First posted on 01 November 2012. Last updated on 01 November 2012.
For a company responsible (as either the developer or the publisher) for such gems of games like Curse of Enchantia, Hook, The Big Red Adventure, and numerous other hybrid action adventures, the somewhat simplistic premise of an ordinary guy trapped in a distant, adverse galaxy is not supposed to be difficult for Core Design to leverage to create a competent adventure game. In Universe, unfortunately though, the experienced game developer and publisher misses the spot—and not by little.
In Universe, you play the role of a young man named Boris Verne. Boris's mom sends him to take some mail to his uncle George's house, an apartment filled with odd contraptions and experiments of all sorts carried out by the bizarre scientist. Foolishly enough, Boris starts messing with buttons and knobs on a strange pod like machine (aptly named the Virtual Dimension Inducer), and he promptly finds himself teleported onto an asteroid in deep space. Of course, he needs to find his way home, and in doing so, he will also get the chance to save the universe.
Boris's adventure begins over the asteroid, which luckily (or unluckily) enough is located near Gavric, an inhabited little planet enslaved to the evil ruler Baron Kaleev. Your first puzzle involve learning the alien language and reaching the alien homeworld, which in turn requires you to jump onto a small rotating asteroid. This is no easy task, though. You have to jump at the right time! Worse yet, you will have to do it 4 times, at a minimum, by knowing exactly what to do! This arcade element is sadly consistently present throughout the entire game, and its poor implementation only serves to add frustration to an already poorly designed game.
Design is, in fact, where Universe fails the most. The game uses an icon driven interface, which is activated by right-clicking. Classic action icons such as "Look At", "Pick Up", "Talk To" and "Use" are available in the menu, together with the inventory. In addition, the menu includes a strange "Options" icon and an eerie "Attack" icon. Clicking on the "Options" icon yields a secondary action menu, wherein icons are available for eating and drinking, pushing and pulling, wearing, opening and closing, inserting, throwing, combining, and even jumping. In addition, a question mark icon is available for getting information about the current scene (such as a written description of the environment you are currently exploring), for copyright information, and for loading and saving the game. The most intriguing icon the "Combine" icon. This action is intended for creating new items by putting together different existing items. For example, a wooden stick and a thread together make for a fishing rod but also a bow. In fact, you can use the same items together but get a different result each time. This can be quite confusing. Even more oddly, there is an action icon that is never ever used throughout the entire game (I will not spoil the game here by telling you which icon it is). Some items that you pick up are also just trash.
Diehard adventure game fans will detest the game's poorly implemented and frustrating arcade elements. The "Jump" icon serves its purpose quite soon once the game is started and is used fairly often. Boris faces enough urgent action situations during the game that his somewhat nifty point-and-click acrobatic abilities are required (this, of course includes the fact that Boris can actually die or be captured). You will be chased by evil robots and have to perform timed jumps, and you will have to activate timed mechanisms with Boris even though he frequently gets stuck at walls and inanimate objects in the way. These arcade elements may have been tolerable if there are only few in number and if the character is easy to control—but this is not the case in Universe. By comparison, I feel less annoyed playing Dark Seed that also puts pressure on you by requiring you to perform specific actions at specific times. Here, Boris simply refuses to go where he is instructed. The path finding algorithm used by the game is very poor, so that Boris is constantly entering the wrong corridor or stopping at obstacles such as corners and stones. In addition, sometimes Boris walks a few steps and then just stops, especially when he is walking along a wall, making it difficult to know whether or not a place is explorable. Boris can be made to run by double-clicking on a target. This is a welcome feature (and I always use it). However, it also somehow yields further conflicts with the path finding algorithm and worsens the collision problem, in a measure where you will soon yourselves trying to make Boris run from a sidewalk to a bar, and soon afterwards, trying to detach him from a hydrant to start running, only to find him flickering once more to stop again, and so on. This can be very irritating, especially during parts of the game where you have to act or reach places quickly. The game is also flawed by a couple of major bugs that can put you in an unwinnable state.
As a matter of fact, the only true challenge of the game arises not from solving the riddles themselves (which are interesting nonetheless) but from figuring out the correct way to perform certain actions. For example, if you need to open a metal panel, you must discover the specific action that the game intends for you to do, even though other actions are equally appropriate. Are you going to "attack" it with a metal bar? Or are you going to "use" a metal bar with it? Or are you going to "insert" a metal bar into it? Or are you going to simply "open" or "push-pull"it? You must try them all to determine which action is correct. Thus, the difficulty is essentially a matter of picking the action deemed to be correct by the game, rather than finding an action that is most logical. It comes off as a sad trick to increase longevity of the game.
On a positive note, Universe shines with stunning graphics, consisting of beautifully drawn landscapes, with melodic and atmospheric music composed specifically for the game by veteran game music composer Martin Iveson. Unfortunately, sound effects are nearly nonexistent, and the character animations are not particularly fluid (especially the secondary characters).
Gamers who are interested in playing Universe must not underestimate how much the game's convoluted interface and the buggy programming can negatively impact the gaming experience. Even the dialogs with other characters are a little bit buggy, as there is never really much of a choice on what to say and the conversation will always converge to the same lines regardless of what has been said or done previously. To this end, the characters you meet are so short-lived that the game merely fails at letting you create a bond with them. In fact, you meet most of the characters only about twice in the entire game. The characters exist in the game solely to move the story along, so Boris just gets the chance to jump from place to place to do what he is supposed to do before moving on.
It is not to say Universe is a game that is best avoided. I have played both the Amiga and the PC versions of the game, and I dispute any critics claiming the original Amiga version is better. Like Beneath a Steel Sky (released in the same year as Universe), the game ages reasonably well despite its flaws. The story is mildly entertaining, the characters are funny, the graphics are stunning, and some puzzles are admittedly fun to solve. There is even a mini-game that you will find to be a nice diversion. As for the frustrating arcade elements, the convoluted icon interface, and the many gameplay bugs, I suggest that you persist, remain calm, and save the game a lot.