The Secrets of Atlantis

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 08 October 2007. Last updated on 16 August 2009.
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The Secrets of Atlantis
History buffs will notice something missing from the tailfins of the Hindenburg that appears on the game's splash screen.
The Secrets of Atlantis
Howard is in the classy office of Ellen O'Connor with whom he meets in the Empire State Building.
The Secrets of Atlantis
Just for Howard, the Hindenburg flies from New York to Macau!
The Secrets of Atlantis
Howard meets Kate Sullivan, an archeologist undercover in Macau.
The Secrets of Atlantis
Howard plays Texas Hold'em to win an Atlantean artifact, seriously!

The Secrets of Atlantis (also known as The Secrets of Atlantis: The Sacred Legacy), published by The Adventure Company in North America and Nobilis France in Europe, is the fifth title in the Atlantis series (which Cryo Interactive Entertainment started in 1997). The Atlantis series is only loosely related, as each game features different characters in different periods of history or mythology.

The Secrets of Atlantis is an engrossing, well paced adventure, with an atmosphere halfway between Dick Tracey and Indiana Jones. The game has sharp, high contrast graphics, influenced by art deco and film noir. The script and voice acting, which are stylized but smooth, likewise reinforce the mood. The puzzles are diverse, challenging and generally well integrated with the plot. They also demand close attention to dialog and visual clues. The game's single serious flaw is that its treatment of history is too superficial. Gamers can easily enjoy this adventure, yet the game does not fully immerse them in true historical tensions.

The game offers 16-20 hours of gameplay. The retail box also contains the manual, which explains the interface and gives clues to a couple of puzzles in the game. The North American and European releases of the game feature different cover art and even have slightly different titles (the original release in Europe has a subtitle) but are otherwise nearly identical.

The Secrets of Atlantis places the player in the role of Howard Brooks, an American aeronautical engineer who is flying on the Hindenburg in April 1937. (This is the month before the airship's real life crash in the Hindenburg disaster.) While in flight, the zeppelin is sabotaged by 2 assailants disguised as passengers. Howard is also attacked, but he is rescued by a stranger, whose wealthy employer wishes to meet Howard in the Empire State Building. This rendezvous, in turn (and by some twist of fate), entices Howard to seek out the lost civilization of Atlantis and, along with it, the true story of his father's disappearance in World War I earlier.

The dialog in The Secrets of Atlantis is purposeful in terms of plot and it also fits the mood. Most of the characters have some overriding preoccupations, such as fashion, security rules, gambling, war memories, or the quest for Atlantis. They usually show only secondary interest in Howard, so he remains something of an enigma and an outsider. Howard is a character with a wry sense of humor, intellectual curiosity, and a tendency toward flirtatiousness. He and the other characters play off each other well in stylized ways. Each voice performance is distinctive, well inflected, and in character. The accents are appropriate to the characters' origins.

On the downside, the game's back-story is sketchy and its conclusion leaves many loose ends. For some reason, Howard and the other major characters seem certain that the discovery of Atlantis is set to change humanity's future. They vaguely refer to advanced technology that the Atlanteans may once have had. However, they do not reach any specific discovery about this technology. Another loose end is that Howard's romantic interests go nowhere. This leaves the player unfairly hanging, with no resolution to the emotional sympathy that Howard has generated over the course of the game.

The game's graphics are very immersive. Although movement is not in real-time 3D, the game uses first-person perspective with backgrounds that are scrollable, 360° panoramas (similar to the system appearing in previous games of the series). The lighting in many scenes is somber but still clear. Moody stylistic effects are achieved by using only a few dominant colors in each scene. The artists have paid much attention to portraying the details of each setting, whether it is an airship, an office building, an oriental gambling barge, or an archeological site. Every place looks as if it has been shaped by the tastes and habits of the people in it.

The game contains lots of background animations, such as rippling reflections. The character animations cover plenty of natural behavior. Characters work, read, and even fidget when left alone, and they look up when Howard approaches to talk. However, facial animations are not particularly detailed. Even so, the characters' faces are distinctive and have an interesting, hard-edged, film noir look.

The game's music is tense and sometimes surreal. The music's style changes over the course of the game and it feels authentic to each locale. Subtle background sound effects such as humming machinery or crackling torches are also appropriately placed.

Despite the engrossing atmosphere, The Secrets of Atlantis contains some disappointments for players who are history buffs. The game makes a single particularly disturbing inaccuracy relating to the Hindenburg's appearance. The real Hindenburg had huge Nazi flags, with swastikas, on its tailfins. The game's Hindenburg bears modified Nazi flags, without the swastikas. Here, the designers seem to be deliberately erasing part of history. Actually, the game contains no reference to any historical event of the late 1930s. The epilogue does not mention the Hindenburg's historic crash or the outbreak of World War II just years later. The characters simply keep searching for Atlantean secrets that will supposedly better humankind.

The game's interface is point-and-click, with rollover icons indicating the possible action in each hotspot (use something, look, talk, or walk to the next panorama). As the mouse moves, so does the viewpoint in the panorama. An inventory bar becomes available by right clicking. Dialog trees are pictorial. Once each topic is discussed its icon is shaded out but it usually does not disappear. Being able to replay topics is important in this game because the dialog contains many subtle clues.

Navigating in the first-person panoramic view feels intuitive most of the time. Although it is difficult to pixel hunt in panoramic space, it is easy to spot clues and objects by chance when navigating around them. However, in large open spaces, where many panoramic screens border each other, the system can feel disorienting. The game does not have many areas like this, though.

The Secrets of Atlantis has very diverse and original puzzles. There are many machine puzzles and pattern based mini-games. Dialog puzzles, wherein the player must gather and share information, also play an important role. There are some inventory puzzles but the inventory remains small for most of the game. Different kinds of puzzles are well integrated with each other. For example, machine puzzles often rely on inventory items, dialog clues and document clues. The game has some very difficult puzzles but they are logical. Moreover, they are interspersed with many moderately difficult and fairly nonlinear puzzles, so the player does not feel stuck too often. An exception is that the very first set of puzzles (fixing the zeppelin's engine) feels like too hard an introduction to the game. Solving the game's puzzles is rewarding. Each major step is accompanied by cut scenes, sound bites of triumphant sounding music, visible changes to the scene, or access to more screens and characters. The look and interface of each machine puzzle and mini-game is unique.

While The Secrets of Atlantis is an enjoyable and intricate game, there is still room for improvement in future sequels. A fully real-time 3D engine could free the game from the few quirks that the panoramic navigation has currently. A bit more character development and clarification of the back-story would further enrich the gaming experience without interfering with the rhythm of the game. A lot more historical context would also make the game's message more memorable. The designers of this series seem to want to convey a meaningful message about humanity's history and future. Yet, they could convey this message less obliquely if their games incorporated actual historical tensions, and not just historical deco.

Despite such imperfections, The Secrets of Atlantis is well worth playing. The game successfully combines the feel of art deco, film noir, and pulp adventures set in the 1930s. The puzzles are top notch, with subtle logical connections among almost every element. Especially for adventure gamers who enjoy 1930s stylization or pattern puzzles, The Secrets of Atlantis is easy to recommend.

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