Version tested: Xbox 360
As I type, episode five of Lost's fourth season is showing in the USA. I'd like to know what happens in it. I'd like to know that a lot. If you couldn't care less, you might as well give up now; Ubisoft's Lost videogame, built around a story conceived by the TV show's executive producers, is not meant for you. There's probably enough here to grasp the basics of what's happening on this bizarre little island in the Pacific Ocean, but too much of it will be baffling or, worse, seem poorly justified. When John Locke tells you that the island has a will of its own, you'll look around at the invisibly walled jungle and beach and wonder if that's what he's on about.
It isn't, as disciples of the long-running series understand. Lost: The Video Game - or Lost: Via Domus, as it's known in the States - is designed to complement events in the first two seasons, so turn away now if you haven't got that far. It tells the story of a young man - another survivor of Oceanic Flight 815 - and his quest to recover his memory and understand the visions that he keeps experiencing of a young woman. Split into seven mini-episodes - complete with "Previously on Lost" bits at the start of each - it echoes the show's trick of inching through back-story via flashbacks as it floats through the present on a river of cliffhangers and people answering questions with riddles, sanctimony and bubblegum profundity.
When you wake up, it's to a wonderfully dense and detailed jungle rich with everything from banyan trees with their hollow-root hiding places to every manner of creeper, vine and long grass imaginable. As you pick through plane and human wreckage you come face to face with Kate, someone with whom you'll swap a lot of deep gazes and dialogue. Conversations unfold in the style of an old-days adventure game, with a selection of potential lines split across "Quest" and "General" categories. It's during this conversation that you experience your first flashback - to Kate's arrival on the plane, in handcuffs. Flashbacks show you torn-up Polaroid pictures and give you a camera with which to capture a moment to jog your memory, after which you can explore a small area to gather up to three further fragments of information. Then it's back to the present, where you can apply that information - you know Kate is a fugitive, and in putting this to her you're able to extract information, a process that sets the tone for puzzles that follow. It's all done with the show's trademark ears-draining-of-water whooshes and whomps. You'll feel right at home.
It's an action-adventure, then, with movement on left stick and camera on right, and with the needle pointing more toward adventure. You'll spend time on the beach, up near the hatch, and in various of the Dharma stations we've come to know and contemplate on message-boards, as well as creeping and scrambling through the thick jungle. You're only exposed to a dozen or so of the show's actual cast members - basically all the game needs to serve its plot and mechanics - and progress relies on looking at your current quest objective on the back-button's notepad and then either talking to someone, solving a simple puzzle or heading to a specific location. For instance, you blackmail Locke into helping you by going through the flashback process to "remember" that he used to be disabled - something he prefers to keep under wraps.
Other puzzles involve navigating the jungle using markers, often under pressure from - let's try not to cheapen the experience here - "hostile" elements. This once again speaks to the quality of Ubisoft's graphical work, as you click on a marker to find out where to go next and are either turned to face in the right direction or given a compass bearing and asked to swivel yourself around until you're on it. Actually picking the next marker out can be tricky in such thickly layered visuals, and in these sequences there are more paths through the jungle than you need - some offering up vaguely hidden items - and deviating or losing your bearings is genuinely hazardous to your sense of direction. If you get particularly lost, the game even offers to return you to your last checkpoint.
Among the more frequent challenges are electrical rewiring mini-games, which involve slotting and rotating three types of fuse into specific points on a network of circuits, the idea being to pump enough electricity into the dials at the end of each circuit that the voltage needle sits in the green zone - something that involves (gasp) a bit of maths as well as logic. The first and last of these are unexpected and complex respectively, while the others are quite straightforward, although satisfying enough. Less frequent but more powerful are the cave sections, where you have to use torches and lanterns to light your way and avoid plummeting into deep dark holes. It's here that the game borrows best from the TV show, conveying tension and peril very effectively through its use of music, pad vibration and subtle sound effects.
In order to get through them, and to survive some of the more rigorous challenges, you need to keep your eye out for food, water and other trinkets that can be traded with other survivors and, you know, others. Guns (very rarely fired), torches and additional fuses will be your main focus, and while the inventory - with a list of items, each with an associated dollar value - initially feels out of place, by the end of the game it's just part of the background.
You will notice by now that I'm trying to avoid linking these things to specific events. Obviously I don't want to spoil the story; it's what Lost does best, and it's what compels you through to the end of Lost: The Video Game. There are decent gameplay ideas, like chase sequences that involve vaulting logs and racing across narrow beams while being pursued, but on the whole the game is reliant on the sense of intrigue - not just in the story as it unfolds, but in being able to explore the Dharma Initiative's various stations, answering a few long-forgotten questions from the TV show's blink-and-you'll-miss-it past in the process - in order to maintain your interest. Puzzles are too straightforward, controls are a touch clunky, death - if you do succumb to it - kicks you back to the wrong side of unskippable cut-scenes, and nothing you do with your thumbs is complicated or especially taxing. There's very little hidden depth to the mechanics, which seems to fly in the face of the show somewhat, until you remember that you're not the only person who likes it; non-gamers do too.
It's for them, presumably, that the game has been made so short. The seven episodes are over in less than five hours, even if you take your time, and pretty much the only source of replay value is to go back and try and grab the rest of the memory items from flashback sequences, or snap photographs for each location - and this is probably only something you will need to do in one or two cases, since you quickly wise up to what the game wants by the time you've made it to episode three. Xbox 360 owners will see the end coming rather sharply thanks to the amazingly generous flow of gamerpoints - over 850 for all but the most cack-handed or inobservant first-timer - and it's thanks to the short run-time that Lost gets away with not developing its mechanics, where a longer game would depreciate more for their simplicity and repetition. A strictly single-player game, once it's over it goes back in the box.
At which point you're left to ponder whether it was any good. I'd go with "yes", actually. It had the incredibly difficult job of creating a new character in the Lost world with an interesting enough side-story, able to exist without disrupting the timeline or feeling like an aberration, and able to expose fans to at least a handful of things with which they would be satisfied, even eager, to tinker. There's no question it achieves that, and that's what Lost fans will want. Even at its worst - a particular trek through the jungle to the Black Rock and its repeated abuse of one of the show's most perplexing elements springs to mind - it's never guilty of ruining the source material, and while the big question it leaves you with is akin to some of the TV show's goofier cliffhangers, it's still intriguing. I love Lost - it's stupid, brilliant, baffling, frustrating - and I'm really glad I played this. I think other Lost fans will be too. But we will all sit back afterwards and moan about the length, and so that's the thought I'll leave you on. Booouuum.
7 / 10