Mystery of the Nautilus

Review by Jen
with commentary by Mike Phillips
May 2002

Do you fancy yourself a real man? A big game hunter? How about a big pixel hunter? The Mystery of the Nautilus is a veritable pixel-hunting African safari of a game, and if you are a master of monitor minutiae, a scholar of the screen sweep, a fearless finder of photons ... somebody stop me!

Helga, please stop her!

Okay, if you like looking for little teeny hotspots on a great big screen, then this game's for you. Ah, you query, surely she exaggerates? Fear not, dear reader, say I, I shan't lead you astray.

You surely shan't, Jen. T-bot Interactive introduced a new concept here. Pixel hunting is redefined in this game, as you literally are hunting one pixel at a time.

When first I began playing Nautilus, I was ever so disheartened. I could not progress past the very opening part of the game because I did not locate the precise point to point my pointer, not just once, but twice, to find the needed items to continue.

I know those items well. Thankfully, Dreamcatcher included a "First Five Minutes of Gameplay" in the miniscule manual, the teeny twenty pages, the dwarfish document ... somebody stop me!

But I am a patient gamer and my only other option was to struggle for another five hours trying to install the game I had really hoped to play instead of playing this one that was all loaded up and ready to go. No real choice there, right? So I buckled down to some serious stipple scouting and sallied forth.

I considered elective bypass surgery as an alternative, but I too eventually followed Sally Forth's lead and stippled along with sincerity.

Turns out the game wasn't so bad after all. Sure, it has its highs and lows, but overall I wound up having fun with it.

A brief opening cutscene shows your character going AWOL from an exploratory submarine mission to investigate the find of a lifetime, the Nautilus, lying on the sea floor. He climbs aboard and finds himself trapped, unable to open the hatch to which his minisub is docked. This is the only third-person part of the whole game; from now on it's man against machine, through your eyes. So you get your bearings, interfacewise, and quickly figure out how to open the first door. That was the easy part.

Henceforth you attempt to escape from this machine, all the while exploring it, full of awe at this unique creation Captain Nemo had wrought. His specter appears from time to time to ruminate upon what went wrong or to crow about his achievements.

Beyond a doubt, the premise for the game was a solid one. I only wished the designers had included more of Nemo's notes, or visions of him explaining in more depth the reasoning behind what he had done, to expand the plot. Instead, they resorted to cheap tricks seemingly to lengthen the game, a horrible idea.

The Nautilus was an experiment gone badly awry. The onboard artificial intelligence had begun to think for itself to some extent, its main goal being the preservation and security of the Nautilus. In order to protect the ship, the computer had been killing off the Nautilus's sailors in the most devious of fashions for the most minor of transgressions, and the rest of the crew abandoned ship and left it in an undersea location where they never expected it to be found.

This artificial intelligence is still alive and well, and she is your nemesis. At first she thinks you are Captain Nemo but it doesn't take long for her to realize you are an intruder. She is, of course, entirely mechanical, but tracking her down and doing her in may prove to be your undoing. She is sneaky, she is relentless, and you are trapped fathoms underwater with only her for company.

You continue to unlock new areas of the Nautilus, sometimes in a race against time to defeat the security mechanisms, other times trying to avoid collisions and other disasters. Don't get me wrong, this is in no wise an action game, but there are many parts with time limits and you will die and die often.

All of the puzzles are mechanical, and all are logical. You never do something and wonder what was the point; you generally have a clear idea of what to do if not how to do it, and a successful action usually results in an immediate, clearly visible result. There are exceptions; one of the megapuzzles involves setting up a booby trap for an evil robot, and in that case you take actions because you can, not because you know what will happen.

My feelings differed a bit here as I found the puzzles a bit ... well ... puzzling at times. For me, the megapuzzle you mentioned was brilliant. There was a very subtle clue given as to its solution, but you weren't quite clear as to its execution until the trap is almost entirely set. It was an inventory-based, MacGyver-type puzzle if you will, my personal favorite—scavenge for seemingly useless items lying about and combine them in such a way as to accomplish your goal.

Yet not long after that, there was a puzzle whose solution was quite ridiculous. If getting a shock from a wire brought about a decline in your health meter, surely the way you had to open a particular door should have meant instantaneous death ... but it did not—your character suffers nary a scratch. Beyond that, it doesn't take an advanced degree in metallurgy to realize how inane the solution was while aboard a submarine. I'm a picky, prudent puzzle postulator ... what can I say?

The Nautilus floor maps are laid out in a way that makes sense, and the areas open to you at any one time are always small enough that you don't get disoriented. The game is very linear; once you solve all of the puzzles in a portion of the ship and move on to the next, there is no going back.

There are many timed sequences, but they are fairly lengthy for the most part, and you can save at any time during the middle of them. Generally I found myself playing these through twice, once more slowly with a focus on figuring out what to do and where to do it, then restoring an earlier save and taking the required actions quickly and creating a new save, leapfrogging in this fashion throughout the entire sequence. Doing it this way always left me with plenty of time but the resultant repetition was not my cup of tea. I must admit, however, this was a very suspenseful game as a result of these, and after two or three of the longer timed sequences, I felt a sense of urgency even in the untimed parts of the game.

