Schizm: Mysterious Journey

Posted by Eran Cohen.
First posted on 15 December 2010. Last updated on 01 December 2011.
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Schizm: Mysterious Journey
A floating island towers over the horizon in all its glory.
Schizm: Mysterious Journey
The electrifying vista at night is simply awe-inspiring.
Schizm: Mysterious Journey
The dirigible docks at the station, ready for its next passenger.
Schizm: Mysterious Journey
The Argilian architecture lies in perfect harmony with nature.
Schizm: Mysterious Journey
What do the strange Argilian letters symbolize?

Around 7th century BC, a few colonies set out from the Greek island of Andros and settled down on Chalkidiki, in the northeastern part of the country. Amongst these settlements was Argilus, located about 100 kilometers east of Thessaloniki (its remains still visible today). The Argilians assisted Brasidas, the Spartan general, during the revolt against Athens in 5th century BC, a revolt which came to be known as the Peloponnesian War.

Millennia later, in 2083, the first human explorers landed on the remote planet Argilus. They found an inhabited planet with advanced technology and science. To their amazement, it looked as if the inhabitants had deserted their cities in a sudden rush. Complex machines were still operable, doors remained unlocked, and unfinished meals were left on dinner tables. After the alien planet was put under quarantine, several science teams were sent over to investigate the mystery. They set up bases there and began their studies. As time progressed, they too started to disappear.

Now, xenobiologists Sam Mainey and Hanna Grant have arrived on Argilus on yet another investigative expedition. After a massive system failure aboard their ship, they descend to the planet's surface in their life pods. Communication difficulties cause them to be separated from each other. They find themselves stranded in different parts of the planet and must move onwards with the mission on their own.

Schizm: Mysterious Journey (also known as Mysterious Journey: Schizm) is a point-and-click adventure game developed by Polish developer LK Avalon / Detalion and published by Dreamcatcher Interactive in 2001. It is released in both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions. The DVD-ROM version includes a few additional puzzles, new narratives, and enhanced graphics not found in the CD-ROM version. The enhanced graphics feature additional animations such as alien dolphins jumping occasionally out of the water or small puffs of steam emanating from a large invisible marine creature. Gameplay remains essentially the same otherwise.

Installation is straightforward. The game offers a choice for different installation sizes. System options are accessed from the main menu: New Game, Save, Load, Continue, Settings, and Credits. There is no option for subtitles. Choosing the Settings option opens the Music and FX Volume controls. Choosing the Continue option takes the player back to the most recently played game, whereas choosing the Load option enables the player to choose between previously saved games. Choosing the New Game option triggers the game's opening sequence: a stilted, unexciting futuristic talk show, in which the protagonists tell the story of the rescue mission to Argilus. When the introduction is finished, the player assumes the role of Hanna (and Sam later), and the game commences.

Once the game begins, the player learns that the story of Argilus is reminiscent of the story of Mary Celeste—a merchant ship sailing in the Atlantic Ocean in 1872; its crew and passengers have all mysteriously disappeared with no signs of struggle, but its cargos have been left entirely intact. The game's sci-fi plot is simple, yet effective. Like a good B movie, the game serves up the right amount of mystery to keep the player engaged.

The first word spoken in the game is that of the player's own: "Wow!" The sun is setting, the sky is darkening slowly, and the stars are beginning to shine. Hanna finds herself in front of what looks like huge, towering islands floating across a tranquil sea. The scene is breathtaking yet relaxing, and I find myself staring at the scenery, doing nothing but clearing my mind to absorb the breathtaking vista almost to the point of meditation.

The game offers superb and imaginative visuals. The graphics are all pre-rendered in 2D and are in incredibly high detail. The colors are rich, and the resolution is sharp even at the tiniest details. It is easy to see that the developer has invested much creative effort to make the entire planet come to life, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. The animation, wherever present, is superb. There is no noticeable difference in the graphical quality between the in-game screens and cut scenes.

There are only a few locations in the game where the animations are too sparse. For instance, there is a large pool in the middle of a temple, but its blue water is motionless. Outside the temple, there are hanging causeways and trees on top of a cliff, but they do not sway in the audible wind. Their absence renders the entire location somewhat flat, and it turns the scene into a mere static slideshow (though a beautiful slideshow, nonetheless).

