In this retrospective, we’ll be revisiting what I consider to be one of the most remarkable games that I was fortuitous enough to experience on my Commodore Amiga.
Developed by French studio Lankhor and published in 1991, Maupiti Island is the second – and last – in a series of crime-themed adventure games starring the studio’s fictional detective, Jérôme Lange.
Set in 1954, the story opens with Lange aboard a ship, travelling from Madagascar to Japan. Disaster nearly strikes when the vessel encounters a hurricane, forcing it to make port at the remote island of Maupiti. With the boat badly in need of repairs, and with time on his hands, Lange sets foot ashore and decides to explore the island.
It transpires that all is not well on the island. A young girl by the name of Marie seems to have vanished under mysterious circumstances, and with rumours of illegal gun running and opium smuggling rife, Lange soon suspects that all is not as it should be.
What ensues is a highly engrossing crime thriller, with the player taking centre stage. As Lange, it’s up to you to unravel the mystery involving Marie’s disappearance, and unpick the web of deceit that permeates every corner of this supposed island paradise.
Whereas many graphical adventures rely on scripted sequences to drive the game forward, Maupiti Island is far more dynamic. Time is one of the primary features of the game, with the adventure playing out in an accelerated form of real-time, continuing to advance independently of the player and their actions.
Set over the course of 72 hours, dramatic events continue to unfold as the game progresses. Locations that you visited earlier in the game may change in some way, usually with additional evidence and clues to be discovered.
This is perhaps demonstrated best following the dawning of the second day when the corpse of Juste, a local fisherman, is hauled out of the ocean close to the docks. Visiting the poor fellow’s humble abode is certainly worth your time and effort, for even this simple soul harbours a number of secrets, some of which you may yet divine by revisiting his home.
The island’s inhabitants are scripted to move between locations, going about their business most of the time, as well as congregating at Maguy’s trading post for breakfast, lunch, and evening meals.
Bear in mind, however, that your ship will be leaving as soon as the repairs are complete, so you must complete your investigations within this time, else suffer the professional and personal embarrassment of having to abandon the case.
Just as you might expect, the secret to being a successful detective is to be highly inquisitive, visiting as many locations on the island as possible, as well as poking your nose into other people’s business.
From idyllic, sun-soaked beaches, to the stifling humidity of the jungle swamps, there’s a rich and diverse set of locations to explore. Many of these will contain items to interact with, although it’s rarely obvious at first glance what might – or might not – be significant.
Progress will come through experimentation with the game’s verb-based action system, which allows players to interact with objects in the game world.
Moving the mouse cursor to the top of the screen reveals a set of tabs that contains the various actions that Lange can perform. The player can select a verb from the list, then attempt to execute said action by clicking on an item or other element that exists within the current location.
Be aware that there may be secret areas and openings hidden in various locations, and you’ll need to be inventive in just how you gain access to these. For example, a seemingly innocuous set of coat hooks in one of the ship’s cabins controls a mechanism that will reveal a hidden cache behind the mounting panel, so experimentation may yield surprisingly beneficial results!
Those among you familiar with the adventure game genre are probably familiar with the term “pixel hunting”, a pejorative term used to describe the process of moving the mouse cursor around the screen in painstaking fashion, hoping to locate a tiny portion of the screen that might contain an otherwise elusive item to or object to interact with.
What makes Maupiti Island different in this regard is that it embraces the need to pixel-hunt in most literal sense. Many of the screens contain objects or elements that would be otherwise invisible to the naked eye, requiring the player to make use of the “look at” command. This instructs Lange to inspect the chosen portion of the screen more closely, doubling the size of the examined area, unveiling items and fine detail that might have been otherwise overlooked.
Of course, we can’t discuss Maupiti Island without mentioning what is probably it’s most iconic feature: voice synthesis.
Just about every adventure game up until this point relied on the standard convention of printing character dialogue on the screen for the players to read. This was still several years before the proliferation of CD-ROM technology made full voice-overs a real proposition, but Lankhor took the unusual step of leveraging voice synthesis technology – presumably Amiga “Say” – to bestow each of the game’s characters with voice that would read dialogue aloud.
Although the robotic and monotone delivery of the lines might sound laughably simple by today’s standards, this was scarily futuristic back in 1991, especially if you’d come from a Commodore 64 as I had done.
What makes this seem so impressive is that it actually manages to pronounce the majority of the words correctly. I have vivid memories of toying with a text-to-speech utility available for Windows 3.1 when I got my first PC, and laughing out loud at the howlers it came out with when trying to interpret certain words, so the fact that this Amiga program works as well as it does seemed nothing short of brilliance!
