Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life

Posted by Michael Temple.
First posted on 10 March 2010. Last updated on 10 March 2010.
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Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life
Somehow, a puzzle in plain sight remains unsolved for centuries.
Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life
It is not too high if Sophie can find a camel and a whip!
Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life
A hidden map is found, naturally, in pieces.
Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life
Not surprisingly, the chest is secured by a combination lock.
Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life
The quest for a printer toner is more than just a delivery away!

Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life continues the adventures of archeologist Sophie Leroux, who is last seen in Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual. The previous game has been a critical, and apparently commercial, success—enough to persuade the developer and publisher City Interactive to invest in a sequel. Sadly, this second game appears to have been rushed through production, and the lack of attention to the game's many small, and easily remedied, details may have soured the series forever.

The story begins with Sophie conducting a follow-up investigation into a relic once belonged to Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, specifically a chest, which may contain insights into the explorer's journey to the Islands of Benimy. The underlying legend is the discovery of a rejuvenating Fountain of Youth and the Tree of Life which grows there. Hard upon Sophie's investigation, however, is a cast of villains and allies who are also pursuing this legend, giving immediacy to unraveling this ancient myth that may have present ties to a string of cult murders.

By all accounts, on first impressions, the game presents a solid foundation for a classic point-and-click adventure. The 2D artwork is well done, and the 3D characters are drawn convincingly enough. Among the many details at which this game fails, however, is the slipshod way that these characters are animated. All of the characters have at most a single gesture (and many have no gesture at all) to their repertoire. Sophie, in any conversation (even when she is not speaking), makes only a single slight gesture with her hand and twitches generally, which then runs on the same loop for the entire game. Count Saint-Germain, another character in the game, has a rather unique trait that none of the other cast characters have: his lips do not move at all when he speaks.

Although the voice acting is good, even excellent in some parts, the dialog itself is atrocious. Stilted, bizarre, and confusing, conversations have the earmarks of an amateurish translation to English. A comically unintended consequence of this is that there are a few scenes wherein you can clearly hear hesitation in the actors' voices, mainly because the lines they are tasked to read make so little sense that they do not know how to deliver them with proper emotions.

To this end, all conversations with characters in a given scene also loop indefinitely if you speak to them more than once. If it is a strict simple farewell to end a verbal exchange, the repetition is noticeable but not detrimental. However, if the parting words are contextually specific to the first conversation, then the exchange feels entirely out of place in follow-ups.

The musical score for the game, while fine in and of itself, is another scene breaker. There is seemingly no thought put into how to score the music into the game to complement the game's sceneries. For example, at the beginning of the game, Sophie has a conversation with an art restorer that quickly sinks to some topics mundane enough as to who has the better set of legs, all the while the accompanying musical score suggests teetering on a cliff's edge with a rope just out of reach. The music, as with the character animations, runs also on an endless loop in a manner in which breeds contempt. I have tried to turn the music down to where the crescendos will stop washing out the dialog, but eventually I have to turn the music off altogether.

The game's puzzles comprise the standard maze, combination, and jigsaw variety, all of which are easily solvable. Within the context of the game's story, however, the incidence of these puzzles frequently makes little sense. The puzzles often appear in locations where there is ample motivation for someone else to have come along and figure them out eons ago, and the result smacks simply of narrative setup. How does a jigsaw puzzle survive for centuries in plain sight in a public meeting room run by curious academics, long enough for Sophie to come along and solve it herself? Other "puzzles" (allowing a loose meaning of the word here) are nothing but busy work. Getting a printer toner, for example, to make a photocopy is neither difficult nor adventuresome; it is just a mundane chore, as in real life, that takes up your time. Most of the balance, and the bulk, of the puzzle solving involves obtuse tasks that you cannot just simply reason out but can only succeed by trial and error. For example, Sophie needs a lemon; as she has seen a lemon tree earlier, you set your mind to how to get a lemon out of that tree; however, the answer, contrary to all the sense in your head, involves candy wrappers, tea leaves, a whip, and a camel!

Thoughtfully, the developer has decided to include a complete walkthrough on the game disc. While the temptation to use the walkthrough may not be great given the mostly simplistic puzzles in this game, it is especially bad when you find the reason that you may end up looking at it is not because you have been outwitted but because you have been beleaguered by nonsense.

There were 2 puzzles that grabbed my attention, both involved rather simple solutions but were attended by a timer which forced me to work through the puzzles with a shorter interval. At these junctures, the game engaged me. If the whole game took 10 hours or so to play, these interludes lasted only 2 minutes or so—a preciously small numerator.

It is fair to say that some consideration has been paid by the developer to have the characters in this game to be living, breathing individuals, and there is generally some back story which you will get to discover when playing the game that make them seem more than mere markers for you to touch upon while adventuring. However, either because of the substandard translation or lack of narrative imagination, the characters are not particularly engaging. Conversations can often become long winded and senseless, whether or not being immediately relevant to the gameplay. On the balance, what you end up looking forward to most in exchanges with these characters is their completion. It may be right headed of the developer to consider characterization, but their implementation appears to be a failure.

As with many attendant aspects, the overall mood of the game is unnatural. Inasmuch as the element of murder is introduced early on, an appropriate emotional response from Sophie is strangely lacking. This is perhaps because the premise of unlocking the chest's secrets is a paid job for Sophie, so she really has nothing on the line. Yet, when other characters start dying, in front of her no less, her reaction is to simply press on in a rather casual manner. A mandate for any effective drama is that the main protagonist must have something at stake, or else the audience has no reason to care.

While the bough of the game is suitably strong—a stable game engine, fine atmospheric art, and even a convenient hotspot indicator to keep you from having to pixel hunt—all of the branches and ornamentation in the game come up short—torturous dialog, nonsensical puzzles, poor animations, badly placed music, and a story that is, by the end, fairly inexplicable. The grand finale, for what is worth, is followed neatly with a denouement of a brief cut scene that will leave you thinking, "Huh? How did-? But what about-? What?"

If I am to use a single word to describe Chronicles of Mystery: Tree of Life, it is "sloppy". The impression I have is that City Interactive is trying to ride the wave of a previously successful game of a new series and rush this sequel out the door to capitalize on it, perhaps believing that it can get away with less by leveraging the series' name to attract returning fans. There is not enough here to save from the game's countless missteps, and consequently I cannot recommend this game to anyone. If you are a fan of Sophie, I counsel you to wait and see if she will reappear in a new adventure—hopefully making a lot more sense next time around.

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