The Sydney Mystery

Review by Old Rooster
April 2003

"Wow, It's Great to Be Home!" —Niece/Narrator

If the Sydney Tourist Board decided to include an adventure game in their promotional/welcoming package, this local, independently produced effort would be the obvious choice. Brendan Reville and his Twilight Software team have presented a game, three years in the making, that is obviously a labor of love—not only for the starving adventure genre, but also for the wonderful community in which they have the pleasure of residing. We'll come back to this thought a bit later.

The Sydney Mystery presents a kidnapping, of uncle Fred, in a contemporary setting. The faithful niece, and narrator, sets off to find what happened, gathering up clues, discussing her uncle with neighbors and acquaintances, and using acquired inventory items to move her way through a 24-hour period, in four acts. There are 240 scenes, 17 different locations, and 11 characters with whom to interact.

In terms of gameplay mechanics, SM includes only a CD in the delivered package, running directly from that CD (no hard drive space needed, except for saves), and with minimal instructions included by way of a mini-tutorial within the game. It's a point-and-click, first-person adventure, with you playing the niece/narrator, which couldn't be simpler to navigate. Indeed, the cursor (left-mouse-button controlled) is rather absurdly large (see accompanying pics), both as to directional arrow and actions that can be performed (open, examine, pick up, chat). Acquired inventory is displayed through a right-click, each item being brought to the screen individually, this being something of a problem, since scrolling through the entire inventory is often necessary. Selected items can be "used" on the desired target by simply placing them on that object or person.

Full-motion video is employed liberally throughout the game, primarily to give scenic overviews of a new area and also to enhance conversations. Each of the eleven interviewees responds to your questions through the medium of FMV. Static pictures of scenes (240) are used both outside and inside, with movement being very unidirectional and little opportunity for exploration. Indeed, there is no mouse rotation or room examination possible except that which becomes obvious with a highlight from the over-large cursor. Stunning aerial views are employed in a map of the city, which has sections and highlights places to which you can instantly travel. New locations (17 total) become available as you progress through the game, being "locked" until certain preliminary objectives are completed. Loading time is instantaneous, enabling speedy movement from place to place, with a couple of little tricks helping this along. There are 10 save-anywhere slots, though you shouldn't need more than several. You can't die, and there isn't a nasty "Game-Over" screen! Finally, the game never crashed or even "hiccuped" once, something of a rarity these days.

"I Can See He Has a Lot More Secrets than I Thought." —Niece

One of the trends I really appreciate in current adventure titles is to have puzzles to solve within the context of a mystery to unravel. Indeed, in a recent interview, Mr. Reville said he had a goal of creating "story-oriented, intuitive puzzles, not contrived, that fit into the game environment." His idea is that the resolution of a puzzle "totally makes sense." In this respect, I think he largely has succeeded. Mostly, your head-scratching will come from wondering which item(s) of your inventory to apply, with the typical reaction afterwards being: "Well, yes, that's obviously it!"

As with most adventure games, pick up everything! Of course, our niece must have a very large backpack, given some of the stuff she is lugging around, but we'll forgive that small lapse of realism, one that is common with inventory-based games.

"I'm Here; Now What Am I Looking For?" —Niece

As indicated, navigation within the game is extremely easy—perhaps too easy. You virtually are drawn to the giant hotspots. Again, side exploration isn't encouraged—although there are some brief forays possible—so you can't really get "lost." In this sense, the game seems quite linear. Even the occasional difficult puzzle typically can be resolved through exploration of the specific area in which it is found. The one at the very end of the game (identity spoiler-protected) comes to mind, with a good deal of hair-pulling on my part (only three are left now), until I simply started wandering the area and found the solution. A new area apparently is not opened (unlocked) for you unless and until you either have what you need from previous locations or can find it at the current location.

"What do you think of the bombings," is a query voiced by the niece during most of her interviews. It's clear her uncle was involved in something rather large and unpleasant, and here she thought he was enjoying a quiet semi-retirement! She's encouraged that she can move more efficiently on her uncle's disappearance than can the police, and she certainly does get around Sydney very quickly!

Musical themes accompany most of the game, which are fitting in terms of selection but often overly loud, particularly in contrast to the soft-spoken niece/narrator. Unfortunately, there is no option to reduce the music or elevate the spoken word. In that regard, there is also no option for written text, much to the detriment of our hearing-impaired friends. One can manage lip-reading with those being questioned, but we are completely dependent, literally, on hearing what the niece has to say.

Voice acting generally is very good, and better than I had expected, particularly given Mr. Reville's indication of the amateur status of his cast. Indeed, one of the most appealing is his own 92-year-old Nana, who is a ringer for my English mother-in-law, almost bringing tears to my wife's eyes. For a production that used relatives and friends, I'm quite impressed by the level of natural thespian talent evident in Australia!

