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29 May 2016 @ 06:23 pm
Game Review: Gemini Rue  
Wadjet Eye is one of those names I've heard multiple times in connection with the revival of point-and-click adventure games as a mainstream concern. Not that they ever went anywhere, really--Hardcoregaming101's Guide to Classic Adventure Games points out that the problem was never that adventure games were losing popularity. They just weren't growing much, and back in the 90s when everyone was chasing graphics because all those extra polygons were objectively superior leading to bigger and bigger budgets, that just wasn't enough. Like interactive fiction, though, adventure gaming never really died. But studies like Wadjet Eye and Telltale Games are responsible for for a lot of that. Loom's Brian Moriarty even mentioned in a GDC talk he did on Loom that he'd be willing to turn over the rights to Wadjet Eye to the sequel that LucasArts never did, which for my view is pretty high praise. Sadly, the rights are lost in intra-company IP agreement hell, but it speaks to Wadjet Eye's quality that he'd consider it.

Gemini Rue isn't actually made by Wadjet Eye, just published by them, but their logo does flash up at the start of the game and it's all the things I associate with Wadjet Eye games. A pixel art point-and-click adventure in the style of the games I played of old, but with modern sensibilities. Not as many bullshit deaths as Sierra games, not as many obscure puzzles as LucasArts games. A happy medium, bringing the old genre into the modern age. Old adventure games aren't as bad as many people make them out to be--not everything was the cat hair mustache puzzle--but Gemini Rue does a lot to smooth over the old problematic aspects. You can't get stuck, it's pretty hard to die, and there are no puzzles where the creator assumes you'll either think in exactly the same sort of twisted logic as they do or else click literally everything on everything else in order to figure them out.

Well, maybe a little of the latter. It is a point-and-click adventure game.

After a brief intro with no explanation where an unknown man has his memory erased, you're dumped into the image above. The planet Barracus, where weather machines are set to leave the weather at constant rain as a way to help deal with the byproducts of the planet's mining operations. A planet ruled by the Boryokudan (暴力団, "violent groups," the official Japanese government term for the yakuza), who deal with traitors and rebels harshly and control the planetary government from behind the scenes. A planet where the chief industry seems to be drug running and everyone has another angle.

It's pretty amazing, actually. I mean, "Planet where it literally rains all the time" is 100% my aesthetic.

The main character--one of them, anyway, about which more in a moment--is called "Azriel Odin," and before you roll your eyes, dear reader, he admits that it's not his real name. He used to work for the Boryokudan but turned traitor, defecting to the cops and becoming a detective, and he's here on Barracus to find out what happened to his brother. The other main character is the person from the brief intro: Delta-Six, an inmate at some kind of high-security rehabilitation facility where prisoners are trained in valuable skills and then let out back into society. Of course, it's immediately obvious that something else is going on here, since hiding in cover, marksmanship, and Headshots 101 aren't usually the kind of skills that prison wardens explicitly try to instill in their charges, and being a prisoner, Delta-Six wants to escape. The game weaves between their two stories, at one point letting you switch between them at will, and then brings them together at the ending.

Cover shooter time.

Yes, that means that Gemini Rue has a combat system. Adventure game combat systems deservedly have a reputation for being terrible, with the except of the Quest For Glory games and games inspired by it like Heroine's Quest, or the insult sword fighting from Monkey Island, but Gemini Rue's combat system isn't bad. I mean, it's not good and it's not going to win any awards for engaging gameplay or interesting mechanics, but it doesn't require split-second pixel-perfect timing in a game engine designed to let you click on areas of the screen and slowly manipulate your inventory.

You can see the basic interface on the screenshot there. W switches targets (never more than two), A and D lean out of cover to the left and right, S goes back into cover, space fires, and control is the only part that I found actually difficult. It's listed in the controls as "breathe," but what it does is start the timer moving and when it gets to the green part, firing produces a headshot, killing the target instantly. Soemtimes this is more trouble than its worth, but I often used it to help speed things up. Still, there were combats where I blazed away at the enemy, slowly plinking down their health, and I still got through the combat just fine. There's even an Easy difficulty (I picked Medium, the other difficulty setting) if you're having trouble.


