the elysium enigma


The Elysium Enigma is a very well-crafted and entertaining pulp sci-fi story. To begin with, I'm given a clear and straightforward mission to do, without being buried under a load of infodumps. Along the way, I notice enough little anomalies and incongruities that I want to exceed my authority and dig a bit further, and there's plenty here to dig into. The story tries to lure me in one particular direction, and I fall for the bait entirely. Leela in any other setting would just be some improbable male fantasy, but Elysium is just the kind of backward world where such an unclothed earthy innocent wouldn't look out of place. It's also the kind of world where Petroc's denial of her existence wouldn't raise a warning bell; her banishment is just the kind of backward custom a village elder might want to keep from outsiders. So setting and story work together to deceive me, and when their secret is revealed, I feel an appropriate sense of betrayal and outrage.

One criticism I had of the author's earlier Square Circle is that its satirical intent was unclear and ambiguous, and even a bit retrograde. The Orwellian state it depicted didn't seem to have any particular political leanings; it just seemed to embody the routine and technology of "modern life", against which the game held up some ideals of mysticism, vague spirituality and backwardness (as espoused by the old man in the forest). Which of course goes against my principles. I can't make the same criticism of The Elysium Enigma; this isn't a story of simple, innocent villagers against some evil technological empire. Instead, the village elder comes across as ignorant and somewhat pathetic, his anti-technology rants the ravings of a nutcase. It's clear that his decrepit society, which rejected progress, is for that reason in terminal decline; the town is falling apart and no one knows how to fix it. The story shows that his anti-technological stance is taking him nowhere, and I can only approve.

I disapprove, however, of the puzzles, which are contrived and cliched and generally pretty bad. The game deserves much better than such hoary old chestnuts as making a fishing rod to catch a fish to feed the cat which is sitting on the box that contains the Maguffin. In truth, Elysium would be much better without any puzzles at all. There is much to discover in this game just by exploring and talking to people; there is plenty of interacting to do without having to solve a goddamn fishing rod puzzle as well. Such contrived obstacles make the game less interactive, not more. Solving them doesn't reveal anything about the world; they're just a chore, they get in the way, they're puzzles for the sake of puzzles.

I'm also not convinced by the ask/tell topics conversation system used by this and other games. I make the same complaint others make about conversation menus: here, I just methodically mine each topic until it runs dry, and then move onto the next one, with the result that NPCs tend towards being static, artificial blobs of code. Of course, it's possible to inject a bit more dynamism into this system (as it is with conversation menus), but the NPCs in Elysium tend to stand there while I mine them for data. And they're not quite convincing in other ways. There came a stage when I had blabbed enough to Leela that she knew everything she had come for; but still she hung around for me to discover her ruse and capture her. Another improbable puzzle depends on her behaving like a bit of clockwork.

Nevertheless, I could play with my hints at the ready and thoroughly enjoyed The Elysium Enigma. I wouldn't be surprised or at all disappointed if it won the competition.

Rating: 9


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