Added to the lair: 8/21/20
Note: Includes Majestic Part 1, Syn-Factor and Zero Critical
Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure / 1st/3rd person
Developer: Istvan Pely Productions
Year: 1995 / 1998
Platform: Windows 3.1 / Windows 95
Emulator: DOSBox Daum / Retroarch / PCem
Wikipedia: Istvan Pely
The Majestic Trilogy
Unravel the mystery behind the Majestic's voyage...
Passion can go a long way. But of course passion projects can sometimes be a mixed bag when grand designs expand a bit too far beyond the reach of resources and skill. I'll admit that I have a soft spot for obvious labors of love and find that I'm ready, willing, and able to overlook a certain amount of flaws if I get the sense that a small group of dedicated people really poured their heart and soul into something. Such is the case with Istvan Pely's Majestic Trilogy but, thankfully, there's not a lot to forgive in this case.
It actually kindof amazes me how much Pely managed to pull off here. Majestic Part 1: Alien Encounter was made while he was still in college. I certainly wish I'd managed to create anything remotely approaching the quality of Majestic while I was in college. There are a number of big budget (well, comparatively speaking anyway) adventure games of the era that I honestly don't think are nearly as good.
The gameplay involves moving around separate drones throughout a space ship - the eponymous Majestic - and interacting with various objects and reading crew logs. The puzzles are fairly straightforward and often involve simply writing down information you've read in one place and reciting it elsewhere. There are some riddles as well, which some people will enjoy and others will hate. I really wish the separate drone aspect was incorporated more interestingly into the puzzle design. I feel like there were some missed opportunities there. The puzzles are serviceable, but there was a lot of potential with the drone system to make them really intriguing (as in coordinating them/making them work together) but it's pretty underutilized and ends up feeling kindof half-baked.
The game has a lot of atmosphere though, and the setting is fairly interesting. At times both Majestic and Syn-Factor gave me some serious System Shock vibes, which is a good thing. Obviously they're dissimilar when it comes to the action, but the element of searching around in somewhat creepy derelict ships, reading logs from missing crew members, etc. brought those games to mind for me. It just creates a really great atmosphere that I appreciate.
The story is pretty good too, if you enjoy science fiction (which it just so happens I do). You're essentially unraveling the mystery behind a space-faring Titanic, or a Starship Titanic as some might call it... okay maybe not, but you get the idea. Something's gone horribly wrong and you have to suss it all out - which might sound cliche but it manages to be more interesting than you'd probably expect.
Syn-Factor aka Symbiocom is an indirect sequel to Majestic and ends up feeling more like a spiritual successor, which is fine. The drones are gone, but given how undercooked they ended up being in Majestic that might be for the best. The production value feels noticeably higher to me here. The art assets, the animation... everything looks very high quality. I do wish there was more music to speak of though - I felt it was noticeably lacking in all three games in fact. What's there is generally decent, but there are often long stretches with little to no music to speak of. Music and sound are a huge element when it comes to establishing atmosphere and, unfortunately, all three games suffer from very sparse sound design. Less can often be more when it comes to sound design, but in this case there are too many instances of virtually no sound at all. Some of that might be chalked up to budgetary constraints, I'm not sure.
The puzzles are more difficult this go round, with some of them on the frustrating side (for me). It gave me flashbacks of some moments in the Myst games where I'd inadvertently missed some vital clue written somewhere that seemed like it would be inconsequential. How much this kind of thing bothers you will obviously vary by person but scouring through text files to find some clue you'd glossed over, unable to progress until you've spotted it, isn't the most enjoyable play experience for me. Something about this style of puzzle just doesn't really work for me. Pattern recognition and logic puzzles tend to be more my style and there were a few too many times here where I felt like I was doing homework in order to progress.
The story isn't directly related to Majestic but there's a lot of tonal and stylistic similarity that makes them feel related even if they're not directly linked. It's a fairly interesting plot though that incorporates some interesting sci fi concepts that, again, will be more or less compelling depending on how much affinity you have for the genre to begin with. I do appreciate the immersive diegetic storytelling that makes a return from the first game here. I consciously realize that it's a bit of a conceit and, in all likelihood, is as much the result of budgetary restrictions as it is stylistic choice, but it's something that just really works for me all the same.
Zero Critical is where things go a bit astray for me. It's not a bad game by any means - I would again say that there are other games from the era that were made with larger teams and budgets that are worse - but it's not quite up to the same level as the first two games for me.
The major departures here are than 1) it's in third person instead of first and 2) there are many NPCs to talk to, and that's the primary means of doling out the story.
Being third person, in and of itself, isn't a problem - it should be obvious from the selection of games here that I'm a big fan of many third person adventure games. The issue in this case is that the characters and animation look noticeably cheap. The game is downright bland looking on many occasions, which is pretty disappointing. Both the models and the animations that accompany them generally just look bad. The earlier games obviously faced hurdles resulting from the small team and budget but they rarely wore them on their sleeve as blatantly as they do here.
The incorporation of other characters to interact with ends up having an almost paradoxical impact on the storytelling in that it manages to make the whole thing feel more detached than it ever did in the first two games; even while characters are speaking directly to you. It might sound like semantics but the effect of characters interacting and conversing directly with your character feels pretty dramatically different to encountering notes and logs left by people who never met you and maybe never even intended for others to read them at all. The former ends up amounting to copious amounts of exposition dumps and the latter makes it feel like your presence and interaction with the story is essentially incidental (which I find a lot more enjoyable, personally). And when I say exposition dumps... I mean serious amounts of exposition. That actually describes a significant portion of the game - clicking on a character while they talk at you until you exhaust all of the dialogue options. It's not that the story itself is bad - it's pretty good actually - but the way it's told just doesn't work nearly as well for me as in the first two. A lot of the opportunities for subtlety and nuance in the characters are lost because of this much more direct approach, which is unfortunate. It also feels a little odd - and I'll admit that this is kindof nitpicking - that there's no voiceover for any of this. There isn't voiceover in the first two games either, but my suspension of disbelief doesn't struggle as much with the concept of reading diaries and reports as it does with reading dialogue that's being spoken directly to me. With that said, if you can get passed the stylistic shortcomings, the actual story underneath it is a pretty solid and interesting one.
The puzzles are mostly straightforward inventory-based affairs this go round, which I actually don't mind. I like a good inventory puzzler so long as I don't have to combine a cat with a comb to make a bomb or anything (and we all know there's no shortage of this kind of nonsense out there). There's nothing too obtuse to be found here. Some might call it "easy" but I'm fine with it - I'll take puzzles that are straightforward and I can get through without too much difficulty over ones that make me feel practically obligated to consult a guide if I don't have an intimate knowledge of quantum physics any day.
Altogether Istvan Pely's trilogy of games makes for a very compelling package that's definitely worth your time. It ends a bit like your favorite band that went out on a decidedly imperfect album, but the journey is still one that's worth taking.