Zork Nemesis: The Forbidden Lands
for PC (DOS)

Herr M.:Underdogs:Overall:
Company: Activision / Zombie LLC
Year: 1996
Genre: Puzzle, Adventure
Theme: Horror / Humour / Mystery / Myths and Mythology
Language: English, Deutsch, Français
Licence: Commercial
Views: 15124
Review by Herr M. (2014-06-21)

29th of Mage, Birthday

I have decided to return to the temple of Aggripa. It has been far too long since my last visit, must be almost over five years by now since the last time I retraced Nemesis’ steps. As always I read Bivotar’s journal while I was waiting for the temple doors to open. This booklet seems like an ancient relic in itself, for long gone are the days when every game told a good part of its story with actual items you could touch and feel. And maybe that’s exactly why it did not fail to set me in the proper mood for the journey ahead.

When I finally stood at the temple’s doorsteps I was taken aback: No wonder I had such fond memories of this place – it is simply impressive. As forlorn as it might appear on the surface, you can still witness signs of its former glory. Those wide open plazas, the narrow arcades and everything covered in delicate, meandering ornaments make for an architecture, which is certainly something you have got to see. And those eerie noises, those ominous chanting… Oh, how they send shivers down my spine. I could not wait to enter the place!

Yet entering it was kind of awkward, because navigating the place took me some time to get used to. You see, there are only certain places where you are allowed to stand in and it was not always apparent to me how they are connected, where you can move to and where you will end up when you step in a certain direction. Somehow it is very similar to ye old times of yore, where you could only move along the compass rose, just with a slightly more panoramic view. As soon as I got accustomed to this strange mechanism I could easily enjoy looking around.

And there is so much to see! Every room, every corner is filled with paintings, recordings, statues, scrolls or tomes. They are not just there to take up some room, no they actually have some artistic value. Many a time I found myself forgetting about my quest and simply examining a picture or listening absentmindedly to one of the many sounds of this place. You know, standing in those halls, they reminded me of a good glass of red wine. They both have an overwhelming plethora of aromas. At first you get this flood of impressions, its really hard to discern distinct tastes and how they add up to that one intoxicating emotion. But then you start to recognise one after the other and get an impression of the overall harmony. My, this place’s atmosphere certainly is inspiring.

But I should not get carried away, because as beautiful as the scenery might be, a horrible crime has been committed here, and signs of its disharmony are all over the site. I have to focus and begin my search!

30th of Mage, Frob Day

I am sitting in the dark, the screen flickering in front of my eyes. They are pleading me to release them from their prison-like sarcophagi, they cry for help. There are always four of them, four dead(?) people, four elements, four metals, four abandoned places. They claim to be alchemists, who only wished to find the quintessence, the philosopher's stone – like any serious hermeticist would. From what I can understand, they believe it to be nothing less than the key to eternal life. Too bad they could not reach their ambitious goal, but awakened some kind of demon instead, who made sure to give them something quite contrary to their wishes.

31st of Mage, Star Day

I just returned from castle Irondune, one of the four places the alchemists asked me to go to in order to bring them their corresponding metals (which they hope to use to revive themselves). As might be expected from a general’s stronghold it is a very militaristic place. It is almost like a museum for Zorkean warfare. Yet, what is a bit strange about those walls are the stark contrasts found within, between the humorous and the outright disturbing parts.

On the one hand I met this strange fellow who claims to be the sole survivor of Kaine’s forces and the last line of defence, which seems rather glum to me. But on the other hand he is just an old guy with a musket and a slightly peculiar accent who does not show any signs of stress or exhaustion. On the one hand I found some dioramas featuring the most famous battles in Zorkean history, which people with names like Duncan Drax won with really absurd tactics (like setting the enemy on fire with an endless supply of matches found in a – to veterans well known – water dam). On the other hand there is a hidden cellar with some very disturbing torture devices, which even echo the (final?) pleas of their victims. My most favourite absurdity has to be the tank with some gardening utensils and fuzzy dice inside… which is powered by radioactive materials which will outright kill you if you are not fast enough.

