First posted on 29 September 2009. Last updated on 10 January 2011.
The game is available at GamersGate.
"You only live twice" is one of the great catchphrases of spy fiction. The same maxim seems well suited to the fate of the Dutch-Frisian historical spy Mata Hari. She is perennially reinvented as a femme fatale in screenplays, books, and even video games. Yet, in reality, Mata Hari was a relatively powerless commoner—a dancer, a courtesan, and just briefly a spy—who was tried for treason and died by firing squad during World War I.
Cranberry Production's Mata Hari (also known as Mata Hari: Betrayal is only a Kiss Away) continues in the tradition of spinning an exotic spy story that only dabbles in history. The game's lead designers are Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein, best known for their work on LucasArts' classic Indiana Jones series. Not surprisingly, the game features beautifully detailed scenes and character animations as well as extensive replay value due to alternative endings. Unfortunately, both gameplay and story also take many tedious diversions. A small set of mini games gets recycled ad nauseam, crowding out better parts of the game. Many characters, including well-known historical figures such as Marie Curie, behave in extremely implausible ways, merely for the convenience of the plot and puzzle designs. At its best, the historical adaptation offers some diversion amid bantering dialog and occasionally an unexpected puzzle, but it falls short of its concept's full potential as either an exciting spy adventure game or a deep historical edutainment title.
The game's intro and subsequent cut scenes are set in 1963. Another woman, Elsbeth Schragmüller, is being interviewed about Mata Hari's life. The story is thus framed as a series of flashbacks, beginning with the evening of Mata Hari's first arrival in Paris in 1905. She is not yet a spy. Rather, she is introduced as an exotic dancer looking for a patron to kickstart her career. At a party, she collects various bits of conversation (akin to inventory objects) and then uses this repertoire to convince a rich man named Gabriel Astruc to become her stage manager. On her way out, another man stops her and persuades her to take up spying as a backup career, since she cannot be a beautiful dancer forever. He is a pacifist. Together, he says, they will use state secrets to prevent a war in Europe. Another member of this international pacifist spy ring is Schragmüller herself.
The pacifist spy ring in the game is pure fiction of course, but it is interesting to see that the game already starts to integrate some quasi-historical garnishment. For example, Schragmüller is a historical senior German spy, not a neutral pacifist as in the game. Astruc, too, is a historical French entertainment promoter. During a conversation, Mata Hari even drops a few historical details about her real name, a divorce, and her past in Holland and Indonesia. Throughout the game, there are similar breadcrumbs that will prompt a few interested players to want to learn more about Mata Hari beyond the game's fictional account.
Dialog scenes are a major element of the gameplay. Many of the characters in the game spend a good deal of time flattering or cajoling each other, often with polite sexual innuendos. This banter is entertaining to a point, but disappointingly it never leads to much character development. Even a historical luminary such as Marie Curie (who makes several appearances in the game) has little to say except about her love life. When the dialog finally includes a momentous and history altering decision, the motives and reasoning often remain unclear. For instance, a particular scene depicts a sudden change of heart in Fritz Haber, a historical German chemist and key early figure in the development of chemical warfare. He offers Mata Hari a surprising amount of assistance in her pacifist mission.
On a more concrete level, too, the dialog contains anachronistic errors. For example, Marie Curie says that her husband "was killed by an automobile" (whereas, historically, he was hit by a horse-drawn wagon). Mata Hari comments that her Berlin hotel room contains "one of these new telephones" (but, in reality, the telephone was invented in the previous century and was already in common use during that time period).
Despite such oversights, some aspects of the game are highly immersive. There are numerous full screen character close-ups that show detailed and well-timed animation. Even the characters' eyes seem to shift at appropriate moments. The scenic artwork is likewise detailed and lively. Sometimes, background animations (such as fountains and the rattling of an idling car) play in slow motion, adding somehow to the impression that you, the player, are living in the moment. Slow, rhythmic music, and mild-mannered voice acting reinforce the same atmosphere—not exactly suspense, but perhaps immersion in a leisurely game of cunning.
Unfortunately, the interface and gameplay suffer from a number of small and large issues that quickly undermine this immersion. An example is the overblown interface for selecting dialog topics. After you click on another character to initiate a conversation, an inventory of topic icons appears. To pick a topic, you must click on an icon and then click again on the other character (even though this character is already selected at the start of the conversation). There does not seem to be any point to this extra clicking. It is simply distracting.
A greater set of distractions comes in the form of mini games. Every time you travel between cities, you must play a turn based game of evasion, or else enemy agents stop Mata Hari's train and send it back. Eventually, you may bypass this mini game, but you must beat it approximately 40 times to obtain an optimal score and ending. Several other mini games are Pipe Dream clones (you assemble a pipe or circuit from various pipe or wire segments). Another type of mini games involves decoder wheels, and it seems to be largely a matter of trial and error. A more challenging type of mini games is an action sequence that requires you to move the mouse cursor over musical notes in a certain rhythm while Mata Hari dances. The rhythm mini game is unduly difficult, in part because of the unresponsive mouse controls. Mastering several progressively difficult levels of the rhythm mini game is also a requirement for obtaining an optimal score and ending.
While such gameplay may sound unambiguous (you question people, you play mini games to get from scene to scene), it is not always easy. Sometimes, the game is also being coy, hiding many optional puzzles so that unless you look hard for them, you remain oblivious to some of the game's more interesting challenges and plot twists.
In the end, Mata Hari's pace and believability slump just a bit too often, and it tends to be rather superficial in its characterization and themes. Still, the game's better qualities redeem it as a decent adventure. The atmosphere is often beautiful. The hidden puzzles and some of dialog's humor create uncommonly good replay value. You may even appreciate the game more in a second playing—that is, if you overlook its secrets on your first trip through.