| 9 Elefants
Exploration is a big part of many games, but it's a tricky beast to tame. The act of exploring can be a hell of a lot of fun, adding depth and dimension to a game by allowing you to delve into every corner, shadow, and character.
But get it wrong and exploration becomes an onerous task - a neverending schlep that simply exasperates players with too much stick, and a carrot that turns out to be limp and rubbery.
I think you know where we're going with this, but let's press on nonetheless.
9 Elefants attempts to borrow from the likes of Professor Layton in many ways, but it isn't easily accused of ripping the popular DS franchise off.
It offers a similar detective theme in a similar days-of-yore setting, and uses similar puzzles to represent the gumshoe mechanics, This is true. But it boasts a style very much of its own, and could give the Japanese franchise a run for its money in terms of aesthetics.
You're cast as Laura Weissman, whose father, Professor Weissman, has been mysteriously kidnapped from his workshop in Paris. The coppers don't seem up to the task of finding him, so you set out with his talking cat Eustache (?) to scour the city and figure out what happened.
The Professor was working on building a "time camera", which is apparently able to take photos of the past (isn't that what all cameras do?), though he’s also been trying to refine the technology to take photos of the future, too. Alas, he’s been swiped, and talking to the occupants of the French capital is your only method of hunting him down.
The plot weighs heavily on the gameplay, though. It's not particularly engaging, and its delivery is hamfisted and disruptive.
Every line is is a tedious three stage process in which an animated speech bubble appears, gradually fills with text, and then unhurriedly retracts itself. Even the most basic conversation (and there are a lot of those) takes too long to tolerate, and talking to characters quickly feels like a burden. Unfortunately, that's what the game is all about.
Before a character will give up a clue - or a cog, which you're collecting to put together an unknown machine - you're required to answer a completely unrelated question, solve a dexterous puzzle, or perform some other stilted memory mini-game or task.
If these were more closely connected to the plot, 9 Elefants might feel more cohesive, but instead they're random and often too threadbare to feel any triumph from completing.
A receptionist and a guest studiously ignore a cat
Digging for clues and solving the mystery is therefore a chore, from beginning to end, and for a game that's entirely based on exploration this is something of a systemic problem.
9 Elefants isn't devoid of charm, mind you. The developer clearly has some mighty skills when it comes to artwork, sound, and animation. The game is, quite frankly, stunning to look at. The backgrounds, the subtle yet slick animation, and the presentation (aside from its timing) are impeccable. Judge this book by its cover, and it'd be impossible to resist.
Perhaps it's because of this that the lacklustre gameplay sticks so painfully in the throat. It lacks any momentum or drive, preventing us from appreciating the beautiful representation of 1920s-ish Paris that genuinely leaps off the screen, and turns it into a slow-moving, beautiful slideshow that ultimately struggles to deliver on its gaming promise.
Developer Microids is clearly capable of blowing our minds, and with a better story, more engaging mini-games, and a decent way to deliver the narrative it would have managed it. But not this time.