Delayed like you wouldn’t believe, Sentient from Psygnosis is nevertheless one of the most ambitious games ever undertaken. The game is set on a doomed Icarus mining station whose orbit is steadily decaying and with the population rapidly succumbing to a mystery virus. You play Garrit, a medical officer who crash lands in the main docking bay during a solar flare and is unceremoniously dumped into a hive of conspiracy that would have even Oliver Stone shaking his head in disbelief.
It would appear that apart from a flesh rotting disease and plunging into the heart of the sun, you also face open hostility on all decks, plus there’s a mutiny plot on the boil, an assassination attempt on a prominent political figure and you are even on the run from manic security offices with Midnight Express fixations! Sentient has all the plot twists and involvement of a John Grisham novel and is utterly gripping.
Sentient is an impressive game indeed and you can’t help but be impressed by huge polygon characters smoothly walking around with real faces texture mapped onto their frames. It’s quite unnerving talking to each one of the 62 men and women aboard because you know that they are in fact real life people who have had their faces nicked for the game. Another impressive aspect is the way each character (including yourself) changes his/her expression depending on their mood, and so you can tell instantly if they are going to be hostile or open to conversation. This is breaking new grounds in computer entertainment, and it is glimpse into the future.
The space station is beautifully detailed with thousands of different features, and each level is sufficiently different looking to aid navigation. Add to this the fact that as you nonchalantly walk around the frame update never slows down or jerks and you’ve got the recipe for the most atmospheric adventure yet on PlayStation. We already know that Psygnosis can create the best lighting effects on the PSX, and with Sentient they pull every trick out of the bag to bestow the environment with a gritty workplace feeling unmatched by anything else on any system.
The game is played from a first person perspective, with occasional graphical interludes to explain the story, and you have complete freedom of movement; able to look up and down and get into every area of the ship. With so many non player characters (NPCs) going about their daily routines the scope for conversation is vast, and so it’s a good thing you have one of the most comprehensive and facile interfaces yet seen.
From the initial menu of questions, orders, statements, commands and greetings, you are then taken to many submenus containing possible variants. These are constantly updated so that if you find out some juicy gossip about the radiation report, for example, the keyword “report” will be added to your glossary. This is very reminiscent of the system used in the old David Jones games Spellbound and Knight Tyme.
Unfortunately all these great hopes and well conceived ideas have been let down by poor implementation and there is simply no excuse for it because all other bases have been touched. The major letdown as far as gameplay goes is the ease of navigation, or rather the lack of it. Psygnosis informed us that there will now be a map of a level included in the packaging of Sentient and this would certainly go some way to solving the problem, but the fact remains that it is almost impossible to find your way around the mining ship with some of the time constraints pressed upon you.
Although each room is clearly marked with a clever numbering system (low numbers are the inside of the ship’s rings, moving outward for the higher digits), this is incongruous with where the humans aboard tell you to go. Instead of simply saying “Malichek is probably in room 245.” You get the unfathomable “Ah, yes, I believe you’ll find him in the outer quadrant, L ring.” The developers should have chosen one system and stuck to it.
As it is you wander aimlessly around the huge ship without a clue of what to do, and you often miss vast sections of plot because of it. There is also no clear idea of what you are supposed to do, and this is the most frustrating thing. In the end the grand scope of the game works against you, and it’s altogether easier to sit dribbling in someone’s shower than try to work out what the hell is going on. More guidance is definitely needed at key points and an on-screen map would be perfect.
It is also annoying that even when the station is visibly melting around your ears, you can still only walk at a leisurely pace. Running is most definitely called for when you’re being pursued – but no, that is not an option.
Ultimately, Sentient is a brilliant concept let down at the last minute by fudged implementation. The problems are easy to fix, and perhaps Psygnosis will take heed before the game arrives, but I doubt it. You can’t deny though that trapped at the core of Sentient is one of the most exciting new gameplay experiences in recent times. Bring on Sentient 2 – I’ll happily be a consultant.