Gemini Rue is pretty obviously inspired by Cowboy Bebop, so obviously so that the creator even put in the crew of the Bebop as cameos--you can see all of them here. Azriel Odin is a former yakuza assassin with a mysterious past, a figure from that past who comes back to haunt him, secrets he's keeping from his partner, some of the most important events of his life happen during the rain... But unlike Cowboy Bebop, Gemini Rue is pretty focused and doesn't spend any time on side stories or cute excursions. Everything is about Azriel finding his brother or Delta-Six trying to figure out what's going on and escape.

I tagged this entry cyberpunk, and I think Gemini Rue is cyberpunk, but a lot of the specific ways it evokes that are 1) spoilers and 2) don't come in until the end of the game, whereas the noir influences are pretty obvious right from the beginning. Azriel Odin wanders around in a trenchcoat and tie, both he and Delta-Six meet a mysterious dame who's nothing but trouble, both of them deal with criminals and assorted other low-lifes all the time, and both of them are forced to resort to the gun when other options have failed. The cyberpunk that comes later is more interesting, about the nature of humanity and how much of who we are is shaped by our experiences vs. how much is something innate, but I don't think enough time is spent on it. If there had been more attention paid to it throughout the game rather than suddenly bringing it in because of [Spoiler (click to open)]the revelation that Azriel Odin and Delta-Six are the same person and the two segments take place at different time periods, rather than simultaneously I think it would have been both more interesting and had a more satisfying resolution. Instead, it seems a little shoehorned in in an attempt to be deep.

DLASD...maybe the capitals don't mean anything.

The puzzles are mostly pretty straightforward. The few times I went to a walkthrough, it almost always gave me an answer that told me that if I had been willing to spend a few more minutes looking around and testing the interface, I could have figured it out. There's basically no pixel hunting, and for a game with such a limited color pallete--almost all greys and blacks for the parts with Azriel, mostly greys and whites for Delta-Six--there's plenty of attention paid to making sure that interactive objects stand out from the background. The only confusion I had was caused by the relative paucity of such objects, since there's no way to bring up the interface without having an object to click it on.

That led to some frustration at one point, because there's no obvious way to use one object on another and the one time I had to do it, to repair Azriel's lockpicks, I ended up clicking around through various screens until I found a bunch of graffiti that allowed me to use the proper item. Otherwise it just told me that I couldn't use that on that. I'm not sure if I was doing it wrong or if I needed one of the hotspots that's for color instead of to advance the plot, but it was only one time.

The other frustrating thing is that there's a hand icon, used for everything that adventure games usually use hand icons for, but also a foot icon, used for kicking doors in and standing on things. There are a lot of puzzles that require you to kick doors in, kick objects or perform percussive maintenance, or climb onto something and then climb slightly higher to reach whatever it is that's out of reach. It's not something I've run into in other adventure games, and I'd say that at least half of what made me resort to a walkthrough were puzzles where the solution was USE FOOT.

Aww, why not?

When I first played this game, I loaded it up, played for four minutes, and then set it aside and didn't come back to it until now. Which was a mistake--this is an excellent game, somewhat drab color palette aside. Apparently it was originally rejected from Steam, way back in 2011, and I can't see why that would happen other than Valve being its usual inscrutable self. I'd even recommend this to people who aren't that fond of adventure games. As I mentioned, the puzzles aren't obtuse, the characters manage to be a bit gritty without ever having you play a monster or, worse, someone who's unbelievably annoying, and mechanics mostly work in service of the story rather than the story being an excuse to string a collection of puzzles together.

Apparently it's a lot like the old adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky, which I've never played but which I apparently own because when I went to Gog.com to wishlist it I found that it's already in my library? Did I buy that when I got turned on to my modern cyberpunk kick? Did it pick it up in a collection and completely forget that I had done so? Maybe it was offered for free at some point? Anyway, that kind of undercuts this last paragraph, since I was set to buy it and add that to my queue but it's already been done.

Regardless, the point is that Gemini Rue is great and you should play it.
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