J.U.L.I.A. – Review

Title   J.U.L.I.A.
Developer  Cardboard Box Entertainment
Publisher  Lace Mamba Global
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Point & Click / Puzzle Adventure
Release Date  March 2, 2012

J.U.L.I.A is strange beast, grazing nonchalantly on the savannah of gaming. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a point and click adventure, and I certainly made that mistake myself, but it’s actually more of an interactive adventure game. Not like Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit, as in those titles you’re usually in control of a character whereas here it’s literally just the screen and your mouse.  I could jazz it up and make it out to be something it’s not, however J.U.L.I.A certainly didn’t do me any favours as a game and so, as a principled reviewer, I’ll be honest.

J.U.L.I.A is a game that revolves around the story of Rachel Manners, one part astrobiologist and nine parts annoying, whiny, and inconsistent. Awakening from some kind of cryogenic sleep aboard a giant space probe, she’s informed by the artificial intelligence, (named J.U.L.I.A) that something has gone very, very wrong. Essentially, the entire crew are missing, the ship’s been hit by asteroids and some of the AI’s memory is gone. This is all revealed within the first two minutes of the game, and so I’m quickly immersed and being pulled along with it quite happily. Then the immersion breaks and never quite returns.

The first problem is the protagonist, Rachel Manners. In the last twenty years, I’ve played plenty of games, meeting thousands of characters along the way and none of them have pissed me off like she has. She is totally flawed. She wakes up from this cryogenic sleep and naturally starts asking questions. Seems pretty reasonable so far. She finds out that she’s the only one left on the probe and that the rest of the crew are on the planet searching for sentient life, and she seems to take offence to this (I have no idea why), basically telling the computer to shove a hard drive up her virtual backside, stating that she wants to leave. Crew be damned! Wake me up when we get back to Earth. The lines are delivered with some real power and you wonder what J.U.L.I.A’s going to do to make her stay.

The computer basically tells her not to panic, and so she immediately calms down and falls in line, just like that, switching from a defiant stance to such a defeatist attitude, as though taking the correct moral path is some sort of burden, which in certain circumstances it is. Games are more than capable of quantifying a moral choice, but not when you’re literally two minutes into a game, being carried by an extremely whiny child in a thirty-five year old’s body. Moments later she’s told that she has to repair parts of the probe. Cue a strop about “not being an engineer” and “how am I supposed to fix it?”, well you’re the only person left on the probe, darling. Based on evidence so far, I think the computer would rather take an asteroid to the face, than listen to you bitch on.

J.U.L.I.A goes on to explain that it’s a simple job that anyone can do, which is met with an “alright computer, you’ve won.” Won? Won? Are you fucking kidding me. The computer’s trying to help you survive. If you don’t want to live, just ignore the problem and go face-plant the nearest bulkhead door. Stupid cow.

Further into the game, your robotic companion MOBOT – who is essentially a robot that transports to the various planets on your behalf, finding things, solving puzzles and bringing items back to the probe – finds a corpse of a deceased crew mate. At this stage I’d already come across a dozen bodies from various planets, some of which I’d searched and some I hadn’t. No objections from anyone. Here, however, he says that he “won’t find anything by searching the body” at which point Rachel pipes up and rants about how he’s “a heartless monster.” It’s so out of place and ill-timed, that it just doesn’t make any sense. Why is he suddenly a heartless monster now? You didn’t object to anything for the last half hour. Unfortunately this petulant behaviour,  or poor character writing, doesn’t stop and what could be an intriguing story about the crew’s disappearance, and the mysterious solar system that the probe finds itself in, is ruined largely by the main character.

So what about the game itself? Is it fun to play? It’s not a question with a simple answer. The game is enjoyable, but nothing that you do is particularly challenging. It either flits between insultingly easy or punishingly difficult. The game revolves around three things: exploring planets, solving puzzles, and creating new items for the probe and MOBOT.

