Sanity : Aiken's Artifact
Click box art above, to order
A Techtite Review
If adventure gaming was still rampant, Sanity : Aiken's Artifact could have concentrated on its excellent puzzles and storyline, eliminated its flawed combat system, and would be put on my software shelf as one of the best mystery-adventures I ever played. With intriguing story elements, and truly mind-bending puzzles, it could have followed in the footsteps of classic adventures like Gabriel Knight, with flash and style. However, in an age of action-shooters, someone had to drag in a trigger-happy combat system, where enemies always seem to be more powerful than you, and where long-range attack skills must often be used only at short-range. Such a flaw doesn't take away from the excellent story, puzzles, and fantastic 3D FX...though it quite nearly did.
First, the story. You're Cain, one of the first successful attempts at psychic police soldiers. Most earlier attempts went completely insane, while you are okay as long as you keep your sanity level ("magic meter" in any other game) from reaching 0. Most often, you're pitted against some of the earlier psychics, whose insanity, mixed with superhuman powers, is now a threat to society. Along the way, you learn a lot more about the whole reasoning for psychic research in general, and perhaps even more about yourself. As you'd expect, you also have to save the world, in a very big way, with little help other than your mission assistant, Frost (who is often available just by cellular phone). Good luck; you'll need it!
Don't expect to find any guns other than the pistol you start the game with; this is strictly a mental-skills game (in more ways than one!). Oddly enough, Cain cannot climb, crawl, crouch, jump, swim, or even push a small box, and must overcome these limitations strictly by his psychic powers. Cain begins the game with little more than a fireball skill, though that will change very quickly. In time, new skills will be found during each mission, which range from invisibility to knifes that appear from thin air. Passive skills include the ability to push heavy objects away, the ability to read minds (and perhaps find out a secret password), and of course telekinesis. Each psychic power has its totally unique blend of animation and 3D accelerated FX; a great part of the game.
One intriguing element of Sanity:AA is how it salutes some of the other staples of young entertainment; card games and comic books. The latter is obvious, since the whole game's look and feel has all the appeal of a popular superhero comic. As for resembling a card game: whenever you find a new skill, it appears in the form of a card, much like some of the more modern games of that type. Touching the card flips it into the foreground, where you can read that skill's name, description, power consumption, and damage potential. This is an amusing design element, and it adds to the fun throughout the game. There are well over 50 such "cards" to find throughout numerous big levels, so the game never seems repetitive or dull. You'll always find new skills, with new FX, and new enemies to use them on.
The one big gripe, however, is the aforementioned combat system. How bad is a bad combat system? Well, here's the biggest flaw; nearly all the spells you use are long-range type attacks, yet the game's top-down view doesn't allow you to zoom out enough. Admittedly, you can (and often must) adjust the camera angle, including the ability to zoom in and out. However, you cannot tilt this camera view, so if something is out of range, you must approach it to see it at all. If this object is an enemy, they will make very short work of you, since they are (very unfairly) able to shoot at you, even if you can't see them! Meanwhile, you must be able to click on them at close range in order to attack them, making it a very unfair fight. When the main villain Golgatham appears (shown here), near the middle of every mission, things get even more tough.
The game's strength is its puzzles. The game design team should also be commended for being able to implement so many complicated puzzles within a 3D game environment; a challenge which few other 3D games have succeeded in doing. In some cases, the puzzles rival the Mensa-caliber brain benders in classic adventures like The 7th Guest. In two puzzles, you must push squares into their correct position, based merely on your mental "push" skill (which pushes too hard; one of the elements of the puzzle). In others, you must answer trivia in a psychotic game show, or run various dangerous "gauntlets" of deadly traps, in the spirit of some of the more classic graphic adventures. As I said, if the game were exclusively an adventure, it would be an excellent one.
The game uses the "LITHtech" game engine, which has been severely upgraded since earlier Monolith games, like Blood2. Effects are spectacular, especially when Agent Cain finds a new power-up, and rays of light shine out of his body like a starburst. You'll see this effect a lot, and it is a pleasure to see over and over. Also, in case you were wondering, the engine does also provide multiplayer support, so as soon as your agent Cain finds all the skills he can in the single-player missions, he can use them with other "psychic" opponents online.
While some elements of the story are a bit cliché (oh, goody; another game with a level of "demons" to fight), other story elements are quite intriguing. Among them is the final revelation of the nature of "Aiken's Artifact," with some hilarious humor interwoven into the story. Believe me, no pitiful attempt at storytelling, in any other action game, will prepare you for what the artifact truly is. If anything, it's truly inspired, as game stories go, and one of the best "plot twists" all year. Along the way, expect to get periodic calls from your mission assistant, Frost (shown here), who basically acts as narrator to the evolving story; you find a clue, she checks up on it and tells you more about that mission and what you should do next. Such a method of storytelling is intriguing in an action game, and when Cain is in tough situations, the repartee between him and Frost can be funny.
As one of the last great adventure game fans, I must say it again: If it wasn't for the flawed combat system, Sanity would be one of the action/adventure games of the year. Its FX, storyline, puzzles, and overall appeal are very unique and superior in many ways. These traits almost demand a thumbs-up rating, regardless of the frustration during heavy combat. However, with such flaws in an action-adventure, it took me some time to decide how much to reduce the rating of the overall game. In Techtite.com terms, is it a Large Crater (i.e., a "solid" thumbs-up), or just a small crater (i.e., "marginal thumbs-up")? You have no idea how close it came to a Small Crater, though "Large Crater" won out, thanks to some cool puzzles, nice storyline, humorous finale, and that way-cool concept of making powers gained by "playing cards."
The credits imply that this will be the first of others in a possible Sanity series. One can only hope so. With just a few tweaks to the combat system, a possible "Sanity2" would be something to look very, very forward to...