The world couldn't have changed more since Galleon
was first envisioned in 1997. After numerous potential systems, dozens of release dates, and a handful of publishers, Galleon: Islands of Mystery
is landing on Microsoft's Xbox and is being published by Atlus. Yes, Atlus
, the Japanese company otherwise known for publishing Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre
. Nearly seven years have passed since its inception. Five Tomb Raider
games have been rushed out the door. Lara Croft, Gard's creation, is the most popular female game character in the history of videogames. Since Gard and co-founder Paul Douglas left then-burgeoning Core Design Studios in 1997, four new consoles have appeared. One has died, and we're on the verge of a new console war. And Core isn't even in charge of the Tomb Raider
Like I said, the world couldn't have changed more.
Galleon, therefore, is a triumph or sorts. It's a triumph of will, persistence, grit, and perhaps a little bit of obsession. Surely a lot of obsession. But what of it? That the game is actually coming out after seven years of development is amazing. The most astounding part about it all? It's good. Really good. The game design, character mechanics, voice acting, and overall balance, polish and vision are still intact and fully viable in 2004. Yes, in the age of bullet time, hybrid genres, and the money-sucking franchise, it's held up.
Sure, there are better looking Xbox games, and yes, perhaps you may not like some of its eccentricities, but in my opinion, that's where Galleon shines. Over the last four years in the game industry so many games have been pounded by cloying focus groups that we've become accustomed to the onslaught of homogeneous, generic licensed games. We've reached such a level of conformity in 2004 that Galleon looks like a 18th gentleman who's emerged perfectly intact from a frozen iceberg. He's polite, well spoken, can play the piano, will easily beat you in a fencing match, and can read to you all of the most important points of Western Civilization. Mostly importantly, however, he still smokes a pipe, and can tell a great story.
That's kind of how I see Toby Gard. After an era has come and gone, he has emerged from isolation to tell his tale, the story of Galleon: Islands of Mystery. And what an awesome, if antiquated, story it is.
But that suits me just fine, especially for a good adventure. Galleon is a story-driven, third-person adventure game starring lead character Rhama Sabrier, a swashbuckling sea captain in search of treasures, action and fun. It's a single-player game with no online capabilities or multiplayer aspects, but it's rich in every other aspect. In other words, it's a substantial single-player adventure. It's led by worthwhile characters in an enjoyable, if relatively predictable story. What's it like? Take the whimsical nature of Amazing Studios' Heart of Darkness, the best adventure aspects of Tomb Raider, and throw in a smidgeon of the confident, unstoppable swagger of Indiana Jones, and you might have an idea of what Galleon is like.
In many ways Galleon is the antithesis of Tomb Raider. Having left Core Design because of his refusal to participate in what he called the "sexing up" of Lara Croft, Gard's Galleon harkens back to older PC adventures. It eschews graphics for gameplay. Instead of the systematic, mathematical steps that Lara Croft took, lead character Rhama Sabrier is nimble, capable and action oriented. He's wacky. He can walk with precision on the thinnest of rails, hang from precipices, and run, yes, run up sheer cliff sides. Rhama has a personality and character depth. And while he may be witty, he's never vacant.
Linear in its progression scheme, Galleon enables players to explore seven massive areas (six different islands) in order by following a well-told, cutscene-heavy story. You follow Rhama as he pursues a powerful mystical herb before it falls into the wrong hands. Actually, he's been called by the well-known healer Areliano to investigate a mystical seaship for a small fee. But quickly after he assesses its possible origins, Areliano's suspicious assistant, Jabez, steals the precious herbs found within, then steals the ship, murders the healer, and forces Rhama to chase him in search of the ship's, and the herb's, origins. A little like the magic behind the comic book and movie The Mask, the herb, among other things, enhances the nature of the person who takes it. In this case, Jabez has taken it, and in his lust for riches, he slowly transforms from a greedy assistant to a powerful demi-god on a crash course with destruction.
Galleon has a little of everything in it. The game's unusual mechanics are its most interesting eccentricity, and for me one of its biggest plusses. Rhama can run, naturally, but if he gets a big wind up, he actually accelerates, giving him the chance to leap over 50 foot chasms without a scratch. He can walk over inch-wide rock formations with perfect poise. He can even fight on them, as the game is designed so that when he's moving slow he maintains perfect balance. When he's running, however, he's more susceptible to falling.
The collision detection is hyper diligent. The things Rhama can jump onto are surprising. He can leap onto anything, a rooftop, a flag pole, a bookshelf, a lamp, you name it. He's a tiny bit like Treyarch's Spider-Man that way. He has a surfeit of jumps, giving him the ability to long jump, wall-jump, wall run, and the nearly flawless ability to transition from a shimmy to wall run and back to a hanging position without any major snags. He's capable of shooting while running, attacking while jumping, and to make things interesting you can actually maneuver his direction in mid-air.
While Rhama is incredibly dexterous, you could just as easily become annoyed by his agility and the game's tactile approach. Sometimes it seems like overkill. Sometimes, you just want him to jump from point A to B, but he's somehow touched another surface, which he then needs to react to, ruining a jump or a well-placed leap. The exaggerated physics are a plus or a minus, depending on how well you adapt to Rhama's abilities. On the one hand, you can really jump high and far, but in another sense, it's a little like walking on the moon. I happen to like it, but I can see where one might not.
