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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Nibiru Review

This is the addendum to my Nibiru Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Nibiru 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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The Backseat Game Designer: Nibiru

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 for the title of some recent hits, read this page, and be inspired to write a graphic adventure game in which the player actually gets to make meaningful choices for the main character (the way CRPG's have been doing for ten years now). Would that ever kick the genre into high gear. Ah, well, maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Nibiru that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

Nibiru is a schizophrenic little game. Its graphics and presentation are state-of-the-art professional, but the game itself is amateurishly basic. You click on everything in the proper order, basically, and somewhere in the middle you have to solve a three-dimensional slider and do some base-20 math. The rest of the time is spent alternately admiring the gorgeous environment and manually suspending your disbelief as the characters (including the one that's nominally your own) do increasingly nonsensical things. I've never seen a plot depend on so much randomness before. Need to convince strangers to let you into an apartment building? There's no need to make conversational choices or devise a plan--just keep clicking on them, and the sixth one will let you in for no real reason. Need to find out how to get into a building? Throw a firecracker at a local, who will then make a deal with you to sneak you in. Everyone in this game behaves illogically and unpredictably at all times, and the plot will *only* advance if you follow suit--letting murderers knock you unconscious and inexplicably leave you alive is the only way to get out of the introductory chapter, for example. It's all incredibly artificial, and that keeps the game from being as much fun as it could be. Despite its flaws, Black Mirror was simply a much better game.

Still, Nibiru made an interesting play-through, and in this case, the short play time worked in its favor. There wasn't much pointless jogging around to do, not much chance to get bored. I couldn't help comparing it to the similar-themed Omega Stone, which forces you to slog through hundreds of rooms in a Mayan tomb pixel-hunting for thirty tiny jade skulls of which only six would end up being the right ones. Nibiru was pretty shallow entertainment, but at least it was respectful of my time. The murders and pretty graphics were enough to keep my interest till the supernatural conspiracy had reached its illogical, inexplicable conclusion, and for that, it deserves its props.

Plot Holes

This entire plot is sort of one big hole, to be honest. Nothing done by either Martin or "Stasek" makes much sense. Some of this may have been due to translation issues, but in the English version at least, the Nibiru prophecy is never even explained, and there's never any reason given for Martin's Mayan quest other than a vague desire to explore something his dead uncle was curious about. Martin doesn't know what the machine is, and neither do we; he doesn't have a plan for what to do with it once he finds it, and we never even learn what he DID do with it, other than bringing the ball of melting death back to France to put on his uncle's tombstone. Was that the objective of the game? What happened to the alien creature?

So the main plot never got any meaningful resolution at all, in other words, which is about as big a plot hole as a game could have. Along the way, though, I was left with some other questions as well:

1) Why did the Stasek impostor disappear during the night he and Martin were supposed to break into the mine together? He couldn't possibly have intentionally failed to show up, knowing that Martin would have to break into the cabin himself (and find the dead body in there!) So where was he, and why?

2) Why does the locker with the dead body in it start beeping when you open the generator?

3) How did "Stasek" get past the soldiers at the end of that chapter, even though they'd been alerted to him? Did he overpower them? Then why on earth didn't he do that and enter the mine when he first arrived at the camp?

4) Why is the Stasek imposter still "at large" at the beginning of the French chapter??? Didn't Martin bother turning him in? Or was he supposed to have escaped from police custody? Letting your enemies go free to thwart you another day is something I grudgingly accept from stupid villains, but not from a hero I'm supposedly controlling myself!

5) What happens to Martin's cellphone? He says it got lost--when? Why?

6) How did Martin survive being shot by "Stasek" in the end, when earlier in the game this was always fatal? Did the alien inside the machine heal him, or something?

7) What was the stone "Stasek" picked up, and why did it cause him to disintegrate? Why didn't the same stone hurt Martin when he carried it to the graveyard in the cutscene?

Nibiru Game Advances

Things that other games should learn from Nibiru:

1) I really appreciate a game that gives you a streamlined way to try again when your character dies attempting a puzzle or other task. Granted, this is much easier to implement in a highly linear adventure game like Nibiru than in, say, a CRPG, but it still deserves praise in every single game that attempts it. Savegame management is boring and annoying under even the best of circumstances, and actually having to replay large chunks of the game because of sloppy game design is worse. Nibiru avoids the entire issue with an automatic reload every time the main character dies.

2) I'm a big fan of invisible interfaces. Like the one in Black Mirror, Nibiru's interface never interfered with the view or the mood, yet was easily accessible whenever I wanted it merely by moving the mouse. Because the invisible interface was located in the margins of the screen, menus and other clutter never appeared on the viewscreen itself. This helped the immersiveness of the game very much.

3) It was a welcome relief to be able to double-click on an exit and be taken to the next screen immediately, without having to wait for the character to physically cross the screen. I can't believe more graphical adventures don't offer this possibility, but they don't.

