Bonus! Lost: Via Domus

NOTE - This review originally ran at the time of the game's initial release on a now defunct website I used to write for called FreezeDriedMovies. It is being presented sans any new commentary or editing (so some stuff might be irrelevant by now - such as the complaints about the 60 dollar cost; the game is like 10 bucks now). Enjoy!

When Ubisoft announced back in 2005 or so that they would be making a game based on the beloved hit show Lost, there was a lot of speculation as to how it would “work”. Unlike say, The Simpsons, Lost has a deep, rich continuity, as well as a seemingly never-ending supply of questions without answers. How would a game tie into the show without breaking continuity? Would it have any relation at all? Would you play as Jack, or a whole new character? Will you get to interact with Scott (or is it Steve)? Etc.

Well now that the game is here, those questions have all been answered, though the result may not be as satisfying as fans have hoped. While some care has been taken to preserve the show’s mysteries while making a game with a satisfying conclusion, it seems that the attempt to make Lost: Via Domus appealing for both fans of the show and fans of adventure games in general has resulted in the game being nothing special in either category.

The nice thing about Lost (the show) is that there are about thirty fellow castaways whom no one ever talks to, though they will always attend funerals or hug a main character who is returning from some sort of adventure. So it’s easy for a game developer (or novelist) to design a story with one of these nameless folks as the central character, because there’s little risk of breaking the show’s “rules” as there would be with one of the main characters. In Via Domus, you play as one of those otherwise unknown castaways: Elliot, a photojournalist with a video game staple: amnesia. In one of the game’s best inventions, the “flashback” nature of the show is implemented via his job as a photographer. At a certain point during each “episode” (the game is broken up into seven of these levels), a memory will be triggered, usually by awkward dialogue by another castaway. Your character will then see a fragmented photo, and you must figure out what the image is and take a picture of it in your flashback. This will “unlock” your memory, at which point you will be presented with cutscenes that fill out your character’s backstory, which, in true Lost tradition, will reveal that your character is not exactly a saint, and has also encountered one or two of the castaways in the past. It’s a great invention; you get to actually DO things in the flashbacks without having to worry about “dying” in a memory.

Unfortunately, these scenes take up only a brief portion of each level. The rest of the time you will be running around the Island solving puzzles (of which there are sadly only two types), occasinally trying to help castaways with certain tasks, and dodging the damn smoke monster. And this is where the primary problem of the game is: if you strip away the “Lost”-centric locations (i.e. the various Dharma stations) and characters, you’re left with the least imaginative adventure game in recent memory. The puzzles are either a series of “IQ tests” found on computers (none of them are even remotely challenging, just “complete the sequence” type things like “A-C-E-G-?”), or fuse box puzzles that require you to place fuses to direct a certain amount of electricity from one end of the panel to the other. These are actually a bit challenging, though they get monotonous by the 5th or 6th time they come up (their implementation makes less and less sense as the game progresses as well; the first is used to stop the plane’s fuel from flowing, but the final one is used to simply open a door in a fully functioning building).

This leads us to another problem with the game – some of the things you have to do simply don’t make any sense at all. Early on, you find out that Locke has the battery for your laptop (why him and not Sawyer?). Locke says he’ll give it to you, but first you have to follow him into the jungle, then through a dark cave. What? Just fork it over, jerk! This even presents a plot hole – your otherwise pointless journey leads you to find a compass in the back of the cave. Later, uber-villain Ben Linus tells you that he left the compass there for you to find. You never visit the location again in the game, so how did he know Locke would make you run all the way out there?

On the plus side, this silly quest is one of the few times in the game you are actually required to interact with the characters you presumably bought the game for. Locke, Jack, Kate, and Juliet pop up with some frequency, but others, such as Sawyer, Charlie, and Hurley, never leave their spots on the beach, and you can feasibly play through the entire game without ever once speaking to Jin, Sun, or Claire (something even more of a downer when you consider that Sun and Claire are among the precious few who are voiced by the real actors). Michael is introduced screaming his trademark “WAAAAALT!”, but is only seen once again in the entire game. Walt, Shannon, and Boone aren’t in the game at all, and despite the surprising amount of season 3 characters and locations, none of the 2nd season’s “Tailies” appear either (unless you count a bizarre, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Mr. Eko in one of your flashbacks). The beach is also devoid of any life; the only people there are the ones you need to talk to for the current mission. For a game based on a show that is renowned for its well-rounded characters, it’s a bit strange they would keep those characters absent for such a huge chunk of it.

