Sunday, July 4, 2010

Getting Lost Again...

When I rebooted The Latest Issue back in December, it was never with the idea of just being a movie blog. I have always intended it to be an extension of my earlier comics blogs, for geek-related topics in general. Despite that, I’ve been reviewing occasionally TV shows, but mostly movies both recent releases and on DVD. The reason for that has been that movies have been more accessible for the most part, with movies being watchable in a little under two hours and even most TV shows can be properly reviewed without seeing the entire series, or a series on streaming or DVD can be watched within a few days or intense viewing. I’ve basically stepped away from comics for the time being (Though with Marvel’s Siege coming out in graphic novel form soon, I may partake) and my intent of visiting video games has been stalled in two places: One, my attention spans with games often result in, even while basically ENJOYING the game, never completing it; Two, since I own an older computer and own no Next-Gen systems (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii), the option of reviewing newer games becomes extremely difficult as I can’t PLAY any of them. So for the time being, until all that can be sorted out and upgraded, I’ve decided I CAN focus on older, more classic games, or even related recent titles you may have overlooked. To those who enjoy my movie reviews DO NOT PANIC! I’ll certainly be reviewing movies or TV shows more often than not, this is simply an experiment in expanding The Latest Issue, and I hope we can enjoy this process together.

And so that brings us to our first ever video game review for The Latest Issue. Lost: Via Domus is an official spin-off of the famous ABC show that just ended it’s spectacular seven year run this past spring. The J.J. Abrams-created show is one of my all-time favorites, and so when this game was released in 2008 I was excited but also not a little skeptical, since shows and movies licensed for video games trend more to the lower end of the quality scale. So I poked around for reviews, and the results weren’t encouraging: The BEST reviews rated it in the middling range, with many decrying it’s unfinished status (plenty of game-crashing bugs and audio hiccups) and lack of authentic voice casting. This delayed my purchase of the game for almost two years, but having found it in a much cheaper form (and once it was patched, no less) I can finally feed the completionist in me it’s dessert.

As you can probably figure, the game casts you in the part of a survivor of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, a formerly unknown character who has somehow suffered amnesia from the crash. Throughout seven “episodes” you follow your character’s story (I won’t give his name since you don’t even learn it until I believe the third episode) as he navigates the island,  discovering several famous Lost locations (The Hatch, The Black Rock, the plane fuselage, and the Swan, Pearl, Hydra and Flame Stations), all of which are loving re-created with precise accuracy, trying to find both yourself and a way home. Via Domus, by the way, loosely translates to “The Way Home” in Latin, and so it’s an apt name for this adventure. And it is definitely an adventure game, even if it does have a few action sequences thrown in for kicks and to keep the game from getting too monotonous in it’s gameplay.

It wouldn’t be Lost without the flashback sequences, and this is probably what the game does best. The character is a photographer, and when a flashback is started, you at first are shown a ripped-up photo (meant to reflect his shattered memory) and challenged to shoot that picture in a foggy flash-back loop where you can’t hear anything and  everything resets after a few seconds. Your objective is to capture all the items shown in the shredded photo (the game allows you to recheck the clues to make sure you’re looking at the right thing) in one shot, which unlocks the flashback in earnest, and letting your character remember parts of his past. I’ve said in the past that I hate amnesia as a plot device, but in this instance since your character is learning his past at the same time you are, it actually makes for good storytelling in the game. You can also use the camera in the real world to unlock Easter Eggs (little cool things game developers put in as inside jokes or rewards for the player) by photographing famous props from the show (Charlie’s guitar or Locke’s wheelchair, for instance). Finding these things adds a new exploratory side to the game that goes beyond the main game, and it’s a rewarding experience if you’re a fan of the show even if it doesn’t get you anything special.