To me this looks like the creators where a bit torn about the mood they wanted to set here. Maybe it is also because I do not consider war a laughing matter.

1st of Jam, Sand Day

Walking through the halls of the Monastery felt even more like a visit to a museum. It is impressive how many pieces of art have been gathered here. All that paintings of fires, explosions and volcano eruptions, those fine woven tapestries with their mesmerising patterns are very stimulating. A very fitting shrine to a holy flame.

While I was (almost desperately) searching for a coin to insert into the donation box, I found a lot of clues what had been taking place in those hallowed walls. Some visions of the past shed a bit of light on how the alchemists hoped to create their quintessence. It is funny how picking up a supposedly useless objects triggered those unexpected flashbacks. From what I can gather from those images true love seems to be involved in their transformations. As always things got far more complicated as soon as this emotion was involved, because it is especially the forbidden one, which feels the most intense.

Yet, the most beautiful thing I found was a short extract from a composition called ‘The Harmony of the Spheres’. Listening to the far away sounds of the violin strings in this forlorn building was incredibly touching. Afterwards I sat there in silence for a while and clung to the feelings this harmonious music had stirred in me.

The sounds, the sights, the puzzles… they make for an absorbing atmosphere. I had lost my sense of time and had not noticed that I had spend a lot more time searching for that piece of lead than I had planned to. Still, I wished I could have stayed even longer.

4th of Jam, Wands Day

There is one thing I can say for sure about the Sanatorium: It does not look like the healthiest place to me. Just think of everything you might have come to hate about a hospital or an asylum and you can be sure you will find it here. Uncleaned, blood stained beds and tables? Check! Weird, soulless devices, whose purpose seems to be more closely connected to torture than to the healing arts? Check! Records which are next to unintelligible for a layman, yet the parts you do understand sound sinister and unsettling enough to spark your imagination? Check! And the list goes on…

This one here seems to me like the odd one out. While the other destinations are a lot more subtle with their scares and feature some jokes too, this madhouse here consists of an outright horror show. I was also forced to do some of the most cruel and vilest things during my search. The reward of which was a getting chatted up by a head I just had severed. Well, alright maybe that last one was a bit hilarious.

As horrifying as this section might be, it does an excellent job of illustrating the horrors of cold-blooded research. And speaking of illustrating something: I think it is funny I never actually met any of those alchemists, yet I got a nice impression of their personalities just by visiting their working places and browsing through their stuff.

6th of Jam, Frob Day

A day at the Conservatory. Audiophile that I am, this is my favourite part of my travels through the Eastlands. While the music is strong in all of the regions, here it takes the proper centre stage. I find it hard to describe, you really should listen to it yourself, but just imagine standing in a big concert hall, between rows and rows of seats, the stuccoed walls and pillars surrounding you, like the sound waves within, that fill you ears with the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ (what fitting title!). Or listening to some albums on a phonograph, forwards and backwards, the latter one offering quite some surprises. Or crystal formations resonating with a sad and haunting melody that almost brings tears to my eyes…

But as much as I love this place and its vibes, I am beginning to see patterns in my journey’s structure. I arrive at a place, start looking around, stumble upon parts of a number/objects/notes sequence, try to assemble the bits and pieces, enter it at some point to open up a new area, where I either do the same thing again or adjust some settings at a device to create the metal parts I am looking for. And there is almost nothing more to it, except for the one or the other item to pick up and guess where you have to place it.

And it is here and now where it becomes apparent to me, that as much as I love this experience, I have to admit that the actual charm of it does not lie in the puzzles, which are mediocre at best, but in all the titbits of art and plot strewn all over the place. Which is kind of strange considering that nothing is happening at all. Everything, all the drama, already took place, and all I do is watching shadows and listening to the echos of the past.

Does this diminish my positive thoughts about this masterpiece? No, it does not. Call me superficial, but there were moments in this ‘game’ where I felt some kind of enlightenment, when I was moved deep inside, especially here in this house of music. Shallow as the mechanisms lying underneath might be, the scenery is a work of art and the story it tries to tell is certainly engaging enough to stimulate a couple of thoughts.

