Mata Hari: Betrayal Is Only A Kiss Away
Developer: DTP Entertainment
Publisher: Viva Media
When most of us think of spies, government secrets, and the threat of war, we tend to think of the hot-button issues that face us today. Things like nuclear secrets, global counterfeiting rings, terrorism, that sort of topic. Perhaps we think of James Bond or Jack Bauer and the ultra-macho roles that they fill. Today, we take a trip back to a different era, and an entirely different type of espionage. Join me, won’t you, while we investigate Mata Hari: Betrayal is Only a Kiss Away.
Mata Hari is based on the real life of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who took the stage name Mata Hari in 1897. The game begins in Paris in 1906, or maybe 1907, the narrator isn’t really sure. You will guide Mata from just after her first dance, through her induction into the shadowy world of spies, double-agents, and European superpowers. The game offers you plentiful opportunities to travel across nations, meet famous people, and steal national secrets.
As there isn’t really anything extra in the game like multiplayer or time trials, it has to hook you entirely based on the story. Does it succeed? For the most part, yes. The presentation of the game is wonderful. All of the dialogue is spoken, occasionally in the native language of the speaker. Players with a bit of familiarity in French or German will get an extra tickle out of these parts. Mata Hari oozes almost as much charm as Mata herself, whether flowing through German officers clubs or carousing with the French Intelligence community. What keeps it back is the fact that, aside from the story, that’s all you have. It would have been awesome if the developers had included any of the historical story on the disc as well, but sadly, that’s not the case.
I can’t give much more away than that without spoilers, and besides, you can already see much of her life story in a local library or right here, but the game will guide you through much of Mata’s real life, along with a few extrapolated possibilities. It is an entertaining, interesting tale, made all the more impressive because of just how much of it may or may not have happened.
Story/Modes: Very Good
I have to say that the graphics are a mixed bag. First off, the good: backgrounds. The game is beautifully drawn. From the elegant streets of Paris to the imperialistic avenues in Berlin, you can almost squint and convince yourself that you are looking a photo. The internal renders are also great. There is a lot of detail lavished on surface images. Wood gleams as though polished and marble reflects blurred images of people walking across ballrooms. However, the backgrounds aren’t simply static images. Each location moves, sometimes in subtle ways. Warm breezes will gently wave the trees. Fountains will splash and gurgle. Most scenes have some nifty background effect, such as clouds over the moon, biplanes in the distance, or a hot air ballon. Mata Hari also features, oddly enough, some of the best smoke and cloud effects I’ve seen in a long time. Lighting is very well done also, with soft glows cast by table lamps or harsh light coming from prison lamps. Some of the details are actually really small – but we’ll get to that later.
Now comes the bad part: the character models look about as advanced as those in No One Lives Forever 2. Now, No One Lives Forever 2 was beautiful… seven years ago. What makes it hard to dismiss is that both games featured female protagonists in espionage roles. Eyes focus on the correct body parts, mouths animate during conversation, and people move about with credibly good animations, they just don’t look that hot. The texture work is also uneven. One man will have a belt that pops out in 3D, while another will be wearing a sash that looks like it is sewn into his coat. The effect is jarring. Worst of all though is the action sequences. At one point you cause a small explosion in Marie Curie’s laboratory. The screen shakes, and that is it. No flash, no flames, nothing you couldn’t recreate by picking up your monitor and shaking it.
Sound can be a strange thing in a videogame. It can change the meaning of a scene completely, based on how it’s organized. If you see a room with only about four people in it, but hear applause from dozens, sound can trick you into feeling like the room is much bigger than it is. That type of sound design is on display for most of Mata Hari. If you dance, the masses will applaud, and not just the five or six guys in the front row. A mostly empty ballroom can give off the impression that it contains lots of people chatting in the corners that just can’t be seen. Some of that, however, makes you realize that there are only five or six people in the ballroom for what is supposed to be the social event of the season. Pump the sound, but hurt the graphics, in retrospect. It’s weird, but it happened. On the topic of voices, I’ve mentioned how every line of dialogue is spoken. That is a huge benefit to a game like this. Everyone gets their appropriate accent too. Speaking with the guard at the British Embassy sounded just like you would want it to. German taxi drivers are guttural and direct while a French train station attendant has a lighter, more flowing cadence and accent.
Musically, there is a lot to like about the game. Mata Hari gives you a slow-building, foreshadowing score that might be a tad on the repetitive side. The music really kind of hides within itself though. It never blares, it is always just hanging about in the background. It fits the scenery and setting very, very well. Also, it is never very uplifting or upbeat. Given how Mata’s story ended in real life, I find that very appropriate. The sound effects are also done well. Nothing amazing, but nothing ear-bleedingly bad either.
