Timescape: Journey to Pompeii

Review by Enigma
February 2002

Oh how I looked forward to playing this game. Timescape comes to us by way of Cryo from the Arxel Tribe folks, who make great edutainment games, usually. The story is set in ancient Pompeii, just before the volcano popped off and buried everything. I love history, I love edutainment games, and I wanted to have a wonderful time exploring Pompeii.

Oh how I wish the volcano had buried this game.

The game's storyline is a bit silly, but that's okay. It's the gameplay that's beyond silly. Many of these puzzles only barely brush up against logic, and as you're exploring, the city's population appears to have already fled, with the exception of only a very few characters.

The Story

Timescape does have a story. You are Adrian, a British soldier in World War I, and you're in love with Sophia. You wind up stranded and sick in a cave during the war. There you're visited by the ancient goddess Ishtar, no less, of Mesopotamian fame. Ishtar has the hots for you (well, Ishtar was less than selective in that regard), but you rebuff her. To get even, she grabs Sophia and plops her down into Pompeii just four days before Vesuvius erupts. Sophia has no memory of you. Your job is to find her and convince her to run away with you before the volcano destroys the city.

Miraculously, you have an ancient identity and a nice toga, speak perfect Latin, and seem to know plenty about Roman Gaul. You stay with a prosperous wine merchant, a devotee of the cult of Isis who dabbles in politics, and you know who he is, too. Once you find your way out of his house you're off to tramp around the city, meet influential people, solve mysteries, settle arguments, steal stuff from temples, rescue folks, eventually convince Sophia that you are indeed her true eternal love, and get outta there.

Now, I can buy the idea that Adrian speaks Latin and knows about Gaul. British officers of World War I vintage usually had a strong classical education. The emphasis on Isis, an Egyptian goddess, isn't out of place either. There was indeed a cult of Isis in ancient Roman cities, where folks were fascinated by the Egyptians. I do find it a bit odd, though, that the game touches on the Roman gods only peripherally.

If that were the only thing odd about this game, I wouldn't be complaining.

Gameplay

So there you are in ancient Pompeii. You'll move around through traditional pointing and clicking. Note: you can die in Timescape. In fact, you'll die fairly often unless you can read the minds of the game designers. Your first puzzle, which you'll encounter as soon as you step out the door of your adopted house, involves settling a dispute between a couple of tradesmen. A mule has blocked the path of a vegetable merchant. It's being mulish and refuses to budge. The mule's owner and the merchant are about to come to blows. You have to get the mule to move.

By this time you have a rope. Do you do the logical thing, and tie it around the mule's neck? If you try that you'll get kicked in the head. No, instead your solution defies the laws of physics. If you don't come up with that solution, quickly, you'll either be kicked in the head or arrested, and the game will end. If you're smart you'll view that as a blessing.

Later you'll find a timed puzzle that also defies logic. Would you really start stealing things from temples, just after making friends with the priest? If you don't, game over. While you're chucking javelins around, would you really turn that into an opportunity to deliver a flower to your lady love over in the next-door garden? If you don't, you'll wind up turning your javelin playmate into a shish kabob. Game over.

You'll play an authentic Roman game, but you'll never get the rules for how to play, not even in the encyclopedia. It doesn't matter. You'll win anyway. You'll search for items without knowing what the items are half the time, or where they might be located, or why you need them, or how to use them once you've got them.

In short, the puzzles just aren't fair.

Lights, Camera, Action

I did find three elements of this game that I liked. The depiction of ancient Pompeii looks good. The developers did their homework and based their city on photos and maps of the real thing. You'll see excellent reproductions of wall paintings and mosaics that were really found in the ruins of Pompeii, and you'll see them in the buildings that were really there. It took plenty of work to reproduce all that, and Arxel Tribe should be commended for it.

Also, the in-game encyclopedia, always available, gives you extensive information about the city and the ancient Romans. You can see the photos of the modern excavations that Arxel Tribe used to design the game. If you're interested in all that, instead of playing the game you'll probably be better off spending your time just wandering around in exploration mode and reading the encyclopedia.

I liked the music too, especially the first theme you hear in the "House of the Cythera Player." If you've played Pilgrim, set in the Middle Ages, you'll hear the same music in the opening scene there. I forgive the fact that it isn't ancient Roman music. It's still pretty nice.

Be glad, however, that the buildings look good, because that's about all you'll see as you wander around in Timescape. With the game's "visit mode" you can move around the deserted city just to look at it. However, the city looks entirely deserted even during the gameplay. Occasionally you'll encounter somebody you need to talk to, but only when it fits into the storyline. Other than that, nobody's there. Nobody's anywhere. It seems strange to go to the central forum, and the place is completely deserted. Nobody's in the gymnasium either, or in the tavern or the bakery if the storyline doesn't demand it.

When you finally meet some characters, they look like 3D puppets. They sometimes sway back and forth as though caught in a strong wind while they're talking, although their mouths never move. You'll know they're talking because of the voiceovers. Occasionally they move their arms. They rarely display any other animation that might indicate life, although some of them walk in the cutscenes after "conversations." One elderly lady walks bent over at a 90-degree angle. That, I suppose, indicates that she's elderly. That stubborn mule was the most sympathetic character in the game, I thought.

The voice acting ranges from adequate to bad. Get used to it, because the game forces you to experience each and every dialog option. Sometimes you'll have only one dialog option, an element of the game that will not require you to tax your brain. Your character, Adrian, speaks fairly often and he won't embarrass you, except for the fact that he's a British officer with an American accent. Go figure.

Bugs

Timescape provides you with a nice map of the real Pompeii, and you'll need it to figure out where you are in the city. Almost every time I used the map, however, the game froze. It also froze when I tried to take screenshots. Sometimes it would unfreeze after many clicks, but sometimes I just had to crash and reload. If you crash, however, you won't lose your game. By choosing "continue" when you reload you can resume wherever the game crashed. The game comes on two CDs and requires minimal disc swapping, but it froze then too. Plus, I couldn't quit. No, not because of fascinating gameplay, but because whenever I did quit, the credits never stopped rolling. No amount of clicking, force quits, or anything else stopped them. Hitting "escape" only made them start over. I had to force my computer to restart to get out of Timescape. During actual gameplay everything ran smoothly.

My Verdict

Unless you're just so fascinated with the subject that you don't mind slow, silly, illogical gameplay, I advise against a purchase of Timescape. Indeed it was nice to wander around in ancient Pompeii, but you can do that in half an hour under the "visit mode." You also might read a book instead of playing this tedious game. I finished it, because having started the thing I was determined to finish it. I also wanted to see the spectacular animation of Pompeii's destruction in the final cutscene. Even that proved to be less than spectacular. A few of those 3D puppets running and being hit by falling columns, a crude animation of Vesuvius erupting that looks like a shot from a Saturday morning cartoon show, and that's it. Not worth the wait, not worth the plodding gameplay, not worth the time, not worth the money. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Arxel Tribe
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Release Date: 2000

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
Windows 98/95
Pentium 200 MMX
32 MB RAM
12X CD-ROM drive

Macintosh:
OS 7.5
Power PC 200 MHz
32 MB RAM
12X CD-ROM drive

 
   
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