Return to Mysterious Island

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 01 June 2009. Last updated on 10 November 2009.
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Return to Mysterious Island
A cornucopia of earthly delights graces this unspoiled island.
Return to Mysterious Island
Clay can be very handy, as veteran fans of Kheops Studio's games already know.
Return to Mysterious Island
Nodes are densely packed with objects that Mina can carry around.
Return to Mysterious Island
The inventory screen is a crowded piece of real estate.
Return to Mysterious Island
Riddle me this, riddle me that.

This game is part of the Adventure Collection: Volume One re-released in 2008 by The Adventure Company.

Adventure Collection: Volume One

The compilation includes 5 games previously released by The Adventure Company separately in 2004-2007:

Dead Reefs


NiBiRu: Age of Secrets

Return to Mysterious Island

Secret Files: Tunguska

Here are some trivia about the 5 games included in the compilation: (1) 3 games2,4,5 feature female protagonists, (2) 3 games2,3,5 involve danger to either the protagonists' relatives or close friends, (3) 2 games2,5 have built-in hint systems, (4) 2 games1,2 are developed in Canada, (5) 3 games3,4,5 are developed in Europe, (6) 4 games2,3,4,5 are not originally English language releases, (7) 5 games1,2,3,4,5 are developed by small- to mid-sized studios.

1Dead Reefs 2Keepsake 3NiBiRu: Age of Secrets 4Return to Mysterious Island 5Secret Files: Tunguska

Return to Mysterious Island is an adventure game from Kheops Studio, a French development studio that specializes in literary and historical adaptations in their games. For Return to Mysterious Island, the source material is the Jules Verne novel, The Mysterious Island, in which the submariner Captain Nemo faces his final adventure and ends his life on an uncharted volcanic island in the South Pacific. The game supposes that its modern-day protagonist, a solo navigator named Mina, has been shipwrecked on this same island.

Return to Mysterious Island is surely a landmark in Kheops Studio's canon, yet this game offers only a few surprises if the player is already familiar with this developer's later, more popular titles. The game's inventory system, which features extensive assembling, disassembling and reuse of components, is a hallmark of Kheops Studio that is seldom paralleled by other developers. The lush and realistic graphical environment of pre-rendered, panoramic nodes is also typical of games by Kheops Studio. However, some features remain distinctive to Return to Mysterious Island and give it a flavor of action adventure: a health bar (which actually relates mainly to puzzle solving rather than to combat), a handful of shooting sequences, and a sidekick character (a monkey) who can accomplish different tasks than Mina can.

The most serious shortcoming in Return to Mysterious Island is that the character interaction is minimal. The entire game has just a single dialog exchange! This brief conversation is with a killer robot whose sole purpose is to quiz Mina. Arguably, this game also shares some common limitations with other games from the same developer. They are short (6-8 hours in this case) and the elaborate inventory puzzles potentially force extensive pixel hunting, though Return to Mysterious Island moderates the latter issue by including many redundant objects that can act as substitutes for each other.

Return to Mysterious Island begins when Mina, unconscious, washes ashore on the island. She has been in a solo sailing competition but a storm has wrecked her ship. When she awakes, a few things become apparent. Her satellite phone's batteries have failed. Before exploring the island and searching for some way to get the phone working, Mina must find and cook some food so that she can regain her strength. However, even before this first task is done, Mina starts to discover clues that she is not the first creature to set foot on this island. Somebody has lived and presumably died here before, and Mina is being watched.

The game is released in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. A manual describes the interface and offers a brief starter walkthrough for the novice player. In 2006, the game is re-released as part of the Jules Verne Collector's Edition (with Journey to the Moon).

Most of the game's script is a monologue, with a voiceover. Mina talks to herself or later to a monkey whom she befriends and names Jep. On a couple of occasions, Mina hears the voice of Captain Nemo's ghost but she has no opportunity to reply to him. Eventually, she manages to contact her mother on the phone, yet these sequences are entirely non-interactive (effectively, cut scenes). The only dialog with choices occurs near the game's finale, where a robot either kills Mina or helps her escape, depending on whether she answers its questions correctly.

The cast of supporting characters is a bit eclectic and corny: a monkey, a ghost, a killer robot, and mom (really!). The intended effect does not seem to be satire but rather an endearing familiarity. Jep is, admittedly, cute when he chatters. As for human language, the lines and voice acting are direct, without emotional subtlety but with a purposeful and enthusiastic focus on the tasks and rewards that await Mina. This style of dialog helps create the atmosphere of an action adventure (even though the action sequences are few).

Return to Mysterious Island, like Kheops Studio's other games so far, uses first-person perspective with scrollable, 360° panoramic nodes. The scenes' level of realism is pleasing and the setting has many exotic features, such as the bubbling sulfurous geysers and a hidden chemistry lab in a cave. More commonplace sights, such as the birds' nests on a cliff face and tracks in the beach sand, are also carefully portrayed.

On the other hand, the game contains only a modest amount of animation. Most of the cut scenes are series of still line art rather than pre-rendered videos. Likewise, there are hardly any human character animations. Scenic animations include rising geyser steam and soaring birds, yet not drifting clouds, for instance.