And it’s a good thing that the speech synthesis exists, because you’ll find yourself talking to – interrogating even – the majority of the island’s inhabitants on a frequent basis. There is a huge amount of information to be learned from just about everybody you meet, some of which will be vital in determining exactly what has been going on.
Any character in the presence of the player will have their name listed in the status panel to the right of the screen. Clicking on the name tag with the mouse will strike up a conversation between Lange and the person in question, giving the detective the opportunity to discuss the case.
The number of of dialogue options to choose from can be quite extensive, including quizzing characters about other people on the island, showing them items from the inventory, or asking about their personal itinerary. Additional query options are made available with the passing of each hour of the day, so it pays dividends to check in with each character on a regular basis.
However, not everything divulged during the course of conversation should ever be taken at face value – nearly everybody you meet is harbouring at least a couple of skeletons in their respective closets, so it’s unsurprising to find a fair degree of deception and obfuscation in the stories that people tell you. If you suspect that you’re being fed a lie then it’s possible contradict them using information learned elsewhere, or to even bribe the person with something from your inventory – money works well, so I hear!
With so many inhabitants on the island, it would become almost impossible for the player to try and remember every single piece of information revealed to them in conversation. Fortunately, the game implements an automated notebook system, with Lange making notes about key topics of conversation as they’re revealed; if something generates an entry in the journal then it’s a reasonable assumption that it’s something relevant to the case.
Although not made entirely obvious, character’s opinions of the player can be adversely affected through these interactions. Most people won’t take too kindly to repeated questioning, particularly if you begin making unwarranted accusations, and being caught in their personal quarters too many times will often result in a swift rebuke.
Unlike many other adventures, making mistakes can easily result in a premature end to the game. Making an insufferable nuisance of yourself will only make people less likely to take you into their confidence, and may even result in you being bundled unceremoniously back into your cabin and sent packing from the island altogether. Similarly, lurking around certain locations at night can result in a knife being inserted between many an unwary detective’s shoulder blades, so make sure you find a good hiding spot, or are safely tucked up in bed!
On the subject of beds, it’s vitally important that Lange gets sufficient shut-eye. Travelling between locations and performing actions – tailing suspects especially – will take their toll on Lange’s stamina; burn the candle at both ends too often, and Lange is liable to fall unconscious where he stands. The game will periodically update the player as to Lange’s current level of fatigue, and you should take care to return to your cabin and get a good night’s rest when weary.
As you’ve probably gathered, the game is remarkably involved and detailed, particularly when compared to the likes of adventure titles from LucasArts. The level of complexity and involvement will certainly be off-putting to a younger audience, although more mature gamers should find the game no less than enthralling.
In some ways, the game could be considered the L.A. Noire of it’s generation. With a highly intricate plot, a diverse cast of characters and level of depth quite unlike any other adventure I’ve played, Maupiti Island really is quite the unique experience.
The game isn’t entirely without problems, however.
While the sleuthing component of the game is undeniably brilliant, deciphering the solutions to the handful of actual puzzles in the game is a far less edifying prospect. I’m not sure that I would have ever worked out that I needed to use an ashtray inside the nickelodeon piano, or that I would have ever worked out the solution to ciphers and coded missives left lying in various dead drops around the island.
Then there’s the matter of the game’s somewhat lacklustre ending.
Whereas I’d expected a grand finale with the player unmasking the villain in the assembled presence of the central characters, the reality is far less eventful.
Having solved the final puzzle, the player is presented with a screen that informs them that they are about to be presented with a series of multiple-choice questions that they must answer in order to determine whether they have solved the mystery.
I suppose the easiest way to describe my feeling at this point was like following a length of rope trailing off into the darkness, only to find that there’s nothing at the end of it. Imagine also that you’ve spent the past few hours stopping to untangle numerous kinks and various knots in the rope’s length, and you might start to get an appreciation for how unsatisfying this conclusion actually feels.
The lasting impression is one of a game consisting of a framework of many great ideas, but the scale of it’s ambition leaves it feeling somewhat impenetrable at times. While it’s enormous fun playing detective, there comes a point where you’ll be left floundering by the obtuseness of puzzles and lack of any sense of how to proceed.
It’s in these moments that the sense of intrigue and involvement in the story begins to make way for a disappointing sense of ennui. What makes this all the more disheartening is that, even with a solution guide to hand, I was left with a nagging sense that I’d never have been able to work out the solutions by myself, which is a genuine shame.
In spite of these issues, the various aspects of the game coalesce to create an experience quite unlike anything else, and is certainly a title where the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
By no means perfect, Lankhor’s unique sense of storytelling and compelling game mechanics resulted in the creation of a game that remains as engrossing today as it did upon release; if you fancy playing the central role in a gripping murder-mystery, then this is certainly a title worthy of your attention: recommended!