Famed Science-Fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is often celebrated for his novels, but outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a couple of Twilight Zone credits, he's rarely seen in other mediums. Sierra and Dynamix's 1996 adventure game was the first cinematic adaptation of his long-running Rama series, with only a text adventure and radio drama before it. It's not based the 1972 original entitled Rendezvous with Rama, but 1989 sequel co-written by renowned scientist Gentry Lee...
There's a lot of story left untold in the game, so much so that Sierra originally bundled a paperback copy of Rama II in the box. Details that are only inferred in the game are fully fleshed out there. The basic premise is that you are a scientist exploring a giant tubular spacecraft that had recently entered our solar system. The ship is strangely desolate - a Marie Celeste in Space - with only the remnants of an advanced alien race remaining.
You are a bit lost to begin with. Even though you are briefly introduced to all of the characters, you don't ever feel like you know them. You are just left with so many questions, with very little answers. Why did the scientist you are replacing die and of what mysterious circumstances were they? Why are you forbidden to enter the central hub? And just what is a nuclear bomb doing on an explorative scientific mission?
All will eventually be revealed, but when playing, my biggest question was "How do hexadecimals work again?" This game has some truly tough puzzles. They dive into some serious Mensa levels of difficulty, particularly in the many mathematic conundrums. Up until this point, I was having a nice time exploring the world. Discovering each new area uncovers some fascinatingly well-realised alien artefacts that hint at a deep, unknowable history. What puzzles I did encounter were logic or inventory based but nothing too taxing. In fact, the most difficult part so far was trying to find all of the tiles and items needed to solve those puzzles. Most of your time here is spent on this treasure hunt of sorts. If you're not very observant, it can get rather tedious, but I found it gave me ample reason to explore every inch of the world and truly get to know my surroundings.
Once you've got to grips with your mathematical anxiety (a phenomenon funnily enough discovered in the same year Rendezvous with Rama was published), the game becomes easier to understand though no less difficult. If you're like me, you'll just break out in a cold sweat every time a Ramen numerical symbol appears on screen. Thank goodness for online walkthroughs!
It is because of this that I cannot recommend Rama to casual gamers, which is a shame as the story ramps up dramatically from this point on. I won't go into spoilers though, but let's just say those questions I raised earlier have some major consequences. There's a pseudo-timed section towards the end that counts down in a similar way to The Space Bar - do nothing and no time passes. Do something and watch it drop dramatically. It's based on the estimated length of time it takes to do said action so there's little room for trial and error.
You can die in this game, but unlike some others in Sierra's back catalogue, they're not nearly as random or frustrating. If you do die (which is thankfully rare) you can easily restore to just before your fateful accident - even if you didn't save. Arthur C. Clarke himself will even pop up to entertainingly tell you where you went wrong. There's so little punishment for death that I highly recommend it just for his words of wisdom. He also pops up in the third disc that's dedicated to some interviews with the man himself. He makes for an interesting subject and it's all presented nicely if you can bear the low-res pixels in today's HD world.
Dubbed 'Ramens' by your crew, the once-grand civilization used biological robots (or biots) to run the gigantic vessel. These creatures which are based on different creatures such as a crab, a centipede or a winged pterodactyl, each perform different functions. The crab biots are the ones to watch out for. These Ramen janitors collect any rubbish lying about and place them into the trash receptacles dotted around. They cannot differentiate between trash and humans so if they find you they will eradicate you in seconds. They're also known to pick up any tiles you may need to proceed so a trip to the compactor will become necessary.
The graphics and gameplay are taken heavily from the Myst school of adventuring. Live actors blend seamlessly with the CGI backgrounds and contain some of the best FMV performances of the era. The script, however, can sometimes be a little clunky. Characters do not hold conversations as you are a silent protagonist. As a result, it feels like they talk at you until they're inevitably and conveniently called away when the cutscene is over. These one-sided and cold interactions make the abandoned spacecraft seem even more devoid of life than intended. You can't directly interact with a character, nor can you search for them again once they've left. The only character you can call upon as many times as you wish is Puck, an imp-sized android that acts as your guide throughout the game. He's placed in your inventory so if you're unsure of what anything is, you can just use him on the object and he'll give you a small soundbite. Most of the time it's not very interesting or entertaining and if it is, he'll chime in uninvited anyway.
Despite the immense difficulty and oddly detached storytelling, I was fully absorbed in the world of Rama. The attention to detail in the history and surroundings coupled with the intense need to test your grey-matter actually added to the game, giving it its own unique intellectual place in adventure gaming. Rama is a high-end production conceived by some high-end novelists that require a high-end mind to complete. It's not for everybody but those who like to use graph paper and scientific calculators alongside their mouse and keyboard will lap it up.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses ScummVM to allow the game to run on modern PCs. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
08.09.2020 - Ver.2 - Now uses ScummVM instead of DOSBox
RAMA (the game) is © Sierra On-Line
RAMA (the novel) is © Arthur C. Clarke
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me