Galleon: Islands of Mystery

If Galleon: Islands of Mystery has done anything, it has set the new standard for delays. Started in 1997 and finally released in mid 2004, it’s development period has dwarfed the lifespan of several consoles. When creators Toby Gard and Paul Douglas split from Eidos, who owned the rights to the Tomb Raider franchise that they also conceived, Eidos chose to release new Tomb Raider titles at a torrid pace, further diluting the series with each subpar sequel. Confounding Factor, Gard and Douglas’ new company, set out to make the ultimate adventure experience, no matter how long it would take. After seven long years, Galleon has finally landed on the Xbox, which was probably not even a glimmer in Bill Gates’ eye back when development started. Has Confounding Factor created a new adventure standard, or were they just delaying the inevitable?

Plot was never a major part of the Tomb Raider franchise, and while Galleon certainly is a major improvement, it won’t sweep you off your feet. The game’s protagonist, Rhama Sabrier might, though, regardless of your sexual orientation. The smooth-talking, wise-cracking daredevil pirate begins his adventure when an associate named Areliano shows him his secret treasure, an ancient ship (think One-Eyed Willie’s boat from The Goonies). This ship is the key to finding a herb that grants the user super-human powers. Unfortunately, the ship falls into the wrong hands and it is up to Rhama, his crew, and Faith, Areliano’s daughter, to reclaim it and save the world.

Like I said, the plot isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has it’s moments. Rhama is a pretty funny guy and so is Faith, if you replace “funny guy” with “hot girl”. It’s inevitable that the two end up together, (she’s enamored literally 10 seconds after meeting him) and it’s that “paint by the numbers” plotline flow that fails to separate Galleon from the rest of the pack in terms of story.

Since explorative adventure games were Gard and Douglas’ bread and butter at Eidos, it’s no surprise to see that Galleon is a game in the same vein as Tomb Raider. Whether Rhama needs to find an ally or escape from an enemy stronghold, you will spend an ungodly amount of time platforming and exploring the terrain of each stage. In order to do so, you’ll need to acclimate yourself with a rather novel control scheme for an adventure game.

Whereas Tomb Raider and games of its ilk would employ the standard 3-D control scheme of games like Super Mario 64, or the slower-paced Resident Evil style of moving (left and right to rotate, up to move forward, and down for backward), Galleon uses the oft-overlooked Halo Warthog control setup. Basically, you use left and right on the analog stick to aim the camera, and press up to move where the camera is pointing. You would think that using a style of control associated with a large attack vehicle would be bad, but Galleon pulls it off, thanks in no small part to the lock-on system. When you hold down the B button, you can look freely around the environment, if your sight passes by a lever, door, or item, you can automatically lock the camera onto it so that Rhama can make his way there. If there’s nothing of note around, but you still want to make sure you head in the right direction, you can manually lock onto an area by pressing the A button while in free look mode. It’s a real lifesaver if you use it to lock onto far away ledges. The only platforming element that bugged me at all was the climbing. While it was fun, it was also pretty unrealistic, when you consider the angles you were climbing at at some points. Sometimes it felt like a cheap substitution for the more realistic and difficult platforming parts.

Another element of Galleon that is pretty innovative is the use of teammates. Though they’ll usually just fight beside you, sometimes they’ll be instrumental in solving a puzzle. For me, that is enough to welcome its inclusion. That, and the fact that they don’t die on you nearly as often as they do in Sudeki.

Unfortunately, the combat is Galleon is neither novel nor is it enjoyable. The combat is too loose, since most enemies lack lock on ability. It’s also very shallow, since you’ve only got two attack buttons, and one of them will sap your lifebar. Finally, it is quite repetitive, since nearly every boss requires the same strategy. It’s pretty sad that the same tactic that knocks off the first boss can kill the last. While the combat could get pretty annoying, I would say the enjoyable exploring almost completely outweighs it.

Being in development for nearly three quarters of a decade means that a game like Galleon was definitely intended for less powerful consoles. It’s noticeable, too. The textures in this game are a total eyesore (Hey! Did you know that caves, underwater rocks, and prison walls look exactly the same?) and the animation isn’t up to par with most of today’s Xbox titles. To top it all off, for a game based on pirates, the water effects sure are crappy. The character models are… different. I can’t actually say that they’re bad looking graphically, but the design of the characters in Galleon certainly stray from the pack. Think heroin-chic pirates. Actually, if you want a comparison that isn’t as steeped in drug culture, I would say the characters look like the later animated Disney features like Tarzan or Hercules. If anything, the characters are memorable looking, so they get some points there, I guess.

For a game destined to go pretty low under the radar of the general public, Galleon sure does have some good voice acting. With plenty of today’s top videogame voice talent providing work (I noticed some folks from Metal Gear Solid!), it really pushes the storyline to a respectable level. In other words, I would’ve been bored out of my skulls with the tired plot if the accomplished voice actors hadn’t been a part of it. The music in this game is kinda scarce, but that’s par for the course in this genre. What music you do hear is semi-memorable, though it could’ve been better.

Replay Value:
There are very few stages in the game, but, with the exception of one, they are HUGE. I’m talking like 2-3 hours per level, 4-5 if you want to find everything and get a different credit sequence. That means you’ll spend approximately 15-25 hours playing through Galleon. Since you’re able to jump to any stage after completing the game, there’s really no reason to play through the game in its entirety again. I’d say the game is the perfect length.

Bottom Line:
Galleon: Islands of Mystery is the game that Tomb Raider: Legacy of Darkness should’ve been. It’s innovative in ways that Tomb Raider hasn’t been for years. Moreover, it’s just plain fun. It’s a laid-back alternative to the Prince of Persia games that stresses exploring over fast-paced platforming. Confounding Factor set out to create the heir apparent to the throne abdicated by the dying Tomb Raider franchise. I would say they accomplished their mission. Galleon was a great surprise, and if Toby Gard, now back with Eidos, can work his magic on Tomb Raider again, maybe that series will back on the right track.

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Favorite Moment While there are plenty of memorable moments, nothing beats looking down after a long climb to survey the landscape that you traversed.
Forgettable Moment Losing a sizable chunk of your life bar after getting your butt whipped by the most insignificant of cronies.
Graphics Interesting design, but terrible, terrible graphical execution.
Control A novel approach that may take some getting used to, but ultimately, it works well.
Sound Great voice acting, good enough music, and standard sound effects.
Gameplay This game successfully replicates the serene exploring fun lost in the Tomb Raider series four sequels ago.
Replay A small amount of stages, but they are epic in scope. No real reason to play through more than once, but the game is long enough to be fulfilled with one run-through.
Handicap If you’ve been disappointed with the Tomb Raider franchise, this game will show you that there’s still some hope. If you’re used to fast-paced plaformers like Prince of Persia or Jak and Daxter, you may want to rent this one first.