By and large, when Al Lowe wasn’t making Larry games, he was doing interesting things with user interfaces in different games. In Black Cauldron, he did the “Lucasarts Interface” before there was such a thing by binding “often used” adventure commands to the f-keys. In Troll’s Tale, he wanted to make a game that was easy for young people to play, so he borrowed the then-in-vogue “choose your own adventure” style interface.
Even in Larry, he was looking for ways to make the interface unique. So in seven, we got the Cybersniff 2000, a device that when paired with the game gave a tangible [and sometimes disgusting] sense of smell to what you were seeing on-screen. That particular game also gave us the mixed-parser/point and click environment.
So, Al Lowe games are always a cause for celebration. We’re about to see his new take on what the interface for an adventure game should be, and Torin’s Passage does not disappoint in this regard. There’s a couple of new wrinkles here that have never really been replicated anywhere else.
The first wrinkle is that of the “scroll bar” in an adventure game context. So, imagine a screen of average proportions – say a 640×480 screen – because back then, that was about “the default” for most games. Ordinarily, this means the “screen” approach: walk near the edge, and the game dissolves the current screen and takes you to the next one after a brief loading period. But this is the late 90’sand that approach won’t do anymore. So, instead, areas are huge, sprawling vistas that extend up and right further than most Sierra Games would bother with. But with this comes a problem: you might want to see what’s ahead – or down. Al Lowe solves this by having scroll bars for the environment. Now you can plan ahead.
There’s also a “dual inventory” which is a neat idea. On the one hand, you have all the stuff Torin picks up and on the other you have all the shapes that Torin’s little buddy Boogle collect, because sometimes, Boogle will walk into a room, see something he can become, sniff that thing and “remember” it.
There’s also one other great idea that he borrowed from Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria – you no longer need to start at point a and work your way through the game. Instead, it’s broken up into Chapters, and you can pick and choose from these Chapters, solving the game in a non-linear fashion. This does wreck the story a little, but if there’s something you can’t solve in Chapter 2 and you want to skip ahead, well, this lets you.
There’s also a hints system with a timer attached, but you can turn the timer off. However, asking for hints [which are in the UHS style – the more you request help with a puzzle, the less abstract the clue becomes] the lower your score drops. [You can totally cheat, though: save before asking for a clue, ask for a clue, lose the points, and then restore.]
So, really, there’s a lot of interface goodness going on here that I like, but you’ll notice that I haven’t really talked about the main ingredients of any adventure game: the plot, characters and puzzles, that’s because – unfortunately – none of these stand out in particular in this game.
Torin is a fairly average teenager who lives on a planet called Strata in an area of that planet called The Lands Above. His life is fairly humdrum until, one day; his parents get vanished by an evil witch named Lycentia. He vows to find them. To do this, he has to pass through several “layers” of strata, encountering different environments and people on each layer until he finds the witch and frees his parents.
This idea is great. Strata sounds like it should be immense fun and on layers one and two, it certainly is. There’s lots to see and lots to do and the inhabitants are all suitably interesting, but from layer three [and downwards] the whole game becomes far more linear. Now, you’re trying to reach the end of the world so you can get one more layer down. You also don’t see very much of these later layers – in one criminal case, a land that should be very interesting to explore [Pergola] – a place that looks green and full of forest-life – is exactly four or five screens big. And not even scrolling screens, either.
There are also characterization problems. Everyone’s basically a walking stereotype. Torin is blonde and handsome, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. The skunks you meet in Escarpa are testy and ready to defend their territory with their “weapons.” A two-headed vulture has a “good side” and a “bad side.” It’s all so terrifically paint by numbers that it’s almost sad to watch. This is especially true of Torin’s love interest [who gets hinted at in the second world, foisted on the player in the third world and summarily disappears from the game after a couple of lines of dialogue.]
Special mention has to be made – when talking about the characters – of the Bitternuts. I have no idea why they’re in the game. Allow me to elaborate: Strata is mostly colourful and largely kid-friendly. The characters you meet all have humorous dialogue that will sometimes have something for the kids and something for the adults in the audience. While the characters are kind of ho-hum, some of their lines are fantastic. Then, out of nowhere, there’s the Bitternuts. This is an in-black-and-white segment of the game that takes place in a fictional sitcom featuring the Bitternuts. It is a serious break in what is – until that point – a pretty immersive experience. Sure. It’s Al Lowe, and yes, he likes humour. And absolutely, this is very meta humour, but it’s a giant disconnect from the rest of the game.
Lastly, I feel that – given that this is an adventure game – I should talk about the puzzles. Now, to be fair, none of these are veer particularly into real headscratcher territory, but most of them – especially the later ones – err on the side of “frustrating.” Some bad examples: There are two mazes. One tile puzzle without any clues. A sight puzzle that relies [somewhat heavily] on your intuiting that colours matter, a musical puzzle that relies on you understanding scales, what appears to be a simple stepping-stones puzzle that isn’t as simple as it first looks…basically: there’s not enough clues. The game almost expects you to use the hint feature to figure out what should be hinted at through game play. It’s iffy design.
So, my by-line was about Al Lowe meeting Roberta Williams, but I haven’t explained that at all, so let me try that real quickly. See, I think that Al Lowe looked at King’s Quest in an oblique kind of fashion and thought: “you know, that series needs a refresh. I’m sure I can do something like it with a little bit of a twist going on. It’ll be great! Sierra will have two King’s Quests!” Except that history has shown that it didn’t work out that way.
Torin’s Passage is an OK game with some beautiful [if forgettable] music and animations wrapped around it. Animation wise, this is the game King’s Quest 7 was trying to be. It has a great world that’s let down by it’s humdrum handling of the characters, situations and puzzles. It isn’t an Al Lowe failure, but it’s also not his best work, either. It’s a shame, too: a different [maybe more science fiction?] handling of Strata might have lead to sequels, but what is here is what it is. And what it is is decidedly average.