When we last heard from Benoit Sokal, he had us dreamily dazed by mammoths, automatons, and the fruition of a life long dream for a quirky little man named Hans and a plucky lawyer named Kate who was destined to help him achieve that dream. Now Sokal is back and he is whisking us off to Africa; Maurania to be exact. Maurania is a veritable paradise filled with many cultures of people and endless varieties of unusual wildlife. However, the country is in great turmoil. It seems the current ruler, King Rodon, has become a cruel and intolerable dictator. Rebel factions are uprising with the sole goal of overthrowing King Rodon and ending his reign of intimidation and terror.
While the country of Maurania is pure fiction straight out of Benoit’s imagination, small details almost have you believing there is such a country. Tourist information is provided in the game manual such as curfew time, required visas, and the necessary need for life insurance before entering the country. There is even a seemingly official Maurania website at www.mauranie-gov.com. However, it is unclear at this time whether the site was created Benoit Sokal or fans.
The story begins with a cinematic cut scene of King Rodon and one of his officials on a rather formidable ship. An intense discussion is taking place about the whereabouts of Rodon’s daughter. King Rodon has sent for her and she is already en route. First impressions lead you to believe that the King is truly concerned about the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was six years old. Will she still love him? The hint of sadness briefly seen in his eyes quickly disappears as we learn his true plans. He has only contacted his daughter because he needs her to succeed him on the throne and help him in the fight against the rebels. As the discussion continues, the scene shifts for a moment, showing a plane losing power and hurtling toward the ground.
You will play as King Rodon’s daughter; Ann Smith. If this seems like an extremely plain name for the daughter of a king, it is because this is not her real name. The plane from the opening movie has crashed in Madaragane. After the accident, the king’s daughter suffers from amnesia. A book written by Ann Smith is found in her belongings; hence she has been saddled with this name.
Ann wakes up from her ordeal at the palace of a prince. She is greeted by a servant and informed that she is in the section of the palace that houses the prince’s harem. All Ann wants to do is to find her way home, even though she is not entirely sure where that is. It is here in the palace gardens where Ann meets her future travel companion; a black leopard. Upon seeing the leopard locked in a cage, she is fearful but also feels an instant connection to the animal.
The beginning of the game involves Ann’s quest to somehow manipulate the members of the harem in order to gain access to the Prince and obtain her freedom. Then, the real journey begins as Ann travels across the country of Maurania with her leopard in tow. As the story progresses, Ann gets more insight into her identity and faces the realities of being in a country so embroiled in danger.
Paradise is a purely point and click adventure game. The game comes with 3 CD’s which load easily and a printed game manual. The CD is required to be in the drive when running the game. Make sure you have updated your video cards with the latest drivers. There’s a lot of visual stimulus to take in so you’ll want it to look its very best.
For all those who are fans of Amerzone and the Syberia series of games, the big question is: Does Paradise live up to the expectations? Well, the answer is yes ….and ……no. There are aspects of Paradise that are truly excellent as you would expect from a Benoit Sokal game. However, some areas completely missed the mark. So, let’s go over the good, bad, and the ugly.
Mine eyes can see the glory…
As expected, the graphics are outstanding. The first thing that grabs your attention is at the main menu. The main menu is set up almost as if you’re looking into a dark opening in a large animal container. Out of the darkness, the leopard will randomly put his face right up there and check you out. For the most part, he appears to be irritated at the intrusion. It’s highly entertaining and will have you sitting at the main menu for much longer than normal. During her quest, Ann will get to view some truly amazing places. Each location is original and highly detailed.
The Harem: The members of the harem tend to congregate around a large pool which encompasses most of the main room. Ornate tiles, arched doorways, fountains, and pottery surround the pool. A lush garden surrounds a large cage which houses the leopard. The inclusion of a puddle in the garden is a nice touch. Not only can you see Ann’s own reflection if she crosses over it, but you can also see the reflection of the trees moving from a slight breeze.
The Town: As with the harem, the design of the nearby town speaks to a middle-eastern feeling. Narrow cobblestone streets dusted with sand trail in between tightly compacted stone buildings. The excellent use of muted earth tones accurately conveys a desert atmosphere. The backgrounds look like beautiful water color paintings. Detail in the foreground is crisp and clear while the background has been faded to convey distance. No complaints here.
