Two years before Lara Croft first raided a couple of tombs, Core Designs looked to the skies and released a game with a heavily themed sci-fi setting. Universe took what was learned from The Curse of Enchantia a few years earlier and placed them into a large, sprawling and incredibly difficult point and click adventure.
Considering the eventual scope of the game, and the detailed world-building on display, the storybook introduction of Universe is more than a little banal. You play as Boris Verne, a nerdy teenager who's been repremanded by his mother for spending too much time in front of his "35-bit Excellence Engine" powered computer screen. His punishment is to venture outside into the Winter snow to take some mail over to his Uncle George's house. Being a scientist by profession, Uncle George is even more of a nerd than Boris. As well as shelves filled with invented gizmos and knick-knacks, his spare room holds a teleporation device. Naturally Boris plays around with it and is transported to an alien city built on a mass-load of asteroids. As we take control of Boris, the story gets a lot better but you wouldn't have thought it after that opening.
Released in the tail end of 1994, Universe could not be any more different than Core's previous attempt at the genre. While the fantasy setting of The Curse of Enchantia features little to no text, Universe plays as if it was originally conceived to be a text adventure. Everything you do brings forth swathes of text that describe exactly what you are seeing. Ever heard of show, don't tell? Core covers their bases by doing both. The control scheme is more in line with the genre's norm compared to Curse, even if the number of verbs or actions is confusingly large. There's a seperate icon for jumping for crying out loud. As such, you'll be spending just as much time figuring out the correct verb than the puzzles themselves. That's not to say that all of the puzzles are a chore to get through. In fact, many of them I found highly enjoyable, straining the grey matter in the best way possible.
Unlike Enchantia, the environment is entirely clickable. Looking at the whatever takes your fancy will bring up a decent description more often than not, even if it's not at all relevant to the overall plot. The downside to this is that there's an awful lot of pixel hunting. And it's not as if that 1x1 pixel-sized object could be useful either - kleptomaniacs will end the game with a huge amount of pebbles and rocks. The vast majority of items have no use whatsoever which makes the pixel hunt to get it a waste of time. The tried and true puzzle-solving formula of using-everything-on-anything will become beyond tedious.
The graphics look pretty good for the time. The detailed backgrounds invite exploration and hint at a larger world beyond. The small character sprites, by contrast, are sadly generic and bland. You cannot determine any facial features giving Boris a complete lack of personality. Even the portraits presented during conversations leave a lot to be desired. Couple this with the complete lack of any sound effects (though the music score is top-notch) and the game becomes a little hollow.
What saves the game is how the story unfolds. The opening may have been cliched and basic to the extreme but as you get deeper into the space war that's going on between the Mekalien and Virgan Empires, the games becomes far more involved. I would say the writers took a lot of inspiration from the likes of Flash Gordon or John Carter. If you're familiar with those stories you could probably point out a couple of direct references. If not, you sure to recognise homages to Star Wars, Star Trek or Blade Runner.
Later of you acquire what's known as a P.T.V., a small one-man spaceship that allows you to explores multitudes of planets. The big box version of the game actually came with a handy guide to all of the planets you can visit. It's an interesting and useful pamphlet, not least because it is required for some mid-game copy protection cleverly disguised as a puzzle. To break up the adventuring, there are aso a number arcade sequences. They vary drastically in quality and difficulty but overall, I'd say they're a welcome addition.
Universe is not for everyone. If you're a skilled adventurer then you'd get a lot of enjoyment out of it. More casual gamers will get frustrated very quickly and probably quit at the frustrating timed asteroid-jumping puzzle early on in the game. If you perservere, you'll find yourself immersed in a sweeping space opera flying across the vast expanse of space and meeting some strange creatures in beautiful lands. And also a pocketful of pebbles.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
Universe is © Core Design
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me