Journey To The Center Of The Earth  
by Fairygdmther
December 16, 2004

 

Journey to the Center of the Earth (JCE), is a third person perspective adventure game set in a 3D environment. It is a Micro Application developed by Frogwares with Bink Video, and published by Viva Adventures. Let’s state the necessary items first, then we can get to the story:

System Requirements:
Minimum – Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
Pentium III 500 MHz, 64 MB RAM
16 MB DirectX compatible video card
CD-ROM Drive 8X, 700 MB free disc space

Recommended – Windows 98/Me/2000/XP
Pentium III 600 MHz or higher
128 MB RAM, 32 MB DirectX compatible
3D accelerated video card, CD-ROM Drive 24X
700 MB free disc space

The game begins as a photojournalist, Ariane, lands on Iceland in a helicopter on a volcanic crater to take some pictures. Soon after there is a rock slide, crashing down on the helicopter. After the initial shock, Ariane walks over to the helicopter, and notices the pilot isn’t there. Using a broken rotor blade to open the door, she gathers a few needed things and sets off to find a way out. She finds a cave with a rock blocking the passageway. Again using the rotor blade, she pries it back, and enters the dark cave, using the lighter to dimly illuminate it. Suddenly she falls into blackness. When she awakes, she’s on a beach. A beach? In Iceland? And the adventure begins…

The story is interesting, with our heroine helping the natives to solve their problems, as she progresses through her quest to return to the surface. Though the people fear an invasion of the outsiders (us), they seem very friendly and helpful to Ariane. They show a remarkable lack of curiosity as to how she got to their world. The town and its environs use a curious mix of primitive and modern machinery. While there is electricity, some machines are still propelled by animals; yet they have holograms.

I’ve not read the novel by Jules Verne, so I can’t answer whether the land below corresponds to his version, but I would doubt it, since there are devices that would not have been present in his world. The world has a blue sky with clouds overhead. The explanation for this is rather stretches scientific principles. There is no mention whatever of increased atmospheric pressure or increased gravity. Okay, so it’s a fantasy, we suspend belief here. But some things just won’t wash, even then – how does a shelled animal, an empty shell, and some animal hairs combine to make a vegetable lens?

Audio

The music is simple, and unobtrusive. The voices are mostly well done, though the giants have rather wooden voices. Subtitles are available. Background sounds were well done, with lapping of waves, animal sounds, etc.

Graphics

You are immediately struck with the beautiful visual clarity of the scene in front of you. The rendered environments are lovely. The interplay of light and shadow is exquisitely executed here. The colors are vivid in some areas, muted in others, but always in crisp detail, and of near picture quality. Unfortunately, it would appear that the development time and/or money ran out after this. Ariane is not as tenderly cared for as the environment. Her arm movements are stiff and repetitious. Her hair looks like it was chopped to a tiny cap, barely covering her head, (so there would be no need to program the hair motion?). Her walking movement is adequate, as seen from the back, slow and sauntering her way along. A double click changes her position to a running mode, but the speed is only marginally faster.

Ariane is without facial expression, even during conversations, yet performs a repetitious set of jerky movements. She is directed by a large arrow cursor, that changes to a small arrow with a hand for picking things up or manipulation, or to a small arrow with “little feet” to show the direction she can walk. There are many places in the game where the “little feet” don’t show up at all, or show up where she can’t walk (notably a bench in the mine lab). She often can go forward though, just using the large arrow, but this is inconsistent. There are also a few places where she steps into a “black hole”, from which there is no escape, though the game doesn’t hang – you just can’t move her. The only fix appears to be to restart from a previous save. There are a few places where she will go in the opposite direction from what you’ve indicated. In a few places, she pirouettes in place, without any intervention from the player, until stopped by a cursor movement.

Those who programmed Ariane’s moves apparently didn’t have the luxury of using the rendered backgrounds to direct her walking. She usually walks beside the path, and even in the air next to a bridge. On a particular platform, when she exits the warehouse, she’s walking a foot in the air (within perspective). It isn’t that the programmers didn’t know what to do, it’s seems that they were not allowed to tidy up the little issues that make a game seamless.

Game Mechanics

Ariane has a laptop in the inventory which is used frequently in the game to advance the story, and to receive and send email. There is a cumbersome, multi-step process to read any item, involving the laptop. It does, however enable you to go back to reread anything. The inventory appears and disappears along the bottom of the screen with a right click. The pointer that you use to navigate in the game allows you to choose which item you want to use. Without exception, every time I chose an item from inventory, I would pick up the one to the left of the one I wanted. Another issue – at either end is an arrow that allows you to scroll back and forth through the inventory items. Whenever you try to scroll to the right, you pick up the last item in the inventory pictured, just before the scroll arrow. This becomes quite annoying, particularly when you are trying to combine items, and need to scroll to get the second item. Putting items in the inventory happens almost without your being aware of them. I do not know how I got some emblems that would be placed in a puzzle. Somehow they just appeared in the inventory. Other items appear there the same way. Items no longer needed, will disappear on their own, which is very good, given the difficulty scrolling.

Camera angles also could be improved. This game is touted as a 3D environment, yet you are not allowed to look around wherever you wish. Going from one area to the next may involve a 360 degree turn for Ariane, and give the player a skewed idea of the layout of the area. Getting her to turn around can be an exercise in frustration, yet you may need to do this to approach a different area. Sometimes it is difficult to get her out of the way to use a hotspot that she is blocking. Hot spots are very tiny in some areas, and placement of an item can be annoying when it can take 30+ times to click over a small area to place something where it should go, which I encountered while placing some balls on a scale during a puzzle.

The screen transitions can leave you baffled as well. When Ariane begins to climb up the stairs in the mushroom forest, the scene instantly changes to the top of the platform. You can see two exits, but have no idea which she came up through. There is another issue with the tram, which is used for travel from the city to the jungle. You think she has not left the city for the jungle, so you click again on it, look around, and she is still at the city. The first click brought you to the jungle, the second brought you back to the city. This absence of detected movement is disconcerting, and disorienting. If there was not time for a cut scene to be developed, a simple fade-out, fade-in would have helped show the time lapse. Other screen transitions give a flip-flop scene change in an old-new-old-new manner in only a second or two.

Puzzles

There are three quite difficult puzzles in the game, though the rest seem fair. The Hanoi Tower puzzle near the end was difficult, but not impossible. Most problems with the puzzles, other than those three, are with manipulating items over the tiny hot spots. The difficulty in placing items may mislead the player. When collecting items for the inventory, not every item shows the hand icon, to let you know it can be picked up. If you happen to stumble upon an item, by pixel searching, it will just jump to your inventory. Fortunately, the inventory items have labels, since you might not know what it was that you just picked up.

Endings

There are two distinct endings to the game, the first one being about 25% shorter than the second one. Before you mistakenly take the short ending, the game does warn you, so you can save and then return to do the longer one. The longer ending is the better one, since it ties up the loose ends, and includes more puzzles. It is also a more satisfying ending to this lovely underworld environment and its denizens.

Summary

This could have been a wonderful game with a compelling story, and beautiful graphics. Sadly it came very short of that. The many difficulties encountered in the playing of this game distract the player, and may even cause the player to stop playing it. This game was obviously rushed through production, and it shows in many areas. Had the game been completed with the care that was lavished on the rendered environments, this would be a rave review, instead of a rant.

Score – 6/10

With many thanks to Bacardi Jim for his consultation and editorial skills.

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