Journeyman Project – Final Rating

From The Adventure Gamer

Written by Reiko

All the way back on gameplay post 1, one of our intrepid commenters managed to neatly summarize my final sense of the game. Ross said, “This is one of my favorite series of games, but man is this first one clunky.” That’s exactly it. It was a cool ride, but…clunky. Like a budget rollercoaster that clanks and bumps around every turn, and its top speed never quite manages to feel fast. And then there’s the place where you’ll hit your head if you don’t remember to duck.

I am actually thinking of a particular kiddie rollercoaster I’ve ridden with my young son. Yes, it was clanky and bumpy, fast enough to be fun but not fast enough to feel fast for long. No, I never actually bumped my head, but there’s one point where the track dives below an overhead loop that you reach later in the ride. I’m very short, but as an adult on a kids’ ride, it felt like a near miss every time I went through that part, to the point where I would usually duck a bit even though I didn’t have to.

Puzzles and Solvability

Most of the puzzles were very solvable, but rather on the obvious side. Use the oxygen mask to breathe while in the depressurized tunnels. Disarm the bomb before taking it. Use the right biochip in the right situation. It’s really not a hard game. There were only two tricky timing puzzles, and one was only tricky because of the interface (the silo deactivation minigame with the awkward cursor), and the other was the ore crusher. Some of the puzzles were very derivative, like the stunted Mastermind variation. And there was a real maze, which fortunately was rendered rather trivial with the Mapping biochip. There are also no alternate solutions except for the final choice of how to deal with each robot, whether “peacefully” or not.

How many chips can I grab from the robot before it self-destructs?

Then there’s the walking dead situation. The problem is, the game doesn’t allow any possibility of returning to time periods that have been won. Oddly enough, it’s possible to fail the Mars level without dying and start over again, as if the robot didn’t succeed. But once you’ve defeated a robot, then the level is won and becomes inaccessible. If you fail to take all of the biochips from the robots, then they are lost. Some are duplicates, but I managed to lock myself out of completing the game my first time through solely because I failed to get the Retinal biochip, which is unique. It’s also possible to miss the wire cutters, but this would only lock the player out of the best score, not prevent winning the game entirely.

Score: 4

Interface and Inventory

In my opinion, the entire interface could have used a redesign. It’s typical of the time that the viewing window was very small, with an interface frame around it. I don’t mind that so much, but the inventory in particular was not designed well.

I have to go from the Access Card Bomb at the top
of the list to the Stun Gun, nearly at the bottom of the list.

First, there was no good reason to mix biochips and regular inventory items in the same list, particularly when the chips can also be accessed from the pull-out list at the bottom. All that does is make it harder to get to a particular inventory item when you need it, and given a few times where you need to get to an item fairly quickly, it’s really awkward. Plus the list itself is really small, with only five items visible at a time, and the scroll buttons are very slow. It’s a good thing the time limits on those moments that require a response are very generous.

Plenty of room for the pull-out list to stay open at the bottom.

Second, that pull-out list should have just been a permanent frame at the bottom with all of the spaces (full or empty) always visible. That way every biochip would have been a single click away. The interface chip in particular needed to be more accessible because of the scoring being tied to the time limit: every time you have to fumble through the inventory to get to the interface chip, energy and points are slipping away. So most of the time I left the interface chip activated so I could get to it without delay. Note that even with the pull-out list open, there’s still enough room that the inventory list could have displayed more than five items.

To be honest, I think it’s a bad sign when you have an inventory item called “interface”. The interface should never get in the way of inventory or be represented as inventory. In this sort of high-tech future, it might sometimes make sense to have a sort of digital interface item that the player uses, but the interface biochip isn’t even the same thing as the eyescreen object that Agent 5 clearly picks up and wears in the opening video, which then becomes the entire visible viewing screen plus surrounding interface. The biochip only performs the meta functions of saving, loading, and displaying score, which should generally not have anything to do with physical objects in the protagonist’s world. (Probably games exist that successfully and cleverly break the fourth wall in this way, but this isn’t one of them.) In other words, this is clearly the design of an inexperienced studio that hasn’t yet figured out that meta functions should never interfere with gameplay. By contrast, Sierra games early on already were designed to pause gameplay by default when you access the menu screen.

Pressure plate triggers T-rex shadow?

I also didn’t like that certain places had unskippable animations that would play every time you moved there. Sometimes the repetition was merely implausible. In the distant past, the same dinosaur would appear every time you stood in the right spot, but at least that was a short animation. Other times the repetition was really annoying, like the rather lengthy sequence that would play when entering the transporter at the beginning. The Pegasus device also had an animation for displaying the timeline every single time you entered it, warped back from a time period, or loaded a saved game there. Overall, the game just wasn’t very responsive, and that made replaying sections less fun than it could have been.

