Game review: AGON: The Mysterious Codex

AGON, which stands for "Ancient Games of Nations", is a multi-chapter adventure game by Hungarian developer Private Moon Studios. Originally distributed online as short individual games, the first three episodes of the planned 14-episode saga have been collected into the first chapter of the story and released in 2006 as AGON: The Mysterious Codex. (The longer fourth episode, The Lost Sword of Toledo, comprises the entirety of the second chapter and was released in the UK earlier this year.)

Uncovering mysteries.

You play the bookish Professor Samuel Hunt, an employee of the British Museum. The year is 1903, and Professor Hunt is about to be drawn out from the safe confines of the venerable museum and his small but cozy office to embark on a journey spanning continents, in search of of an archaeological treasure and the solution to a puzzle only hinted at by a mysterious missive that arrives on his desk and spurs the chase. After some illicit after-hours prowling around the museum itself in the first chapter, Hunt is off to a remote outpost in snow-bound Lapland for the second chapter, and the third sees him braving the jungles of Madagascar in search of the next piece of the puzzle.

The jungle hides its secrets.

Despite the similarities in profession and milieu, Samuel Hunt is no Indiana Jones. He carries no rope or whip, and his feats are mostly intellectual and personal -- talking to people, solving puzzles, fixing things, making friends. The secret of AGON turns out to involve not occult rituals and mystic talismans, but the sheer, simple pleasure of playing certain traditional board games, a humble pastime imbued with magical significance. AGON is a genuine academic adventure, one that actually engages the intellectual spirit rather than merely borrowing the trappings of academia to dress up the balls-out, guns-blazing exploits of a grizzled treasure hunter (looking at you again, Indy). The puzzles are believable and based whenever possible on real-world systems and phenomena. You'll learn real languages and codes, apply real physics to solve these puzzles. None are terribly challenging -- hardcore puzzlers will have to look elsewhere for their mental workouts -- but they are blessedly logical, nothing arbitrary or overly frustrating. Reasonably original, too. There are no convoluted locking mechanisms or sliding puzzles here, thank heavens. The model is generally explore, read, and learn, then synthesize and apply to the world around you. It works.

Out of the library and into the field.

The various environments in the game are absorbing and convincing, with a careful attention to detail that fleshes out the historical and cultural contexts of the period beyond what is strictly needed to accomplish the mechanics of the game. In the Madagascar section, for instance, the game doesn't use the setting as a mere convenient source of exotic jungle backdrops and friendly brown villagers, but acknowledges the historical realities of piracy and changing social values, and incorporates them into the plot. Environmental details like accurate cartography, art reproductions (check out the Waterhouse in the Director's office) and authentic cultural artifacts lend a rare realism to the adventure.

Follow Professor Hunt's globetrotting in the interludes between adventures.

Above all, AGON is an admirably literate game. Bibliophiles will delight at the expansive libraries available for perusal, both in the museum, with its textbooks and treatises, and out in the field where manuals and travelers' journals are found in abundance; some of the books, most of which look like scans or reproductions of authentic period texts, contain hints and information relevant to the puzzles at hand, but many are there just for flavor, and contain several pages' worth of reading just for the fun of it, if the player is so inclined. I, for one, am just as capable of getting my gaming kicks by reading about dead languages or weather patterns or the scientific properties of crystalline formations as by engaging in feats of derring-do, so I very much appreciated the supplemental material. If you have an itchy trigger finger and just want to get to it, most of the reading is non-required, but it's nice to be able to stop and smell the virtual roses all the same.

A sample page from one of AGON's many books. This one is about the history of tea.

I realize this might sound tedious -- more study session than rollicking adventure, too dangerously "educational" -- but that's not it at all. AGON is full of compelling characters and gorgeous locations with plenty to touch and see and do. It ranks with the best adventure games in that regard, bringing lovely artwork, skilled voice acting, solid sound design and some very pleasant music to the mix, creating a well-rounded environment that's as much fun to move around in and explore as any other. There's no single element I would care to single out for particular criticism. AGON comes off as well-crafted, smooth and cohesive. What elevated it to a favorite in my book is the noble design aesthetic that makes this an intellectual adventure rather than just an adventure about intellectuals. It's a nice world, and I am looking forward to exploring more of it in future chapters.

Lapland's beautiful but forbidding terrain.

Where to get it: AGON: The Mysterious Codex is available from Amazon for Windows and Mac.

Where to get help: You can find a complete walkthrough for the game at Adventure Lantern.

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Blogger Parka:

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