Developer: Lexis Numerique
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: 02/05/08
Gaming has a habit of recycling game ideas, whether they be successful or otherwise, in hopes that money can be made with some changes. You’ve seen it a billion times and will see it a billion more; Alone in the Dark begat Resident Evil, Parappa the Rappa begat Dance Dance Revolution, Power Stone begat, um, every anime game that’s come out in the past three years it seems like, you get the idea. Unsuccessful or forgotten ideas are often equally as desirable as the successful ones, for obvious reasons; if no one remembers the game you’re basing your game on, no one will say “RIPOFF”Â when they see it, after all, and if you can make the product successful and, even better, good, so much the better for you.
Which brings us to The Experiment, which (whether the developers realize it or not) is very much similar to a PS2 title from a few years ago named Lifeline. The basic concept of the two is more or less identical; you play a male protagonist guiding a female protagonist through a weird and alien location, but instead of having direct control over the actions of the main character, you instead direct them by way of using security cameras, environmental cues and other such manipulation.
As neat of an idea as it was, Lifeline wasn’t very good. The Experiment seeks to use the same idea whilst being a good game. The upshot is, it’s essentially better than Lifeline. The downside is, it’s not all that great either.
The basic gist of The Experiment goes a little something like this: you take control of an unnamed protagonist who is, for whatever reason, in the security system of a facility run by an organization named EDEHN (Ethology Department of Extra-Human Neuroscience, if you were curious), who may or may not have government ties. Whilst poking around in the security system, you come across a woman named Lea, who has apparently been unconscious for an unspecified period of time and is, by all indications, the only person alive in the facility. The two of you quickly come to an understanding and opt to work together to accomplish Lea’s goals, which are inclusive of figuring out what happened to the facility and the people in it, helping Lea survive, and some other more… personal concerns.
The concept is incredibly interesting, and the overall story ends up being… generally worthwhile, though the whole is only barely better than the sum of its parts. The core concept of the story and the mystery surrounding it is fairly neat, and the various revelations about various and sundry characters throughout the ship are pretty interesting (an awful lot of the people on-board seemed to have their own unsavory agendas), but Lea’s story is generally uninteresting (due in part to her voice acting, admittedly, which we will address shortly) and the sci-fi elements of the story are… okay, but not anything particularly exciting. There’s this whole subplot to the story about a chemical called hydroxide oxydrin (Hydroxide being OH on the Periodic Table, and Oxydrin being a methamphetamine according to various Google searches) apparently somehow or another giving people eternal life, and this is somehow involved with a race of creatures that live under the surface of the Earth (the Tyriades). Apparently unsavory things were done in the name of science, insofar as this “eternal life”Â serum is concerned, but it’s… kind of difficult to really care… considering that the only person you interact with for a very long time is Lea, and she doesn’t do a whole lot to MAKE you care. A romantic subplot pops up here and there as well between Lea and one of the test subjects in the facility, which ultimately ends up being a fairly significant part of the plot, but considering how much of the plot is devoted to it, it’s not really very interesting and the foreshadowing involved ie less “ooh, that was neat, I didn’t see that coming but it totally makes sense”Â and more “sledgehammer of plot”Â in a lot of cases. There’s also a few issues with the translation that make things awkward from time to time for various reasons; as an example, at one point, Lea makes the observation that she found a USB drive, but the subtitles say “data cartridge”Â, which would make more sense as the project is indicated to have been initiated sometime in the “Ëœ70’s, before USB had even been invented. The story shows flashes of interest and brilliance amidst generally average stretches where nothing of note happens; it’s not bad so much as mostly average, with some bits being fantastic and others unintelligible.
The presentation of The Experiment is artistically interesting, but generally not technologically exciting… for the most part, anyway. Visually, the game looks quite good in an artistic sense, in that the game environment and characters (well, mostly Lea) look acceptable overall, though the game isn’t pushing the visual capabilities of the system in any significant way. The interface is also rendered in a very convincing fashion and generally looks like something that one would expect from a scientific organization, thus adding to the immersion factor. The background music kind of kills that, of course, but that’s generally acceptable, as the music is decent; it’s mostly ambient techno tracks that set the mood well enough to keep them going. The various and sundry sound effects are all generally, um, sciencey… yes, I know, that’s not a word, shut up… and sound appropriate in context. The voice acting, though, doesn’t work so well; most of the voices are only around a few times here and there and are done in such a fashion as to be tolerable, but Lea’s voice actress sounds like an automated telephone operator; this is tolerable in that hey, she’s a scientist and would most likely be more comfortable having dull scientific conversations than being “personal”Â, but the actress is generally incapable of emoting, leaving you feeling less like you’re listening to a sympathetic protagonist and more like you’re listening to a college math teacher. Considering you hear her voice for, oh, eighty percent of the time spent playing, there will come a point where you’ll just want to leave her there, trust me.
The Experiment is generally appealing for its weird gameplay style over its presentation, though, so it’s kind of a shame to note that the gameplay doesn’t really redeem the product much. The gimmick here is that, except for some minor circumstances (piloting a robot or a bathyscaphe [AKA Bathysphere for Bioshock fans], as examples), you have little DIRECT control over anything going on in the game. Instead, you have to direct Lea to do what needs doing, usually by manipulating machinery and lighting in her area to direct her where to go. You can monitor her actions through the security system in the facility, open doors for her, and input various passwords as needed, and the game does go to certain lengths to keep you involved (a few “puzzles”Â pop up here and there that require you to manipulate various things from your end to allow her to progress), with the end result being that the game is trying very hard to give you the impression that you both need each other in order to survive.
