|Release Date:||Apr, 1997|
Sentient is an interesting, albeit quirky game released for the PC and Playstation. It’s certainly a high-concept title – its developer has taken a huge risk by centralizing the gameplay around a system that has never been thoroughly tried before. In this case, the game features character-driven gameplay, and an extensive dialogue structure, which allows you to interact realistically with the AI in the game. If it worked well, you might have heard more about the game. As it stands, it’s an interesting little science project, and not a great deal more.
Sentient takes place in the far future, where the galaxy is running dangerously low on resources. The centralized government takes a gamble on mining “kenyons,” a form of potent energy found only inside a unique and distant sun. They hastily construct a scientific and mining station in its orbit to research these kenyons, while at the same time, recklessly scoop them up in vast quantities. The station’s name is Icarus. Icarus, as you will recall, died when he flew too close the sun. I think you can see where this is going.
The station is rapidly becoming a disaster, as a mystery plague sweeps through the crew. However, radical discoveries are also being made, and the political ramifications of keeping the station afloat make abandoning it an impossibility. Enter your character, a first-rate doctor named Garrit Sherova. You’re assigned to fly to the Icarus and assist the station’s medical team with researching the plague and finding a cure.
This is all well and good, but things turn quickly south before you even get the opportunity to investigate your first patient. Political intrigue is rampaging through the station faster than any virus. As you arrive, the captain has been murdered, and martial law declared. A senior Senator is visiting the station on an inspection tour, and is threatened by an assassin who may have slipped on board. Solar flares are constantly rocking the station, leading to dangerous radiation leaks and equipment failure. The medics think the scientists are holding back information. The engineers think the medics are experimenting on them. You’re having weird-ass waking dreams of your dead wife. And finally, as your ship comes in for a landing it takes a nasty spill and leaves you the only survivor, with a bucketful of questions from security that you can’t answer. As a newcomer, getting anyone on the station to trust you will be quite a chore.
This is where the game is supposed to woo you with its realistic character AI. There are 60 or so individual characters throughout the station, all with names, agendas, and opinions of each other; all going about their business. They will work, they will eat, they will retire to their quarters to rest. You can insult them, praise them, ask them business-related questions, make statements, ask questions about their status, ask locations of people and places, ask them about the weather; you get the idea. I’m not about to count, and the game documents don’t offer a clear number, but there are probably close to a hundred conversation options in total, including all the variations of who and what you can ask about. You can even change the delivery of your lines from levels of cheerful and angry, supposedly allowing you to intimidate passive characters, or suck up to aggressive ones.
This looks pretty good on paper, but it fails for two practical reasons. The most major problem is that, to allow you this freedom of dialogue, you must navigate through a labyrinthine menu system. Simple choices like “Ask” branch off into trees like “Ask about __” which branch into people, places, and items, which further branch into breakdowns by station level or crew affiliation, which finally break down into a list of the actual items you’ve overheard in conversations. When you’re having to hunt through menus, it takes nearly a full minute to construct a complete sentence, with more minutes for however many follow-up questions are required. The entire game is timed, and you will be in quite a rush toward the end, so stumbling through to create “Where is the medical level shield override?” while klaxons wail and the station tears itself apart, makes things vastly more frustrating than they should be.
To be fair, there’s no way to give the player the level of interaction the game allows without having a menu system like this. Even having something that auto-completes, based on what the program guesses you’re looking for, would end up being counter-productive. The only way the game could have had a friendlier interface would be to have an intelligent text parser, where you type in sentences instead of building them in a menu. I don’t really know why this path wasn’t taken, except that perhaps parser technology wasn’t good enough yet, in the designers’ opinion, or they felt you’d forget all of the many commands and items you could rap with other characters about.
