Mata Hari is an adventure game that follows the legendary dancer (and rumored spy) from the humble beginnings of her career. The game has elements that should appeal to the more hardcore adventure gamer, but is never too difficult for casual players like myself. Given that the game is created by the same team that made some of the best LucasArts adventure titles back in the day, this isn’t surprising. They even snuck in a joke at one point — a dog named Indiana. And I must admit, it’s nice to find a female lead character who seems to exist in three dimensions – and I don’t just mean the graphics.
One of the biggest appeals of the game is that players will actually like Mata Hari. When the game begins, she is just a poor dancer trying to find an agent and pay her bills. We even learn that Mata Hari is simply a stage name that she uses when needed. In fact, she only reluctantly falls into the spy business, and even then has second thoughts about it as she travels. You will see the human side of her more often than not as she tries to improve her station in life. The fact that she’s not always successful is compelling as well. After all, she’s a neophyte in a world of expert spies skilled in manipulation and deception. But with the player’s help, she’ll do okay.
As you adventure you will earn points in three areas: Spycraft, Wealth and Skill. Mata Hari’s ultimate fate rests in your hands. The more points you acquire in the game, the better her chances. Given that the real Mata Hari was executed for spying during World War I, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
But the first thing you will probably notice with the game is the graphics. They are absolutely beautiful. The fashions of the early twentieth century (the game starts around 1908) were pretty elaborate and amazing looking, especially in Paris. Given that your first "mission" takes place at a glamorous ball, this is even more highlighted. All Mata Hari wants to do is find an agent so she can dance professionally and make a little money, though it’s not easy and even she admits that she’s not really cut out for the high-society social scene.
Here you will also find the rather easy to use interface. Although there are sometimes a few quirks, for the most part, it’s implemented well. When you talk to a person with important information, a little square icon will flash on the screen and then drop down into the control bar at the bottom of the screen. So at the ball, someone tells Mata that people in Paris love to talk about fashion. Then a fashion button will be available from that point on. When you walk up to a new person, you can drag the icon over them, which will start a conversation about fashion. Later in the game, much more important topics will come up that will help Mata solve some of her spying missions. If you are given an item, it also goes into your same inventory area, but has a green color to denote that it’s an item and not a topic.
The one problem with the simple interface is that is leads to some odd logical quirks during the game. You will end up doing things like taking pictures of top secret documents within sight of armed guards or destroying a friend’s lab without any real consequences. I was wondering why the developers left these odd scenes in an otherwise realistic-seeming game, and I think the reason is that the simplicity of the interface actually dialed down the game’s realism a bit. There is not a whole lot you can do with simple drag and drop items, so some of the scenes are going to seem a bit odd. These were left in to keep the game playable by casual gamers, so it’s forgivable in that sense, though it does ask players for a higher level of suspension of belief.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a series of mini-games that probably appeal more to the hardcore puzzle players. The one you will run into the most is a turn-based train game where you try to stay away from enemy agents and reach your destination. This is totally taken from the Scotland Yard board game, right down to the use of special moves like the double turn. Basically you move to a new station and then the enemy agents move. This continues until Mata has gotten where she is going, or they catch her. Eventually you will be given special moves like the aforementioned double turn, placing a safe house or destroying a station to prevent its use. The bad part is that these options are on the board to begin with, even though you can’t use them till later. This leads to some confusing clicking as you try to make your special abilities work even though you haven’t yet earned them. Thankfully, later in the game you can bypass this mini-game, though doing so means you will earn fewer points, and Mata’s fate is less assured.
Other mini-games include manipulating electrical circuits, which seems complicated but is actually fairly easy, and dancing, which can be difficult for people not used to quick motions. In the dance game, there are four circles and music notes float into them. You need to move the mouse over a circle when a music note is directly in the middle. If you do it too early or too late, your dancing won’t look as good. But if you do it correct enough times, the crowd will love Mata’s new dance and you will get a lot of money, which contributes to your final score. As these music and dance games go, this one is fairly easy. All you have to do is move your mouse cursor. You don’t even have to click. So it’s not very difficult. Even something like the dance routine of Sid Meier’s Pirates is a lot harder. So I think that even the most coordination-challenged individuals should be able to put on a good performance here.
The actual puzzles in the game are fairly simple inventory type ones. You need to do things like arrange books on a shelf the right way or add a chemical to an experiment to get the correct reaction. The game will almost never allow you to do something wrong that would end you career. So for the most part it’s trial and error, or using your wits if you’ve been paying attention, to conquer the puzzles here.
The mix of hardcore and casual gaming elements might be a bit of a turnoff for some people. Casual gamers might hit a mini-game that they don’t like. And the hardcore puzzle solvers out there might be a bit bored by all the walking around and talking that Mata does, especially early in the game. In trying to please everyone, Mata is in danger of not finding a core audience. But that would be a shame, because if you stick with it, Mata Hari offers a really solid adventure game experience.
And it’s the first game in a very long time where the hero seems like a real person. Trust me when I say that you will really feel for Mata Hari and end up pulling for her as if she were a real friend. And that if nothing else, makes this one a real winner, especially at the low price it’s being offered for.