Atlantis: The Lost Empire: Search for the Journal (2001 game) review…

Underrated movie tie-in game for an underrated movie gets an aptly rated “prequel”… After the break…

Atlantis: The Lost Empire: Search for the Journal (2001 game) review…

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE: TRIAL BY FIRE (Hereafter referred to as “Trial by Fire” or “TBF”) is a 2001 computer game, developed by Zombie Interactive and published by Disney Interactive. It is a first- and third-person shooter game that closely follows the events in the movie “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.”

Back when it first debuted, TBF was regarded as a substandard children’s title where the common complaints about the game were the poor graphics (even for it’s time), limited gameplay and lack of playing time. The movie that the game was based upon underperformed at the box office and, as a result, there were no subsequent games made for the brand (there was, however, a separate game concurrently released for the consoles unrelated to this title).

I had always been curious about the game, though, for a few aspects: For one, the game touted itself as family-friendly with “tools” instead of weapons. As much as I enjoy bloody and violent first-person shooters (and I own quite a few), it doesn’t take a lot of effort to employ the typical “fist / pistol / shotgun / rifle / machine gun / rocket launcher” buffet of weapons that most first-person shooters tend to present. Games that attempt a less-violent approach, such as TBF, need to invent new gameplay mechanics to compensate for a less violent approach and that made this title slightly interesting. Also, the screenshots that I had seen lent themselves a cartoon-ish aspect to the game that was more theme-appropriate and blunted some of the “these graphics are bad” accusations that I had read about.

So I decided to play the game for myself.

“Trial By Fire,” though, is not only “Trial By Fire” but also it’s stand-alone ‘prequel,’ “Search for the Journal” (or SJ for short). When you buy TBF, you are essentially buying the portion of the game known as TBF but also getting the ‘demo’ version which was separately called “Search for the Journal.” “Search for the Journal” was given away for free, much like the old “shareware” model for computer games back in the early 1990s through the early 2000s: The first portion of the game was free so that the gamer could install the game on their computer to try and, if they were interested in it, they would be more inclined to purchase the rest.

So, although I am reviewing what is called “Trial By Fire,” I am reviewing both the section of the game called “Search for the Journal” & the other section of the game that is called “Trial By Fire.”

Both TBF and SJ were built on an early version of the Lithtech engine, an engine that was briefly popular enough to be used for a few commercial games (such as Blood 2, Tron 2.0 & No One Lives Forever) but has since fallen from favor by most developers for more accessible 3D engines such as Unreal, Unity3d and even idTech. The engine was true polygon room-over-room technology, so it was at least comparable to the engines used at the time (mainly idTech & Unreal). A curious feature of TBF is that while typical Lithtech engine products pack all of their assets into .REZ files (sort of the equivalent of idTech’s .PAK files), TBF leaves all of their files ‘exposed.’ I’m not sure why this is but it is a curious feature and one that I wasn’t expecting. Heck, you can even change the mission text files with a simple word processor.

I played TBF “straight out of the box,” meaning that I couldn’t find on the Internet if there had been any patches for the game, post-release. Being a children’s title, I’m guessing that there weren’t any patches. It installed perfectly fine on a Win7 64-bit machine although attempting to play it straight from the install did not work. Fortunately, setting compatibility mode for both “Atlantis.exe” and one other EXE file seemed to do the trick.

As the game is from 2001, I wasn’t expecting any fantastic resolution settings and I didn’t get any. The default is 800×600 and the maximum you can go is 1024×860. I tried editing the config file to accept an even better resolution but that somehow broke the game. Therefore, I just played it on the maximum setting available.

You can either start off playing SJ or TBF. The way that the menu is visually set up gives the impression that there was a lot of room for expansion beyond these two options. Quite honestly, I can’t entirely blame the developers for such lofty hopes of releasing expansions but it does also makes the menu feel a bit “empty,” as though you are looking at a store shelf that should hold 30 cans but only has 4. It gave the impression of bad menu design.

I decided to play Search for the Journal first.