The third-person camera is generally a plus, following Rhama with a good distance and focus, and 99% of the time not mingling with walls or encountering clipping problems. The difficult areas occur when Rhama is wall climbing or wall sliding. The camera zooms all over the place. It becomes hard to control as it seeks the potentially best position. So, you'll find yourself wondering which side is up. A little more separation of the camera from Rhama's movement would have helped here. After enough practice, you'll get the hang of it. But the struggle never quite ends.
After the peculiar mechanics, the other engaging aspect that'll attract gamers is its size. The levels are huge, the distances are long, and the game also delivers serious height and volume. The second island you'll attend is a massive hollowed out mountain that's easily 50 stories high. After a combination of physical puzzles, combat and some NPC interaction, you'll actually get to the top. If you're not careful, you may fall all the way down. Luckily the bottom is water, where you can swim as far as your lungs permit. There are, on occasion, quick draw-in problems in larger areas, but they're rare.
The combat system is interesting and deep, but a little flawed. Using the analog controllers, players punch, kick, and connect combos using hand-to-hand combat and weapon-based attacks via guns and swords. The range of hand-to-hand attacks is solid, with throws, spin attacks, and directional attacks working well enough. You can power up for even bigger attacks. But the game isn't quick like a fighting title; and the analog controllers appear to be part of the problem. Some of the enemy collision detection is off base too, so you may merge with some panthers, tigers and enemies on small ledges, too.
The enemy AI is a little off kilter. For instance, there seems to be a pretty big discrepancy between the difficulty of sub-bosses and bosses. What I've found is that the bosses -- the ones that stand 20 stories high -- are actually less of a hassle to fight than the smaller sub-bosses. With big bosses, the risk/reward is higher, since with one or two hits they can easily slaughter you. But once you've figured out their simple pattern, they're all generally easy. The little guys, however, require more work and they have caused me more wasted time on the whole then the bosses themselves. There also seems to be a weird problem with panthers and tigers. It seems almost easier to let them attack you first, then use a get-up attack to do the most damage.
Having said that, the first massive bosses I fought were an awesome experience. (SMALL SPOILER) You can jump on their backs to attack them, run across their spines up to their necks, and stab them in the head, while clinging on for dear life. (END SPOILER)I loved fighting these bosses. Sure, they're easier than I expected, but the idea of fighting something so big, like a super-strong Lilliputian against Gulliver, is unparalleled.
The puzzles are better than average. Most of them are physical, i.e. fetch quests or landscapes that require figuring out. Much like Tomb Raider and Prince or Persia: The Sands of Time before it, Galleon's puzzles require some trial and error techniques, and some can be solved in more than one way. Only here, the hint system, the flexibility of the character's abilities, and the shortcuts make the experience far more enjoyable than almost anything in Tomb Raider. Nothing really blew me away, but I never felt super angry at the ridiculousness of a puzzle either.
While the size of the landscapes is impressive, they're also daunting. Luckily, Confouding Factor did an excellent job of placing save spots in key areas, and there is a generous amount of automatic checkpoints. What a relief they are. You have an infinite amount of lives, and if you die, you have the choice of returning to the last checkpoint. They've mixed in a healthy mixture of combat, cutscenes, and story-telling in between solving puzzles. This is perhaps one of the game's best attributes: It always feels well-paced and intelligently balanced. There is also a great use of water here. You'll encounter underwater paths, secret section, and platform elements, many of which are affected by tides and currents and well placed jellyfish.
While Confounding Factor told us that the game is about 40 hours long, it meant that to get everything it takes 40 hours. To beat it, you'll probably play for about 10-15 hours depending on your skill level. After each level, you'll see how well you performed via a chart including enemies fought, items collected, secrets found, etc. The only problem is that the game is linear in design. And it's story-based, and you only have three save spots. You can re-play a level if you want to, but you'll have little leeway with three save spots. However, if you are a huge stickler for collecting everything, Galleon is your game. Each landscape is vast, and the items to collect are tiny. Unlike Tomb Raider, however, you can easily distinguish them from the minimally textured landscape.
While graphics aren't the most important thing in a game for me, the visuals in Galleon do show their age. Sure it's a fictitious game and the style is cartoonish, and, for the most part, I usually forget about its simplistic textures, oddball character designs, and low res backgrounds. But the game definitely isn't a graphic showcase, and it's readily apparent.
Depending on your sense of aesthetics you might have a strong reaction -- either positive or negative -- to the character design. Rhama and his crew are all drawn with a weirdly peculiar set of collar bones; they all own tiny little hips, knees, and ankles, and their legs and arms are oddly, purposely disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. Personally, I like it. But around the office, the response has been wildly different. On the other hand, despite the small amount of polygons per character, their facial expressions are excellent. The characters look comic but they act like real characters in a story, not as cheap-ass caricatures or 2D Saturday morning clichés.
I also enjoy the imagination fused into the many landscapes. There is a certain ingenuity in the design of the many paths, arenas, mountains, and palaces; the game's themes remind me of the Arabian Knights and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. The building architecture is respectable on the outside and inside.
Corresponding with the excellent character facial expressions and character movements is good dialog and excellent voice acting. The little known voice-actors don't overact or fill your ears with crap voices. These characters are well done, with solid performances and genuinely likeable talents delivering right-on the-money lines.
The game's music is the stuff of straight up adventure movies. It soars with full orchestration and the violins come in when the romance starts. Most of the music is dynamic, changing depending on the situation. So, you'll always know when enemies show up because the music is the same. The biggest weakness with the game's sound is it's not technically savvy (no Dolby Support), nor is it tightly edited. There is a general sense of looseness in transitions, and there are occasional sound delays too.
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