Marketing mavens earn big bucks by selling "edutainment" to schools and parents across the country. Can't get your kid to read? Just buy the latest techno-book that reads for them. When it came to geography, there was the Carmen Sandiego
series. Broderbund created the criminal mastermind Carmen Sandiego
to be the femme fatale of the edutainment world. Her only weakness? Educated seven year olds.
Admittedly, the series made learning fun. Since you could chase Carmen Sandiego across the globe and even throughout the cosmos, finishing each game would earn you respect on the playground and a well-rounded education. It's a relatively safe bet gamers in their early 20s remember playing at least one Carmen Sandiego game.
Enter Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums, a third-person adventure developed by A2M and published by BAM! Entertainment. The Secret of the Stolen Drums takes the chase for Carmen Sandiego into the third-dimension and discards most of what made previous Carmen games a success. The focus here seems to be action, not education.
Normally, that would be a good thing. But in the case of Carmen Sandiego, it turns out being a bad thing. The developer exchanged one type of gameplay for another. In this case, derivative platforming has taken the place of sleuthing and fact finding. By cutting out the one thing the series did well (not too mention the sole reason for its existence), A2M leaves us with little reason to spend much time hunting for the criminal mastermind.
Although at first, The Secret of the Stolen Drums promises much more. Opening the game menu assaults you with all manners of gadgets through a circular menu (think deluxe detective PDA that Dick Tracy would murder someone to own) boasts an array of tabs including: atlas, maps, GPS, transport and communications. So far so good.
During the course of the game, the communications tab fills up with emails from fellow agents. The atlas stores all the geographical information you collect along the way. The map, like most maps in other action-adventure games, shows detailed information about your current location. The transport tab records all the locations you've visited within a given region and the GPS helps you track Carmen Sandiego's movements.
In theory, all your ACME gizmos sound pretty sweet. Describe the game to someone and they'd be inclined to think it's a real Carmen Sandiego game utilizing the best in modern sleuthing equipment. Unfortunately, the actual "detective" part of the game is practically non-existent. The GPS doesn't really track anything. The atlas ends up storing useless factoids that a simple Google search could deliver. The communications system, while offering help on occasion, doesn't offering anything in terms of actual clues. And the game's general lack of difficulty makes the in-game map just as useless as the atlas.
Once stripped of the detective angle, the only real gameplay remaining in The Secret of the Stolen Drums comes through the action-adventure part. While offering some degree of entertainment, much of the action feels derivative and uninspired. Anyone who has played Beyond Good & Evil will recognize many of the same mechanics. Only here, they're not implemented nearly as well. Come to think of it, you could describe The Secret of the Stolen Drums as Beyond Good & Evil minus a few hundred layers of polish. Still, every single element from Ubisoft's gem has been incorporated.
One of BGE's coolest features had you sneaking past guards by hugging walls and rolling out of sight. BGE made heavy use of this technique and put it to good use by granting players the option to kill an enemy or sneak past and avoid a fight.
Secret of the Stolen Drums lacks these non-aggressive luxuries and forces you to kill certain enemies to progress through each level. The only enemies you actually need to sneak up on are robotic guards containing codes you need to progress throughout the game, so players will need to kill them out of necessity. Frustratingly, these guards take damage when struck on the back only. If you get caught sneaking, you'll need to retreat. It goes without saying this kind of "stealth" becomes aggravating very quickly.
Enemy AI lacks the complexity found in modern stealth games. If you get caught, escaping enemy attack requires a simple jog behind a crate, wall or other obstruction. As long as you're not in view, enemies quickly forget they ever saw you. When they do open fire, avoiding blaster fire or other projectiles calls for a quick jog in any direction.
Precise control of your character is another element missing in the game. While most of the BGE/ third-person staples make an appearance, most suffer from poor implementation. Hugging walls and rolling on the ground to avoid detection feels wonky. You can't really crawl in the game; you can only role in four directions. You can image how awkward that looks. Sadly, you'll need to roll a lot. Your only chance at success is lining up your character and rolling in a straight line. You can also hang on ledges and double-jump.
Many of the game's platform puzzles require you to double-jump across vast chasms. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to miss a jump. You'll swear the ledge-hanging technique only works 50% of the time. The coolest feature in The Secret of the Stolen Drums sees your character pole vault using a standard-issue ACME staff. You can cover large distances using your staff and the game does a good job of using the maneuver during platform puzzles.
The camera only worsens matters. You'll be trying to avoid guards and the camera will often get stuck on walls or other obstructions, completely blocking the action. While every third-person adventure suffers from some camera issues, you'll experience more than a few while playing The Secret of the Stolen Drums. You can manually control the camera using the second analog stick, but that doesn't help much.
While The Secret of the Stolen Drums may be a travesty to Carmen purists (all three of you), the game tries to retain elements of the original series. For starters, each new location visited triggers informative messages from fellow agents. Visit Peru, for example, and you'll get a quick rundown on the nation's history, economy and culture. The game boasts nine geographically diverse areas in all.
And then there are the puzzles. Most of them call for the collection of various items. Each level contains five different compasses. Once found, the game automatically uploads each clue to your GPS device and pinpoints Carmen Sandiego's location. The game would have been far cooler if the players needed to deduce Carmen's location themselves, instead of having it done for them. After all, this has always been the crux of the Carmen Sandiego series.
Apart from the compass collection, you also need to find various puzzle pieces per level. After collecting a certain number, you can activate a culturally-themed jigsaw puzzle. If you're in New Zealand, you'll be matching up pieces of a Maori mask, etc. Since each puzzle contains less than a dozen pieces, finishing them takes little time and effort. You do get a limited number of attempts, but the only repercussion is to start the puzzle over again.
Graphically, the game suffers from a lack of style. Special effects look bland and textures appear woefully low-res. Enemy design resembles the kind of insipid villains in Saturday morning cartoons and the environments fail to conjure any kind of immersion. To be fair, the action plays out smoothly and there isn't anything inherently wrong with the design; it just feels very generic. The game employs a mixture of comic-style cutscenes and CGI throughout the adventure. Most of it looks decent and neither detracts from the experience nor adds anything to it.
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