The soundtrack includes convincing samples of natural sounds, such as Jep's and other monkeys' chatter, various birdsongs, and the ebb and flow of waves. The music is an energetic combination of tropical sounding chimes and percussion, sci-fi eerie whistling, and even an organ tune. Though the sound track does not change often and in some places does not include music, it is an adequate accompaniment for the exploration, puzzle solving, and action.

The game's point-and-click interface has a typical set of rollover icons, indicating the possible action in each hotspot. The inventory system allows the player to specify combinations of multiple items simultaneously. Disassembling a previously assembled item is also possible. This adds an intriguing level of complexity to many puzzles, since even if the player has the necessary inventory items, they may not be in the correct state of assembly or disassembly. This inventory system has become standard for games by Kheops Studio. Return to Mysterious Island is the original title to feature this inventory system, and the same system is reused by the developer in its later titles.

A few special cases in the interface are also worth noting. Jep (once Mina befriends him) is effectively an inventory object but he has a special, honorary slot. Crosshairs sometimes appear when a ranged weapon is the active item and hostilities are imminent. However, such situations are rare, as only under extreme duress does Mina consider shooting any creature or object. (This is not Sam and Max!)

The gameplay consists of many inventory puzzles, a few pass code puzzles or riddles, and a few timed action sequences. The inventory puzzles are the hardest aspect, yet several factors can moderate the challenge. First, for players who are already familiar with Kheops Studio's other games, the pattern of some puzzles, such as lighting a fire and molding clay objects to bake in the fire, is easily recognizable. Second, the game allows several alternative solutions to many of the inventory puzzles. Thus, the game is still winnable even if the player misses quite a lot of items or combinations. Third, Mina's satellite phone contains an encyclopedia that provides useful information about inventory items, once the phone's batteries are recharged.

Most of the inventory puzzles rely on practical knowledge about wilderness survival, crafts or chemistry. A set of in-game documents helps with the chemistry. (Elements of Return to Mysterious Island can be considered educational.) Some of the inventory puzzles, however, break with practical knowledge. Particularly, Jep's role in the puzzles is fanciful rather than realistic. For instance, Mina can give him a wad of seal blubber and then have him climb a windmill to grease its gears.

The game's pass code puzzles and riddles are generally easy. Captain Nemo seems to have run out of pass code ideas pretty quickly, since most of his codes relate to the letter "N" or the phrase "Nautilus 1860" that is prominently embossed on most of the code panels. (Some variations are a bit deeper.) The riddles, posed by the killer robot in the game's last room, have a trickier twist. Mina must click somewhere in the room on an object that the riddle describes, yet some of the objects are not in plain sight.

The timed action sequences are trivial. The player must simply aim and shoot, albeit sometimes under the threat of return fire if the player takes too long or misses too often. However, ample time is provided and even if the player fails the game automatically restores to just before the action. The only tricky surprise is that a particular weapon can be triggered accidentally and it requires lag time among being triggered, firing and hitting.

Return to Mysterious Island rewards the player's successes in several ways. The game keeps a score and at each interval of 100 points, pieces of concept art are added to a gallery that the player can access from the main menu. Many of the puzzles' alternative solutions yield different point values, so sufficiently determined gamers can attempt such replay methods as seeking the maximum or minimum winning score, though the outcome of the story seems to be unaffected by score. Regardless of the score, progress in the game also adds the cut scenes to the player's gallery.

Another form of feedback on the player's success comes in the form of health bars and character portraits. When Mina or Jep needs food or other care, a nearly empty health bar appears in the corner of the screen. As the player tends to the character's needs, the health bar fills bit by bit. Character portraits in the inventory screen also seem to reflect whether Mina and Jep are in good shape or exhausted or scratched, though the causes of these changes are not always clear.

Despite the mild violence portrayed in the game, Return to Mysterious Island is probably suitable for playing even by a younger audience, including tween gamers. There is no strong language or suggestive content. The violence is indeed minimal. A posse of robots gets blown up and a giant shark-like monster gets a flesh wound. Mina refuses to harm any other animals, except the seafood and eggs she eats. As for playability, the puzzles stand a good chance of being accessible and interesting to youngsters who are keen on either wilderness survival or chemistry.

More broadly speaking, Return to Mysterious Island is an enjoyable, though short, adventure game. Even though the story is a strange melting pot, the production values give it a likeable atmosphere. The sidekick is cute. (Perhaps so too is the protagonist but solo navigators tend to be aloof.) The gameplay delivers the developer's signature dish of elaborate inventory puzzles and then adds smatterings of passable codes and riddles, plus a slight taste of action to break up the brain work. The alternative puzzle solutions and the process of earning the encyclopedic clues via the battery puzzle are both implemented well. Likewise, the system of points and rewards is satisfying.

Most notably, though, Return to Mysterious Island is an archetype for Kheops Studio's later games. Adventure gamers who know and like these later games can certainly find a similar level of enjoyment in Return to Mysterious Island. For gamers who are unfamiliar with Kheops Studio's style of adventure games, subsequent titles (such as Destination: Treasure Island and Cleopatra: A Queen's Destiny) with more character interaction probably offer a more balanced introduction to this developer's work.

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