Back in early 2012 an adventure game by the name of J.U.L.I.A. came on the scene, and was met with decent reviews and even got a few award nominations. Sounds like a common story, doesn’t it? Well, the game was developed by only two people over the course of three years, using mostly their own funds. Not unique enough for you? Well, their publisher apparently flaked on these guys, didn’t pay them what was promised, and tried to hold on to the game’s rights. The two gentlemen (Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek) spent pretty much all the money they did get from the game in legal battles to recover the rights to it. A year later they started a crowdfunding campaign to release an enhanced version of the game called J.U.L.I.A. Among The Stars and ended up getting almost three times what they were initially asking for. Yeah, that same old story.
The main story of J.U.L.I.A. Among The Stars is pretty much the same as it’s predecessor. It starts out with the main character, Rachel Manners, being revived from cryosleep by a computer because the ship she is on has suffered damage and needs some manual repair. The computer, who prefers to be called “Julia,” shows Rachel a layout of the ship and thus you have your first job – fix damage by putting out fires, avoiding electrical shorts and venting toxic fumes. But of course you have to figure out which order to best do these things to fix all of the problems in one section. There are quite a few sections to fix, so this part can get a bit repetitive, but at least the individual puzzles are reasonably short, so you’ll be done before you get bored.
Then on to the the larger issues of what happened to the rest of the crew went, and exactly where you are. Julia is unable to help with the former one due to plot-convenient memory lockouts, but you can go ahead and scan a nearby planet. For each planet that you will encounter in the game, you need to have scanned it, which also means you need to be in orbit around it. Since you don’t know where any other planets are, you need to explore this one.
This is where one might notice the another major difference between the two versions. In the original, there was a little mining puzzle you had to do at each planet in order to gain materials needed to repair the ship and build upgrades. Since you could only do the upgrades as you learned about them, everyone probably did them in the same order anyway, making a repair material economy kind of superfluous, so they did away with it this time.
When you do get a blueprint for an upgrade, you need to make the prototype at the upgrade workbench. This is a grid on which you can place components and connectors in order to meet the specs in the plan. Trouble is, though you have all the components you need, you don’t have exactly the same kinds of connectors as pictured. So, when you end up getting the components lined up in the same circuits as the plan they may actually be different positions on the grid, depending on what connectors you had to work with. This is similar to what you did in the original, and I’m glad they kept it.
Probably the biggest improvement was the exploration mode interface. In the earlier version, you selected what you wanted to do from a short list, like “Enter the base” or “Investigate the rubble.” In J.U.L.I.A. Among The Stars they replaced this with an interface where you point and click on things in the scene, which brings up a menu of possible actions. While this method is more intuitive and fluid, it does have one drawback – your options are determined by how well you you can see the pertinent items. Fortunately, the developers thought of that – just click a button and all click-able locations briefly light up.
The puzzles you encounter throughout the adventure are mostly the classic kind, but usually with some sort of twist to freshen them up a bit. For example the Lights Out puzzles aren’t on a grid; the nodes’ connections were intertwined a bit to make it less clear which would light/darken when any one of them was pressed.
At different points in the story, you can test your event reconstruction ability in the “Mind’o’Matic” interface. Here there are a bunch of tiles with names of crew members and items, and others with past tense actions. Your job is to sort them onto the flowchart to show who did what with what or who, and in what order they did those things. It’s an interesting way to solve a base-wide mystery because in space there is no sitting room where you can gather all of your suspects together.
Although some of the background art may have been recycled, it all got a major revamping in J.U.L.I.A. Among The Stars. The views of the different planetary landscapes are breathtaking. While many things such as the probe ship look the same as before, everything is updated to enjoy in high definition. Many things underwent a significant redesign, such as how Julia’s human interface looks (definitely an improvement).
The music and sound effects seem exactly like what was used before, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they are just as well-suited to the story as they had been. They seem to have gotten the same actors to be voices of the three characters (Rachel, Julia and Mobot), though since many lines are identical I believe they re-used those. But if they did, it was a good feat of sound engineering to put them in seamlessly.
While currently this game is only available for the PC, the developers are working on a port for both Mac and Linux. This is in spite of falling short of the stretch goal that would have committed them to doing it.
All in all. J.U.L.I.A. Among The Stars is a good use of both your 20 dollars and about 10 hours time. It is a worthy successor to the original, but it is a fantastic game in it’s own right. It easily deserves the four GiN Gems I gave it.
I just wanted to add a little more on the crowdsourcing effort that made this game possible. I think it is really awesome when independent game supporters, fans of the original game and others come together to make this happen. It was also because of these people that it was voted to get the Steam Greenlight, which made this game available to a wider audience. Great job, guys! Jan made a blog about surviving the Indigogo experience – it’s a good read, especially if you are thinking of doing the same thing.