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Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life (PC) artwork

Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life (PC) review

"The Tree of Life lays the groundwork for an interesting revelation, keeps you busy with roundabout nonsense, and then glosses over the juiciest part. When the time comes to reveal true identities and lay motivations bare, the conspirators drone on with obtuse conversations that fail to explain the whole truth of the matter."

As a bright, meticulous, and beautiful archaeologist, Sylvie Leroux shouldn't have any trouble securing a job. Yet she can't seem to find gainful employment until someone else kicks the bucket. In her first adventure, The Scorpio Ritual, she stepped in for her uncle, who was racing against the Church to uncover a powerful religious artifact. Now, in Chronicles of Mystery: The Tree of Life, Sylvie usurps the work of another historian, one who died under suspicious circumstances just as he began the analysis of an ancient chest...

You'll quickly discover that this chest is the first step along the path to the Tree of Life, the Fountain of Youth once sought by Ponce de Leon. Naturally, Sylvie isn't the sole seeker of this tremendous treasure. She's led along by an extremely wealthy, but even more paranoid, benefactor; he feeds her just enough information to keep her useful. And she's trailed by a trio of sinister masqueraders who seem to leave death in their wake. It's an interesting predicament. Sylvie can't trust anyone.

The tension grows along with the body count at every one of Sylvie's exotic stops. Like the first game, The Tree of Life excels in showing off European scenery, and this time it extends around the globe. Beginning in a seaside castle in France, the action quickly shifts to the romantic canals of Venice. Then it's onto the colorful back alleys and open-air markets of Cairo, before escaping to a sleepy port town on Gibraltar. Finally, Sylvie finds a way to travel across the Atlantic and into the dense jungle of an uncharted isle. Each location evokes a unique charm, its own flavor of danger and suspense.

Of course, you're not playing simply to admire the surroundings; you must also scour it for clues. The Tree of Life is a graphic adventure game, full of brain-teasing obstacles. Some of these are traditional problems, like combination locks and sliding tiles. Most, though, are inventory puzzles; you have to collect items – basically any objects that can be handled – then find a use for them. The whole first level makes Sylvie look like a desperate office tech as she scrambles to find ink and other substitute parts for the copier and printer.

As The Tree of Life progresses, these tasks become more complex, for items must be combined with each other and the environment to find a solution. However, the reasoning suffers from an even split between satisfying analysis and extreme leaps that stretch the bounds of logic. For example, there's a point where Sylvie must meet with an anonymous contact, and her only clue to the address is contained within an old chronometer. First, though, she has to evade a suspicious person on her tail and find a way to commandeer a gondola. For the solution, you must utilize a cheap plastic mask, a flare, a pair of scissors, a paper shredder, an empty champagne bottle, a tablecloth, and some curtains... just to start. (And if you can't manage, a handy walkthrough is actually included on the game disc.) However, when it comes to deciphering Sylvie's final destination, potentially a more reasoned and interesting challenge, the heroine has figured that part out for herself.

That behavior is indicative of how The Tree of Life tells its story as well. It lays the groundwork for an interesting revelation, keeps you busy with roundabout nonsense, and then glosses over the juiciest part. The climax serves as the perfect illustration. All the major players are present, face-to-face in a life or death showdown. It's the time to reveal true identities and lay motivations bare. Except the conspirators drone on with obtuse conversations that fail to explain the whole truth of the matter.

Even the characters seem bored with the affair. The Tree of Life uses 3-D models that appear lifelike, but don't behave that way. Each person has a static expression along with a single repetitive gesture. In this climactic scene, one conspirator brandishes a gun, but the villain still dodders about in the usual way, cutting an entirely nonthreatening profile. The rest of the group certainly agrees with that assessment, continuing to casually sway, fear never gracing their faces. Given the surreal behavior, it's easy for Sylvie to escape, but the ultimate fate of everyone else is left up in the air. Perhaps they're set to return in a sequel.

That's an unlikely plan, however, since The Scorpio Ritual suffered from the same vacuous endgame. Plus, I'm not sure the series' creators have confidence another adventure will materialize. There's a scene in the game where a murder occurs at a book signing held for Sylvie. Afterwards, she has an odd conversation with an inebriated couple; they speculate the assassin could be a disgruntled reviewer, targeting her because he's unhappy with her story. If that's a parallel to critiques of this title, though, I'm willing to grant Sylvie a brief stay of execution. Her games have interesting beginnings, exciting atmospheres, and puzzles that keep you occupied. If Chronicles of Mystery could come up with a complete ending, then Ms. Leroux could live a long life.


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Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (March 23, 2010)

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