Few games have left such a lasting impression on its audience as Another World. Almost entirely the work of one young Frenchman, Eric Chahi, it was a completely different type of videogame in 1991. One that was dark, dangerous and eerie at times. It was a lonely experience, and an exceptionally harsh journey, but an utterly compelling one all the same.
Heavily influenced by the graphical style of Jordan Mechner's Karateka and Prince of Persia, and rotoscoping animation techniques, Chahi managed to build on these efforts with impressive style. He didn't use static images or words to convey what happened in Another World, but that only added to the feeling of being dangerously at odds with your surroundings. Literally forced to sink or swim at the outset, almost every scenario from that point on serves as a severe test of your wit and will to live.
Another World was - and still is - a perilously frustrating game. After enormously impressive animated intro sequence (truly the best anyone had attempted back in 1991), you were left with no choice but to help Lester, the game's red-headed protagonist, climb out of the deep pool or be dragged under by hungry tentacles. And from there on you're left to plot an unlikely path freedom via crumbling caverns, deadly prisons and even a sporting arena.
Despite almost endless trial and error, there's always the incentive to find out what the next hazard-strewn section has in store. With just one fire button required (this re-issue adds an unneeded second), you'll very quickly get a handle on your ability to run, jump, kick and crouch, but never truly feel in control. Running jumps never quite work on command, sadly, and even once you get your hands on one of your captive's laser pistols, it's never quite a fair fight between you and your unfriendly hosts because of the unfair odds thrown at your at every turn. The pistol's ability to protect its user with a temporary shield allows you to throw up a strategic shield, nudge forward and shoot through the force field at oncoming baddies - but you're normally expected to charge up a super shot to knock down their shield, charge up another shield, fire rapidly, and hope that they turn into a crispy skeleton. The idea (and the sound effect) is fantastic, but the execution feels pretty inexact - which is Another World in a nutshell, really.
If the circumstances of Lester's capture weren't already strange enough, somehow the unlucky scientist ends up working together with a fugitive native in order to escape. Like the gaming equivalent of a silent buddy movie or an emotive graphic novel, the tale only seems to tighten its grip as you play, and draws you in even when the gamer in you is begging for someone to fix the clunky control mechanics which remain exactly as they were, way back when.
Perhaps a little context is due before we rip further into the game's stubborn nature. Back in the Olden Days, instant death was still considered very much the norm, and games thought nothing of punishing players for even the slightest mistake. Painstaking progress was routinely given short shrift if you dared to stumble one pixel too far towards a floor trap, or you didn't first take care of a puzzle element. Another World almost delights in finishing you off.
Psychic tendencies required
Another World is a cleverly constructed game, but sometimes too clever by half. You have to poke around, observe your surroundings, and often consider timing before things will work out. But that, in itself, can make certain parts of the game a frustrating slog, because there are absolutely no clues provided to ease your passage. And once you do eventually squeak past some sections through dogged determination, you might wonder how on Earth you were supposed to know certain things. [Slight spoiler alert] For example, one guy I had been killing routinely needed to be allowed to unleash grenades first before I killed him, so that he blew a hole in the floor in the room below. Now, quite how the player is supposed to infer that in advance, I'll probably never know, but it's one of half a dozen situations where a certain amount of psychic knowledge would definitely be useful in advance. [End spoiler]
Nevertheless, I stuck with it, even though I knew it was probably going beyond the call of duty to play the game to completion for the purpose of this review. After all, there are plenty of other new titles we could be spending our time on, right? That said, 15 years on, we still knew the game was short enough in comparison to modern games for it to be worth seeing it through in a few hours. More importantly, we kept wondering whether we could, hand on heart, recommend that fans go out and buy the game on its own merits.
If we're brutally honest, playing it through in 2007 was a hugely interesting experience, but hardly what you'd call massively entertaining. It's interesting to be reminded about such an awesome moment in gaming history, and to experience certain sections of the game you'd totally forgotten about, but it comes at a price. Despite the presence of extra checkpoints and some minor level design tweaks, it reminds us how routinely stressful games used to be. Maybe we're just not built for the incessant trial and error repetition any more. Maybe modern game design with its Save Anywhere approach and health bars has spoiled us. Or maybe Another World just tips the balance too far in the game's favour sometimes. Maybe being killed repeatedly and playing the same section 30 times just isn't that much fun in 2007. If you've never played the game before, you'll certainly learn some new swear words along the way.
Another World is one of those classic games that looks amazing in the rose tinted fug of your 15 year-old memories, but doesn't fare too well in the harsh light of 2007. But it's not all bad news. Visually, its polygonal simplicity is still as effortlessly charming as ever, and it still gets by with its incredible atmosphere, but things that were everything in 1991 only get you so far this far down the line. What counts, ultimately, is that the gameplay, tragically, feels horribly dated. The combat and jumping controls are hopelessly inexact, and it quickly becomes rage inducing; buffing up the backgrounds and allowing you to run it in high resolution isn't going to change that. Few people who play old games on a regular basis would have expected anything else, but anyone who tries to re-issue a game released in 1991 for a tenner is asking for trouble. Lexicon has tried to justify the boxed version with the inclusion of an 18 minute interview with Chahi, as well as a developer diary, but it's clutching at straws, to be frank. Die-hards might find them an interesting insight for a few minutes, but they hardly justify the price difference between the boxed and the download version.
It's nice to be reminded of the many good things about Another World, but it's quite a harrowing experience in other respects. Smart nostalgics will want to keep their memories untarnished.