The year is 2057, and earth is dying. Finally brought to its knees by pollution and misuse, the ecosphere is on the verge of collapse. The prediction is that by 2084 all human life will end.
The UN and world governments announce a last desperate plan: troops will be sent through a newly-built "quantum gate" - the creation of a Dr. Elizabeth Marks - to the planet AJ3905. There, the mineral iridium oxide - rare on Earth, but abundant on AJ3905 - will be mined, and then processed to repair the damage done to Earth. The planet is not friendly, however. The atmosphere is a truly deadly combination of chlorine and lithium dioxide, of which one character warns "it'll eat your brain while it eats your face." The inhabitants are a variety of giant and very much hostile insect-like creatures. These strange creatures are the reason why UN troops are sent as part of the mission. They are dressed in environment suits and equipped with virtual reality augmentation headsets. The suits include a euthanizing device to spare the soldiers a horrible death should they be exposed to the atmosphere of AJ3905. One of these soldiers is Drew Griffin, a young man who has recently joined the UN forces.
Seems straightforward, doesn't it? But it isn't. Not at all... Sent out to recover Dr. Marks after her transport crashed, Drew's environment suit is breached. He understandably begins to panic, and images start to flash before his eyes. The bugs that inhabit the planet. The journey through the gate. People looking down on him, talking about him as if he were disabled. A car accident from his past...
He wakes to find himself amidst trees and under a blue sky, and before him are two women. They share two most unusual traits: their dresses have a natural look about them, as though they are made of wood, leather, and natural thread. But more amazingly, their shoulders support a pair of large, white wings. One would seem to be the healer, but leaves shortly after being introduced. The other introduces herself as Illyra. Judging from her appearance, she must be a warrior. She explains that they removed Drew from his "battle skin" and brought him to this place, which is a house of healing.
But... AJ3905 is a deadly planet populated by aggressive insects... isn't it? Yet the beautiful surroundings and Drew's ability to breathe the air seem contradicts the alleged hostile conditions of the planet. And Illyra certainly does not appear to be aggressive towards the soldier.
But why would the UN lie? And if the soldiers haven't been killing bugs...
Despite the predations of the UN troops, Illyra acts kindly and warmly to Drew, becoming his guide and ally in this strange new world. She takes him first to see the Sayet, a matriarchal figure whose outlook on Drew is both welcoming and cautious, and from there to the council - not all of whom are as open-minded towards their human guest. Eventually the true nature of the UN's activities come to light. It becomes apparent that while the winged people have little chance of defeating the UN soldiers, Drew might just be able to make a difference. At the end, he finds himself at a crossroads, with much more than just his own fate in his hands.
During his journey Drew may at times find himself suddenly somewhere - or when - else. He may relive memories, not only experiencing what happened but faced again with the choices of that moment. More disturbingly for Drew, he may experience what seem to be other realities, most rather less pleasant for him at a personal level; in some cases terribly so. None have the quality of visions or dreams for Drew - they seem as real as a waking experience. They perhaps understandably cause Drew to doubt his own sanity.
The story is easily The Vortex's greatest strength and it is also the game's focus. The backstory could easily have been made into a standard save-the-Earth-in-an-alien-environment story. But the writers here have created something different, something that I found much more interesting. This is a story which touches on some interesting questions: Can we trust those that lead us? Can we trust what we see and experience? Are we using the Earth as we should? What sort of creature are we really, we who call ourselves humans?
As Drew travels through the alien world he records his experiences in a diary, which already contains a brief history of Drew's signing with the UN and the path to his current situation. This diary is for the most part well-written, but there are some minor inconsistencies. Better yet, the diary seldom becomes boring. For instance, in the aforementioned brief history, a part of the story that could perhaps have become turgid and uninteresting is instead told in bullet points, which helps the section remain enjoyable. More importantly, the diary records Drew's perspective of events, beyond the thoughts and words that we hear in the game itself. It is here that Drew records his worries over his sanity, and his questions about the UN's mission. Thus, the diary adds rather well to the story.
There are no real puzzles to be found in The Vortex. There are no alien machines to be comprehended, riddles to be unraveled or strange codes to be deciphered. There isn't even an inventory. Rather the gameplay consists of Drew's choices and the story in which they are set. Players choose how Drew will respond to others - what he will say, even at times how he will react emotionally - and more. Players may at times choose the glimpses (hallucinations?) of other times or realities that come to Drew. This should not, I feel, be looked upon as a weakness, however. It is true that this is probably not a game for those who desire the puzzles mentioned above, let alone those who crave action, but I found that the choices placed before the player nevertheless succeed very well in creating a sense of interaction, of involvement in the game world and of having an effect on Drew's situation.