The sound is on par with the graphics. Music is atmospheric and evocative. It adds the mysterious extra flavor to the fanciful graphics. The combination gives the player a feeling of inner harmony with the planet itself. Specifically, in the beginning scene, I feel as if I am not hearing manmade sounds but listening to the planet's breaths. Sound effects are also of the highest quality. They are sharp and clear, adding their share to the aural experience. Footsteps can be heard making different sounds when walking over different materials on the ground, gusts of wind blow to sound a lonely foghorn, and the squeaks and clinks of mysterious mechanisms together strike up a spontaneous melody. On some occasions, whispered echoes of the Argilian language can even be heard.

As the game starts, Sam and Hanna are separated and are distant from each other. The game makes clever use of this plot device—the player can play as either Sam or Hanna and switch between them almost at will. Both characters are always visible on the bottom right of the screen. Switching between them is simply a matter of clicking on the desired character icon. There is no option to bypass a puzzle. All the puzzles for both protagonists must be solved in order to finish the game. Still, it is good to be able to make progress on an easier puzzle with a particular character and, at the same time, to ponder over a more difficult puzzle with the other.

Navigation is node based, using a point-and-click interface. Movement between nodes, in the form of short cut scenes, is smooth and seamless. It is not possible to skip the cut scenes, however. This makes for a slow process when navigating physically (especially backtracking) through the world, though it still fits with the generally relaxed atmosphere of the game. Panning in 360° is usually possible, and tilting is sometimes possible also. An indicator on the bottom left shows the available navigational paths. A small circle appears when no movement is possible. The indicator is a convenient navigational tool, though I find little practical use of it beyond the directional cursors.

In order to pan or tilt, the player has to keep the left mouse button pressed. This is a minor inconvenience, but most players will get accustomed to it quickly after a few minutes of play. I suppose the purpose of this control is to prevent unwanted cursor movements, which may cause disorientation if the view is freely scrolling.

It is a missed opportunity that the game does not allow free roaming of the beautiful and mysterious world of Argilus. For instance, if the player is allowed a visit to the Argilian houses on the floating islands, perhaps the player can gain a better understanding of the Argilian civilization and the clues about the mysterious disappearance of its people.

The in-game menu pops up when the cursor is moved to the top edge of the screen. A list of in-game keyboard shortcuts is given there (Help). Some players may find these keyboard shortcuts more convenient to use than the mouse.

There are only 20 save slots, which is not sufficient for such a difficult game. Saved games appear as tagged screenshots that include the date and time of saving. It may be more preferable if the game can be saved under more descriptive title. The reason for this is that the visual similarity of some locales (especially the floating islands) yields screenshots which are too similar to be adequate descriptors of the game saves. As the game requires some necessary backtracking, it is easy to lose track of the actual progress that has been made when using these game saves as a visual reference. As it stands, unless a careful record is kept in addition, this save system may create more confusion than convenience at times.

The difficulty level of the puzzles is high. Most puzzles are based on processing bits of information and deciphering clues rather than on manipulating inventory items. Not only is it necessary to learn parts of the Argilian language and number system, it is also essential to understand the Argilian logic, since they form the basis on which many of the puzzles are constructed. The puzzles are varied and are generally well integrated. None of them gives the impression of being added solely to draw out the gameplay.

As expected, the puzzles become more difficult as the game progresses. Some require complex mathematical calculations using Argilian numerals. Some require deducing connections between seemingly irrelevant clues. Still, others require a matter of careful observation and understanding of the environments. For instance, there is a puzzle involving mixing gases in order to inflate a dirigible. There are 10 individual gases to choose from, and the composition of the mixture is randomly changed with each trial. The player has to deduce the exact formula, understand the metering method, and perform the necessary calculations.

Inventory items, once collected, appear at the bottom of the screen. A forceps shaped cursor appears wherever and whenever an item can be used on the hotspot.

The only disappointment in this game is the voice acting. It is just adequate. The actors who play Sam and Hanna deliver their lines without the emotions expected from characters who have just been left stranded on an alien planet, seemingly alone but with an ominous mysterious force lurking over them. Both characters appear too calm and logical. They are never hungry, tired, or scared. Have all these years in training turned them into emotionless clones? Non-player characters are voiced equally throughout their short appearances.

Despite its few shortcomings, Schizm: Mysterious Journey is a classic adventure game and an excellent exemplar of the genre. The game is definitely too challenging for novice gamers. The overall experience of playing this game is more akin to being inside an explorer documentary than a computer fantasy. Schizm: Mysterious Journey is a terrific game that delivers an interesting plot, beautiful graphics, and a variety of well designed puzzles. The White King in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass sums it up best, "It is as large as life and twice as natural."

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