Anyone with even a passing interest in French cinema has probably heard of the directing duo Jeunet and Caro. The former made inroads into Hollywood by directing Alien Resurrection before returning to his Parisian roots in a big way with the sublime Amelie. After a directorial hiatus, the latter made the underrated sci-fi Dante 01. It's their combined efforts that have earned them their early acclaim with Delicatessen in 1991 and a little oddity from 1995 known as The City of Lost Children. This visually arresting fable even got a belated video game adaptation a few years later thanks to Psygnosis.
Your first impression of The City of Lost Children on either the PC or PlayStation will likely be the same as the movie; this looks stunning. The pre-rendered backgrounds offer a great amount of detail and atmosphere with well-chosen camera angles that truly give a sense of your surroundings. They are missing some animations that would've livened things up a bit, but even without movement, they are entirely absorbing. The polygonal character models are commendable too. Each weirdly designed being is laced with the colours of a carnival, their freak show demeanour ably captured in their animations. It must've been quite a looker in 1997.
Don't hang around too long in Pieuvre's schoolroom or you'll end up in the basement.
Get deeper into the game, however, and similar faults to the movie arise. It is weirdly paced, confusingly plotted and a large chunk of the humour is lost in translation. You play as Miette, a little orphan girl whose name literally translates to 'Crumb'. Your guardian Pieuvre - a bickering pair of siamese twins whose name means 'Octopus' in English - cruelly makes her wards steal for her and she wants Miette to steal whatever is in the cashier's hut.
The beginning of the game doesn't necessarily explain this to you, though. You start facing the eight-limbed schoolmarm in silence. A few beats pass and you'll get your first piece of dialogue; "Still here? Rob the cashier's hut or we'll throw you in the cellar!". Not much of a warning. You're on precarious ground when standing in this room. While you're getting to grips with the Resident Evil style tank control, Pieuvre may get impatient and imprison you in a cell. At this early stage, she forgets to lock the door but it's still an annoyance. You can get an extra line of dialogue from her by pressing the talk button (Page Down), but what you get is more of an expository statement than a conversation.
If the old-school camera flashes in the top right, press the spacebar to see an alternative view.
Eventually, you'll get pieces of the main plot. A nefarious scientist has been kidnapping children. He has this allusion that by stealing their dreams they will make him young again. He has created some technically advanced cyborgs known as Cyclops to do his dirty work, each with augmented vision and hearing. The movie's focus flits between Miette and One, a performing strong man played by Ron Pearlman who's searching for his missing little brother. If you only play the game, however, you wouldn't necessarily know this.
The controls are a little awkward, even by the standards of the time. Page Down talks, Page Up picks up, Enter interacts, Ctrl runs, Alt crouches and TAB opens your inventory. Nearly all actions require you to be in a very specific position to perform and if you're not you get a slow response from Miette exclaiming that she "can't do anything...". Even when running, you're likely to rewatch a slow recoil animation whenever she bumps into anything.
The are many flights of stairs in the seaside slums. Way too many!
Everything may be slow and a little cumbersome, but at least they work as they're supposed to. The problems are more to do with the design choices themselves and that extends to the puzzles as well. From my recollection, there are about five fairly simple puzzles in total, each one artificially extended by hiding necessary objects behind scenery or placing them far in the background. None of them are particularly clever, and some may require knowledge of the film. For example, if you've seen the movie, you'll know that the Cyclops are sensitive to sound. In the game, you'll only know this if you ring a bell on a metal stairwell next to one of them. Without this prior knowledge, why would you think to pick up the bell in the first place?
Instead of plot logically pushing the game forward, it is instead the game mechanics. By this I mean you're likely to come across the random items for a given puzzle than actively search for them. While simply walking, an icon will appear in the top left corner to indicate that an item is nearby. As a result, you spend hours exploring the fancifully designed areas in the hope that you'll find something - anything - to pick up. It's strange as the movie itself offers more interesting puzzles and solutions. One memorable scene has Miette tie a magnet to a mouse to get a key hidden in a vent. No such inventiveness exists here. The closest you get is feeding a sausage to a guard dog.
Sometimes items are hidden behind the scenery and it's down
to luck (or a walkthrough) as to whether you'll find them.
It seems strangely truncated too. The entirety of the mad-scientists lair set on an oil rig - a ripe location for puzzle design - is told in a disjointed cutscene followed by an end credits crawl. This setting is the entire third act of the movie so it's bizarre that we only get a couple of CGI shots at the end. As such, the entire game is set on the docks of the French fishing town and ends just when it begins to get exciting.
So The City of Lost Children is something of a missed opportunity, cut short before anything interesting had even begun. I suspect there may have been more planned, including a traditional point-and-click control scheme but this was at a time when Sony had bought Psygnosis and demanded all of their games to get a simultaneous release on the PlayStation. The PlayStation's controller was probably the inciting factor to go with tank controls too, taking development time away from actually completing the game but that's just my hypothesis. As it is, The City of Lost Children - much like the movie - could have been a lot better.
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 and Windows 10.
File Size: 371 Mb. Install Size: 558 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Watch the video review below!
The City of Lost Children (the game) is © Psygnosis
The City of Lost Children (the movie) is © StudioCanal
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me