game. I do think it is more reasonable to give such games leeway in cost intensive areas like graphics, length and music... all the extras that large production facilities routinely put into their development budgets. So I tend to look at this game with a few caveats in mind.

Twilight has done a job that it should be proud of with its release of The Sydney Mystery. There were some problems, and a few shortcomings, but I credit many of these to a lack of experience. I expect that Twilight will take in all the positive feedback and, with an eye on the negative, produce a second game that takes it all a step higher.

Bottom line... The point of playing any given game is to have fun and be diverted and engaged for a time, and I enjoyed The Sydney Mystery very much. I was charmed by some of the characters and the people who portrayed them. I loved the screen shots of Sydney and the surrounding area. And the storyline was developed enough to catch my interest.

I think that to appreciate any game you have to look at the sum of its parts, rather than any one isolated aspect. The devotion and exuberance of Twilight Software in creating this game is obvious. You could really tell that all of those involved were invested in making the game as good as it could be. It's a little rough around the edges to be sure, but its charms were there, and easy to enjoy. I admire Twilight for their dedication, am delighted with their first creative efforts, and definitely hope that The Sydney Mystery is but the first of many more games to come!

© 2003  Laura MacDonald


Full View Screenshot

Visit the Official Sydney Mystery Website to learn more about the story, view additional screenshots and download the demo.

Developed (2003) and published by Twilight Software.

Rated:   Not Rated

Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

Where To Buy This Game:

Walkthroughs or Hints:

"Walkthrough" available here!


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