I suppose I’ve been playing too many good RPGs recently. It’s spoiled me. Sentinel is not RPG; it’s a first person viewpoint, puzzle-solving adventure, along the lines of Myst. Although for me the term ‘adventure’ hardly described the experience of playing. The box reads: ‘The legacy of the Tastan tombs has long held some of the most profound secrets of an extinct race of people. Some believe the tombs hold a fabulous treasure, others say wealth is in the knowledge and technology left behind by this advanced civilisation. You must now search for the truth as you enter the tombs on a dangerous quest for riches.’
The press information also states that there are over twenty engrossing puzzles of various degrees of difficulty; eight inspired and diverse environments, including a volcanic wasteland and snow-capped mountains, and exploration, discovery and pitfalls with an original psychological ‘mind game’ twist.
It sounded interesting.
However, I do think that Sentinel plays like someone’s end of year project for a course at college – someone who would one day make a fabulous game designer, but this isn’t their best work yet. I say 'like', because I presume the people who actually put this game together have their college years far behind them.
I am not a great fan of first person vp or puzzle-solving games, but am capable of disassociating myself from my preferences for the sake of a fair review. From the off, I wasn’t that impressed with Sentinel. The opening schematic looks really primitive in comparison to those of most recent titles; the environment looks good, but the characters are blocky and crude. The ‘plot’, such as it is, is flimsy and contrived and feels as if it was just a rush job to get the player into the game without too much effort. The narrator tells of the fabled Tombs of Tastan and how kids like to explore them, except for the dreaded Tomb 35. There’s no rationale as to why these tombs exist other than to let you know they are the legacy of a lost and perhaps alien race. Presumably, as kids can explore them, they’re in a pretty populated area. There’s no indication you’re in any other place than good old familiar earth, so surely the fact these edifices exist at all is something of a wonder, and they would be cordoned off and crawling with experts! I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept that kids could just wander in unhindered and poke around. Anyway, that plot hole aside, a token Ugly Bad Guy with henchmen has kidnapped the narrator’s sister in order to blackmail him to explore Tomb 35. If Ugly Bad Guy is so powerful as to be able to afford henchmen, surely he could just hire someone to do the job? Even the narrator might have happily done it for money! You see, from the very start, you’re not convinced by the world of the game. This isn’t a novel or a movie, it’s a game, but if you’re going to have a plot, at least make it credible.
So, I sat through the prologue and then plunged into the action. Plunge being the operative word. With no warning whatsoever the cinematic had finished and one slight move of the mouse sent the camera into crazy tail-spin. I appeared to be hanging upsidedown from the ceiling. But seeing as I was nose to nose with the pixels that actually comprised the surface I was pressed against it was difficult to tell. Somehow, I see sawed back into an upright position and could see around me. There were absolutely no controls on the screen, no indication of what to do or how to progress. After a few moments of drunken reeling about – again lots of close encounters with walls and corners – a crude CGI female appeared in a cut scene. She’s Dormeuse, a hologram, who guards the tomb. Despite a rather scary over-Botoxed face, she’s wearing a sexy dress and looks as if she’s escaped from an escort club. The advanced race who left the tombs behind them sure knew how to entrance any hapless male humans who might wander into their domain. How farsighted of them. Dormeuse says some pointless things, which do nothing to further the game, and then you’re back to exploration.
Still having no idea of actually how to play, I resorted to consulting the manual. There’s no tutorial in game, you see. I read that I should keep pencil and paper by me, because there were lots of things I’d need to write down and remember. I think that is a definite no-no for a modern game. If you need to keep note of things, there should be some facility in game where you can do so – such as a quest log. Surely not that difficult to include. After this, I found a detailed blow-by-blow account of how to play the first few minutes of the game and what symbols I needed to write down. Again, this didn’t sit well with me. If there’s no tutorial, you should at least have hints on screen within the first few minutes to tell you how to proceed. You shouldn’t have to sit there, pick up the manual, read a sentence, obey the instruction, then read the next, and so on. That’s not playing, that’s just doing what you’re told. At the very least, there could have been a voiceover from the narrator, along of the lines of ‘Ugly Bad guy told me I should turn left here, and make note of the symbol above the door’. Or something. The best games have a hook, which grabs you from the start. They have to, because there is so much competition out there. But by this point with Sentinel I was bored, and only the fact that I have to write a review of the game forced me to continue.
I checked out the game options and found it was possible to have ‘hints’ on screen, which is not a lie, but they weren’t overtly helpful. I also found a walkthrough online, which enabled me to maintain interest enough to write this review. I confess I didn’t get very far. I got to the point where I felt I was wasting my time, and that proceeding would not change my opinion of the game.
After following the manual instructions, and activating a ‘waystone’, I reeled over to a teleportation device, which then whisked me to a new area of the game. It was an alien landscape, which was quite prettily rendered. In fact, Sentinel’s only strength in my opinion is that the scenery is nice. If only there was more to do in it! The first puzzle to solve involves another somewhat tedious cut scene encounter with the blank-faced Dormeuse, and then a ride up on a lift to shine a lighthouse on five weird plants in sequence. A console stands before you. Press this button, press that, the lighthouse swoops up and down, its beam swinging to left and right. You have only so many times to get the sequence right before having to reset and start again. And that pretty much sums up the content of the game. There are lots and lots of puzzles like this, or variations thereof with different, albeit quite lovely, graphics. In fact, I don’t really regard them as puzzles, which surely should require some creative thought as to their solving. This is just a case of trying sequence after sequence after sequence. Yes, you’ll need paper and pen to write down various combinations and so on. It’s very repetitive. You’ll also have to do a lot of running about, back to various points, which again doesn’t do much for the excitement factor. There is no actual adventuring to speak of.
Now, I’ve no doubt that Sentinel is some gamers’ ultimate cup of tea, their Vintage Darjeeling, in fact. If you love the kind of puzzles I’ve described, and have a great amount of patience, and don’t demand too much action, maybe you’ll be satisfied with this game. But there are virtually no characters to interact with, and very few actual actions you can make. The soundtrack is a forgettable New Age ambient kind of thing, and the few voiceovers not exactly deserving of Oscar nominations. I’m not a huge fan of this genre, so perhaps not the best person to judge, but Sentinel seemed to me rather a rip off. If you’re going to create such a nicely rendered world, it seems a waste not to do more with it. I’m bemused why some gamers like this kind of title, when there are so many good RPGs out there that offer far more in terms of puzzle-solving and quests. I suppose it attracts those who have an aversion to any kind of combat.
So, disappointed and unimpressed, I’m afraid. The most scary thing about Tomb 35 is that it leads to a series of alien vistas where not much happens and you could expire from ennui and frustration. There’s no reason why Ugly Bad guy couldn’t have done the exploration himself, unless he’s as bored by the puzzles to be found as I was.