Eternam (1992)

Eternam (1992), written by Hubert Chardot, Xavier Fournier, Olivier Roge, designed and published by Infogrames

Now, here's an interesting beast, Eternam. It isn't interesting because it is a good game, far from it, but because what it was trying to do as early as 1992.  While a lot of the game is very poorly designed adventure game, down to horrible controls, it also has an exploration mode, where you move from place to place in a 3D 1st person view. Something a bit similar to what Mean Streets had with its flying car sequences, but this time around without a possibility to enter coordinates to travel fast.

Don Jonz, the hero of this comedic sci-fi tale, is a heroic marshal of the United Forces of Orion. After some heavy heroics, he finally has some leave coming and as luck has it, he has won a ticket to the greatest amusement park in the galaxy, Eternam, where he can have fun in realistically created historic eras of the Earth populated by humanoids.

But as soon as he arrives at Eternam, it is evident not all is what it should be. Not only are there some strange flying creatures around, trying to attack him, but the timelines have also gone wonky, with all kinds of anachronistic stuff in wrong places. Not to mention, that many things meant to amuse the guests are actively trying to kill him.

As it happens, the whole thing is a trap, set up for Jonz by his old archnemesis, Mikhal Nuke. Unseen in this game, Jonz has foiled a many of Nuke's scheme, but now the scar-faced menace is planning to get rid of his rival for once and for all, by tasking the indigenous Dragoons, a race of man-eating lizards, of Eternam to take care of him.

Jonz has to find his way through several islands, which have gone haywire, of the planet, consisting of recreations of medieval Europe, French revolution, future and ancient Egypt. At first, he has very little clue on what is going on, despite one of the computer technicians of Eternam, Tracy, is trying to guide him from time to time.

As such, the setting for Eternam is more than enough to carry an adventure game. The whole premise of a futuristic fun park gone haywire with a supervillain trying to off his nemesis is what I'd call more than enough for a solid adventure story. It just is, that no matter the setting, the pieces in it don't quite click. Not in the writing, nor in puzzles or in execution.

Eternam treats everything as a joke. It aims to do this by having visuals and story, that evoke the constant air of parody, but here in lies the problem, as it soon becomes the question of being odd for oddity's sake. When you explore the island in the first person mode, it is rather common to see things like huge birds skeletons or some other such things meant to underline how odd the world is.

The writing is really the biggest problem in what comes to the comedic value, as there is very little build up on any of the jokes. I couldn't escape the feeling that most of the jokes were just randomly lifted from a joke book with no proper connection towards anything.

The puzzles are mostly trial and error variety. That all is good and dandy in the first island, where dying just takes you to a hospital bed, but after that the game changes the rules about death, which always takes you to a game over screen, which means you have to be constantly saving the game before you try anything, as you never know what'll kill you. Basically, anything from trying to solve a puzzle to talking to someone can be the death of Jonz.

Interestingly enough, there are some extra puzzles in the game, which are not mandatory for solving the game itself. There aren't many adventure games around with fully optional puzzles, but as the game world is quite big, it makes a lot of sense in this case.

That wobbly donkey's bridge takes me feet dry to the world itself and the two modes it is portrayed. The very first view of the world you see is the 3D 1st person exploration mode. As a whole, this is a surprisingly colourful collection of vectors, meshes and sprites, which runs very smoothly. Three big problems here really are the controls, which are somewhat clunky and slow to respond especially if you are turning around. Another is a navigational one, as despite Eternam does try to give some landmarks, and you can even buy a compass, there really aren't that many points of interest which would help you to find places quickly.

Another thing in the 1st person exploration is the additional combat. From time to time, you see flying monsters, which will attack you, draining your energy. This is more like a minor annoyance, as you can quickly enough just leg it and leave the monsters behind. Alternatively you can shoot them with auto-aiming lasers, but in the end, you don't gain anything from killing them, so it is a pointless activity.

As Eternam is an adventure game, you can use the various commands, talk, use, take and inventory, during the exploration, but mostly talking and inventory are useful during the mode. From time to time, you'll meet people walking on the roads and they might have something interesting to say, some of which even puzzle sensitive.

The second mode of playing is the more common 3rd person adventure mode, where you are free to explore a location in more depth in order to find items and puzzles to solve. I'd would be nice to say, the game controls get better here, but sadly that isn't the case. You control Jonz with arrow keys and activate the action verbs by pressing an appropriate letter. The only good thing in this mode is the line of sight hotspot locator, which draws a line from Jonz to an item he sees. It doesn't reveal everything, just the more hidden things, but it does make the game a lot more bearable.

Speaking to characters is odd as well. After you've talked to someone you can't initiate the discussion again. You have to leave the room and re-enter it in order to speak again. Many characters do have multiple discussion routes to take, so if you are intent on seeing all they have to say, you have to put some effort into it. And at the same time, keep in mind that some paths may be the death of Jonz.

The inventory system is simple enough. In order to use something on something, you only have to choose the desired item and it is either used automatically on the right location or during the discussion with a character. This, obviously, means there are no inventory puzzles, where you connect items. Once or twice you do have to actually use the item manually, but that is a rare occasion.

And, lest I forget, there is some amount of combat in the 3rd person mode as well. Not a lot and none of it difficult, as you just mostly slam down space bar in order to shoot, but it is there.

And for another interesting, albeit fully useless feature, there is a day/night cycle. As far as I can tell, it doesn't affect anything else besides the colour of the sky and darkness levels in the 1st  and 3rd person modes. No puzzles or story beats are affected by it. So interesting, but as a whole, useless feature.

So, almost everything about Eternam feels a bit clunky. I do wonder if it is mostly because so much of it also feels experimental, which wouldn't be a surprise, as it is the first this kind of an adventure Infogrames did. They do have older adventures, but they were text adventures and visual novel kind of deals, whereas Eternam tries to marry together 1st and 3rd person adventuring.

Infogrames did try to use the 3rd person adventure engine they created here with other titles, but they never managed to make the style it had going work properly. A more notable attempt is the clunky, yet atmospheric, Shadow of the Comet. They did, at least, drop all the action elements from that one.

If you go and buy Eternam now, either from Steam or GOG, you have a choice of playing either a disk or CD version of it. The CD version is terrible thanks to the low-quality amateur voice cast, but the game text is considerably shortened as well, giving a lot less dialogue. You are also forced to listen to all the dialogue options, as you don't see them in text form before choosing them. So, those grievances in mind, I do recommend playing the disk version, despite the CD version does have a solid CD audio soundtrack. But even that comes with some technical issues during the game.

And that is Eternam. Technically interesting, but something that feels like an experimental tech demo, with too many features in it that don't quite work. It might be, that Infogrames was a bit too ambitious with the game, trying to create something groundbreaking and went a bit too far with their ambitions, especially with the technology of the time.

None the less, it is an interesting title, just because of what it did try to do despite it wasn't quite successful in its attempts. And for that alone, it is, at least, worth a try, if not worth a playthrough.