Sound: Very Good
Mata Hari is a classic point and click style adventure game. Controlling Mata is as easy as clicking on the ground where you would like her to stroll to. As you mouse over things in the environment, your pointer will turn from a grasping hand to a speech bubble, a magnifying glass, and other conventional things. Most of your plot advancement is done via conversations, which are accomplished through the interesting speech system. As Mata speaks with people, additional conversation topics or items to be used will drop into an action bar across the bottom of the screen. Instead of selecting a new text option and seeing it play out, most of the speech is automated. Talk to the right person, however, and a new speech topic will drop into a toolbar on the bottom of the screen. You then can drag that option over to someone else, and talk about that item or topic. For instance, one of your spy objectives is to find out about the Jules Verne Project. This places a small picture of Jules Verne in your toolbar. Drag that onto the right Colonel or Major, and they will tell you what they know. You are also spared the typical pitfall of an adventure game-the cumbersome inventory; as you find objects in the environment, they will appear on your toolbar and you can drag them to other toolbar items or environmental things. Find a scrap of paper with a lock code on it, and you can drag that onto a safe to break in. However, sometimes the game can be so cluttered and the resolution so exact that it is hard to place your mouse cursor exactly where it needs to go to find that next piece of a puzzle.
There are a few mini-games here as well to break up the relentless chatter. The most prevalent is a game where you need to outwit enemy agents while crossing Europe in a train. Let’s say you are going from Paris to Berlin. You choose which station to travel to and take turns with the enemy. This is set up like a board game, and you aren’t allowed to let the enemy land on the same square as you or you go back to the start. There is also a dancing game where you must hover your mouse over scrolling notes in order to trigger the note as it reaches the center of a circle. High scores here mean money, while other games are also used to improve your spycraft.
I should also mention the seduction/flirting mechanic. This is an interesting idea: early on, Mata gets in a conversation on how to properly seduce a man, and offers up four different techniques. Each method is good for a different type of man. Throughout the rest of the game, you will need to decide how to best flirt with a guy to get him to give you what you want. Gaining entrance to the British Embassy, for instance, requires you to speak with one of four random men and make the right conversation choice. Mata will sometimes end up in bed also, but there’s not any real nakedness on display. Mata apparently sleeps in a corset and garters, and really only does that so that her male targets fall asleep and allow you to ransack their rooms.
If there are any flaws in the gameplay, the most obvious would be that it is slow at times. There are a quite a few points where you walk here, talk to this man, walk there, call someone, get on a train, ride to a different city, talk to someone else, and then start interacting with the environment. The interactions are usually quite clever and – while not requiring you to run for an encyclopedia – do encourage thinking. Often someone will ask for an item by another name, or by its chemical name, and you will have to bring that to them. Or you might have to take secret photos of state documents, but aren’t allowed to enter the building with a camera. You have to figure out a creative solutions to most of Mata’s problems, and that is usually quite fun. However, it also becomes formulaic quickly.
For a game that follows very closely to the historical facts, Mata Hari does offer a break or two from the “canon” story. There are four different endings that you can unlock. However, that would be about the only reason to replay the game. Your actions earn you different rewards, in three categories. Money, Spycraft, and Skill. You can influence the ending by raising a particular skill or by making one choice versus another. However, most of the solutions are rail-roaded and linear. Let’s say you sleep with someone and need to steal something from the room afterward. There might be a hammer in the room, but you can’t use that for the lethal option. You have to take the hammer and use it for something else in order to proceed. This type of design keeps the plot intact, but it really hurts the replayability. Yes, some of the endings are neat and worth seeing, but you need to really want to see them in order to give this another play through.
So, you’re a spy. You’re a woman in the the pre-World War I days of Europe. You barely have any rights, and most of the people you’re pissing off can have you killed and buried in a ditch by sunrise. It’s not a very rose picture, is it? Well, fortunately, Mata Hari is a lot more forgiving than the real world. Most puzzles can be clicked at until you solve them. In fact, only things like the mini-games will have a consequence for failure, and that is usually just a smaller reward for the eventual completion. All that said, the game’s mental challenges and flirtation system do keep you interested and they are very cleverly presented. You’re still getting a lot of bang for your buck, so it balances the relative lack of challenge. It’s only a $19.99 title, and these days you are spending nearly that much for an Arcade game from Live or PSN. If you want something different, Mata Hari is worth your investment.
