Pixelisation. There is nothing like the cold sharp edge of a dark pixel to set the heart racing. Those blocks of retro charm have the capacity to bring forth tears of memories from a misspent youth and evoke an atmosphere somehow beyond the grasp of modern high definition graphics. It is a mystery why, and perhaps something that will be lost to the younger generation as the tides of time slowly sweep the style away, however it is a technique that Gemini Rue uses brilliantly to its full potential. It is a tribute to those heady LucasArts adventure days, a genre sadly almost extinct today, and at the same time tells a compelling, deeply philosophical, science fiction plot.
It must be said from the offset that Gemini Rue does very little to plough new grounds in the adventure field and could have feasibly been released almost two decades ago, at the same time as its clear spiritual predecessor Beneath a Steel Sky. Modern gamers unfamiliar with this style may be bamboozled by the archaic controls firmly entrenched in the genre. That being said, it was clearly the aim of writer Joshua Nuernberger to create this game for those with more adventurous blood pumping through their veins.
The story opens with heavy pixelated rain thrashing down upon our central protagonist. The incessant downpour, the dark grimy backstreets and your character’s long trenchcoat bring forth a classic film noir atmosphere. This is not the early 20th century however. The year is 2228 and you play mysterious detective Azriel Odin, stuck on some back-end mining planet searching for his missing brother. After solving a few puzzles the story then switches to the other main character: Subject Delta-Six. Trapped in a bizarre experimental reformation encampment, Delta-Six is attempting to recover from an operation that has wiped his memories and then escape the jail. The clean grey walls, smooth sliding doors and buzzing force fields of the prison provide a wonderful and stark juxtaposition over Azriel’s mission. Over time these two plot lines unfurl together on an predestined collision course that leads to a thrilling conclusion. At times throughout the game, you are able to switch between these two leads and continue either one as you please. This cleverly disperses that annoyance that can occur when one side is seemingly stuck, leaving you to see if you can proceed with the other. Unfortunately it does not use this device to its full potential as there is no interaction between the two, such as between the time travelling trio in Day of the Tentacle, which could have made a good opportunity for elaborate puzzles, if the plot had allowed.
The plot itself is exceptionally clever. Without wanting to give too much away, it attempts to tackle issues of personal identity, consciousness, faith, trust, social hierarchy and is overall incredibly thought provoking. As you solve your way through the two threads there are plenty of shocking twists and turns as you head for the conclusion. However those familiar with classic science-fiction novels that cover similar areas (Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, which was turned into Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’, or perhaps even more pertinent the Alex Proyas film ‘Dark City’ for example) may find it slightly predictable. The atmosphere, along with the plot, is always exceptionally well maintained due to some very intricately arranged music and sound design as well as beautiful pixel backgrounds. On Azriel’s wet, murky mining planet the scene is set by the constant pouring of rain that is only broken by jazzy piano lines or dark heavy strings as he enters different buildings. Meanwhile in Delta-Six’s bleak grey prison prison the constant buzz of equipment and then twinkling synthesiser lines leaves you feeling like you’re trapped in the Von-Braun in System Shock 2. It is a shame however that the voice acting that speaks every line in the story is not quite at the same level. Some characters feel emotionless and uninterested even when their lives are in danger, and not much is lost by turning turning them off and reading the text.
The puzzles in Gemini Rue are fairly standard Adventure fare. You will interact with the world in various ways (looking, using, talking or kicking) and also combine them with objects you have picked up. Unlike some adventure games, perhaps because the game is lacking the surreal sense of humour common to the genre, there are very few cases where you are expected to combine items in an entirely unpredictable and ridiculous manner. Most solutions are logical and the more complex puzzles usually have hints provided somewhere in the level. Unfortunately this also means that very rarely does the player hit a dead end and have to really think to progress. It is almost too simple and lacks those sensational moments when you solve a incredibly problematic puzzle. Gemini Rue also fails to entirely shake off some of the painful hangovers that seemingly cling to the adventure genre. Horribly linear progression. Convoluted conversation trees, with arbitrarily correct responses. Traipsing over the same scenery repeatedly (although conveniently the developer has added a shortcut key that allows this to be skipped). And there are still many points where one might feasibly get stuck for extended periods due to almost absurd situations such as not realising something needs to be kicked to get it to work. It is nothing that an adventure stalwart is not used to, but it is a shame that decades later these simple problems still exist.
Gemini Rue is dotted with mini-games, most of these are of a simple logic switch nature and do provide a welcome break from the adventure gaming. However one of the game’s major downfalls also lies here. At times throughout the plot, with either character, you will enter into a gun fight with enemies. Unfortunately the system that is used to resolve these battles is poorly planned, if not entirely broken. You will find your enemies wasting all their bullets shooting at the cover you are hiding behind and when they duck behind cover to reload you simply have to stick your head out, wait, and then shoot them as they then return to fire. It never evolves, and the timings of the enemies never change. Once you have sussed out the process, it becomes a matter of tediously waiting and dispatching your enemies with a yawn. It is a shame, because the game clearly thinks it is an interesting aspect and throws the same battle at you several times throughout the campaign. It even goes so far as to cleverly use Delta-Six’s reformation training to teach the player how the shooting system works and then apply this to a real situation with Azriel.
Despite all these niggles and flaws, Gemini Rue is a great adventure game. To have such a thoughtful and emotionally affecting plot woven into a game is a joy to behold. Fans of the LucasArts classics and particularly Virgin’s Beneath a Steel Sky, should invest in a copy as it is an oasis in the drought of adventure games we have seen in the last few years. That being said, it is a great shame that more could not have been done to improve it. Adventure games are a dying breed and that is not simply down to a flagging audience turning to first-person shooters. They need to evolve and and break the shackles that binds them. Not turn a blind eye to the major markets but learn a lesson from modern games such as from Mass Effect or Deus Ex and incorporate choice, or multiple solutions to problems and non-linear progression. Perhaps it is the case that these game characteristics may be trapped in the studios of the major development houses requiring huge budgets to achieve, however one wonders whether with a little thought a one man indie writer could still at least try.
Who said adventure games were dead?