The Mystery of the Nautilus is an adventure game inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -- but take that “inspired” business with a grain of salt. Both the book and the game contain a character named Captain Nemo, and they both contain a submarine named the Nautilus, but that’s all they have in common. Moreover, the Nautilus in the game has lasers, killer robots, and a HAL-like computer system, and so it has little to do with the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which takes place in 1867). So if you were hoping for a game based on Verne’s work, then you’re out of luck, but if the idea of exploring a strange submarine sounds appealing, then keep reading.
Mystery of the Nautilus starts out with you on board the USS Shark, a military submarine out in search of long forgotten ship wreckage. Its crew soon discovers the Nautilus, and you, as a marine archeologist, are so excited that you disobey orders and zoom right out to explore the derelict submarine on your own. Things start out well when you get on board, as you discover that some of the submarine’s systems are still operational, but then the docking bay you used to enter the submarine locks behind you, and the submarine’s security system decides you’re an intruder and tries to kill you. Well, drat. But being the intrepid marine archeologist that you are, you don’t let any of that bother you, and you spend the rest of the adventure dodging security protocols while looking for a way to escape.
As premises go, that works well enough, even if you ignore the minimal nod to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And the submarine is even fun to explore, since it has the feel of a luxury submarine from the 19th century (assuming such a thing existed, and ignoring certain episodes of modern technology). The problem is that Mystery of the Nautilus relies almost exclusively on inventory puzzles, and it uses the same sort of engine as many other DreamCatcher titles -- an engine that makes inventory puzzles far too easy. If you’ve played games like Dracula: The Last Sanctuary or Secret at Loch Ness, then you might understand what I mean. Otherwise, suffice it to say that the game engine tells you exactly when you can manipulate the environment and exactly when you can use inventory items, and so every inventory puzzle can be solved by simple trial and error -- on the rare occasions when the puzzles aren’t completely obvious to start with.
That’s not necessarily bad, since I assume people wouldn’t mind playing an adventure they can actually finish. The problem comes in when DreamCatcher’s developers recognize that inventory puzzles are easy, and so they shift the focus away from solving puzzles and move it to locating items. Mystery of the Nautilus takes that idea to a new extreme, and so not only are most objects hard to see, the “hotspots” for detecting those items are so small that you might not realize you can pick them up even if you can see them. Plus, the game suffers from the problem that you can often see an object equally well from two different locations in a room, but only be able to interact with it from one of the locations, making Mystery of the Nautilus even less friendly to deal with than it already was. As a result, each of the game’s five stages goes something like this: spend a couple hours wandering around looking for objects, and then spend about ten minutes solving the puzzles. That’s not really the sort of time division I appreciate in a game.
The graphics are also a mixed bag. The locations aren’t as crisp as they could be, and they’re often dark to boot (the better to hide objects in, I guess), but they are nicely atmospheric. The Nautilus really does feel like a Victorian submarine, and it’s just too bad the developers had to throw in lasers and holograms to spoil the effect. The real problem, though, comes in with the objects -- and I’m even ignoring stuff like having to recognize that the brown blob on the brown background is something you can pick up, because I’m assuming that sort of thing was intentional. No, the problem is that I couldn’t recognize what most objects were. If the inventory system hadn’t provided labels I would have been lost, and even then there were problems, like at one point when something that looked like a splotch of blood turned out to be a metal key. I mean, come on. Those two objects shouldn’t look anything alike.
So, overall, Mystery of the Nautilus is a little disappointing. I think the game would have worked better if the developers had stayed with the appropriate technology, and if they had allowed players to deal more with the machinery of the Nautilus rather than forcing them to construct bombs (twice) and outwit a deranged computer (numerous times). So unless you enjoy endlessly searching for inventory objects, or unless you don’t mind using a walkthrough just so you can find everything, then it’s probably best to leave The Mystery of the Nautilus at the bottom of the ocean.