8th of Jam, Sand Day

I am at the end of my journey, Nemesis is no more. I do not want to spoil anything, but I do think that the endgame was a tad bit short, yet fulfilling. While watching the end credits, and noticing that the list of artists is unsurprisingly a lot longer than the list of programmers, a part of me is kind of sad for leaving all of this behind, another part is looking forward to revisiting it in a couple of years. Just like a good book, which never gets old, even after knowing the actual story by heart, I will definitely pick it up again sometime.

Looking back at my writings I notice that I said a lot about the mood the places conveyed, how it felt like while wandering through the story, but almost nothing about the actual gameplay. Maybe that is because I think Zork Nemesis fails horribly as a game, yet it is great as a digital art exhibition, whose items are connected by an interactive story, that you can explore at your leisure. And I think this is the best way to enjoy it, because as long as I kept examining my surroundings with a curious and open mind, the puzzles solved themselves in an almost natural flow and felt less contrived or forced but actually fit to the story.

By now you might have guessed, that this is one of the few Multimedia games I really like. The main reason for this is that it manages to combine the multiple forms of media so well. It is more than a collection of JPEGs of famous paintings, more than a scan lined B-Movie and more than a collection of simple puzzle game. It is all of them with an original story fusing it together to a grand drama about magic, love and revenge.

So, if you want my final opinion: Take a night off, get a good glass of wine (or maybe a fine cup of tea), start the game… and get ready to be absorbed by this piece of art.

19th of Jam, Birthday

While preparing this text for publication, I thought I should finally address the Zork part of the title. So, how does it live up to the name? In my opinion it does not. There are some cameos and allusions to the other parts of the series and it shares a couple of names, but overall they are totally different kind of games set in a slightly similar world. Which does not have to be a bad thing, because each of them is great in their own way.

Review by Underdogs (2015-01-17)

Zork Nemesis is an excellent and atmospheric ‚Myst-style‘ adventure game set in the Zork universe. It is unfortunate that the game is set in Infocom's famous fantasy world that fans associate with a family-friendly, light-hearted sense of humor, because the world of Zork Nemesis is anything but whimsical. It is dark, serious, and full of mature content (e.g. depiction of torture and human sacrifice) that is definitely not suitable for children.

The game is set in the last days of the Great Underground Empire, a time of depression and decline when the land's whimsical atmosphere is all but gone. Four of the Empire's greatest alchemists have disappeared into the Forbidden Lands on the day of the Solar Eclipse while searching for the secret of the Quintessena, the Eternal Life. Bivotar, an imperial spy, was sent to locate them, but he himself has disappeared. Years later, you are tasked with following in Bivotar's footsteps to unravel the mystery.

The first thing you will immediately notice is excellent SVGA graphics and a powerful interface that lets you rotate 360 degrees in every scene. Unlike all previous Zork games, the gameplay of Zork Nemesis is similar to Myst, focusing more on logic puzzles than inventory-based ones. As you explore the detailed gameworld and solve puzzles, you will gradually discover the shocking past through old letters and ghostly flashbacks of the alchemists' lives, presented by FMVs starring real-live actors. Most puzzles are straightforward and logical, requiring only judicious note-taking and attention to clues. The acting deserves mention as some of the best seen – a refreshing change from the usual overacting in FMV adventure games – and make the huge 3-CD size all worthwhile.

Although Zork Nemesis does contain some references to the classic Zork series, they are tangent to the game (e.g. mention of grues in several old books) and otherwise could have been set anywhere else. So anyone looking for the whimsical humor of classic Zork games will be very disappointed with this very dark, mature sequel. But the truly fascinating story makes Nemesis a great game in its own right, and well worth a look by every adventure fan. If you are looking for a graphical Zork game that is faithful to Infocom's legacy, play Zork: Grand Inquisitor instead. Highly recommended.

This review has been taken from the original Home of the Underdogs (http://www.the-underdogs.info)

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