Review: Gemini Rue

By Phil Scuderi 11 Apr 2013 0
By Owen, no less. Pfft, I've been called worse.

A grey-suited detective, having recently descended from orbit, waits in the rain for his contact to show. (The contact’s late.) Three men in lab coats strap a nameless figure to a machine and erase his memory. (What did he know?) A malicious Japanese syndicate spends its drug money on secretive, far-flung research facilities. (To what end?)

These are signs of a future gone bad, and they’re some of the earliest themes you’ll encounter in Gemini Rue. They feel a bit cliché but I bet you haven’t seen them in an adventure game recently. The genre seldom entertains serious sci-fi these days—it prefers to split its time between comedy, horror, and more traditional detective fiction. So Gemini Rue, even as it depends heavily on sources like Blade Runner and Shadowrun (and by proxy, on all the cyberpunk and noir sources that preceded them), feels utterly fresh.

You play Gemini Rue alternately as two brothers, the aforementioned stood-up detective, named Azriel, and his brother Delta Six. That’s a code name: Delta Six has been imprisoned and just had his memory wiped, so you’ll need to help him figure out literally everything about himself, including his name. Azriel is a reformed criminal who hasn’t seen his younger brother in ten years, but feels obligated to find and rescue him.

The game’s 2D art is muted, blurry, and low-res, but that’s all a deliberate throwback to the golden age that most adventure gamers remember so fondly. The patchy, pixelated art proves quite effective here, and not just because it elicits nostalgia. The gritty world of Gemini Rue requires a certain visual messiness, like the view through a window on a rainy day. The game refuses to resolve itself perfectly, so your mind fills in the gaps with imagined detail. Just as Star Wars’ matte backdrops and hand-painted models felt more real than anything in the prequels, Gemini Rue shows that for games too there is value in approximating verisimilitude without chasing it too far.

Cozy. Aboard this small spacecraft, the game's borders shrink in claustrophobically.

The basic mechanics are all comfortable and familiar: tap to move; tap an object to interact; tap and hold to reveal on-screen objects. But beyond the basics, some of Gemini Rue’s design elements stand out. I particularly enjoyed its way of representing rooms, corridors and other small spaces. When you enter a confined area, the game restricts on-screen space to mirror the space of the game world. Go into a stairwell and the screen squeezes in from both sides to suggest verticality. Inside an elevator, you view the world nearly as a cramped postage stamp. And outdoors, with the sky overhead and no walls to constrain you, the scenery fills the whole screen. The transitions between places are stark and palpable.

I’ve played adventure games that occasionally switch perspective between multiple characters, but after its opening sequences Gemini Rue lets you switch at will between its two sibling protagonists (and others too, at times). So even though they may be on different planets light years apart, you can shift from Azriel to Delta Six with the tap of a button, and then back again if you want. This proves more than a mere novelty; as the game progresses their stories dovetail more tightly, and the ability to switch between them becomes more important.

What would a sci-fi noir thriller be without firearms and corpses? Both brothers have periodic need to kill those who would kill them, so Gemini Rue contains action sequences. If you perform clumsily your character will die and you’ll need to reload from a save. The gunplay works as a timing challenge: tap a button to stick your head out from cover, then another button to take a breath and steady your aim, and another to shoot. You have to time your shots around your enemies, who will be busy taking cover themselves from which to shoot back at you. If you emerge from cover at the wrong time, or linger for too long before retreating, you’ll take damage and eventually die.

It’s controversial to include combat and player death in a traditional point-and-click adventure game today. In this genre, action sequences tend to feel tacked on, and their clumsy mechanics usually just interrupt the narrative and harm the game. I enjoyed the gunplay in Gemini Rue, though, not for any intrinsic charm but mainly because the game uses it skillfully to structure the story. For example, one running gun battle sets up a tense chase scene, complete with barred doors and a frantic rooftop escape. When’s the last time you played an adventure game with a chase scene? In most titles it just can’t be done, because the leisurely pace and impossibility of failure are at odds with the player’s adrenal functions.

I'm your friend, Yossarian. The sad story of my troubled youth.

Gemini Rue comes close to achieving its promise of capturing the spirit of legendary games long past. Its intriguing environments, thoughtful plot, and clever puzzles would seem to be everything an adventure game needs to ascend to the pantheon. But the best adventure games thrive on characters, and characters need a good script. Alas, the dialogue in Gemini Rue is stilted and weird. Awkward prose like “My name is The Director” pulls you out of the world like smelling salts shattering a vivid dream. Everybody seems to speak with the same cadence and syntax. If you wrote onto slips of paper a bunch of quotes from the game, I’d have real trouble remembering which of the principal characters said what. They have few quirks, few traits by which to differentiate them.

The game’s uneven voice acting makes it even harder to enjoy its characters. The voices sound not like people looking at each other engaged in conversation, but like actors staring at their lines and reading to nobody in particular. The intonations are mismatched, the syllables stressed wrongly. I recommend you disable voices and resort to plain text, like in the old days. The Vangelis-inspired music and superb ambient sound effects will keep you company.

Like so much of the sci-fi I adore, Gemini Rue is huge on concept and deficient in characterization. I recommend it unreservedly to any student of worldcrafting, anyone interested in how the gaming medium can contribute to the formation of place and the structure of narrative. But that’s just it: in the end, the game is a better subject for study than it is a vessel into which you can completely pour yourself. I mean, you emphatically can lose yourself in it, but not to the degree its more marvelous aspects might lead you to hope.

But play it, I urge you. Savor its darkened back alleys, its blotted-out skies, its awful machinery. Stare agog at its final, culminating revelation. Consider what it says about personal identity and human nature. Games as serious and as worthy as this are seldom made and seldom played, and we are all worse off for it.

Review: Gemini Rue

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