Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Reactor 09

There’s nothing more I admire in a game developer than self-discipline. Being able to write a game that is focused, and resisting the temptation to go off tangents and create unnecessary and often confusing additional content is very rare. Making it appealing to gamers is even more difficult. The author of Reactor 09 managed to pull it off.

Clyde is down on his luck. As a new “lifer”, a prisoner with a life sentence for murder, he’s keeping himself busy mopping the jail floors. Just as he’s picking up some more cleaning supplies while under the watchful eye of a correctional officer, an earthquake cuts the power to the room and locks both of them in. Clyde, not satisfied with the turn of events, wants to find out what happened and if possible, escape into a safer place.

As you may have already guessed, you play as Clyde, the prisoner. Formerly, he was an engineer who designed a set of power generators, and as it turns out later in the game, one reactor has already exploded, causing the earthquake, and another is about to blow up. This relatively straight-forward adventure premise is greatly spiced up by the interaction between Clyde and the correctional officer. The CO has plenty of his own personality. Some of it is well defined; for example, he is very anal when it comes to following rules. Other, however, is quite loose – the CO changes his attitude towards Clyde during the game. This is represented by a trust bar, which can be seen when the mouse cursor is placed over the CO. The trust can be adjusted by various actions, as well as conversations, which further reveal the depth of character of both Clyde and the CO.

Character development plays a much more important part in this game than the puzzles. All of them are on the easy side, mainly because the author dropped plenty of hints on how to solve them. You can thus pay much closer attention to your alter ego. Thanks to Clyde’s complex personality, your character is not just a tool to use to solve problems. He is a prisoner who maintains his innocence, who risks his life to save the city, but also a person who doesn’t have a problem to make cruel fun of the CO and provoke other inmates. Throughout the game, additional information on Clyde’s background is revealed, though a series of newspaper clippings. I found those to be the only element that slipped the author’s tight control.

The game offers other rarely seen features as well. One of them is an information screen: at certain points in the game additional information is offered on the problem at hand or the game environment. All this information is something the main character should have been familiar with, but is outside the scope of the game. Having an information screen of sorts, where the player can read up on this information, is a very elegant way to present it.

Presentation-wise, the game relies on very good graphics and cut scenes. Both the beginning and end give some additional story details, and the way they have been designed frames the game into a very coherent, separate entity. The soundtrack is subdued, with the exception of the later stages in the game, when it very appropriately picks up to create a sense of urgency. Character animations are very clean, but sometimes they evoke the feeling of Egyptian murals, especially when multiple characters stand on the same spot, revealing that they lack depth.

Reactor 09 was nominated for the most AGS awards last year, and yet it came up empty-handed. It had the bad luck of running against some very strong competition. (Personal gripe – I still think it should’ve won the Best Supporting Character Award.) The number of nominations shows, though, how well-rounded the game is. It is definitely a game I can recommend to anyone who likes graphic adventures.

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