"Now I've Got a Sharp Knife; I'd Better Be Careful with That." —Niece

This utterance typifies a good deal of the often-simplistic script. It also brings me to the more difficult part of my examination of the game, and I will try to exercise care. In the aforementioned interview, Mr. Reville says of The Sydney Mystery: "It's a low-budget production, a true independent game; and so I hope everyone manages their expectations accordingly." Well, now, that perspective, which is valid, does make objective appraisal difficult, particularly when a game enters the competitive marketplace and has a price tag. Nevertheless, let's look at some of the concerns I have about the title, "indie" or not.

The Sydney Mystery is short. If you've played the demo (first of four acts), you've played at least one-third of the game. The last two acts are very brief episodes. Referring to a walkthrough only twice, I was finished within four hours.

Game packaging is rather primitive, with the CD in one of those thinner cases, no manual (even on the CD), and the mailing envelope being a generic padded 83¢ postage affair (from Seattle, not Sydney).

The game is simple. As mentioned, SM is almost linear, pulling you with its giant cursor and hotspot banners scene by scene. You almost can't go wrong. Conversational trees, sometimes 12 questions long, are often irrelevant until you get to the key, location-unlocking, question and response.

Inventory management sometimes is burdensome, having to bring up every item, rather than having a separate screen where a desired item could be selected. Thank goodness, the last selected item does disappear when moving away from the target area.

The music is too loud. This, accompanied by the soft, flat, rather expressionless rendering from the narrator, becomes a real distraction.

A couple of the puzzles are a bit absurd, in spite of the "realism" goal, but that's okay. What is a problem is that the story seems to peter out, with an almost anticlimactic ending and a resolution to the "who is doing the bombings" question that's not completely satisfying. There's also no logic to some of the requirements to have a conversation or open a new location. This is particularly in evidence during an episode where you are told someone is at lunch and have to perform a number of theoretically time-consuming tasks before you can join him/her.

Production values have some jagged edges. Near the end, a boom microphone is clearly in evidence during an interview. In another, rather critical, ending scene, the actor appears to be glancing down to read his/her lines. There is a windy cliffside scene where the stiff breezes (background noise) clearly interfered with the recording, the kind of thing I might do with my own video camera work.

I said this kind of dissection is hard, especially when it's not being applied to the product of an abstract and large company, but rather to the work of a nice group of folks who obviously are proud of and care about their game and community. But we do owe it to our readers to be honest and objective.

"Enjoy the New Day in this Wonderful City of Sydney!" —Last Line of the Game

Having said all that we said in the previous section, The Sydney Mystery still gets a qualified Thumb Up rating from this reviewer. It's not fair to compare it with Shadow of Destiny, CSI, Law & Order, and other high-budget titles. If we compare with other independently produced games, it certainly falls in the upper tier. Specifically, in terms of my recent experience, it's much better than Full Moon in San Francisco but not at the level of Dark Fall (few games are!).

The game engine is most commendable and, with a couple of modifications, could well become the basis for any number of future games using full-motion video. I'd like to see greater opportunity for visual scene exploration (mouse rotation), as well as movement to nonessential locations—particularly when the action takes place somewhere like Sydney!

The settings, not only the standard Sydney tourist spots, but also the homes and grounds, are lovely, and they brought my game-cynical wife to the screen on several occasions. "Just look at those gardens, or furniture!" Further, since there is no stated or obvious violence (in spite of the bombing concern), I certainly can envision children over the age of 10 joining with their parents in solving the mystery of Sydney. Again, it's quite easy and, with the large cursor and relative linearity, would be a good introduction to adventure gaming for the uninitiated.

We earlier spoke of the Tourist Board including this game in their promotional packet. I've never been to Sydney, but this game experience certainly sparked an interest in a trip, especially with one of my wife's relatives living in New Zealand (isn't that a suburb of Australia?). The Sydney Mystery, in spite of some first-production warts, is a charming reintroduction of FMV, accompanied by a decent story, with a fine acting crew, and placed in a highly photogenic setting. Although leaning toward simplicity and brevity, Brendan Reville and his stalwart team have shown that they know how to make a game. They have done more right than wrong, and I'm encouraged that they are at work on their next title—The Millennium Adventure. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Twilight Software
Publisher: Twilight Software
Release Date: April 11, 2003

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium (a high-end 486 may be feasible)
16-bit graphics
16-bit audio
DirectX 6 or higher

Where to Find It

Twilight Software $24.95 (includes shipping)



Prices/links current as of 04/20/03
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