The Forest and Mograve Village: Ann will have to travel through the forest to get to the Molgrave village. It’s interesting to see familiar sights such as tree limbs that look like snakes. The lush and green forest is filled with hidden dangers and animals that are not happy to see Ann. The village is entirely built up in the trees. Wooden paths (precarious at times) circle the trees leading to small huts with thatched roofs. It’s easy to lose your bearings with all the many paths. You will be amazed at how much detail was put into creating this tree community and how well the structures integrate into the trees.
The Zamarat Mines: While it may look like a town on the surface, underneath are tons of caverns which at one time held an endless supply of Emeralds. Muted colors are heavily used here, tinged with green bouncing off the remnants of the emeralds in some locations. It’s pretty empty at the mine, but signs of the busy past remain with each tunnel fully supported with wood to prevent collapse. The lights are still on and supplies litter the whole mine. The level of detail is really outstanding at this location.
The cinematic cut scenes are still fascinating to watch even though most of them did not seem to have the same emotional impact as the ones in Syberia did. Yet, they are still beautiful and graphically meet any expectation you will have. This has always been a positive aspect of any Sokal project.
The character renderings overall were pleasing, but tended to be a bit stiff at times. The military turn seems to be quite prevalent.
Do you hear what I hear?...
Another positive note for Paradise was in the use of ambient sounds. In the harem, you can hear the rippling water in the pool. A different sound is used for Ann’s footsteps to reflect when she is walking on tile or on wooden steps. These were quite accurate. If Ann is in an outdoor location, the myriad of wildlife sounds make themselves known. You will feel as though you are in the middle of the rainforest at times. In the mine, there is a definite hollow sound to portray being underground and surrounded by stone. In the background you can hear a faint murmuring of the remaining miners. This is all punctuated by a constant drip of water. It’s a good thing you’re not there that long or it might drive you nuts as intended. There is so much going on and the ambient sounds are an integral part of creating the atmosphere. Music filled with exotic drum beats also lends a helping hand. You will hear repeated passages, but the music is solid and only enhances the experience. At almost all the locations, you will continue to hear radio broadcasts updating the status on the rebel forces.
The voice acting was also done quite well – not a stinker in the bunch. Almost all of the voices fit well with the characters. Who wins the award for “Most likely to need a good kick”? It is this reviewer’s choice to award it to the prince’s favorite. She personified the word “condescending” and stood on my last nerve every time she referred to Ann as “Foreigner” as though that was her name. Annoying! Oh, and it was surprising to meet a mechanic in town who had a very American East Coast accent, but certainly not impossible. What was not surprising was that the Molgrave people only hiss at you. Remember the frustrating “tut tut” conversations you tried to have in Syberia 2? Well, now you get to have “hiss” conversations in which you are presented with all the topics, but every topic only gets you the “hiss”. Don’t think that there is one magic topic that will get you some miracle answer. You’ll get nowhere fast. Thankfully, you will find those in the village who can translate for you.
Now, you may not consider this necessarily voice acting, but the leopard sounds were also quite accurate. Not actually knowing what a leopard sounded like, it was pure coincidence that during the playing of this game, I saw a documentary television show called “Growing up Leopard” where they raise abandoned leopards from when they are babies and release them into sanctuaries. The sounds I heard in Paradise were just like on the documentary. So, there is my point of reference for the accuracy.
You will get to interact with plenty of characters. The dialog trees for the most part are ok, but there are some weird little glitches. For example, Ann will comment to Aicha that the “Favorite’s” door is locked. Ann wants to get inside and steal the “Favorite’s” robe so she can sneak in to see the prince. Even after Ann has been able to get in the door and get the robe, she will still continue to tell Aicha that the door is locked. This topic should have disappeared after completing the task. The same type of thing happens in a few other places as well. Also odd, was Ann saying “In fact” as a way to re-enter a conversation a second time with another character. It really made no sense to start off that way.
ARGGGHH!! --- Why won’t she turn left?
Here is where we come to the “ugly” in the game: the controls. The cursor is in the shape of a ball. If you can examine something, a magnifying glass will slowly rise out of the ball. If you can talk to someone, little megaphone looking icons come out. Arrows come out to point the direction you should go and small spikes come out if you can interact with an item further. Sounds simple, right? Not so. First of all, there is no consistency as to how quickly or how slowly these protruding tools will emerge. For the most part, you have to pixel hunt very slowly to even find anything. If you go too fast, you are likely to miss that item because the tool will emerge too slowly and you will have already passed what you were seeking.
