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The Backseat Game Designer: Return to Mysterious Island

This is the addendum to my Return to Mysterious Island Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Return to Mysterious Island yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling around a little and be inspired to add some flexible problem-solving into their next game. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Return to Mysterious Island that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

My kids and I had a blast playing Return to Mysterious Island... for two afternoons. Then it ended. Abruptly. Without any closure and without, well, anything much having actually happened. I get the definite feeling that this game was rushed into production. I don't necessarily mind a short game-- in fact, many graphic adventure games on the market would be better if they pared down their playing time a little-- but this one just felt truncated. The first quest, which is merely to scavenge for food on the beach, took nearly as long to complete as the entire rest of the game.

So in that sense, Return to Mysterious Island was rather disappointing. On the bright side, though, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. I particularly appreciated the flexible problem solving (almost every task had multiple possible ways to complete it.) It's rare to find an adventure game that actually encourages lateral thinking like this, the way good CRPG's do. Kheops Studio has recently put out a second Verne-based game using the same engine, called "Voyage," and I'm definitely planning on picking it up. I just hope that one lasts a little longer and has a little more of a storyline holding it together.

Return to Mysterious Island Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) By far the most innovative thing about Return to Mysterious Island is the multiple solutions it offers to each challenge you face. Is an angry monkey blocking a forest path? You can set off a bamboo firecracker to scare it away, sic a snake on it, bake a cake to bribe it with, or make some moonshine and get it drunk. Or, of course, you can leave it alone and just find solutions to later challenges that don't involve any of the stuff you could have gathered in the clearing beyond the monkey. That works too.

2) I liked the idea of the game encouraging you to try out different solutions by awarding you points for them. Unfortunately, the implementation was not stellar-- the game simply awards you more points every time you do anything new, which means the only way to maximize your point total overall is to choose one solution to a problem and then correctly prepare all the alternate solutions you're never going to use. It would have been more interesting if your points total carried over from one playthrough to the next and possibly even if the solution you chose last time was grayed out, so that you could concentrate on improving your score with new ideas rather than simply trying to build and take apart every unnecessary object in the game over and over, which was too obsessive even for me. Still, the concept was an interesting one and worth revisiting in later games.

3) I really appreciate games with streamlined death sequences. Once the robots appear on the scene, there are many opportunities for Mina to die; however, the game will thoughtfully return you automatically to the point just before you made the fatal error, saving you the aggravation of having to restore an old game if you hadn't saved recently enough.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Return to Mysterious Island a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Primarily a better, longer, and deeper story arc. This one entirely boiled down to "Mina is shipwrecked on island. Mina explores. Mina explores some more. Mina solves one of the two possible puzzles that will let her contact her mother and the game ends." It feels more like a scenario than a game. There's only one plot point in the game (Mina accidentally activating the robot guards), and the one potential moment of character development-- Mina's realization that Nemo's wife physically resembles her-- is never returned to again. (Were Nemo and his wife supposed to have been Mina's ancestors? That might have been a neat development, though I thought Nemo's family were supposed to have all died.)

The game's pacing was also badly off-- as I said, it took longer to feed Mina in the intro sequence than it did to vanquish the robots and get inside the Nautilus. And there's just not enough to do in it: only a half-dozen easy puzzles and a dozen relatively uncomplicated tasks, and many of those don't even need to be completed to reach the endgame sequence (it's impossible to complete all the puzzles in one play-through, actually, since either one of the final two Nautilus puzzles will end the game. In a game with so few puzzles to play in the first place, it's really a shame to waste one like that.) Adding a little variety to the gameplay would also have helped... Mysterious Island relied too heavily on pixel hunting and random inventory combination.

That said, the fact that the game was so short and simplistic made it particularly easy for children to play-- my kids are able to play this one on their own without my help. Better pacing and a more compelling plotline would have improved this game for anyone, but including more puzzles, more varied puzzles, and more challenging puzzles would have made the game better for me at the expense of children or adventure game neophytes trying to navigate it. Offering two difficulty settings or an optional in-game help system would have been the ideal solution, but we're talking about a game whose designers didn't even seem to have time to finish it properly. There's no point in getting TOO greedy. :-)

Best Puzzle: The true puzzles in this game were all much too easy for my taste (my 8-year-old son had no problem with any of them except one of the optional ones in the final room.) I really liked some of the creative alternatives to the inventory puzzles though-- the different ways to scare away belligerent monkeys were probably my favorite.
Lamest Puzzle: None of them were particularly bad, but I did think the quiz game at the end was pretty tiresome (particularly having to wander around the room looking for a sample or picture of each thing before being permitted to answer the riddle.)
Best Plot Twist: There are no plot twists in this game. There's barely a plot at all.
Lamest Plot Twist: There are no plot twists in this game.
High Point: The sudden appearance of the monster was pretty cool and gave us a scare.
Low Point: The abrupt ending of the game. With about 75 unused items still in inventory.

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