Search for the Journal serves as a prequel to “Trial by Fire” in the fictional chronological sense. In movie mythology, the “journal” is the “Shepherd’s Journal,” a fictional book that tells of the location of the lost city (or continent) of Atlantis. SJ tells the tale of Thaddeus Thatch (the movie’s hero’s grandfather) in his attempt to recover the journal from the “Keepers of the Journal,” an organization tasked to keeping the location of the city of Atlantis secret.

SJ is broken into 5 levels:

Level 1 is a non-interactive boat ride to the start of Level 2. It’s sort of like the tram ride at the beginning of Half-Life 1. However, comparing the two levels might be giving the level from SJ a bit too much credit. In Half-Life 1, the tram ride introduction is meant to show you the scale and scope of the Black Mesa complex; It’s supposed to awe you in the fact that you a mere cog in this grand machine that you will eventually have to escape from. In Search for the Journal… Not so much. There’s no grand spectacle to wow you or some sort of visual overview of what you can expect; For all intents and purposes, it’s just a boat ride with some audio/video messages and, in that aspect, it really doesn’t impress.

Level 2 is where you begin the actual game itself. Here, you move about in first-person mode and are able to use your “tool” (no, that’s not a sexual reference; In this game, weapons are referred to as “tools,” probably to relieve the fears of anxious parents about their concerns over ‘violent video games’). You have two options for your “tool”: The normal mode (called a “Teslator” in the print manual but called “Basic tool” in the options menu inside of the game) and “froster,” which temporarily slows down your opponent. In Level 2, you must go through a linear maze, dodging gigantic snowballs and confronting Yeti-like creatures.

Level 2 is fairly simple even for novice FPS players; Go through the maze, avoid the snowballs, kill the Yeti creatures (along with the one “keeper” that you find in a brief “walking over lava” area) and get to the airplane (called a “wing” or “Whitmore Wing” in the game). There are a few artistic touches that deserve some recognition. For instance, there is an abandoned camp at the start of the level and you see the boat that carried you here from Level 1. You can even swim in the supposedly arctic water back to the boat although, to be fair, that accomplishes nothing. There are a few scripted sequences of old wooden planks crumbling as you walk over them and a few glaciers collapsing in the distance.

Yet Level 2 also carries with it a discrepency that take away from even the few moments or joy and discovery that the level has to offer. For instance, you can swim in the arctic water at the very beginning of the level without losing your life but not in the arctic waters that appear later on. This makes no sense at all.

Level 3 is a flying level and played in third-person perspective. Again, this is a strictly linear level and your two challenges are to avoid crashing your airplane and avoid getting hit by snowball-throwing Yeti-creatures. In this level, you’re strictly on the defensive; You can’t shoot back at the Yeti creatures. The airplane can perform the typical maneuvers: Fast, slow, left, right, up and down. Your best bet is to speed past the Yeti creatures (who are a mighty good aim, at least on the medium level of difficulty) and take it slow through the arctic canyon and tunnels. There are a few ‘blasts’ of arctic air that will force your airplane into one direction or another but nothing that a person can’t anticipate after an attempt or two.

One aspect of Level 3 that I thought was disappointing was the plain HUD involving the airplane, which merely represented two ordinary horizontal bars in the lower-left of the screen. I know that SJ was simply a freeware giveaway but, clearly, they could have done a better job with the HUD. Even I, with limited artistic ability, can draw two horizontal bars.

The scripted cinematic ending for Level 3 also disappoints, as your wing simply flies past the entrance to some chamber that is carved into the side of a mountain. Your wing doesn’t land or anything, so maybe you fall out of the airplane or you jump out or… I don’t know. Maybe you weren’t even flying the airplane and someone else was flying and they couldn’t be bothered to land for some reason. Again, being a “kid’s title,” the game can merely shrug their proverbial shoulders and hide behind the “kid’s game” defense but, if you’re going to have a cinematic transition from one level to another, at least have it make sense. Is that too much to ask for?