Great minds think alike; too bad there aren't any great minds included in this review. I played the game the exact same way, and unfortunately it sucked most of the fun right out of it. Nothing reminds you more that you are simply playing a game more than having to traverse through numerous screens to save/restore your game. A quick-save/quick-restore option would have helped tremendously: one keystroke and the deed is done. Twenty-four save slots was also something I didn't care for—if an adventurer must deal with death sequences, an unlimited save feature should be included.

A note to adventure game designers: Please scrap the timed and death sequences! I found the untimed sequences much more suspenseful. When that horrid timer kept popping up, it was obvious that I had to save often, and thus the immersion factor was gone. When the music reached creepy crescendos, it was the fear of what the defense system might do to me that got me immersed. The threat was self-induced—every sound had me panicked; a leaky steam pipe had me wondering if it was a trap. Yet whenever that timer reared its ugly head, ho-hum, time to do the save/restore dance once again.

The music serves well to heighten the suspense, too. Nautilus actually has some of the better music and sound effects in the low-budget game arena. The music changes from room to room, and sometimes the transitions between pieces were jarring. Other than that, no complaints. The music never gets in the way of the game, and often it adds a lot to the experience.

The only voice acting in the game is from the Captain Nemo ghost character and the Nautilus nemesis. Your character does not speak, but he does keep a journal that pops up on the screen in the form of a PDA whenever an entry is made.

The interface is, quite frankly, awful. Your inventory consists of a backpack at the bottom left of the screen. That in itself is not a bad thing, but onscreen panning happens when you move your mouse toward the edges of the screen, and every time you move your mouse over to the inventory, your viewpoint shifts quite a bit while your pointer is on its way down to that corner. Also, only three inventory items are shown at any one time, and it's difficult to put something back in the same slot where you got it (you have to hunt that pixel, too), so you wind up just putting it back on the backpack itself, which presents a nice big target. But when you do that, the item goes to the top of the heap, so to speak, and you have to constantly scroll through your items as they are rearranged. This would be tolerable in most games, but when I was trying to find something in a hurry in this game, it was a big pain in my big butt.

The inventory management was a bigger pain in my bigger butt.

Your inventory sits next to your PDA, which is also visible onscreen at all times. The PDA is where you go to review notes and diagrams, as well as save and load games. There are a couple other features of the PDA that only get used once each in the game. But the PDA has the same room-spinning problem as the backpack. All of my saves had pictures of the floor to remind me where I was.

The cursor changes according to what actions you can take, which is a beautiful thing ... in theory. But sometimes it got stuck on, for instance, the "use an item here" cursor, and then I had to quit and restore an earlier save to get the stupid stuck cursor to change back to the smart useful cursor.

There were a couple other little glitches, too. In one part of the game, for example, there is a room where you get blasted into oblivion by a fat red laser beam if you aren't wearing the correct item. I went in there 20 times and died 20 times, and then I put on an incorrect item and was able to go in when I shouldn't have been allowed yet. This resulted in some confusion on my part because I hadn't gotten to the point where I was supposed to be in there, and it just wasn't happening for me baby.

All of these are fairly minor complaints. On the whole, I will say the game ran very well. The installation offers five different options, one for each flavor of Windows that Nautilus will run under. The game ships on one CD, and the full install takes about 545 megabytes of disk space. After that the CD is accessed only for the cutscenes. Aside from the little loading delay in launching these, the whole game played smoothly and crash-free throughout on my aging Windows 2000 computer.

I played it under Windows 98 SE and encountered no bugs. Some sound acceleration slider manipulation was required to eliminate crashes to the desktop or complete loss of sound on my part. Aside from that, no problems at all, thankfully.

The Mystery of the Nautilus could be improved by some bigger hotspots and fewer timed portions, but on the whole I'd say it's a worthy expenditure of a few adventure gaming dollars. I got many hours of entertainment out of the deal. It is in no way a gold star effort, but it is well worth the playing if your distaste for pixel-hunting and -killing doesn't get in your way. Some parts are done extremely right, and the wrong things, while wrong throughout, are relatively minor irritants. Besides, these days you just have to love a game with no mazes in it.

Please don't give them any ideas, Jen—the next iteration of Nautilus may contain timed mazes with death sequences if you make a wrong turn! I can't be as lenient in recommending this game. The somewhat gauzy graphics can be attributed to budgetary constraints, but many of the mistakes in this game had nothing to do with funding, but rather were simply poor design decisions. Perhaps if you are a die-hard adventure gamer looking for a new fix, it is worth the time. If you are a more general gamer looking for a quality title, there are far too many gold star efforts on the shelves right now to bother with this game. The End

The Verdict



The Lowdown

Developer: T-Bot
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: March 2002

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 95/98/ME/XP/2000
PII 350 MHz
8X CD-ROM drive
DirectX compatible sound and video cards

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