After many long months, Valve has finally seen sense and granted one of the most atmospheric indie adventures ever a spot on the mighty Steam store. But if you missed taking a look at it earlier this year... cough... is now the time to head into its dark streets?
Gemini Rue is a game about many things. Identity. Faith. Morality. Pointing. Clicking. For me, the point it clicked was a couple of screens in, splashing through the dark streets of Barracus to the accompaniment of ghostly jazz under constant rain. As low resolution and low-tech as Gemini Rue is, it has as good a grasp of atmosphere as any game you're likely to play this year, and it's that as much as anything else that makes it such a joy to sink into for an evening.
Most of the plot is impossible to talk about without liberal use of spoiler warnings, so I'll try to keep things at their absolute simplest. Gemini Rue is the story of two characters in two very different settings - former assassin Azriel Odin, searching for the location of his missing brother on a world controlled by the Boryokudan* space yakuza, and an amnesiac prisoner called Delta-Six, whose lack of an identity isn't going to stop him escaping the sterile brainwashing hell of the mysterious Center 7 before he gets kicked out as someone new. For much of the game you get to switch between them at will, though distance means their puzzles never intersect.
(* Apparently a real term, not just a set-up for the joke "Boryokudan?" "I didn't even know I had one!" This is a Serious Adventure, after all, and the subjects of that pun have guns.)
Stylistically, the main split is Azriel acting as a Blade Runner/noir style detective and Delta Six working on a jailbreak while undergoing weapons training... and hoping his story ends more happily than 1213. And that's all the plot you're getting. Suffice to say, it's a good story - and a rare example of an excellent indie adventure that plays things completely straight - that's very well told, even if some of the big plot beats are more than a little predictable. Whether you find big surprises or not though, there's plenty of drama, the main characters are excellent, and the resolution ties everything together in a very satisfying way. Happily? Not saying.
On the design side, Gemini Rue is a solid adventure, though not without its rough edges. While never overshadowing the good stuff, the interface is clunky and unpleasant, and the puzzles and pacing are often incredibly flabby. Nothing will hold you up for long, so it's not as big a deal as it might be, but you can spend a lot of time wandering and backtracking through basically empty locations, with more than a couple of puzzles relying on incredible convenience or reverse-engineered design over actually making a plan. As an example, one early challenge is to find a futuristic doodad that you need, which you stumble across because there's a puzzle blocking your entrance into a specific building, not because you know it's in there in the first place or have any actual reason to barge in uninvited. You're also repeatedly thrown into truly dreadful, fiddly combat sequences, which act as yet another reminder of why most adventure games have historically avoided them like a jellified lump of the plague. Luckily, these bits are a cakewalk, and there's constant autosaving that stops them ever being a huge nuisance.
Right. Big finger-wagging bit over. Onto the rest of the good stuff.
Of the regular puzzles, the most notable things are the added physicality of many of them, to the point that a kick is one of your standard (and most useful) action verbs, and how many rely on other characters' skills. These are especially effective in the Center 7 sections, helping build a feeling of growing relationships between the prisoners, even as questions are raised over who can actually be trusted and who might have a different agenda in mind.
Azriel's adventures tend to be the most enjoyable though, with life-and-death games of hide and seek, the more imminent threat of being gunned down by Boryokudan thugs, and screen after screen of decaying future to explore at will. It may be limited to a few streets, but they're good ones, and successfully convey the feeling that there is a bigger world out there that Azriel simply has no need to visit. That said, it is more than a bit of a disappointment to leave them behind at the end of the first act, only to be dumped straight back instead of going somewhere new.
Gemini Rue is far from a difficult game, with little but occasionally weak telegraphing of what you're meant to do next likely to hold you up for long. As with Wadjet Eye's more recent Blackwell Deception though, the length feels right for the story it's trying to tell - if not a little bit too padded in the middle sections. While some of the later conversations switch into Lecture Mode a little too freely, it's in dealing with these issues that Gemini Rue shines, far more than when coming up with clever ways to open locked doors and hide keycards under corpses.
It's great that Gemini Rue has done so well since its release, and that people who'd never normally have touched an adventure have been sucked into its dark, lo-fi world. While it has been somewhat over-rated in some corners, it's a rare example of a good serious adventure with appeal beyond the standard point-and-clicking community. If you love classic adventures, that's great. You're in equally good hands though if you're just in the mood for a good sci-fi story that doesn't boil down to blowing lots of people away with guns, a detective style game, or simply a nostalgic kick back to the days of things like Beneath A Steel Sky. And Opal Fruits.
(Oh, and if you're attracted to it because the style and world design remind you a little bit of Cowboy Bebop... let's just say you might just spot a couple of familiar faces on the streets of Barracus. Along with a few other in-jokes sneaking their way into the serious sci-fi, like the labels on some storage crates that only old-school adventurers are likely to recognise.)
This Steam re-release of Gemini Rue is identical to the one sold on the Wadjet Eye Games site UPDATE: aside from the addition of achievements and cloud savegame syncing, and easily one of the best serious adventures available on it at the moment. (Yes, there are good comedy ones, like the Dan and Ben series, and a few classics like Syberia, but most that don't have the Sierra or Lucasarts logo on can be safely skipped - especially the ones that just end up being bloody hidden object games in disguise). Hopefully it'll do well enough for Valve to relax a little and let a few more indie adventures earn a slot based on pure quality, rather than having to show up with an IGF award or similar for a chance at admittance.
If you're an adventure fan who hasn't played it yet, you really must. It's one of the best commercial offerings in a ages, indie or not, and a great reminder of why you love the genre. Even if you're not typically into your point and clicks though, it's worth at least trying the demo and giving the chance for its atmospheric rain to sweep you away
like so much crap in the street in style. It's the perfect accompaniment for a dark autumn night, and an adventure you'll remember no matter what happens in the scary memory wiping chair.