Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gemini Rue Review

I recently bought and finished the 2011 Point-and-Click Adventure game Gemini Rue, made by Joshua Nuernberger and published by Wadjet Eye games. Taking place in a neo-noir sci-fi setting, Gemini Rue has you controlling two characters in the Gemini System in the years 2228 and 2229.

     Gemini Rue was bit of a surprise to me, honestly. I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago, but became quickly interested in it, something unusual for a new (to me) game. Then, I bought it impulsively (something I almost never do) and beat it in four days, which I think is an all time record for me and PC games (there was one Gameboy Advance game that holds the all platform record of one morning). After finishing it, I think I can safely say that this game is perfect for my blog, being an excellent introduction to Western gaming for...anyone, really. But I digress. Let me proceed normally.

Gritty noir at its grittiest.
     So, starting with the gameplay, Gemini Rue is extremely simple. You point, and you click. That's it. Anybody can play it, and that's a reoccurring theme throughout the game: accessibility. Gemini Rue is very similar to your standard adventure game fare; you solve puzzles, usually with items you find. Unlike most adventure games, however, Gemini Rue also has a combat system. And while some purists might balk at this notion, I found its inclusion quite fantastic. There are a few instances of clunkiness, like when you take an aimed shot you remain out of cover for your victim's death animation. Since your natural inclination is to hide back behind cover immediately, the delay can throw you off. But this is an absolutely tiny problem, and the combat controls are still extremely easy to learn and use. And if they're a bit daunting at first, well, the game accounts for that too. You can practice at a range with multiple targets that simulate return fire with infinite ammo as often as you want, letting you practice till you get the hang of it. Overall, Gemini Rue controls and plays quite nicely.

Combat in Gemini Rue
     That's just the technical side, though. From an overall game perspective, the combat really helps hammer in the atmosphere of the game in. It just wouldn't be neo-noir without some gunfights, right? Honestly though, the combats are few and far between. I think there are less than ten in the whole game. That makes them feel kind of special, which helps add tension and excitement. But the broader meaning they have is much more important. See, a lot of adventure games have the player character as a rather weak person, as far as conflicts go. Tex Murphy in Under a Killing Moon and George Stobbart from Broken Sword are great examples of this. Both are "bumbling detective" types. Granted, they succeed in the end and it feels no less satisfying, but they are both pretty easily bested when it comes to non-mental conflict. In Gemini Rue, however, it's a different story. You have a gun, and you know how to use it. There's nothing more satisfying for someone who's had to solve inane puzzles about sneaking past guards in countless other adventure games than being able to just blow an annoying sentry away. You have a real power as Azriel (one of your characters), and that makes the game a lot of fun. Of course, it's not like you're omnipotent. Most of the potential conflicts in the game are avoided through puzzles and the one situation where you do have to get past a guard is solved, ultimately, by a puzzle (and an equally satisfying kick). But it's the knowledge that you could if things turned south that make it important. You usually don't kill people, because finding a more stealthy way to get around the problem is advantageous and logical in the context of the game. But you know you could if you ever really needed to. And that's why the inclusion of combat is so great.

Super capable
     So, we know that the combat is good, but what about the puzzles, which account for most of the gameplay? In truth, adventure game veterans will probably be disappointed by the puzzles in Gemini Rue. There were a few real head-scratchers for me, but I was able to solve them quickly enough (like I said, I beat the game in four days). Plus, the areas and number of items were small enough that I could turn to trial-and-error if I ever got truly stuck, and I never had to throw my computer out the window in frustration. But rather than seeing it as a problem, I view the relative simplicity of the puzzles as a good thing. All too often, adventure games pigeonhole the player with inane, convoluted puzzles that involve going across the city (or wherever) to get fishing line, duck tape, a metal pole, and a rubber duck so you can get the key on the electrocuted railroad tracks. These kinds of puzzles are a real detriment to adventure games, because they're (true to their name) about the adventure. They're about the story advancing. You complete the puzzles for the sole purpose of advancing the story, and in that way they're one of the most pure genres of interactive media. When you have really difficult, absurd, or just plain cruel puzzles, it just stops you from advancing the story, and actually works against the game. In Gemini Rue, the puzzles are easy enough that you actually get to advance the story (the whole point of the game). While this also contributes towards the accessibility of the game, it has the much more beneficial effect of putting you in real control of the story. That's the thing about Gemini Rue; it really makes you feel capable, and that's pretty awesome. You can (usually) solve the puzzles without hitting major roadblocks, you can get in fights and win, and you can essentially control the flow of the game. It really is an awesome feeling.

