Title: J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars
Genre: Adventure, Indie
Developer: CBE Software s.r.o.
Publisher: CBE Software s.r.o.
Release Date: Sep 12, 2014
Reviewed On: PC (Steam
A copy of J.U.L.I.A.: Among The Stars was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
I find it fascinating that genres that died many years ago have seen a resurrection and renaissance in these heady days of crowdfunding. Loads of small studios, garage shops, and one or two-man operations (like J.U.L.I.A.‘s developers, CBE Software) have practiced the dark of art of necromancy to bring forth what is one of the best point-and-click adventure/puzzle games I’ve played in ages. The original J.U.L.I.A, released in 2012 by the Czech-based CBE Software, received well-deserved praise for delivering a straight-forward adventure with great narrative despite lacking in presentation. If anything, one could look at it like the proof of concept. Toss in an IndieGogo campaign for an enhanced edition and we’re left with the true vision of what this game should be.
Rachel Manners, an astrobiologist, awakens from cryosleep to find the rest of her crew gone — the ship is on fire and things are definitely far from okay. She is informed by the ship’s AI, J.U.L.I.A., that the other crewmen were woken sixty years prior and have since died from unknown circumstances. Time for some answers. Rachel, making use of a lunar exploration robot aptly named Mobot, starts putting the pieces together on each and every planetoid in the star system.
A game of this sort lives and dies based on the quality of its story. J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars sports not only a fantastic science-fiction story but characters that also feel right. Think more along the lines of MYST rather than the Lucasarts set. Atmosphere is something that a lot of games lose from the page to development. J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars, thankfully, suffers from no such problem. On each new planet Rachel, J.U.L.I.A., and Mobot — your primary means of exploration — encounter all manner of information and slowly unravel bits of story. All the while, the game’s score chimes in at just the right time, adding nuance to the already subtle narrative thrust that guides the players through this cosmic disaster.
As mentioned earlier, the original game lacked in the presentation department. This enhanced edition, Among the Stars, completely reworks many of the game’s puzzles, changed mechanics that might have been otherwise unclear or frustrating, and significantly upgrades the graphical presentation of this galactic adventure. The cinematic cutscenes are well put together, support the story marvelously, and add a cinematic feel to the proceedings. The graphical updates breathe new life into nearly all of the planets Rachel, Mobot, and J.U.L.I.A. come across. A few minor hiccups here and there do not deter from the experience at all. This is an excellent effort from such a small studio and they deserve some definite kudos for truly fleshing out the whole package.
Sound design here deserves mention along with the soundtrack. The game’s protagonist, Rachel Manners, benefits greatly from well-spoken voice acting but also dialogue that flows naturally. The spaceship’s AI, J.U.L.I.A., is showcased in such a way that for all the expected detachment of a machine there are moments of understanding and emotion that catch you off-guard. Even Mobot, formerly voiced via the TextAloud functionality, gets a proper VO treatment this time, and it works so very well. The soundtrack is one of the better composed works (created by one of the developers, Jan Kavan) for a video game this year. Each planet has its own atmospheric themes and ambient noises to accompany exploration that just sells the experience so well.
The puzzles, this time around, are much better explained and tend to lean more towards the easy side. The mini-games that crop-up are interesting and tie in well to the overarching narrative, and there are so many things to click on and so many places to explore. Each area is full of things to analyze, read about, and hear our three main characters banter about. I simply adored having the ability to learn so much about the events, people, and surroundings of each planet Rachel came across. There was so much world-building done here, with alien races and their religions addressed. This felt like a lived-in universe. Players will find data pads containing information about the former crew members, their relationships, and hints at just what the heck happened strewn around. The slow drip of clues was a nice touch and very much appreciated. You have to work to earn resolution on this story and it is well worth the time. Seven to ten hours should suffice for this game (which retails for $19.99 on Steam).
J.U.L.I.A: Among the Stars can count itself among the the better indie titles this year. It is, in a year full of rehashed and remastered titles, one that is truly worth your dollar and your time. Adventure games that well written, executed and are just fun to play don’t happen all too often outside of Double Fine’s work and Telltale games. CBE Software refined what was already a great core game in the original, added more depth and polished it to a fine sheen. Simply put: If you like adventure games you need to play this game.
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