Then again, the more interaction you have with the cast, the more likely it is that continuity would be broken. To its credit, the game does a good job of following the show’s story (over the first two seasons anyway) without rewriting history. For example, early on you see Jack, Kate, and Charlie running back from the cockpit, and then you decide to go look for yourself, rather than placing your character in the group from the start and contradicting what was established on the show. Other large events are sort of glossed over, however, particularly the raft, which is just mentioned off-hand.

Back to the “adventure” aspect of the game though – the action elements are pretty weak, not to mention repetitive. Runs through the jungle trying to escape the “smoke monster” are particularly annoying, because in order to hide you have to duck inside some trees – an action that changes your camera angle and causes you to lose your bearings. There are also a few “jump or slide” obstacle course type sequences and two treks through maze-like caves, nothing that will give even a casual gamer much challenge. You have a gun but you only need to fire THREE shots in the entire game (do NOT bother trading with Sawyer for extra ammo – the one clip the gun comes with is way more than enough), and outside of these moments the gun doesn’t work anyway. Again, if not for the fun of running around the Looking Glass and seeing that shark that terrorized Sawyer and Michael on the raft, there is almost zero reason to play this game over any of the superior adventure games already out there (the control and even game design reminds me a lot of the woefully underrated PS2 game Disaster Report – which is probably about 1/4 the cost and about 10x as fun). Your drive to keep playing will most likely be entirely based on seeing what show location will pop up next or if your favorite character will appear – something a non fan won’t benefit from anyway.

On a technical level the game more or less delivers. The controls are a bit awkward at first, but nothing damaging. The graphics are nice (particularly the lush jungle levels), and load times aren’t too much of an issue. The character likenesses are good for the most part, and little things like Locke’s scar or Jack’s sleeveless purple shirt are faithfully recreated. Desmond is one major exception, as his character looks almost nothing like him (stranger when you consider Henry Ian Cusick is one of the six actors to reprise their roles). Then again, he’s only in the game for 12 seconds, so maybe they just didn’t feel the need to spend as much time on him as Jack or Sayid.

The sound is where the game really reaches its potential; in addition to Michael Giacchino’s incredible score, the sound of the smoke monster is recreated perfectly, and the surround effects are not only well done but also quite helpful during a few of the “follow me” type missions. The replacement actors are OK as fine as acting goes, though none of them sound even remotely like their show counterparts (Locke sounds like a Native American, and Charlie just sounds like a cartoon), with the exception of whoever plays Jack, who nails Matthew Fox’s inflection and delivery.

In terms of value, the game is hardly worth the cost for anyone but the most die-hard Lost fans (which, as you may have guessed, I am). You certainly can’t accuse the game of dragging – this is possibly the shortest game I’ve ever played on a “next-gen” system. Using the Xbox “achievement points” as a guide, it is possible to complete the game and what few optional “side quests” there are (basically, taking pictures of things like Locke’s wheelchair) in under eight hours, and if you skip all that stuff and don’t die often you can probably be done in under six if the fuse puzzles don’t stump you. At a 60 dollar price tag, that’s a borderline ripoff, especially when you consider the game has no multiplayer options or any sort of replay value (no multiple endings or “free roam” type play). Assuming they are identical, the 30 dollar PC version is a far better option unless you’re an achievement point whore (getting all 1000 points takes minimal effort). Pity on those of you who only have the PS3 as an option – no points OR savings!

It’s a shame that first video game spinoff of one of television’s most exciting shows turned out to be such a relative bore. The novelty of interacting with the characters and locations, along with the “flashback” mini-game and story, are enough to give this one a pass for the faithful, but non-fans should just avoid it entirely – if I was trying to introduce someone to the world of Lost, I’d rather show them the weakest episode than have them play this game in order to show them what all the fuss is about.

Score 5/10

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