On the ridiculously easy side of the scale are tasks such as ‘harvesting minerals’ to create ship parts and upgrades for MOBOT. Remember the mineral mini-game from Mass Effect 2? Imagine a much easier, dumbed down version of that. It was hardly a Chinese finger trap itself but J.U.L.I.A adds the much-requested colour to the reticle to assist you with finding the minerals. It also produces a sound when you’re close and has graphs to match up to readings when you fly over the planet’s surface. If it had just been the graphs, the game would have been challenging and fun but with the noise and colour change, the graphs serve no purpose whatsoever.

There’s also a mini-game where you repair the probe, which is essentially a drag-and-drop section, that can be played multiple times and has no punishment for errors or not being quick enough. It lasted a few minutes and lacked any form of challenge whatsoever.

The final interaction that takes place aboard the probe is the building of schematics which, it may come as no surprise, is another sore point for this title. To set the scene: you recover schematics to build various items that are needed to further the game, so it’s not optional. You start with the plan laid out in front of you, and so I try to recreate the plan. Except that I can’t, as there aren’t enough pieces to do it with. The guide says that you can recreate it how you want as long as the components match up to the schematic. What I finally end up with looks nothing the schematic, but J.U.L.I.A’s happy with it and so I’m not going to argue. It’s a minor point for complaint, but why have a schematic if you’re not going to follow it? The developers could argue that it provides more of a challenge, but if they’re looking to give me a challenge, then I want them to try and explain a good portion of the puzzles in this game.

Planet-side, things do improve slightly. The story, which is actually an interesting tale in itself, takes centre-stage and you do feel compelled (between the hammy dialogue of each character), to find out what exactly is going on. I won’t spoil it, but it does take a few twists and turns. You visit a number of planets, each with their own setting (sand, water, forest etc) to pull together different pieces of the puzzle and, because you don’t visit these in a specific order, it is possible to experience the story in different pieces. It’s a nice touch and makes a change from most point and click games, which can be quite linear.

MOBOT and J.U.L.I.A take over most of the talking on the various planets, bringing a welcome departure from having to listen to Rachel (has-got-no) Manners moan about whatever the flavour of the month is. It’s interesting listening to the two artificial lifeforms interact as they provide some of the better dialogue in the game, although I was happily listening to them talk until some of their sentences stopped making sense. The majority of the speech is displayed in subtitled form and yet while these continued to read normally, there were times where the spoken word became jumbled and made no sense, and so a couple of conversations lost all flow and I wasn’t sure what was happening. I’m hoping that this got resolved prior to the release version because, if not, it looks very poor.

On the planet, the puzzles do tend improve slightly. There’s a decent one where you’re  asked to decipher an alien language, which took me a few minutes to wrap my head around, as well as a decent search for a submarine section (an essential element of many games, I feel). Unfortunately, the scales start tipping towards being frustratingly difficult and one door puzzle in particular gives you very few clues, apart from a piece of paper with some numbers on, so it really boils down to trial and error or guess work to put it all together. After games such as Portal or The Book of Unwritten Tales, I’ve been spoiled with high-quality puzzles and, while I’ve got no problem with simpler puzzles, it certainly doesn’t help the product overall.

From a graphical and sound perspective, J.U.L.I.A isn’t breaking any boundaries. It looks fine, and there really isn’t much more to say other than that. It’s very basic on some levels, but on others it really is a great looking product. I feel that more could have been done from the screen view on the probe and yet the planet graphics look really good. The forest level in particular looks great, however, and what you find there is also creatively depicted. The sound is a mixed bag of tricks, with some tracks being instantly forgettable while others stick in your mind. One which does stand out is a very eerie track that did creep me out for a while, however it’s overused and therefore loses its impact after a couple of hours.