     Next is the story. As I said in the last section, it's an extremely important part of adventure games; it's the whole point. Your main reason for solving the puzzles (at least, in most games) is to advance the story, so if the game has a boring plot it's boring all around. Fortunately Gemini Rue delivers in that department too. I have a bit of a soft spot for noir stories, so I particularly enjoyed it, but even if you're not a fan of the genre you can still appreciate the way it's told. Both characters' stories, one a search for a kidnapped brother and the other an inmate's escape from prison, advance in an exciting, suspenseful way. The requisite twist (all game stories require twists now, right?) at the end is wonderfully executed, taking advantage of the player's assumptions about the game itself.

     There are only two failings in the story, and both are minor ones at that. The first is that the setting is rather poorly explained. The game certainly tells you enough to serve its purposes, and you won't ever be confused about your immediate surroundings, but trying to get a sense for what Gemini Rue's universe is like and what technology is used and why can be quite confusing. A good example is the weaponry. The only weapons used in the game are (seemingly) traditional pistols, including ones from the present. Then we find out one of those same pistols has a "stun" setting. It just kind of makes you scratch your head. Like I said, it works - the use of old weaponry helps enhance the noir setting - but it's confusing. The second thing about the story is that there's a lot of psychological discussion about what creates identity and "self." While not executed poorly at all, it can be a turn off to gamers that don't care about such topics. Fortunately, it's not so central a part of the game that you have to enjoy it to enjoy the story (it's more of a "take it or leave it" kind of thing), but it creates the drive for a number of characters, so it deserves a mention.

     Moving to the technical aspects, the visuals of Gemini Rue are a bit of a mixed bag. The backgrounds and areas are honestly quite good looking, and are an excellent fit for the style. That said, things are just a little less detailed than I'd prefer. Everything is done in a pixelated retro style (as you can see from the screencaps), which is appropriate, but I can't help but feel the game could look a little more...defined. Take the character portraits, for example. They're pretty good, but they could be better, even without abandoning the retro/noir look of things. I mean, don't get me wrong. The visuals aren't poor. They're just a little less detailed and polished than the one might prefer. Perhaps I'm just making a mountain out of a hill, since the game certainly looks nice and the backgrounds are beautiful. I just feel like there's room for improvement.

     The sound is also less than impressive, though the problem is equally as trivial despite being more obvious. The voice acting, which makes up the bulk of the noise you'll be hearing, feels a little...amateur at first. You'll warm up to it after a while, and the main characters actually have pretty good VAs. But some of the minor characters, especially the ones in the first scene of the game, deliver lines in a way that screams "Youtube Original Series." Like I said, it'll grow on you, just expect the occasional poor line delivery (it should be noted that voices can be turned off). The only real disappointment of the sound (and the whole game, really, unless you count the puzzles) is the music. What's there is good, but there are twenty something tracks and it feels like there are only ever six or seven. They come in rarely and randomly, and most are between half a minute and two minutes in length. So basically, music is uncommon, fleeting, and short. The silence (or, for one of the characters, the pelting of the rain) can be quite mood fitting at times, but more use of the tracks could only have improved the game.

     Gemini Rue is an excellent game. Accessible and fun gameplay that makes you feel good about yourself, a cool retro/neo-noir style, and a well-told story all work to its advantage. The sound is a little lackluster and some genre veterans might call the puzzles too easy, but neither is a big enough problem (arguably, neither is a problem at all) to bring the game as a whole down.
     Plot/Narrative: In all honesty, the plot Gemini Rue tells isn't extraordinary or breathtaking. But it's a very well-communicated narrative. The story is interesting, sucks you in, and has a great noir protagonist. Combined with the cool style of the game and some surprisingly well made cinematic elements (in the cut scenes and perspective choices), it makes for a very compelling and interesting story.
     Gameplay: The gameplay in Gemini Rue is superb. Simple (and subsequently accessible), fun, and engaging, the wonderful merging of combat and puzzle solving elements only makes it better. As an extra bonus, the game really makes you feel capable as a player/character, so that's good too.
     Visuals: This game looks good. Yes, there could and should be more detail, especially on the character portraits and inventory icons, but the backgrounds really capture the mood of the respective areas, and just 'cause there's room for improvement doesn't mean what's there isn't already quality.
     Sound: Probably the worst aspect of the game. Which is not to say that it's bad, but the voice acting got off to a shaky start and the music should have been incorporated more. The voice acting quickly picks up and stabilizes, and the music that is used is quite fitting, but it could definitely be better.

Overall: Look, I'm running out of ways to say "Gemini Rue is good, play it." The combat sets it apart from other adventure games and is good enough to satisfy gamers who aren't normally fans of the genre. Many of the puzzles are easy, but a good number are tricky enough to make you pick your brain for a while and the lower difficulty keeps the story moving at a steady pace. If you like adventure games, neo-noir stories, and/or Cowboy Bebop (there are tons of references to it in the game), then this is the game for you.

Got feedback? Complaints, arguments, suggestions, requests, or whatever else, I read it all, so leave a comment!

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