Part of this element of choice is the fact that there are a number of areas and experiences which are entirely optional. Some are places in the alien world - at one point Drew has some time in which he might explore a little, and which can be used to visit one of a handful of areas, for instance. Others take the form of Drew's visions. In fact there are paths - even entire areas - which may only be discovered on subsequent play-throughs, and more than one ending - although not all the endings are good ones. This degree of freedom can be frustrating, as it can be easy to feel that something of interest has been missed. At the same time, the freedom also creates an unusually high replay value. Players can experience different options on subsequent journeys into The Vortex, some of which may reveal additional details.
It should be noted that players are given a limited amount of time to make some of these choices. Some of the potential visions which Drew can experience are only available briefly, for instance, and in at least one case waiting too long can result in Drew's death - albeit in that case there is very little pressure as the time available should be more than enough.
It is possible to die - in some cases in some very odd ways, and on a few occasions through choices that the writers apparently felt so unwise as to invoke clips showing the writer or director ranting at or about the ending that the player has created!
The interface of Quantum Gate II is entirely point-and-click, and very easy to use. The mouse cursor, which normally takes the form of a small crosshair, changes when passed over an area of the screen in which an action is possible (a "hot-spot"), the resultant cursor depending on the nature of the possible action, and a single click under this condition enacts that action. There is a wide variety of such mouse cursors, indicating such actions as movement, examination, interaction, thought or speech.
Hot-spots on which to use these cursors are in good supply, especially the examination cursor. Most areas have a decent number of hot-spots, creating the impression that you are really exploring the environment rather than simply looking at a computer screen. In addition, such exploration sometimes prompts thoughts or visions on Drew's part.
The movie clips used to portray events in the game and movement between places or views can be paused by a single left click on the movie, or skipped by a single click of the right mouse button. Skipping movies has its risks, however - in some cases options present themselves during the movies, meaning that it is possible to miss choices by skipping through the movies that prompt them, and in at least one case skipping the movie is lethal to poor Drew, as the options that might save him are presented during the movie.
Conversation is carried out by the selection of topics from a short list. Selecting one results in a short video clip in which we hear Drew's words, followed by the response of the person with whom he is talking, and in some cases followed by the appearance of new topics of conversation. In addition to this, some topics or events can result in Drew thinking of important questions that he wants to ask, or a direction that he might want to take. When that topic is specific to that character (or at least to only a few), it is represented by an icon at the bottom right. A simple click on one of these asks its question or takes the conversation in its direction. On the other hand, some topics can seemingly be asked of any character; the icons for these appear at the top left. These are used by clicking on them (the mouse cursor becomes a thought bubble when over such an icon), and then clicking on a character (the mouse changes to a speech bubble when over a character that can be addressed by that question).
Both movie clips and certain choices are overlaid on the main view, and, combined with the interface described above, creates an interesting and unusual feel, which is at the same time very easy and intuitive to use.
The game's music and sound are very good. Each musical piece has an appropriate feel that produces an effective and fitting atmosphere. For instance, the music of Aylinde (seemingly the name of both the alien world and its winged people) focuses on drums and wordless vocals, evoking an impression of Earth's tribal societies. Of particular note is the music used for the "sounding" scene. This has an emotive, almost enchanting quality that matches and enhances the mood of the scene very well indeed, contributing to making it a scene that for me, at least, is a favorite.
Graphically, The Vortex is a mixed bag. The full-motion video is very nicely done, and I found the graphical style to be very good indeed, with a slightly surreal (and in a few places rather hallucinogenic) feel. The environments are nicely designed, giving an impression both familiar, via our tribal societies, and at the same time slightly alien. On the other hand, the CGI used is less impressive, in some cases standing out as artificial when compared to the actors set against it. Overall, however, the graphics are acceptable and enjoyable.
Unfortunately there does not seem to be a save function available. Instead it is possible to jump to a scene chosen from a list available via the main menu and play from that point. However, whether or not the choices made prior to that point persist when you choose to continue from a given scene is unclear to me. It appears, at least, as if choices are retained while the game is running, and lost when it is quit.
I found the characters interesting and nicely realized. Even if the acting is not perfect, it is not terrible either (especially on the part of the actress portraying Illyra, and in the more emotional encounters). Drew's visions both suggest that his experience might be hallucination and allow the player to fill out some of Drew's past by having the player make choices in Drew's memory, a nice change from simply reading about or watching all of the background.
In conclusion, The Vortex is two things: a very strange game, and an intelligent one. Moreover, it is a fun game, with a very good sense of freedom and choice. The story is well-told and interesting. I would say it is more likely to prompt thought through its themes and questions than the average game narrative.
Some might dislike the lack of puzzles - and indeed, this is not a game that is likely to be very challenging to finish, and nor is it a very long game. Rather I would say that it is a game that should be enjoyed for its story, characters, and impression of choice. All in all, The Vortex is a game that I would very much recommend to anyone interested in a strong story, a degree of freedom of choice, a strange experience and interesting ideas.