Every time I review a game, I’m reminded of the thousand monkeys-typewriters-years-Shakespeare rule. There really is nothing new under the sun anymore, is there? And the fact that we are looking at a game based on a set of real life events from a century ago kind of puts Mata Hari even further behind the 8-ball. However, thinking about this logically, you see just how much brighter Mata Hari shines. These days, if someone told you they were working on a spy game, you’d immediately think of crouching in the darkness waiting for the guards to walk away so you can pick the lock with an interactive minigame and a fourth-wall shattering limited supply of lockpicks. Or maybe you’re thinking of a grizzled, cloned veteran coming out of retirement one last time to clear his name and shave his mullet. Mata Hari jumps way back to when spies were not ungodly powerful stand-ins for Death himself, dispensing judgment with silenced pistols or trip mines. With Mata Hari, you are given your wits and what tools you can lay your hands on. It is a refreshingly different take on the entire espionage business, and one I’d like to see revisited in the future. Granted, there might not be a ton of sequel possibilities for the type of diplomatic spy business, but then this isn’t a sequel-ready game.
Mata Hari is not going to keep you seated for hours at a time. Since the game does tend to present challenges in a chapter-by-chapter setting, where you are given a series of information-retrieval based tasks, you will probably be wanting a break. Much of the early game is composed of a similar “go here, talk to them, etc,” feel that makes you want to get up and take a walk around once done. The weird thing is that the chapters themselves are very engrossing. Much like I would imagine actual espionage work to be, Mata Hari gives you a sense of “Hurry up and Wait” like few other games I’ve played. You really want to see what happens next, especially once the innocent bystanders start meeting unfortunate ends. I just wish it moved a bit faster. Part of the problem I have with it is that there is no home-base for Mata. Other story or adventure games like this tend to have places where you can look at your past achievements and get a sense of what you have accomplished. Mata has a diary, but it isn’t quite the same. At the end of the chapter I kept having a feeling of starting over from scratch.
Addictiveness: Above Average
9. Appeal Factor
I’ve got a friend coming to town this weekend who was a history major in college, and I think it’s fair to say he’s going to love this game. Mata Hari brings a deep appreciation of history to your PC. Later missions actually involve spying on Charles Renault and the Daimler factory, names that should be instantly recognizable to automobile aficionados. There are a few historical alterations just to streamline the game, but they aren’t terribly obvious and don’t detract from the authenticity. In fact, one of the coolest things is that during the chapter set-up screens, when a man is interviewing Madame Schragmuller (one of your handlers in the game), newspaper clippings from the period are panned across to give you a sense of the times.
Non-historians? Whew, then it becomes a tougher sell. This is an adventure game in a day when most gamers are wanting to pick up the latest shooter or RTS, and it is a decidedly old-school adventure game. There is a lot to be said about a slower paced, methodical experience though. Mata Hari lets you take your time and enjoy the presentation without feeling as though you are missing a detail because you took the left path instead of the right. I’ve used the summer movie metaphor in past reviews, so let me just stretch that a bit further. If a game like Red Faction: Guerrilla is a summer blockbuster chock-fulla explosions, then Mata Hari is the mystery novel you take with you to the beach. Relax and enjoy the story.
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
Quick, name some female video game characters who are playable lead characters. Okay, we’ll take your Lara Croft. You in the back, Samus Aran, thanks. Daisy and Peach? Well, if we must, okay. Chun-Li, sure thing. Who else? Now, how many of those named characters can do anything that a male character can’t? Lara is, and always has been, nothing but a sex symbol with guns. Samus is about as feminine as a tank. Daisy and Peach are carbon copies of Mario and Luigi in any game that they are playable in, and the poster kids for abduction and helplessness otherwise. I’m not going to say anything bad about Chun-Li or she’ll kill me. My point, rambling as it may have been, is that I really applaud DTP for what they did here with Mata Hari. Sure, there is a lot of “flirt and/or sleep with these guys so you can find out what they know” going on, but that becomes easy to overlook. Mata is never portrayed as a bumbling idiot. She’s been given a job to do and she will do whatever it takes to accomplish her goals. There are several points where she reminds the player that “spies aren’t sloppy” in order to get you to finish the mission correctly. What you have here is a strong portrayal of a female character in a series of difficult situations that isn’t just a male character with a bump-mapped chest, but an actual female using her intelligence. I think we can all agree that this is something that would be great to see in more games.
Story: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Mata Hari: Betrayal is Only a Kiss Away is an entertaining, classic adventure game based on real-life events. While the character models could have used some extra polish, the graphics and sounds are enough to make you overlook the small issues. You will use Mata’s unique bag of tricks to ferret out information, documents, and codes from a lot of people, many of them actual, historical figures. Guiding Mata up to – and into – World War I before finding one of four possible fates for her makes for a very intriguing, albeit somewhat slow, game. People with a fondness for historical fact, historical fiction, and especially gamers who want a realistic female protagonist would do well to pick this game up.