The Only AGONy Lies in Waiting....
Adventure fans are in for a treat if this, the first of fourteen planned episodes of AGON, is anything to go by. The game is being published by a small company named Private Moon Studios over the course of the next two years.
The "London Episode," as it is called, basically serves to set up the plot for the rest of the game—the hunt for the titular and mysterious Agon in fourteen locations across the globe.
Considering the amount of compression that must have gone into AGON, the graphics are beautiful, and the quality of the rendered movies is the best I've seen in an adventure game. The only other time I've seen no graphical artifacts in an in-game movie was in Diablo II. The actors, whose movements have been motion-captured, look about like what you'd expect from a modern 3D adventure. The game is presented mostly from a first-person perspective, but the player character is well-defined: we see his reflections in windows and the like. The reflections are not static, either; you'll see the character blink and shuffle about. The game is controlled via a single mouse cursor that morphs into various shapes for movement, inspection, picking up items, etc. A full list can be seen in the first screenshot. As in Zork: Nemesis, almost every screen is a panorama that allows you to rotate 360 degrees as look up and down a limited amount. Movement is accompanied by transitions in the style of Schizm, which looks very nice but is painful when you want to go somewhere fast—I'd like there to be an option to turn them off.
Not that you'll need to backtrack much—the scope of the episode is limited to a few rooms, and all the puzzles are excellently clued. There's no hunt-the-pixel for items either. One minor gripe is that not all objects are accessible from all locations— for example, you need to be standing in the right place to look in the wastepaper basket. On the other hand, this type of movement appears to be a deliberate obfuscation in an amusing treasure hunt later on. Furthermore, the main character usually lets you know immediately whether a puzzle's solution is right or whether there's something you've forgotten, saving you a lot of frustrating clicking about. A few times, you'll have to enter things on an on-screen keyboard using the mouse. It would have been nice to be able to use the normal keyboard as well, but again, this is a minor gripe. I would have liked shortcut keys to access the inventory and the Files, however; maybe even a one-button shortcut for saving the game, since that involves going through several screen fades every time.
Since I just mentioned the Files, I might as well explain that. You're a professor in the British Museum. During your explorations through the British Museum, you come across a few important documents that will be automatically transferred to a list of files instead of the inventory, which can be a bit confusing the first time you encounter it. Most of the books, however (which incidentally are the most realistic looking books I've seen in a Myst-like adventure game), stay in place and you'll have to jot down notes from them in order to solve the puzzles. To Private Moon Studios' credit, I didn't get stuck at any puzzle (although they were definitely not easy) and only had to backtrack once since I'd failed to pick up an object—but it was logical where it would be. No finding strange things in completely unexpected places here.
Conversations are played out from a third-person perspective, movie-style. There is no way to influence the direction the conversation takes, and be warned that a mouse click will skip the entire conversation without a way to replay it. Sometimes these conversations seem very info-dumpy, but I didn't feel they stretched credibility too far.
Despite the programmers being from Hungary, all the texts and voice-overs in the game are in very well-written English with optional subtitles in several languages, including Hungarian, French and German. I can only judge the quality of the German subtitles, and those are well done. Speech is subtitled with a dialog window (that also appears if you're playing the game in English) while letters and books are translated via pop-up overlays: you hover the mouse over a section of the text, and up pops a transparent window with the translation of that section. Not everything is translated, which might (or might not) give you clues as to what is important and what is not. I like the idea of pop-up translations, since you can always read the original text if you just move the mouse out of the way.
One thing I could not review were the promised board games; there are none in the first episode. Episodes 2 through 13 will have a board game at the end that you need to beat in order to finish the episode. The developers promise that these will not be the board games you've come to hate from games such as Drowned God (which had a Nine Men's Morris with insanely strong AI) or The Seventh Guest, but either very obscure games or more interesting versions of known games. Then, after finishing the episode, you can play the board game on-line against other registered players.
Speaking of registration, you pay $9.80 for an episode (the first one weighs in at 207 megabytes; future episodes should be around the same size) and get a download link with an unlocking code. Make sure to turn off firewalls and web filters, or the unlocking code may not work; plus, you can only use a code once, including failed attempts at registrations, before you have to go and request a new one (but see below). This you can do three times, whereafter you have to buy the software again. I really hope that there will be a patch to play offline at some point, since that system does not bode well for future installations, especially if the registration server should go away for some reason. $130 for a game might seem a little steep, but the promise is that AGON in its entirety will be as large as three or four "regular" boxed games (plus you don't have to pay all at once, as the episodes will be released in two-month intervals). Having finished the episode, it felt to be about the same length as a chapter in Syberia or Amerzone, so the assessment is about right, unless the following episodes are artificially elongated by the board games.
Your registration also gives you access to the AGON Club, where additional information on the various episodes is posted alongside interviews, making-ofs, and printable CD covers in case you want to archive the episodes; this is also where you play board games against others. Oh, and if you buy the first thirteen episodes, the last one is free.
I should also mention that the customer service for AGON is excellent. I had problems trying to get the payment processor to accept my credit card. (The processor was a Hungarian bank, so the problem cannot be chalked up to AGON.) Then I had problems registering the episode with the server (thanks to aforementioned web filter). Throughout all this, László Falvay of the support team helped me tirelessly, so I'd like to take the opportunity for another "thank you" to him here.
All in all, I can safely say I'm already looking forward to the next episode, and hope that Private Moon Studios sees AGON through to the end.
This article copyright © 2003, Gunther Schmidl