Heart of Darkness
Project Eden is a maze and you are the proverbial mouse. In fact, you're four little proverbial mice, each of which has a particular skill; be it the cyborg with his resistance to hazardous environments, the technician, the computer expert or the leader with his helpful security clearance. Your maze isn't whitewashed, but decked out as a mysterious near-future cityscape with a fetching Unreal-esque visual demeanour, and spots of pure darkness that often disguise doors and archways when they shouldn't. The maze isn't glass-topped - you control your mice from the third-person in fact - but it does take advantage of several unfortunate limitations in an attempt to frustrate you; for instance your inability to jump, even over small distances. The late Douglas Adams taught us that mice are in fact singularly the most intelligent species of animal on our planet, and I'm willing to agree with him. However, I dare say they found this maze stuff extremely insulting, so I am hereby proposing a truce. Given our knowledge of their experience and fortitude and the fact that they have yet to flee our planet, I would like to swap the brain-depletingly tricky puzzles of Project Eden for the inside of a whitewashed maze where even I may flourish. Or a padded cell. (Or alternatively, you could get on with the bleedin' review. -Ed) Ah yes. Project Eden is a conversion of an extremely difficult PC puzzle game featuring three upstanding young fellows and one cyborg, and like so many other PC-to-PS2 conversions the gameplay is completely misplaced for the platform, and on a lighter note (chortle), as a result of the conversion the dark spots in the game have become almost opaque. This introduces a major gameplay problem not found on the PC in that the darker spots often mask doorways and other vital parts of the solution to whichever indeterminable problem you reckon you have probably been thrown at the time. The world is peppered with doors you cannot enter, with the game's approach on this one being to shoehorn one of your characters through a particular door that does open, where he will find some way to contribute to the solution.
We've got hostiles
Your progress through the world is not entirely civil, on-screen or off it. As you make your way past some of the more interesting puzzles you really will start to wonder whether they are ingenious or simply badly designed. At times it's touch and go, but it's the old adventure game thing; once you've beaten a particular puzzle you want nothing more than to see what's around the corner, effing and blinding to all and sundry aside. Just as you're getting the hang of setting each of your characters a particular task and creating that vital bridge to the next scenario, you run into hostile aliens and have to wield your group's pithy arsenal swiftly and accurately. None of your enemies is particularly 'ard, but as fans of GTA3 and other third person games will testify, along with the Core Design team themselves as authors of the Tomb Raider series, nobody has a decent answer to controlling the third person shooter precisely on a console. As such, death is infrequent but still worth trying to avoid, because your lost comrade has to come dashing up from the last regeneration point, which is something of a chore. The control system is a mixed blessing. There is little doubt that a third person perspective approach was necessary for the most part, but there are some niggles within that, even aside from the aforementioned combat problem. For example, the basic follow-the-leader system is a bit crude and ineffective. You are supposed to walk up to your chums so you can see them clearly, then hit the 'follow' button. For the next minute you have to make sure that the team is following you, because I've lost track of the number of times I've been caught napping with one of them on the other side of the level completely. Why not just have a follow key that tells everyone to go meet the leader? On the AI front, at least your four chaps don't get caught on scenery.
Day to day
I've hinted at the inconsistent level design before, but to give you a proper sense of Project Eden I'm going to walk you through a hypothetical puzzle. Let's say your overall objective is to open a particular door, which is hydraulic. Often even this information is lacking at first, but you get the idea, and you learn in stages. You would first have your technician fix the cut hoses on the near side. When that didn't change anything, your computer hacker would scour the level for a console to control the environmental controls and water controls. If this worked, the door would open and close quickly because of a busted mechanism on the other side for keeping it open, leaving you in the same position as you were. Then the cyborg would look for a big heavy object to jam inside the door to keep it from closing. While all this was going on, your group leader would probably end up making himself useful sneaking one or other of the cyborg and computer expert into their respective positions using his security clearance. Of course, this sort of gameplay will be extremely familiar to anybody who played Tomb Raider - flip a switch, move a block, stand in a particular place and it all comes together - and it is interesting to draw comparisons. If I had to choose between the two games though, I would probably pick Tomb Raider, because of the way the levels are suggestive. If you see something and it looks out of place, it probably does something important. If you see a switch up on a high wall, you can tell you're going to have a whole lot of fun getting to it. It's not the most exciting or rewarding form of puzzler, but every new sitting reveals something new, and the large number of impressive hostiles to overcome adds to the drama.
Lost in time
While I have the stomach for a game where you can sit down playing for an hour or so without making one inch of headway, the console demographic is very different to the PC one on the whole, and having something new for the gamer every time he sits down on his beanbag in the front room and pulls up a controller is almost a prerequisite. Project Eden is going to have trouble doing that. Now to be fair, it isn't so hard that you won't ever get over some of the puzzles, it's just hard to a point beyond which a lot of people will lose interest… The sad thing is, I reckon Core Design have upped the puzzle difficulty and lowered the action quota deliberately because that puts the game in direct opposition to Tomb Raider, something they don't want to emulate with one of their few non-Lara releases in recent years. That said you have to give them serious credit for Project Eden, even if it is meant within the puzzle / adventure genre as an antithesis to Tomb Raider. It's a remarkably good-looking game, with intricately detailed character models (albeit lacking the silky smooth animation of recent PS2 titles) and consistent texture work, caught between some good-to-excellent cutscenes that take you from place to place. Although the soundtrack is a bit feeble, the voice acting (complete with British accents, cue wistful sigh) is spot on, even if it's fairly rare for the protagonists to string sentences together outside of a movie. If you have a penchant for games that test your grey matter, Project Eden should definitely be on your shopping list this Christmas, but do take note of what you're buying into. Project Eden is an occasionally heartless and often extremely difficult puzzle game built to keep you from finishing it, but one that requires far more than your average adventure. Mensa ought to use it to weed out applicants. I'm just glad I've finished reviewing it - I think I need a lie down.