To my developing young mind in the 90s, there was something alluring when a game proclaims itself as being 'adult', and not in the Lula: The Sexy Empire kind of way. With its adult themes, dark subject matter and propensity for swearing, the sci-fi meanderings of Divide by Zero's The Orion Conspiracy peaked my pre-pubescent interests when I saw the adverts around its release in 1995. As a fully formed adult, I can now get my hands on the adventure game without the threat of warping my mind. So is it any good?
Adventure enthusiasts will probably already know the answer to that. The Orion Conspiracy has become notorious for being one of the worst point-n-click adventures of all time. It's surprising considering I thoroughly enjoyed The Gene Machine, Innocent Until Caught as its sequel all by the same developer. Having now played this game, I can see where they're coming from. My take on it, however, is that the entire product was a missed opportunity to do something intriguing or even profound.
The outline of the story has room to explore some serious and emotional themes not seen in many games full stop let alone one from the 90s. It could've been an insightful study on loss, grief and the personal cost of war. It could've delved into the themes of homosexuality, identity and frayed family dynamics that are heightened by extreme situations. It could've been about the negatives of capitalism, all-powerful corporations and big business. All of these are part of the story but they're so tangential they might as well not be.
Let's start with the themes of loss, grief and war. Set in the year 2160, our protagonist, Devlin McCormack, has barely survived the Corporation Wars, only to return to an unforgiving world that treats its veterans with less compassion than those from the Vietnam war. Out of work and ostracised, his son Danny runs away from home and his wife commits suicide. It's a tragic backstory, but unless you have the accompanying comic book you won't know too much about it. It's not really touched upon in the game beyond the occasional throwaway line.
The game begins with Danny's supposedly accidental death at the Cerberus Research Station where he works, and as the only surviving family member, you arrive to attend the funeral. Shortly after, a note is slipped under the door to your quarters saying that his death was no accident. It was murder! It might be the clunky script, the atrocious voice acting or the forced profanities dotted here and there but Devlin seems rather unaffected by it. This is supposed to be the major conspiracy of the title and the stepping off point to a large adventure that is to come. Instead, it's brushed off with little more than a shrug as you casually talk to crew members about random topics like sex before unemotionally asking about your son. As a result, the sadness of the situation is diminished.
Later on, there's a shocking revelation that I'm sure you won't mind me spoiling. Young Danny was gay. It's only mentioned the once and is quickly revealed to not be an instigating force behind his murder. Even his supposed boyfriend gets one more scene before he's offed making the entire five minutes of sub-plot pointless. I would say that it's refreshing to see a gay man in a video game who isn't a stereotypical caricature, but that's assuming there was any characterisation to begin with. The Orion Conspiracy does deserve credit for having one of the first explicitly out and positively represented gay characters in a video game as well as being the first to use the word 'homosexual'. In the context of the story as it's presented, however, it means nothing. Beyond a line wondering why his son didn't open up to him about it, Devlin seems just as non-plussed by this as he is his death.
To further add to themes of identity, an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers type alien is unceremoniously shoved into the plot around the halfway point. It makes exact replicas of the humans on board the space station before killing the original. Any potential paranoia, or identity crisis is nonexistent and they appear to be there only to shake up the plot (it has long since stopped being a whodunit, despite not knowing who did it).
What about the evils of capitalism and corporatocracy? The war between corporations is rarely mentioned outside of the comic book, and if it is, there's no real critique of it. I guess it is attempted in some fashion by the fact that two rival businesses named Koybayashi and Mogami-Hudson are co-existing on board. Yet again, their presence does nothing for the overall plot. For a game attempting to say a lot, it ultimately says very little.
So what about the game itself? Well, apart from some iffy design mechanics, re-used assets and a couple of game-breaking bugs, it's okay I guess. The interface is easy to understand, though not without its quirks. The list of verbs are replaced with icons that only appear on relevant hotspots. For example, an item won't show the 'pick up' item if you can't pick it up (or if you can, but is useless). The flip side to this is that if you will peform a unique action to that item or character at least once over the course of the game, such as 'give', that icon will always be there whether you can perform that action or not. More often than not, this tends to give away the answer to future puzzles making the flow of the game rather haphazard.
The backgrounds look nice enough in SVGA with some detailed environments and interesting decor. The downside is that a lot of corridors are repeated which make navigating the many locations particularly annoying. There are many screens which have no purpose whatsoever other than to extend the length of time it takes to get from point A to point B. Dialogue is also repeated quite often, particularly when questioning one of the 20 people that inhabit the vessel who are just going about their day.
Worst of all is the number of bugs and immersion-breaking design flaws. Remember when I said a character will always have the 'give' icon whether you are at that stage in the game or not? Well, in some cases all of the icons are present when that person is lying dead on the ground. Basically, you can still 'talk' to a corpse. And if you do, the game will crash. This is the perfect example of something that should have been found and fixed during quality assurance and testing process. Couple that with some shoddy animations and a general lack of polish and you have a game that doesn't feel finished.
What really gets my goat is how the game presents its story. If handled with more finesse it could have been something special. Instead, the need to sound grown up by using bad language, sexual vulgarity and gore just come off as juvenile. When almost every character you meet will insult you to your face after your son just died no less, you know there's a tactless child on the writing staff. One character even goes into great detail about her sexual exploits when you're nothing but a stranger to her. Everyone is too brash to be believable as human beings, which is at odds with the sensitive subject matters it attempts to raise. It's a great shame as I think there was enough there that could've worked, both as a story and as a game. One could argue that the poor quality was because the developers were rushed to market. Going by my affinity for Divide by Zero's other adventures (all of which are on this site), I wouldn't be surprised if this proved to be the case.
The Orion Conspiracy gives me the kind of grief Devlin should be feeling throughout the entire game. I can see what it could have been, and it could've been great. Alas, my playthrough was fraught with inept scripting and poor design choices. Despite this I can't, in all honesty, say this is among the worst games I've ever played. At times I would even say I unironically enjoyed myself. Unless you can take the 'un' out of the word 'unironically', the rest of the game is simply a tiresome disappointment.
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, Comic Book and Quick Reference Card included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 212 Mb. Install Size: 331 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
The Orion Conspiracy is © Divide by Zero
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me