Mysterious and quite lovely.
In the tradition of The Longest Journey, Syberia, and that lesser Vernian adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth, Return to Mysterious Island features a plucky young heroine far from home. Her name is Mina, and she's a resourceful sailor shipwrecked on what turns out to be the Lincoln Island of Verne's novel, which was not destroyed as in the book but only hidden from the world.
Return is fairly short and limited in scope, taking place entirely in a few areas of the small island, and the production values are modest. It is a shining example of near-perfection achieved on a small scale. To advance the action, for instance, where most developers would be tempted to insert a clunky, awkwardly-animated cutscene, Kheops gets the job done very simply and effectively with still sketches and sound effects. The game even includes a viewer for going back to look at the drawings and watercolors you are rewarded with for successful completion of actions. The artwork does more to add character and atmosphere to the game than a cutscene ever could.
Comic-book style panels tell the story.
And the atmosphere in Return to Mysterious Island is generally great. The music is very pleasant, and stayed with me long after I'd finished the game, but many locations stand on their own with nothing but ambient environmental effects. The visuals are nothing spectacular but up to par for 2004, and the island vistas are quite attractive.
One of the really nice aspects of this game is the gameplay itself. With a few exceptions, like door-lock puzzles near the end, the puzzles are almost entirely inventory-based. But wait, don't go yet. This game brings inventory puzzles to a whole new level, even introducing a unique and handy interface for collecting, sorting, examining and combining items. And while you pick up everything that isn't nailed down, you won't end up with a bunch of random objects to be used in illogical, unforseeable ways; you'll have a lot of basic equipment and natural resources that Mina can use her apparently firm grasp of chemistry, botany, and primitive technology to assemble into an array of useful tools and compounds. If you have some familiarity with those fields, too, you should do well. If not, just keep trying different item combinations until Mina adds them to the "assembly" field where you can store works in progress, which will show empty slots for however many items are still missing to create whatever she has in mind. (That makes a battery? Sometimes it's a surprise all the way to the end.) There are two more great aspects to Return's innovative inventory puzzles: created items can often be taken apart so that the components are reusable, and, best of all, there are multiple solutions. Different components can often be combined to create the same item. A length of vine and a short rope might be interchangeable. Either sticks or a flammable fungus can be used as kindling. Any one of several weapons might do the trick, or you could try another tack entirely. The open-endedness makes things a lot more logical, and saves you from banging your head over that one combination you just didn't think of, when you thought of three others that would work just as well.
The multi-tabbed inventory system is very handy.
In addition to the Robinson Crusoe/Gilligan's Island fire-starting and coconut-shell radio stuff, you also get to rummage through the old notes, slides and maps revealing the history of the island, fight robots (there are some action sequences and you can even die, but the game fortunately lets you retry indefinitely and there's nothing to lose), meet a ghost, recruit an animal companion (but a generally inoffensive and occasionally even cute one, so I didn't mind), and eventually even enter the Nautilus itself, where you can admire a gallery of artifacts and curiosities and face a challenging quiz testing your knowledge of ancient cultures, science, and oceanography. I got a particular kick out of that part, which was right up my alley. It struck me then that Return is an especially literate game that rewards you for a bit of smarts, common sense, and even book learning when it comes to Chinese pottery, marine fauna, or the properties of sulfur.
Inside a cabinet of wonders.
In short, I loved and was highly impressed by this game, which has a lot of brilliant elements and essentially no major drawbacks that I could see. It's a small, tight, well-crafted adventure game with smooth mechanics and a compelling story, and I can recommend it without reservation.
Where to get it: Return to Mysterious Island is available from Amazon, and it is also playable on GameTap.
Where to get help: GameBoomers has an excellent walkthrough.