Zork: Nemesis

1996 Activision
Designed by Cecilia Barajas, Mark Long; Nick Sagan, Adam Simon
Reviewed 1996 December 13

Rating +4 Linearity narrow, branching
Reasonability reasonable Connectivity moderate
Difficulty pedestrian Relevance moderate
Interface 1st 360 simple Real-time minor

You are an agent of the vice regent of the Great Underground Empire, sent to investigate the disappearance of four prominent citizens. You quickly discover that they were dabbling in alchemy, and were killed by someone, or something, called the Nemesis. However, being alchemists, death isn't very fatal. They want your help to restore their lives so they can then defeat the Nemesis.

Helping them involves two phases: collecting their associated elements, all found within the temple where the game starts; and collecting their associated metals, located at each of their homes. As you pursue these quests you learn more about the alchemists and about two of their children, young adults, who were mysteriously killed. Once you've completed the quests, you must set things to rights in a finale segment.

The Zork world is nicely presented with pretty rendered graphics, good sound effects, and nice music. The big innovation is that each location is not simply a postcard image: you can spin 360 degrees to see all around you. It's a good trade-off between the 3D presentation of a Doom-ish engine and the high quality images expected of the post-Myst era. It improves the sense of immersion without sacrificing the beauty of high resolution graphics.

The story of the alchemists is told through journals and correspondences found through their homes. You also learn much through what must be magical flashbacks: you touch an object and see a video of some moment of their lives. I found this mechanism jolting me out of the immersion: it was too unnatural, even for the magic of Zork; a constant reminder that this is really a game. It also led to some confusion with videos that represent the present -- or were those also flashbacks?

Aside from the magic flashbacks, the world is verisimilar. The challenges you face are usually natural elements of the setting. There are a few reaches, but there are no eccentrics wiring doorlocks to chess boards or puzzles of that ilk. The background is filled in, as described above, but there is also a bit of a story progression from the three main segments, particularly in the finale. The story is interesting and at times fascinating. it is not horrific or scary, and it is laced with humour, often dark, usually unobtrusive.

I recently played the original Zork trilogy and found Nemesis to be a good match for the tone of those games. The graphic presentation requires you to find the humour yourself, as opposed to the direct presentation of the text interface.

The two major phases of the game each break into four independent branches. The smaller are fairly linear, but three of the four larger branches are reasonably open. You are not led by the nose through the story. The challenges are loosely connected to each other: find an object here, use it to complete a challenge which leads to another object or two for the next challenge, etc.

There are no arcade challenges or clickfests, but there are several places where you can't pick your nose. They're not burdensome in the least and fit in well with the story. There are a few clever puzzles, but most are standard adventure fare. They're all very reasonable. The combination makes for a somewhat easy game -- exploring to find the objects and clues is more difficult than determining how to use them to complete the challenges. It's not a cakewalk, but if you find yourself stuck then you probably didn't see or take something somewhere nearby.

Nemesis is a good, faithful continuation of the Zork tradition. It upgrades the Great Underground Empire to contemporary standards and beyond. It would be a bit of a romp for a card carrying spelunker or Infocomrade, but it should be challenging enough for a casual adventurer.

Beware! Here are some spoiler-ridden notes on the game. They're only recommended for people who have played the game and want to see some of my rationale for my evaluations.

Solution by me.

Related reviews:

  • The Zork Series
    David Tanguay's Game Reviews
    Here's a description of all the gobbledygook in these reviews. It's also a bit of an essay on the nature of adventure games.