Publisher: Lace Mamba Global
Developer: CBE Software
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 3.0 GHz Pentium IV or better CPU, GeForce 8400 GS/Radeon HD 4200 or better graphics card, 1 GB RAM, 2 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Not rated
Release date: Available now
Indie game development has come a long way in 20 years. It started out as one lone coder peddling 8-bit shareware games on floppy disks in plastic bags to anyone willing to try them out. Things are a bit more high-tech these days, but the passion to create a great game with minimal resources is still alive and well. Witness CBE Software, a two-man Czech development team that has created J.U.L.I.A., an intriguing and visually impressive sci-fi adventure game that tries to give a fresh outlook to a shopworn genre story.
You play as Rachel Manners, an astrobiologist aboard the starship Mizuka. You and the entire crew are in cryosleep during a long interstellar voyage in search of extraterrestrial life. J.U.L.I.A. (an acronym that’s never really defined) is the ship’s computer, charged with operating the vessel while the crew is asleep. Julia awakens Rachel to repair the Mizuka after being struck by meteorites. Rachel soon discovers that she is the only passenger remaining on the ship, which is currently in orbit around an unknown planet in a six-planet solar system. Once she manages to repair the ship (with help from Julia), Rachel’s primary task is to find the rest of the crew and figure out why they’re missing.
Your entire mission in J.U.L.I.A. is to solve puzzles, although there are various non-puzzle tasks that must be completed to advance the story. You have a robot that you send to the planet surfaces to explore environments and examine evidence. There are email messages and personal log entries to read that help you figure out what’s going on. But the bulk of your time is spent solving a wide variety of conundrums, which open up more of the story until you finally reach its mildly twisty end.
The best thing that J.U.L.I.A. has going for it is its sharp, detailed graphic style, using the latest version of the almost-decade-old Wintermute engine. The astronomical images are especially impressive, giving the game an authentic-looking backdrop. The story, although filled with elements that we’ve all seen dozens of times before, still manages to keep you guessing right up to the ultimate moral choice you have to make at the end. But the game would not exist without the puzzles, which range in difficulty from tough to insidious. One gives you five blocks of nine-image clusters, which you have to manipulate to create five complete pictures. One has you using a note that you find in the ruins of a shelter to connect wires to open a vital door. One actually forces you to solve an algebra problem (relax — the game offers to do the math for you). And in one of the few repeating puzzles, you have to build a circuit board using fewer parts than are indicated in the blueprint. There’s a help button to click for instructions and hints, but you’re on your own for the most part. And since progress in the story hinges upon puzzle completion, you can’t skip any of them (but one of the developers has been known to solve puzzles for players if they send him their save files; apparently he wants you to get to the end as much as you do).
As impressive an achievement as J.U.L.I.A. is, the lack of big-budget resources raises its ugly head in several areas. There are only two screen resolutions available: the original aspect ratio of the game (which is not very spectacular when viewed on today’s large-screen monitors), or the native resolution of your display (selecting this gives you a very sharp image, but it’s the relative size of a postage stamp, with the most severe letterboxing I’ve seen in a game). The pace of the story is very slow and deliberate, especially at the beginning, during which you’re learning how to use the various interfaces. The game forces you to read every email and log entry; some puzzles are practically impossible to solve without information gleaned from those messages, so you’re stuck if you don’t read them. There’s no quick-save feature and only one autosave (just before the conclusion), so you have to exit to the title screen every time you want to save your progress, which you should do after every puzzle. Some puzzles offer narrated instructions before you begin to solve them, but many of them force you to click the help button to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Lip-synch animations don’t match the English dialogue (and probably not the other available languages either). The voice acting ranges from merely adequate to stilted and overly dramatic; the narrator delivers his lines in a bizarre combination of Derek Jakobi and Bela Lugosi (fortunately you can choose to mute the narration in the main menu). And I had a major problem with a bug that crashed the game to the desktop when I tried to scan a new planet. To be fair, there’s no discussion about a similar problem on the game’s official forum, so there could be something in my system that the Wintermute engine doesn’t like. But my rig’s pretty standard issue, so it’s likely that others might have the same difficulty.
Lots of love goes out from me to developers Lukas Medak and Jan Kavan (aka CBE Software). They had some help in creating J.U.L.I.A., mostly in voice acting and localization, but for the most part, the two of them created the entire game, even the occasionally trippy electronica soundtrack. J.U.L.I.A. is obviously a labor of love, and it’s hard to be critical of a labor of love. But a few more hands on deck would’ve helped turn a good-looking, sometimes frustrating puzzle fest into an outstanding adventure game. The future appears bright for CBE; I look forward to their next project.