Game reviewers – for that matter, all reviewers – are supposed to be objective. And we do try. But I should admit from the outset that I have always had a soft spot in my heart for video-based adventure games. There was that brief period in the '90s when a bunch of good (or at least popular) ones were made. I really enjoyed Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, Byzantine, Black Dahlia, and Ripper. Hell I even enjoyed both Phantasmagoria (1, 2) games. And let’s not forget Tex Murphy.
There was just something about the feeling that I was driving a movie, I guess. That, and the fact that the best of those games took me places I really wanted to go (Istanbul, Neuschwanstein Castle). I just ate them up.
So you could argue that I was entering into the experience of playing and reviewing Conspiracies II: Lethal Networks with a chocolate heart on my shoulder.
I just wish I could tell you that the game is better than it is. But then I’d be shirking in my duty, dear reader.
But let’s start at the beginning. As you probably know, this is the sequel to 2003’s Conspiracies. Like that game, it comes from a Greek development studio and takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future.
The opening cinematic is promising enough, though it may be quoting a little too blatantly from Star Wars. Still, steal from the best, I guess.
There is an enormous amount of back story to the game. You get it through on-screen text and via the (sometimes quite lengthy) conversations. If you like digging into a complicated political science-fiction plot, there’s a lot here for you to chew on.
Alas, the acting is, in a word, amateurish. It may just be the very bad translation into English, but it makes the worst moments of an early Tex Murphy game seem like Citizen Kane. Particularly awful is the actor who plays the lead. He’s the player character, the one you need to identify with, control, and root for. And the actor playing him is remarkably unattractive (sorry, that counts in a game like this – do I need to remind you how handsome Chris Jones (Tex Murphy) Darren Eliker (Black Dahlia), and Scott Cohen (Ripper) were? For that matter, Victoria Morsell (Phantasmagoria) was easy on the eyes as well. Anyway, it counts.
But a bigger problem is his performance. He plays every scene like he doesn’t want to be there. His default tone is a whine. He doesn’t seem interested in getting out of bed, much less solving a dangerous mystery. Why would anyone pick him to be a secret government agent?! I’m frankly baffled by his casting and his performance. Maybe he’s the CEO of Anima PPD Interactive; that would certainly explain it.
Okay, well so maybe you don’t care about the performance part of a video-based game as I do. It can still be a good game, right? Let’s see.
In the first big section, you’re wandering around a friend’s villa. (Because for some inexplicable reason, even though you’re a high powered secret government agent, you can’t pay your rent and get thrown out of your apartment by your landlady.) The game expects you to examine every room with a fine tooth comb, combining inventory items in ways that are utterly non-intuitive (why would it occur to me to attack a projector with a knife?).
And then there’s the character interactions. Character interaction is good, right? Well, it might be when Tim Curry and Mark Hamill are doing the voices. But in Conspiracies II it’s a bit of a chore. The story has a potentially interesting setting: Earth is a junior member in a multi-race galactic alliance, and there’s a deadly conspiracy to investigate. However, this premise requires an enormous amount of exposition, which the game serves up during excruciatingly boring (and badly acted) cut scenes. Even worse than this, there are times when the game stops dead and requires you to ask questions. A lot of questions. There’s a scene with your boss where you literally have to talk your way through twenty topics. Note to the game designers: Making me ask about twenty topics isn’t fun. And it’s not even really gaming.
What’s even more distressing is that you will need to go through all of these topics every time you talk to this character, or risk missing the one topic that contains a vital nugget of new information. Again, this isn’t a fun or entertaining process. It should go without saying that the primary job of a game is to be fun, and it’s difficult to picture the developers of Conspiracies II play testing these mechanics and having their testers say, “Yeah! We love having to go through twenty-six topics over and over again, hoping that one of them will change! Bring it!”
And then there are the environments. I understand low-budget games. I root for low budget games. Machinarium, from a couple of years ago, was a low-budget game, and it was absolutely beautiful. The environments in Conspiracies II are not only unattractive, they’re sort of puzzling. Early in the game you spend time in a tennis club that looks and feels like no tennis club I’ve ever been to. Now, I realize it’s a tennis club in Greece, and in the future, but still. Since you spend so much time exploring your surroundings in a game like this, it is a great help if the environments make sense and feel organic.
The interface is workmanlike and gets the job done. As in many games like this, you pick up everything that’s not nailed down. Frequently you combine objects in your inventory interface. Look! A stick, a rubber band and a pebble become a pea shooter! Like that.
The game is fully 3D, and you move through it the same way you would through a first-person shooter. The real-time rendering and movement is silky smooth, and the movement speed is pleasingly brisk, so that it doesn’t feel laborious to cover a lot of ground when you’re backtracking to look for something you may have missed.
The game is pretty shaky on the feedback it gives you regarding your environment. It can be very fussy when you’re trying to combine objects or use an inventory object on the environment. It can be tricky to determine what objects are “live” and which are just part of the environment. There is a patch which adds moving arrows to the screens, theoretically pointing out important hotspots. But this mechanic is unreliable and inconsistent, so it’s of limited value.
The puzzles in the game are quite traditional. Look for passwords and clues. Improvise lock picks and biometric workarounds to get doors open. Make sure you talk to everyone about everything and then talk to them again when new information or developing events could trigger additional responses.
Another warning: The game does resort to the dreaded “timed puzzle” mechanic. Yipee!
Here’s the thing: If you have the patience to deal with the endless exposition-filled dialogs, the dreary and unintuitive environments, the fussy interface, and the bad acting, there’s actually a lot of game here. The adventure is long, features many varied planet-hopping environments, is rich in content, and has a complicated science fiction mystery story to explore. How you might grade this game would depend on if the things that irritated me about the game irritate you to the same degree. If they don’t, you could get a lot more bang for your buck than I did with Conspiracies II.