4) I was impressed by the ambient motion in the background screens. Such little things as leaves rustling and a trolley passing in the background made the entire gameworld seem more immediate.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Nibiru a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, the look and feel of Nibiru are already quite good; the game got a state-of-the-art makeover for its 2005 international release, and it shows. What didn't get improved was the substance, unfortunately. That's harder to fix in revision, I'll grant you, but even assuming that nothing could be done about the basic plot or the wretched item-fetching "puzzles," Nibiru could have been a much better game simply by improving the writing. The premise of the game is vague, the plot never resolves, the characters' motivations are inscrutable, and it's not really clear why any of the problems facing him are problems in the first place. A concise explanation of the Nibiru prophecy and why the characters care about it would have helped; so would a finale that either made some vague semblance of sense, or was at least explained by Martin in the coda ("The being in the machine had somehow sensed my enemy's greed, and caused him to melt where he stood. I was unable to communicate with the being, but it magically healed my gunshot wound somehow, and when I freed it by smashing the machine, I could have sworn it looked grateful..." Or whatever it was that really happened; I couldn't tell, frankly.) And as for the villain--well, surely they could come up with SOME more sinister purpose for a murderous Nazi conspiracy than "Ja, I vill sell zis machine and get real rich?" It's supposed to have life-giving properties; couldn't he have been trying to make himself immortal, or resurrect Adolf Hitler, or raise an army of zombies, or anything, really, that a sane non-Nazi might be willing to risk his life trying to prevent?

Which brings me to Martin, the most blase adventure game hero ever created. He's nonchalant about finding a dead woman in the bathtub (a Czech friend assures me that "Oh no, not this!" is an expression of dismay akin to "Oh God, no!", so it might have been less egregious in the original version, but the American actor reads it with the same inflection of inconvenienced ennui as "Oh no, not today!") Two seconds later, he's wasting time petting a nearby cat and commenting "Its fur glitters nicely." He's indifferent to having the police on his trail. He's unfazed by Nazis trying to kill him. Somehow I don't remember grad school leaving me quite this jaded, not even in the field of linguistics.

Combined with this affectlessness, the set of things Martin can do is so constrained that he comes off like a particularly boring robot. At any given point in time, there are no more than three actions Martin can take. He can't figure anything out, he can't interrogate people, he can't wait. If a mine is closed for the night and guarded by Marines, there's no going to sleep to get the game to change to morning--Martin's only option is to sabotage the defenses of the military camp and sneak in right that very moment. Nearly every problem Martin is confronted with boils down to "how can I get what I want RIGHT NOW." It can make a player feel ridiculously superfluous--if we didn't solve all those nonexistent "problems," then time would pass and Martin would get what he wanted eventually anyway. Not only that, but the constraints on his actions are painfully artificial. Why does he trick the old man with a fake bottle of wine rather than spending ten minutes walking to the store and buying a bottle of wine? Well, because, basically, the game engine can't parse "buy bottle wine." There's something very surreal about playing a game with such a modern, beautifully illustrated graphic interface and being able to see the BASIC text adventure you wrote when you were 14 lurking under its skin.

For Nibiru to be a really good game, it would have to provide more quality in the writing of that underlying adventure. But with the effort that would have taken, they could have written a brand-new adventure game that didn't have to work around this crappy Nazi-and-Mayan-aliens plot that they were unable to think up a decent resolution to anyway. That would be time better-spent... and I can only hope it's what they've been doing. Nibiru was more fun than a remake of those old BASIC games of mine would be, but I expect more out of professionally produced software here in the 21st century.

Best Quest: Boy, this was a real weakness of Nibiru. Every thing an NPC asked you to do for the entire game was basically completely ridiculous.
Lamest Quest: Fetching a hot dog for the homeless woman, but then she complains she wants it with ketchup, so you have to go back and buy her a second one and put ketchup on it. I can't believe the game designers really bothered me with crap like that.
Best Puzzle: Probably the one where you had to rotate the dials into a swastika pattern. The answer immediately occurred to me, and was appropriately creepy. I liked the concept of the base-20 math puzzle a LOT, but since there was no in-game indication you were supposed to be adding the numbers together, it mostly devolved into trial and error.
Lamest Puzzle: There were a number of seriously *bad* inventory puzzles in this game. The one that sticks out the most in my mind is "How do you get a man on a park bench to answer your question when he's hard of hearing and keeps telling you to speak up? Throw a firecracker at him. That will cause him to put his hearing aid in." Say it with me: HUH?
Best Plot Twist: That "Stasek" was not the real Stasek. That was both believable and sinister.
Lamest Plot Twist: The extraneous cutscenes with the New Age guru telling Martin from out of the blue that he's the prophesied glorious white dude destined to come from Europe to give the poor Mayans their ancient religion back. Totally stupid, totally had nothing to do with anything else in the game at all.
High Point: Finding Petr's body in the locker. The game cheated a little to get this effect--making a beeping sound come from the locker for no good reason naturally leads one to expect a bomb or piece of machinery in there, and there was never an explanation for what the beeping actually was--but still, it did scare me. It was also the only time Martin responded to anything with actual shock in his voice, which lent to the mood somewhat.
Low Point: Listening to the annoying faux-European accents of the NPC's. I can't understand this, because the game designers are European themselves and they put out copies of their games in European languages, so they must have some European voice talent available. So why did they decide it would be preferable to have English speakers do ridiculous caricatures of French, German, and Eastern European accents?

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