This was almost entirely a mouse-driven game, except that moving around could also be done with the keyboard, which I very much appreciate. That minigame with the cursor really should have had some sort of keyboard controls as well, though. The mouse control was very imprecise, which added artificial difficulty to the task.

Score: 3

Story and Setting

The plot involved fairly typical time-travel shenanigans, which boiled down to “villain who invented time travel hates aliens, so he sends robots back in time to mess up history and make everyone else hate aliens too.” Cue the time agents to set things right. The interesting part is seeing what the future is like and observing the effects that just a few changes have on history. It’s not terribly realistic, but then time travel generally isn’t. On the other hand, the change in the political climate when suddenly everyone has a reason to believe that aliens have attacked Mars is rather understandable.

I asked early on why attacking Castillo at the rally in 2310 was one of the choices to change when the initial contact with the Cyrollans, where they offered Earth Symbiotry membership in ten years, was two years before that, in 2308. After playing the whole game, I suppose that the first two events (destroying the alien ship and the Mars colony, and attacking the small country with nukes) were meant to turn the world’s governments against aliens and each other, while the rally event was meant to prevent Earth from wanting to accept the Cyrollan offer once it was made. You’d think the third event wouldn’t be necessary if the first two succeeded, but I guess Sinclair was hedging his bets, especially since he was prepared to assassinate the Cyrollan delegate at the crucial moment if none of the changes succeeded.

Neat sequence of flying the shuttle over Mars

I liked the setting, but I generally like science fiction. The Mars base was done particularly well: I enjoyed walking around the base with Japanese signs and watching the shuttle fly over the Martian surface. The distant past was very brief, although the vista with the volcano was pretty neat, and the other two past levels were mostly just internal corridors. The biomechanical doors in the rally level were intriguing, though.

Score: 5

Sound and Graphics

Sound effects were evocative and appropriate: doors swished, footsteps clanged on metal floors, the robot voices sounded suitably menacing, and so forth. The music was really fun too. You can find the soundtrack on Youtube here if you want to check it out. “Mars Maze” is the neat song that plays while you’re wandering around the maze of ore tunnels on Mars. That one is my favorite track. I also like the ending theme, which is a smoother and longer version of the music that plays on the main menu.

I also noticed that there’s a slower version of the Mars Maze song that’s labeled “Airless” with breathing and a heartbeat overlaid on it. I originally assumed (and was correct) that it isn’t possible to enter the tunnels without the oxygen mask, just like it isn’t possible to enter them from the other direction, but this track implies that it is possible to run out of air while in the tunnels. The description of the oxygen mask does say it’s only supposed to work for eight minutes. So I went back and entered the tunnels and tried waiting around. Sure enough, after about five or six minutes, the theme switched to the slower version and I started hearing the breathing, which sped up along with the heartbeat, and eventually the air did run out. So that’s another way to get the Suffocation ending. I had just always used the Mapping chip and sped through that section so fast that I never noticed that the air could run out. That’s also interesting because I can wear the oxygen mask for the entire NORAD level with no issues, but I think there it’s only filtering out the sleeping gas, so it doesn’t use up its oxygen.

Full tunnel map. I could be starting to run out of air
here, but you’d never know it just by the screenshot.

At any rate, the alternate maze theme is a fantastic audio cue. I often play games without sound, but I think this game would be very hard to play without sound because so many of the puzzle cues are audio only. Nothing appears on screen to tell you that you’re running out of air. Another example: the security radio alerts tell you where the robot in the Mars colony has gone when it takes off in the shuttle, so you can take the other one and follow it. I would have really liked a subtitle option, as I just really prefer to read text rather than listen to voices (or ideally, do both, but have the option to skip ahead).

In the NORAD level, most of the corridors had an annoying alert repeating in the background about the sleeping gas. Sure, it helps the immersion a bit, but it’s very distracting. Probably it would have been just as effective and a fraction as annoying if the alert only played in the first main corridor. It’s not like you can get very far without having the oxygen mask anyway.

I really wanted text summaries of these videos…

One of the places where the FMV was less than helpful was with the videos of the timeline differences. I don’t mind a voice-over, but it would have been so much more efficient to show a still image of the speaker (because she looked different in the different timelines) with the text of the description, rather than playing those unskippable videos. The objective videos needed to be videos, though, because Sinclair’s menace and instability wouldn’t have come through with just text or even text with voice. But all of those videos that are triggered by the player should have been pausable and skippable.

The erupting volcano scene looks almost photorealistic, although low resolution.

The graphics were clear and even quite lovely in places, such as the volcano vista I mentioned, the views out the apartment windows over the city of Caldoria, and the views out the colony windows over the surface of Mars. Much of the game took place in relatively repetitive corridors, though. Plus, most of the animations were videos that took up very little of the game’s screen area: the visible area was already only part of the screen, and the parts that moved were often only a fraction of that.

