The City of Lost Children

Review by Old Rooster
August 2002

Let me start this dual review by expressing sincere thanks to Alan McDonald of Playing Games Interactive. After my successfully answering a forum trivia question, Alan offered this writer not only a copy of the COLC game but also, as importantly, a copy of the 1995 film release. As he suggested, the game is interwoven with and, in most respects, dependent upon the film for best understanding and appreciation. With the wife away, and no distractions, I was able to have a wonderful, immersive, completely involving eight-hour experience last Saturday by first watching the film and then playing the game. This total package comes highly recommended to select and peculiar readers (you know who you are).

"Who Stole the Child's Dream?"

The City of Lost Children, the film, is by the famous French directorial team of Caro and Jeunet (also responsible for Delicatessen in 1991). The setting is bizarre and dark (literally), reminding me of the world of Septerra Core gone bad. A fiend named Krank is using Borg-like Cyclops (with acute hearing in one eye) to find and steal small children. In Krank's quest to add depth and humanity to his soul, he's set up a primitive machine to transfer the dreams and purity of children into his twisted brain (think The Cell). This isn't always successful, and the odious Krank is continuously frustrated and angry. Accompanying him in his lab/residence (like an oil rig) are seven cloned adults (who provide some comic relief), a brain that lives in a tank, poisonous mechanical insects, and a dwarf princess. None of them, including Krank, is complete or psychologically whole. Finally, an Oliver Twistian approach is added with the use of tyrannical, Fagan-like Siamese twin sisters controlling and ordering orphaned and captured children to steal for the cause.

Into this grotesque quagmire enters One, a mentally lightweight circus strongman who has lost his little brother to the Cyclops, and Miette, a precocious 10-year-old who escapes the Sisters and joins One to rescue his brother and other children. There are other characters and twists, especially toward the end, which I won't reveal for the sake of not spoiling the experience. The game, released two years later, employs the dark framework of the film, in a "slice of life" (or nonlife!) fashion.

"Find the Child Where He Is—In His Dream"

Not being a film reviewer, let me just try to give an overview impression of this artistic work. First of all, it's French, which, in and of itself, often suggests a European cinematic style not typically found in U.S. productions. COLC is enigmatic, existential, brooding, dark, frightening, thought-provoking. Essentially, it's a Frankenstein story, yet it doesn't take itself too seriously, with humor interspersed throughout. The bossy Siamese twin sisters, for example, smoke by having one inhale and the other exhale. Indeed, the film ends with a loud burp from One's lost little brother. No children die, at least on screen, and violence is minimal. Still, the visions are nightmarish and contrast sharply with the innocent dreams of the children. Cinematography and sets are outstanding; acting is excellent, especially from Krank and Miette; the musical score is haunting; the storyline initially seems disjointed, but it comes together at the end. All in all, if this seems your kind of movie, and you're in the right mood, the experience is compelling, dark, unforgettable. Definitely a gold-star film, from my admittedly rather twisted perspective.

"C'mon, C'mon Little Boy; I'm Not Doing You Any Harm!"

The City of Lost Children, the game, released for PC (reviewed here) and Playstation, serves to complement the film. Employing 17 characters in 36 locations, I found this 1997 adventure much more interesting and absorbing than I had expected, having passed it by, along with most other adventurers, when it was first released. Borrowing not only the perpetually dark world and visuals of the film, COLC the game also employs the brooding orchestral themes, making this one of those rare games where you'll want to leave the music on. Eerie sound effects include howling winds, lapping waves, seagulls, rusty catwalks. With atmospheric lighting and shadows, as well as motion-captured animations, and wonderful SVGA graphics, this decrepit and nightmarish world of stolen dreams and bizarre characters is remarkably (for 1997) brought to your computer screen.

In terms of game mechanics, I was surprised to find this DOS-based effort installing and playing directly and easily on my powerful XP system, without even having to go to a compatibility mode. There's a choice of a 45 MB minimal or 500 MB full install.

You play as Miette, the 10-year-old orphan, thrust into the middle of the film's setting. You're required to perform some "fetch and carry" tasks for the Siamese sisters, under threat of being thrown into the cellar. Some of the tasks are timed, although not at an unreasonable level. You can't die, even with the frequent opportunities to fall in the sea. Eventually, Miette finds herself in a position to rescue the children, rather differently than in the film, but with the help of One, and with the same general outcome. Most of the film's villains are not present, but the overall threat is much the same.

The Brush Under the Stairs

Miette is controlled with arrow keys (no mouse work at all) and moves fairly fluidly. Interactions and conversations with others are sparse and typically brief. She (you) can wander at will, and transitions from scene to scene are quick and smooth, including frequent opportunities for user-controlled camera shifting. An inventory, with a limit of 10 items, accompanies Miette, sometimes necessitating dropping a superfluous item in favor of a needed new one. Much of your time is spent finding and accumulating those items, and here is where I have my largest criticism of the game. Unlike many adventures that clearly flag an inventory item when approached and/or usually make them observationally clear, COLC really hides them! This is a major flaw in the game and can be really frustrating. Literally out of the blue (or black), you may see an item flit across the upper left corner of your screen, which means it's something you can acquire. Yet precisely finding it can be a real chore. Perhaps my most mind-boggling experience was with finding a brush I knew I needed. Even being aware from a walkthrough (consulted only occasionally) as to its rough location, I had a devil of a time hitting the right spot on the screen, in this case near some boxes under the stairs.

"I Don't Think I Can Manage It"

This plaintive plea from Miette, and the accompanying "I can't do anything," are expressions with which you'll become all too familiar. Although puzzles are fairly logical, the inventory hunting is so tough as to make the overall game often frustrating. Unfortunately, save game slots are limited to eight, without being able to wipe out previous and unneeded saves. This takes away some opportunities to repeat timed sequences, for example, if you get greedy with those saves early on (one of the advantages of playing the game in one or two sittings). Finally, COLC the game is short (approximately four hours), lacks an obvious narrative flow, and ends abruptly.

A Complement Is Not Always a Compliment

The City of Lost Children, the film, is on my "A" list. COLC the game, which complements the film, is a "C" level experience on its own, "B" level when viewed as an adjunct to the film. It's short, tough, and has weak adventuring mechanics. It's hard to understand the premise without the film experience. In that sense, the game on its own may not lead one to compliment the experience. Indeed, COLC the game had mixed reviews, at best, when released.

However, in spite of the interface and my nitpicking regarding game mechanics, The City of Lost Children earns a "thumb up" rating. Online store prices have risen to an almost collector's game level, ranging from $25 to $60. It may not be worth that, particularly as contrasted with post-2000 productions, but I would recommend you avidly hunt for it as a trade or in a bargain bin. It's a game world worth visiting, in terms of setting, visuals and music alone, even with actual gameplay almost seeming of secondary concern. Then rent and watch the film before tackling the game. If your mind is as open as mine to a foreboding, dark, twisted, mesmerizing theme, I'm sure you'll come away from the film/game combination concluding this was an experience not soon to be forgotten. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Psygnosis
Publisher: Psygnosis
Release Date: 1997

Available for: DOS PlayStation Windows

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System Requirements

486 DX2, 66 MHz or higher
MS-DOS 5.0 or Windows 95
16 MB memory
43 MB free hard disk space
1 MB SVGA video card

Where to Find It

CD Access (PC) 24.95



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