The other reason this system fails is that it never has quite the effect it is supposed to have. You can insult someone all day, but they’ll never refuse to help you, walk away, or appear to permanently change their lasting opinion of you. You can ask what someone thinks of someone else, and they will tell you how much they hate them one time, then say “I have no opinion of them” if you ask again right away. The mood change feature appears to be a gimmick, and doesn’t really seem to work well, if at all. You can go through the entire game with the same neutral delivery. Other characters don’t seem to respond to emotion changes, except to scowl or smile when giving their response, then immediately return to their previous face and attitude.
Again, the entire game is built around this dialogue system. Every activity is designed to have you make use of it, and you absolutely cannot beat the game without conversing with characters. So although there is some exploration for items, most of the time you’ll simply be moving from one person to the next, asking where an item is, or who knows where the item is. None of the doors are marked except by numeric code, so to find a location, you HAVE to ask someone. The characters have mostly distinct faces, but if you haven’t met someone yet, you’ll have to ask their name, or ask another character where or who they are. Sure, it’s realistic, but the dialogue trees and menus are simply too clunky to support, essentially, every piece of the gameplay.
As said before, the game is timed, but you’ll never know precisely how much time you have. Instead, you have very strict limits in which to complete small, crucial tasks. These are things like raising solar shields, or stopping a radiation leak. It’s also no big spoiler to say that the station is dropping its orbit into the sun, so you’ll eventually have to work the station to buy yourself some time. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide whether to save yourself, others, or go down a third, extensively wackier path. Curiously, you’ll never once treat or examine a patient with the disease you were sent to the station to cure. That shows just how numerous and severe the plot twists in this game are – you don’t even DO what it says on the case that you’re going to be doing.
Making matters worse is that Sentient is a fairly ugly game. Everything is in full 3-D, with textured polygons for all characters and environments. However, the game was made just a little too early into the creation of 3-D engines, and suffers as a result. Characters have rather distinctive faces, which you have to be right next to them to see. Otherwise, the polygons kind of shift and blur together. The station’s hallways are devoid of detail, and there are about five different rooms per level that get shuffled around to make new rooms. Equipment all have lengthy descriptions of their unique purposes, but look exactly the same, and generally can’t be used by you. You’re also kept to a very slow walking and turning speed, which works to the benefit of the engine, as it already blurs considerably at distances. Polygons further dance about and warp when you turn. Amazingly, the Playstation version actually looks better than the PC version, and that’s when you know you’re in trouble. The engine just barely gets the job done, and the game probably would have benefited from simply using sprites, instead of trying to be cutting edge.
There are a few good cutscenes, though, that do a good job of cluing you in on the game’s underlying, and totally nut-job plot. I won’t give anything away, except to say that even The Outer Limits never got this ludicrous. The sounds are best in these rendered movies, with decent enough voice acting. In-game, all voices are shown through text bubbles, with no spoken speech. Effects are limited to Buck Rogers beeps and clicks for equipment, and an overall hum throughout the station. Crashing noises of solar flares and warning alarms also make frequent appearances. Controlling the game is, unfortunately, about as awkward as trying to navigate the menu. You must stop and hit a “cursor” toggle anytime you want to interact with an item in the world. With the cursor active, you stand stock still, and your movement keys control the cursor. You can also control the cursor with your mouse, but your mouse cannot control your movement, or cycle through the dialogue menus. If you go this route, you must take a hand off the keyboard every time, move it to the mouse, and then back. You can imagine how frustrating this can get.
There are sections toward the beginning and middle of the game, where the time limits are lengthy and you don’t have the safety of the station weighing on your shoulders, where the game can actually be interesting. The conversation system can be amusing when you’re not rushing against some deadline, and there’s plenty of intrigue and conflict to uncover across the vast decks and rooms. If they’d focused more on these adventure sections than trying to rush to the next action scene, Sentient might have fared better overall. Unfortunately, the game is an interesting experiment bogged down by poor execution.
Offers some the most advanced character interaction ever, and a large and realistically-detailed station ripe for exploration.
Terrible controls and dialogue system, annoying time limits serve to drag the game down rather than keep things intense.