Score: 6

Environment and Atmosphere

The atmosphere is quite good. I felt like the robots were really menacing, for instance. Every time I encountered the robot in the Mars level, I wondered if I was going to get blown up. The Mars level was the longest and best of the three major time periods (and because it’s supposed to be played first, I have to wonder if the other levels were intended to be longer but development was cut short).

The surface of Mars and more of the colony structure.
While the areas that are playable are sharply constrained, external views help make the worlds seem much larger. Outside the colony corridors is the surface of Mars. Outside the apartment is the rest of Caldoria. Outside the lab corridors is…well, we don’t really see it, but we do periodically hear stage announcements and people talking, which helps the illusion that we’re near a stage with a large audience. Again, the sound effects are fantastic. Much of the atmosphere comes from the sound.

Outside NORAD, though…? Who knows? All we see are corridors and all we hear is that horrid announcement about the sleeping gas. There are a lot of locked doors, though, which I guess is supposed to imply a larger base.

Score: 5

Dialog and Acting

I’m going to have to rate this category down for three reasons: there just isn’t all that much dialogue in the game to start with; most of the interesting bits are completely optional and even have to be skipped in a high-scoring run; and the written content has numerous typos/spelling errors. I’ll say more about each of these in reverse order.

Nobody ever checked this screen during development or testing?

Spelling errors bug me, especially in a game like this that hangs together quite well. I encountered no bugs aside from the one oddity of having the tranquilizer dart show up again when I restored inside the lab. Clearly the gameplay was tested, but nobody bothered to read through the text and check it? It really makes it seem like the video and audio content was considered more important, as if nobody reads in the future, but just watches videos instead. It’s a huge contrast to something like Myst with its copious journals and letters.

As I’ve mentioned, the game actively discourages exploration beyond what’s needed to solve the puzzles and advance. Sinclair’s lab at the rally has some extra research archives that explore what the man had been working on, which is great background material, but it’s totally irrelevant to stopping the robot. Naturally, the optimal playthrough entirely skips it. Any video is simply wasted time when the energy is ticking down, but it’s a shame that there wasn’t more of this sort of thing to be found in the other time periods for a playthrough that isn’t focused on optimization (especially the NORAD level, which felt particularly empty).

The voice reads all this as well as having it displayed on-screen.

Aside from brief encounters with the robots (and Sinclair at the end), there just isn’t much dialogue. The acting is well done, but there are no conversations, only one-sided remarks, and they are all very brief. The minigames did have significant written descriptions. But most of that merely duplicated the spoken content, which was unskippable. I mentioned earlier that I wanted subtitles for the videos. Here it seemed redundant to have both, since the purpose was only to explain how to play the minigames, not convey complex character information. The videos should have had subtitles, and the minigame explanations should have been text only.

Score: 4

That adds up to a final score of 4+3+5+6+5+4 = 27/60*100 = 45. Sixteen people made guesses ranging from 41 to 65, but this time, ShaddamIVth has nailed it.

CAP Distribution

100 points to Reiko

  • Blogger award – 100 CAPs – For blogging through this game for our enjoyment
50 point to Joe Pranevich
  • Classic Blogger Award – 50 CAPs – For blogging through Trinity for our enjoyment

38 points to MorpheusKitami

  • True Companion Award – 25 CAPs – For playing along with most of the game and providing amusing commentary
  • Spellchecker Award – 10 CAPs – For finding the repeated “dicovery” typo and the “nuclear missle” typo in the screenshots
  • Sudden Death Award – 3 CAPs – For alerting me to a death I’d missed: entering the mining tunnels without disabling the bomb

14 points to ShaddamIVth

  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – For guessing the final rating for Journeyman Project
  • Walking Dead Award – 2 CAPs – For sensing there would be a walking dead situation (but not how it would happen)
  • Cognitive Dissonance Award – 2 CAPs – For recognizing that the Mars robot should have been more violent
10 points to Adam Thornton
  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – For guessing the final rating of Trinity

7 points to Biscuit

  • Music Research Award – 5 CAPs – For determining that the post titles are all songs by Two-Mix
  • Pegasus Variation Award – 2 CAPs – For describing differences in the NORAD level in the Pegasus Prime remake

7 points to Ross

  • Psychic Summary Award – 5 CAPs – For echoing my conclusion of Journeyman Project back on the first post
  • Genre Evolution Award – 2 CAPs – For reflecting on how the JP games shifted their approach to exploration as the series progressed

3 points to Niklas

  • (Not-so) Sudden Death Award – 3 CAPs – For alerting me to a death I’d missed: letting energy run out in the prehistoric era

2 points to ATMachine

  • Historical Geography Award – 2 CAPs – For reminding us that Bonn was a capital while Germany was divided

With that, I am done with the first Journeyman Project game. We might eventually get to the Pegasus Prime remake (although with an original release date no earlier than 1997, it will be a while), and the second Journeyman Project game, Buried in Time, should be in the 1995 set. But before that, I’ll be back later in 1993 to see if Ecoquest II is just as cheerful and wholesome as the original.

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