Steam Safari – Gemini Rue

Watch as Jason does the unthinkable and actually attempts to clear his Steam backlog, one game at a time. These are the records of his voyage into the untamed wilderness. Join him on his  Steam Safaris, where he’ll play a random game from his Steam library for 3 hours and tell you whether or not it’s worth your time. This week: Gemini Rue by Joshua Neurnberger. Available now for $10.

If you were a PC gamer in the late 80s adventure games were probably your stock and trade. The closest you could get to pulse-pounding gunplay was trying to shoot a rabbit in The Oregon Trail (which was a fucking feat mind you.) id Software was still best known for a game featuring a kid in a football helmet, MS-DOS shell was the closest there was to a GUI, and losing that piece of red clear plastic that came with SimCity meant you’d never get to play it again. It was a slower and more methodical time. PCs still had turbo buttons and clock speed was measured in double digits if you were lucky.

With memories of fully text-based games still fresh in our minds, the 16 color EGA landscapes of Space Quest and King’s Quest blew our minds. Text based parsers and arrow-key based movement freed us from the shackles of contextual interactions, giving us the ability to finally explore the magical worlds that development superstars like Roberta Williams had created. It was a magical time filled with stupid jokes and inane deaths, one that required an almost preternatural understand of the rules that governed the different worlds. We learned how to operate according to a complex set of logic that made no sense to anyone outside of adventure games. “You fool! Of course you can make duct tape using some troll spit and a fresh bandage!”

As technology advanced, the adventure game struggled to keep up, upgrading from EGA to VGA to SVGA to 3D and beyond, flirting with FMV before finally slipping into obscurity as the cinematic experience became king. By the turn of the century, ‘adventure’ become synonymous with Tomb Raider and Legend of Zelda instead of The Longest Journey or Monkey Island, the genre turning into little more than a relic of a bygone age. Development teams and budgets soared, leaving the small teams and personal experiences of series that once dominated the charts in the dust.

It’s out of this long and storied past that games like Gemini Rue have come, reminding us that you don’t need teams of hundreds and budgets of millions to tell a story. Part of a recent revitalization of the genre (heralded by companies like Telltale with their wildly popular The Walking Dead series and Doublefine’s mindblowing Kickstarter experiment) Gemini Rue attempts to recapture both the style and feeling of the more mature games like Blade Runner or Gabriel Knight, the emphasis on telling a serious tale instead of cracking jokes about three headed monkeys.

If you’ve played any mouse-driven adventure game before, you’ve played Gemini Rue. There’s a wide range of ways to interact with objects that almost always boils down to: you pick stuff up and you put it down somewhere else. The only major addition to the gameplay is the addition of a ‘foot’ action, which allows you to climb on things or, more importantly, kick things. Your avatar stubbornly refusing to get his hand dirty in a pile of muck? GO FORTH TRUSTY BOOT! Once you start thinking using your feet, it ceases to be annoying and becomes yet another cog in the massive puzzle box that is the modern adventure game.

There’s also a somewhat tacked on gunplay system that involves moving in and out of cover while taking pot shots, but it’s neither here nor there, more of a distraction than an essential element. It does bring back the threat of death, which is something that is sorely lacking in this more modern crop of adventure games. I miss the days of attempting to put a ladder in your pocket in Space Quest 3 or dancing with the fairies in Quest For Glory 1. While we still haven’t gotten back to those golden days of massive lists of hilarious ways to die, having at least some weight behind your actions does give Gemini Rue a bit more punch in the gameplay department than most of its contemporaries.

The puzzles in the game, for the most part, are actually well designed and require a little bit of thinking without forcing the random clicking and aimless meandering that plague so many games of the genre. Compared to the practically impenetrable Scratches, it’s actually possible to get through Gemini Rue without ever having to reference a walkthrough (although some of the Delta-Six scenes are a little obtuse in their direction.) The few times where significant lateral-thinking is required can usually be overcome with a short break to let your brain rest. At a certain point in the game, you’re given the ability to switch between two characters in two vastly different settings at will, which allows you to take a rest from one set of puzzles while you work on another.

Aesthetically the game draws heavily on its cyberpunk forefathers, especially genre classic Blade Runner. Some of the tunes could have been ripped straight from Vangelis’ haunting score, while others play off the wailing saxophones of a classic noir detective story. The environments are well drawn, the perpetually rainy planet of Barracus a particular standout. There could have been more in the way of settings, as you tend to spend the vast majority of the game exploring the same 15-20 screens over and over, with little forward motion for either of the protagonists in terms of location. The fourth time you return to the Hibiscus Highrise apartment building it starts to wear on you. The fully voice acted dialogue is a nice touch and, considering the fact that this is actually just an expansion of a student project, is actually of decent quality. It’s rare to find a gruff main character who isn’t voiced by Nolan North these days, so that was much appreciated.

The story itself is full of twists and turns, relatively interesting characters, and some pretty heavy themes. It takes a while to get started, dragging quite a bit around hour 2-3, but once it shifts into gear it moves at a good pace, pulling you along as it answers all the questions that the intro sets up. While it’s not the most amazing plot in the world (most of the characters are somewhat interchangeable) it does enough to keep you playing. I tore through the final 3 hours in a single sitting, held completely rapt by the final act of the game that, while not surprising in the least, was gripping.

One interesting addition to the package is a director commentary mode similar to what’s included in most Valve games these days. In this you play the game as normal, with little commentary nodes providing voiced insights into the actual design process of the game, such as how the director introduced the ‘kick’ verb in the first screen, or what the purpose of the introductory scene was. There are also some bloopers by the voice acting cast to round the feature out.

Gemini Rue, while not a huge step forward for the antediluvian genre of point and click adventure games, is a wonderful blast from the past for those of us who grew up with chicken pulleys and sketchy dudes in leisure suits. At $10, there’s no reason to not jump in and take a weekend trip to the mining colony of Barracus, just remember to bring your umbrella and kick all the things.

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