  • A decent attempt to tell an engaging story
  • Some original ideas
  • A couple of good puzzles
  • Poor voice acting
  • Boring and annoying characters
  • Lack of anything to really do for good portions of the game
  • Insultingly easily and stupidly difficult puzzles

J.U.L.I.A's developers have to be commended for attempting to tell a decent story. I can see the vision and the angle they've tried to approach this, and there is a fantastic tale locked inside this title begging to burst out. The two main things that let this down are the protagonist, Rachel Manners, and the majority of the puzzles. Manners is without a doubt the most irritating fictional person I've ever met in the last twenty years and the puzzles are so inconsistent that they frustrated me as the player. Considering the type of game this is, they needed to shine and they really, really didn't.

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  1. Ste Ste says:

    So if its not point and click how do you play an interactive adventure game?

    I thought this looked pretty interesting when I first heard about it, now it seems like it might just be a very tame version of Dead Space but with a whiny woman and crap puzzles. Disappointing!

  2. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    Chris mate, you’re mental. If you’re surprised that an astrobiologist is pissed off at waking from a cryosleep to discover that…

    a) her crew all pissed off to the planet surface and never thought to either wake her or ask if she wanted anything brought back from the shop

    b) they didn’t bother their arse coming back at all, and are probably shacked up together in an Ewok village singing songs, shagging Warwick Davis in a teddy bear costume, drinking from coconuts and smacking Stormtrooper helmets while…

    c) she’s left with the archetypal soft-spoken computer which…

    d) had to break it to her that she’s all alone,

    e) told her that she needed to quickly learn how to be an engineer, mechanic and electrician otherwise

    f) she’ll end up trapped in space for ever, floating around until she dies of malnutrition or boredom

    I’d be pretty fucking pissed off too, as it happens :D The puzzle aspect though, if it’s too difficult in places then it’s a definite game-breaker. Sometimes the developer forgets that the player doesn’t know the train of thought that led them to create the puzzle in the first place, so it may seem straight-forward to the dev and a total mindfuck to the player. I’ve had that before and it pissed me off too.

    You forgot to say if Rachel was hot.

  3. Chris Chris-Toffer says:

    “You forgot to say if Rachel was hot.”

    No. No. No. No. Never. Not once. Not if me and her were the last people aboard the probe. Never. Ever. No.

  4. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    You LOVE her

  5. Chris Chris-Toffer says:

    Dear god no.

  6. Edward Edward says:

    Sucks you didn’t have fun with this, and I’d have been willing to overlook some of its flaws if it wasn’t for the protagonist. I’m all for a flawed, unsympathetic protagonist, but she sounds way too annoying for me to put up with personally, so I’ll give it a miss =[

  7. JediWoman says:

    Thank you,thank you, thank you! After seeing all of the wonderful reviews, I was certain this was a game I would truly enjoy. I was lucky to be able to snag a demo for it. Let me preface this comment by saying I am a huge fan of Indie games.

    Like you, I found the voice acting to be below par. Something akin to a Sesame Street session, only with a SciFI theme. I had to go back to the reviews to see if J.U.L.I.A. was intended for small kids bc the script and the gameplay are very juvenile. Mobot’s voice acting was bad enough to be humorous.

    Yes, the harvesting minigame was pretty dull. I agree. That was another reason for my assuming this was made for young kids.

    I am spoiled, I know, by playing games like SWTOR and the Mass Effect trilogy. But the animation in J.U.L.I.A. is reminiscent of games from years ago. The character’s mouth moves independent of the dialog. I know that might sound picky, but I am hearing impaired and have a acquired the ‘terrible’ habit of lip reading. It’s distracting that Rachel’s mouth didn’t move along with the sound track, unless that is prohibitively expensive to do.

    The graphics, at least on Salia, were rather drab.

    I was excited to read the reviews for J.U.L.I.A., so it goes without saying that I was primed to love this game. You and I seem to be the only people who played it and didn’t love it. I would not go out and buy it without first playing the demo, especially if you are a big fan of SciFi games accustomed to current animation techniques.

  8. Chris Chris-Toffer says:

    Thanks JediWoman. I saw plenty of reviews after this was finished and couldn’t believe that people were giving it 7 or 8 out of 10. Not even close. I was very surprised. In the same vein everyone’s got an opinion :)

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