Ring:  The Legend Of The Nibelungen (1999)  
by Bacardi Jim
September 8, 2004

Developer: Arxel Tribe
Publisher: Cryo & The Adventure Company  

Over the last several years, the developers at Arxel Tribe have made a name for themselves in the adventure gaming community by putting out some of the most offbeat and interesting games in the genre.  Their philosophy seems to be that their games are less about plot and story than they are about ideas.  Those of you who have played Faust/7 Games of the Soul, Pilgrim: Faith as a Weapon, or Legend of the Prophet & the Assassin (all of which I recommend) will know what I mean.  (In fact, their one attempt at a conventional plot-driven game, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Final Cut, was an unplayable disaster.)  Ring isn’t merely another of Arxel’s philosophical adventure games; it is the apotheosis of them.

Ring is ostensibly based on Richard Wagner’s operatic telling of the Nibelung cycle of Nordic myths, which chronicle the events leading up to Ragnarok, the final battle between the Gods, Giants and Dwarves which spells the doom of all Creation.  Legendary French comic artist Philippe Druillet (creator of the magazine Metal Hurlant which became Heavy Metal in the U.S. ) has taken the collection of stories and set them thousands of years in the future.  In an almost incomprehensible over-story, our protagonist is presented as one of the last (or the last?) human beings alive.  Earth has been destroyed, and our hero ISH is guided through his racial memory to experience four different individual parts of the Ring Cycle in order to… well… we’re not exactly sure why. At the completion of each of the four sections, ISH is questioned about what he has learned from the experience by his mother (?) and given some history lessons about how humanity met its end.

I have to be up-front about this: although I mostly enjoyed this game, the over-story is a completely meaningless mish-mash.  Fortunately, one needn’t understand it to enjoy the fun of exploring each of the four mythic scenarios.  From the spaceship-asteroid-thingie that acts as the game’s hub, you can enter into the tales of Alberich the Dwarf, Loge (Loki) the Trickster God, Siegmund the Hero, and Brunnhilde the Valkyrie.  One of the pluses of the game for those who enjoy non-linear gameplay is that at any time you can exit the story you are currently exploring and go back to this hub to enter a different story.  In the manual and various walkthroughs you will be warned that solving the sub-stories out-of-order will make the overall plot harder to understand.  Yet since it is senseless anyway, I don’t feel that you’re giving up much if you choose this option.

It is in the individual sub-stories that Ring really shines.  Each of these tells a fairly straightforward story with plenty of exploration and puzzling.  One of Arxel Tribe’s unique touches is the way they conceive inventory items.  As in Pilgrim, not all such “items” need be physical objects.  For instance, when you enter the story of Alberich, King of the Nibelung (Dwarves) you start with “Brutality” as an inventory item.  You use it like you would any other item to beat and intimidate underlings, hit machinery that’s on the fritz, or any time force is called for.  With one glaring exception, the puzzles are all logical, well-integrated, and of middling difficulty.  There are occasional bits of humor in the first two stories to brighten up the otherwise heavy overall tone.  Each story also features bits of the corresponding Wagner selection for musical soundtrack, and for the most part this works quite well.  The simple and intuitive point-and-click interface, smooth node-to-node movement and 360-degree panning make navigating your way through each tale a breeze.

Ironically, it is the very integration of the game with the opera that provides Ring’s one true stinker of a puzzle.  In Loge’s realm, you encounter a giant organ. The puzzle is to repeat a loop of operatic music that is playing (faintly) on the soundtrack.  The problem is that there are 15 keys on the organ, each of which must be used and each of which actually plays a sequence of notes.  They all sound almost identical and since the music you are trying to mimic is on an endlessly repeating loop, you don’t have any real idea of where to start anyway.  I defy anyone to solve this sound-puzzle-from-hell without a walkthrough.

Fortunately, there is a complete walkthrough for the game included in the manual, which may give you some idea of just how short Ring actually is.  In fact, it takes much less time to play Ring than it would to watch the operatic cycle on which it is based, which is comprised of some fourteen hours of music.  However, there is much to like crammed into a small package.  (Actually, it would appear that there was supposed to be a fifth segment of the game.  There are five hotspots on the machine you use to enter the sub-stories, but two of them take you into the same realm.)  There is no denying the originality of the game.  In a time when cookie-cutter adventure games are the norm, Ring is a breath of fresh (if heavy) air.  I already mentioned the music, which while NOT original is light years better than standard adventure game fare.  And then there is the artwork.  Anyone familiar with Druillet’s work (or the pages of either Metal Hurlant or Heavy Metal) will know to expect something special in this department.  The look of the game is both dark and beautiful, utilizing mostly dark tones (black, burnt ochre, indigo) and detailed, stylized backgrounds.  Every character is original and interesting, from the grotesquely blubbery Alberich to the gorgeous (and quite naked) Water Maidens. Although not as amazing, vibrant and fully realized as his gorgeous artwork for the game Salammbo, Druillet has given us something completely original to look at in nearly every frame of Ring.  Sadly, as in Salammbo, some of the detail suffers from being presented in a 640 x 480 resolution.  Nevertheless, both games look better than most other games that I’ve played recently.  The sheer creativity involved in the graphic design does much to help carry the gamer through many of Ring’s flaws.  

In conclusion, playing Ring is a bit like watching one of the Wagnerian operas on which it is based if you don’t speak German: you may not understand it but you can sit back and enjoy the spectacle.  

Score: 7½ (out of 10)

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