The directional tools were the worst. Just because the arrow is pointing left doesn’t mean you will be going left. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. It was extremely difficult in some places to figure out how to get somewhere without going in a complete circle. In one location, the forward direction was clicked. The resulting effect was that Ann went right and got forever stuck in a corner. Ctrl+Alt+Del was required to get her out. Ann is not always as responsive as you would expect her to be, which makes certain puzzles very a big pain. A great example is the sequence where you have to get past nasty alligator hybrids. The correct tool doesn’t always appear either. I had conversations using a directional arrow, or no tool at all just because it didn’t show up. It is also necessary to point out that there are a couple of places where the directional arrows will show up, but the actual arrow is out of the screen area so it can’t be seen.
Worse still are the missing hotspots. Picture this: You’re in the mine and all you have left to do is connect one item to another. You are positive that this is what is required. But, there’s no hotspot. You spend another half hour thinking you are an idiot who can’t figure out something that must be so simple. At the 45 minute mark, you’re hopelessly stuck. You quit and begrudgingly decide to consult a walkthrough. You didn’t want to because you’ll be writing one yourself at some point. But, regardless, you feel desperate, check the walkthrough, and it tells you to do exactly what you were trying hopelessly to do. Hmmm….now you feel like a complete moron. You go back in and spend another half hour trying and trying. On a whim, you decide to load an earlier save. Maybe you missed some small detail along the way. Amazing! The hotspot miraculously appears and you realize you just wasted a ton of time on a now obvious bug.
The game also crashed twice at the most inconvenient times. Remember to save often.
You get to control the leopard 3 times during the game. These sequences take place only at night. There is one task to complete via leopard for each sequence, but it is not mandatory. You can press ESC and bypass the whole sequence if desired. I personally completed the first sequence, and then walked a little bit in the 2nd and 3rd before using the escape button. The leopard can be controlled by holding down the left mouse button and following the cursor according to the color shown; green representing a valid direction and blue meaning an action can be performed. It’s fun for a bit, but quite dark. Occasionally, my leopard got a bit stuck or refused to go where I wanted him to, but considering it was more for fun and did not have to be completed, it’s not really a negative.
Time to think outside the box…
As far as the puzzles go, there really aren’t any mind bending puzzles. They’re interesting; just not very difficult. Just like Kate in Syberia, Ann also runs around a lot getting things for other characters. There are a lot of inventory based puzzles. There are some logic puzzles and some illogical puzzles. As for the illogical puzzles, they should be a piece of cake for the seasoned adventure gamer who’s used to trying every single item in inventory until they hit the magic one. Some of the puzzles are mechanical and involve clicking on levers and buttons in a specific order.
You’ll have to step on a coconut scale and then duplicate that coconut count on another machine in order to make some bungee cording. You’ll have to figure out how to make the plumbing work in order to prepare a bath for the annoying prince’s favorite. Similar to Syberia 2, you will do some serious methodical climbing. The only problems you may encounter are with those missing hotspots discussed earlier in this review. Replaying from an older save game is the only way to correct this, but without checking forums or walkthroughs, you likely won’t know when something is a bug or whether you just haven’t found it yet.
Between Father and Daughter…
The story, while well written, starts out a bit slow. It takes a while to get into the flow of the story, but once you get out of the palace the story picks up its pace and is actually quite intriguing. But, it leaves you with a ton of questions. In the Syberia series, we were privy to flashbacks which provided a lot of insight and helped us become fully engrossed. Flashbacks would have been quite welcome in Paradise. For instance, why did Ann’s mother leave? Why did she not bring Ann back to see her father? What happened to the King to turn him into such a cruel leader? Was it because his family left him? What happened to Ann in Geneva?
The ending is a somewhat of a shock. There is quite a debate in the forums about whether this ending was the right one. I actually liked the ending, but it left me with even more questions. Since this story comes from a series of books by Benoit Sokal, perhaps these questions will be answered in a future installment.
While the game is incredibly gorgeous and the story is definitely interesting, it is the interface that drags the game down. The grade is reflective of this. However, the technical issues are well known and a patch is currently in the works. If all goes well, this game will be re-visited after the patch release and the grade modified accordingly. Perhaps we should be questioning Ubisoft and not Benoit Sokal about why they’re release games with so many technical issues. It is, after all, the 2nd game they have published that seemed to lack hard core beta testing. If you remember, they also published CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder which also had serious technical flaws.
In the end, if you love Benoit Sokal’s work and you can tolerate the bugs and glitches, then by all means purchase the game. But, consider waiting until the patch is released which will hopefully solve some of the major issues.
Final Grade: 78/100