Level 4 has you going through some sort of temple. You’re back in first-person perspective and, this time, you get a new tool called a “goozer” which slows down your opponent’s rate of fire and also acts as the equivalent of a “shotgun” option in a traditional FPS. Except for the first two areas (the entrance and some sort of one-room library), the level is basically a two-way maze in that you can take two paths in the maze and get to the same exit. You encounter both the Yetis and the Keepers in this level. I suppose that this level deserves some credit for at least having an alternate way to travel to the exit but even that credit feels as though it’s a back-handed compliment.

My chief problem with level 4 is the same problem that I would have with any level in any FPS when they try to mimic a real area, namely… Where’s the bathroom? The level, from a real-world perspective, makes absolutely no sense. You have the temple entrance that then leads to some one-room library (I’m guessing our “Keepers” are really good at jumping up to the books at the very top shelves of those bookcases) with no chairs and this chamber, in turn leads to the maze which leads to the end of the level. If i’m a “Keeper,” where do you go to the bathroom? Where do you sleep? Do you eat in the library? Sleep? I know that it’s a game, but still… At least in level 2, there was a camp… With tents… And crates that probably contained stuff in them… Suppose the place is just there to visit. OK, where do these Keepers go when they leave the place? Based on the cinematic between level 3 & 4, there is no place; The temple is just out there in the middle of a snowy wilderness.

Level 5 is the final level of “Search for the Journal.” You start out in a large chamber that leads off into four separate chambers. You walk into each chamber, get one stone piece that eventually assembles into a stone journal and then, once assembled, the real Shepherd’s Journal is revealed. Each of the four separate chambers represents an element: Fire, water, air & something else that I forgot at the moment. The chambers themselves are fairly simple and straight-forward with the challenge being that the large main chamber always has enemies when you return from any of the smaller chambers.

Quite honestly, the smaller chambers in level 5 are so underwhelming as to be a bit befuddling. I know that the game can hide behind the “We’re just a kid’s game!” defense but even that defense can’t explain the utter and total ease for which the chambers can be completed. The “Air” chamber, for instance, is just a room with the wind blowing. That’s it. The wind isn’t blowing you off of a ledge or anything like that. It’s just a room with the visual and audio cues that there are gusts of wind. It’s not as though the other three chambers are any better: There’s no challenge to any of them! At all!

Saavy FPS players will find what resembles to be an ‘Easter Egg’ of sorts in the “Water” chamber by diving into the water and seeing a treasure chest with three skulls in it. Etched on the skulls are initials for names of people who probably worked on the game. The visual is cute but it made me wonder… Why didn’t the developers have the player dive into the water to retrieve the “Water” stone? Wouldn’t that have made sense?!

When you get to the end of Level 5, you see a video promoting the movie “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and the game dumps you back into the main menu. Ho boy.

It was no wonder that people wrote off “Trial by Fire” once they played “Search for the Journal.” I could make something akin to “Search for the Journal” if I rolled up my creative sleeves and locked myself into the proverbial cabin for long enough to learn any one of the bajillion 3D engines that are out there. The absolute worst part of Level 5 (because there’s more than one) is the fact that the smaller chambers have absolutely no challenge to them. You don’t need to swim in water to get the “water” stone or avoid strong gusts of wind to get the “wind” stone. I can’t believe that Zombie Interactive couldn’t have thought of something a bit more challenging; Did Disney executives force them to dumb down the final level to the point of lunacy?

Also, the Keepers come out of absolutely nowhere each time to challenge you when you arrive back at the main chamber. Granted, they magically disappear when you “kill” them but that’s still no excuse. The only possible excuse is that they somehow come in through the doors at the very beginning of the level but those are the doors at the end of Level 4 and you killed everyone in Level 4 to get to level 5! Maybe they’re coming into the temple the same way that you came into the temple in level 3? If so, where are they coming from since there isn’t anything remotely close to the temple when you ‘landed’ (you really didn’t ‘land’ in the cinematic, your ‘wing’ just sort of flies over the temple)?

In part 2, I will write about the “Trial By Fire” portion of the game in greater detail.

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