Now, as noted, Lifeline attempted to do a similar thing, but it did two things severely wrong that made it ultimately unenjoyable:
1.) it implemented a “voice recognition”Â system that more often misinterpreted the words you were saying than it properly recognized them, and
2.) it placed the main character, Rio, in combat situations that required you to use said broken voice recognition to direct her, thus resulting in many frustrating deaths.
Now, The Experiment avoids this entirely by avoiding combat and instead tasking you with a bunch of puzzles. Generally speaking, the puzzles are pretty interesting when you get to them, as with only a few exceptions (the decryption puzzle comes to mind) most involve simple environmental manipulation as opposed to calculations or anything of that sort. In addition, the game is generally simple enough to play; when you have control of something in the game, a little display will pop up to manipulate it, but otherwise you can pretty much do everything with the map in the game interface, making interaction a snap. The game also does a few things to keep you interested for a while; aside from the aforementioned environmental manipulation, you are given a bunch of neat camera upgrades to play around with, from thermal and night vision to sharpness upgrades (some cameras have focus problems, which said upgrade corrects) and so on. The game also keeps track of time elapsed between play sessions, so when you come back Lea will note the amount of time elapsed and thank you for returning (most of the time; sometimes she just pisses and moans about how she’s been eating rats and drinking drainwater or whatever, like you’re somehow expected to feel bad about wanting to eat and sleep or something). And, hey, there’s about all of one other game in recent memory that’s anything at all like this, so it can safely be said that if you’re looking for something new, you have GOT to try this.
There is one major complaint that can be documented against The Experiment, that being that it is really designed exclusively for hardcore adventure game fans first and foremost, because they are really going to be the only people that have the tolerance for what the game asks of them. First and foremost, the game is generally geared toward making you do two things: search and research. The former is problematic for a few reasons, not the least of which is that LEA WALKS TOO DAMN SLOW. You will, literally, have to wait what feels like an eternity just for her to get to places you specify on the map, especially if you’re going through locations you’ve already been through. This becomes worse when she’s taking her own initiative to go somewhere, thus leaving you waiting like five minutes to get wherever she’s trying to go to, with her helpfully suggesting you look through the various files while you wait and do nothing. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Lea isn’t very helpful when searching; if she sees something in a location, she won’t say “hey, I see something”Â right away in many cases, so you’ll often direct her somewhere else and miss something in the process. Combine that with the fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of points of interest in the game, and the fact that for a rather linear game you’re often not really told where to explore or what to do, and you will literally be clicking on each and every thing, waiting for her to arrive there, waiting fifteen or twenty seconds to make sure she didn’t find something, and repeating with the next point of interest. It’s tedious and requires a lot of patience from the player. The latter is problematic because you’ll probably spend a few hours poking through various files and folders in the computer system until you find that one key piece of information you need to progress while Lea badgers you in the background (no, I didn’t find it yet, that’s why I’m not nodding the camera, relax already, jeez). Evidence, which was also developed by Lexis Numerique, did a similar thing, but got around that by providing a weird and immersive experience that had you using Google and such to resolve the case; The Experiment, as noted, isn’t quite so immersive, so you’re often left reading through files looking for passwords or puzzle solutions that feel less like you’re doing something enjoyable and feel more like, well, work. In other words: between poking around in every nook and cranny for things and reading through various files in the computer system, the game can become tedious and boring for even the most intrepid adventure lover.
There are also smatterings of other issues that make the game less than it could be beyond the patience required of the player. The interface, while convincing, is clunky in a few cases; when one has two or three camera screens up at one time it can become very difficult to focus on the task at hand, which happens on a few occasions, and working with the file system can end up popping up five or six different windows at once, like some sort of adware-infested webpage. As noted, the game is fairly open-ended whilst simultaneously being linear, thus allowing you to essentially poke around wherever you want even though the actual task at hand requires you to go to certain locations in a certain order. This becomes something of a problem when you go somewhere and Lea suggests going elsewhere to resolve a puzzle, only to find when you’ve arrived where directed that LEA DOES NOT WANT TO GO THERE. There’s not a lot of reason to come back to the game, either, as neither the story nor the puzzles are so awesome that they require being seen more than once, and the slow pace of the game makes a second playthrough less than desirable. There are a few minor technical hiccups here and there as well, which are apparently relegated to using more than two camera displays at once; a couple of times I did this thing, the game crashed out to the desktop entirely, but fortunately the auto-save system is pretty thorough and little progress was lost.
The Experiment ends up being a wonderful adventure game for hardcore adventure game fans who are looking to lose themselves in hours of research and exploration, but boring to anyone who doesn’t fit that mold. There’s a significant amount of depth to the environment, a whole lot of documentation to poke around in and explore, and a bunch of puzzles to solve, all within a fairly immersive environment that does its best to keep you involved at all points throughout the experience, and the very original presentation is awesome for someone looking for a game that’s not afraid to challenge convention. But the pace is slow, the research is heavy, and one voice your hear for the most amount of time in the game is the one you will grow to like the least, making the experience something of a turn-off for anyone who’s not a fan of the genre.
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score: DECENT.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Did you skip down to here without reading the review?
If not, then you should probably have an idea of where you stand. Originality in spades, semi-immersive design, interesting gameplay, all lend themselves to a unique and enjoyable experience… and if you made it through the review, you might have the patience you need.
If so, then you’re probably not the target audience for The Experiment; if you’re so impatient you can’t read a review about the game, you’re better off buying something that involves blowing something up. Just saying.