And that’s where the problems begin. If you’re playing the game, it’s because you’re a fan of the show. Sure, anyone could pick up the game from the shelves of their local store and play it, but unless you actually have followed the show you won’t know what’s going on, especially as the seven episodes are stretched out over approximately the first seventy days on the island, or the first two seasons. You actually don’t see most of the major events that happen over that span (The Claire abduction, the launch of Michael’s raft, the bombing of the hatch, or the inclusion of the “Tailies”) as you’re off on your own little quest, a linear path that you can’t deviate from in favor of exploration. And that’s where the game truly falters; there’s no open-world experience where you can  randomly visit any location on the island, only where your quest leads you. Even more disappointing, there are very few characters for you to interact with. Let me explain: There were 71 initial survivors of Oceanic 815, yet the most people I ever saw on the beach camp were less than a half dozen, all of them major characters from the series. I can thank the game creators for not recreating Nikki and Paolo, but I was a little put off that there were no anonymous NPCs (non-playable characters) just for show. I didn’t even want to interact with various nobodies, but it would have added to the atmosphere so much. The second major problem was with the voice acting. Although it was advertised that actual Lost actors were hired for their voices on the show, many of the main characters were not voiced by their real-life representations. Yunjin Kim (Sun), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Michael Emerson (Ben), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), M.C. Gainey (Tom Friendly) and Andrew Divoff (Mikhail) do lend their voices, but their parts are so small that it hardly seems worth it, while every other character who got major screen time (Jack, Locke, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, and Juliette) are voiced poorly by sound-alikes. Okay, Kate wasn’t poorly acted (props to voice actress Susan Goodwillie) , but the rest most certainly were, especially Sawyer and Locke who were ear-achingly bad. The claim of official voices was clearly a ploy to get Lost fans on board, and it was done in poor taste. Finally, several characters are downright uninvolved, with Boone, Shannon, Rousseau, Libby, Bernard, Walt and Mr. Eko missing completely. In the plane crash sequence, Jack is shown giving CPR to Rose, but she doesn’t appear at all after this sequence.

As in most adventure games, there are puzzles designed to be obstacles in your path of further knowledge. In Lost: Via Domus, there is ONE puzzle… several times. It’s not a bad puzzle, really. Electrical switchboards do everything from redirecting fuel lines to opening doors to opening MORE doors. I just wish there had been more than one type of puzzle, as even over such a short time it can get old fast. Other challenges involve navigating through the woods in several areas using markers to get from place to place. Conveniently-places  flags get you through two areas, while a more inspired method of Locke marking trees dominates one sequence. These are made more interesting by the occasional appearance of the smoke monster, which will definitely kill you given the chance. When it targets you, getting into a grove of banyan trees (so THAT’S what they’re called!) which will protect you is the only option. Finally, two running sequences appear (one being chased by the smoke monster) in which you must navigate a path jumping over rivers and fallen logs and sliding through gaps under fallen trees. These take from the danger element of the show and are well placed, though you often have fewer than three chances at mistakes before disaster strikes. This leads to one of the more annoying aspects of the game. Each episode plays out like a real episode of the show, beginning with a “Previously on Lost” segment with scenes from the previous episode. It does a good job of adding to atmosphere of the game, but when you “die” it re-shows the sequence before dropping you back at your last checkpoint, EVERY TIME. That’s fine for when you leave the game and come back, but when immediately re-doing a sequence I don’t want to see that sequence 3 times just because the smoke monster keeps killing me. That these scenes are also un-skippable is unforgivable.

Visually, the game is gorgeous. Vistas are breathtaking and while a few character designs are a little blocky and crude, for the most part animation is smooth and crisp. Occasional audio hiccups do occur, but most of the audio is actually pretty well recorded, with the poor voice acting being the only true downside. There are some noticeable visual problems towards the end, with animation problems coming up during graphically-intensive scenes involving more than one camera angle, but those are only minor visual quibbles, and while visually unappealing not a major concern in the short term.

Lost: Via Domus has been called anything from fan service to... other words that mean fan service. And that's true. If this had been just a story set in the Lost universe, written and performed by people who had nothing to do with the show, I’d never agree to look in the general direction of the game. Thankfully, each episode was plotted out by series creators Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, creating a story which exists in the same vein as the main Lost storyline without directly clashing with the official canon. Also well done is use of the original Michael Giacchino soundtrack which is a staple of the show, and sets the mood. These things set a solid base for what is actually a well-plotted-out storyline, replete with drama, mystery and intrigue. It leads believably to an ending that would fit right in with the classic Lost All-Time WTF cliffhangers. It’s entirely loyal to the roots of the show, but doesn’t answer any questions we didn’t already know the answer to. For that, it’s not necessary to play since if you’ve seen every episode of the show you already know as much as you’re going to get.  Still, getting to enter 4 8 15 16 23 42 into the computer at the Swan is a fun experience, and if you want to enjoy a little more fun with the series now that it’s over, Lost: Via Domus isn’t a bad option, though it’s short run time (estimates are between five and seven hours) is quite short for ANY video game, let alone an adventure game. For all it’s technical problems and lack of authentic voice acting, I’d still recommend it, just not at full price. Fortunately, Steam and other download sites will usually have it listed for much less than it’s full price, so if you’re a competionist like me, at least you won’t  have to shell out top dollar for a not-top-game.

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