You receive an anonymous invitation to board a luxury cruise ship… Do you heartily say yes? Do you politely say no? Or do you think to yourself: "Hang on a minute, isn't this like the start of a horror movie?" before running as fast as you can in the opposite direction? Well, our lead character from CIRCLE Entertainment's Parascientific Escape: Cruise in the Distant Seas decided to take the first option and seems to have placed herself in a whole lot of trouble.
The game sees 16 year old Hitomi Akaneno – a school girl who is one of an ever-growing race of people who have developed psychic abilities – take up this invitation and board The Idinaloq, a luxury cruise ship. Not long after departure an explosion sounds and she finds herself trapped in a suite with nothing but her psychic powers to help her escape from a ship that is now sinking. Your job is to help her not only escape, but also to figure out what exactly is going on in what turns out to be a far more complex situation than initially assumed.
Whilst having all of the qualities of an escape game, Parascientific Escape is also a story adventure at heart; the majority of time you'll spend with this game is reading dialogue between the story's main characters, learning more about your surroundings and the events that led to the present day. All information, and even descriptions of the objects you interact with, are presented through either communication between characters or Hitomi's inner monologue.
The story focuses on four girls: Hitomi; her best friend Chisono, who boarded the ship with her and has the ability to talk to Hitomi using only her mind; Misaki, a famous singer who was on board the ship to entertain the guests and finally Merja, the daughter of the CEO of Amabishi International Industries – a major corporation. Merja has a particularly interesting role to play in this story, as when Hitomi first meets her we discover that she has had a bomb placed around her neck, with instructions on what she must do in order to survive. Hitomi's natural instinct is to help Merja escape too, and suddenly the game begins to get even more mysterious. There are many twists and turns, with new theories formulating in your head as you progress and the nagging feeling that these characters were all surely put together for a reason. We won't spoil anything here, but there is fun to be had in trying to work out what is going on.
Aside from the dialogue and storytelling, Parascientific Escape has two main modes of gameplay. The first of these has hidden object feel to it. As Hitomi you will explore the ship looking for clues that may help you either get closer to escaping, or to learn more about what has happened. This is done simply by tapping anything that catches your eye on the touchscreen. Hitomi will either pass it off as being something 'ordinary' or will examine it further, sometimes taking the item in case it might prove to be useful.
The other mode comes into play after interacting with certain items that could contain something inside, often doors, closets or safes that are locked, for example. Here, Hitomi can use her two psychic powers to full effect. The first power is her Clairvoyance which sees you touching the area you're searching on the touchscreen to see inside it. At first the area is completely opaque, but by touching an area that intrigues you with your stylus you can start to create small windows where you find any objects inside that might be useful. The amount of times you can open these small windows is determined by how many Clairvoyance points you have – this is indicated on the top screen. Each touch of the stylus takes away one point until eventually you will be left with none, ending the Clairvoyance round. You can increase the amount of points you have to play with by collecting 'ether' throughout the game. This can sometimes be found by completing Hitomi's psychic exercises, or sometimes if you're lucky just by clicking on objects.
Once you have got a good view of what's inside you can move on to power number two: Telekinesis. Here, you can move anything inside the area you're searching by either dragging or rotating it. Again, each rotation or drag movement takes up one telekinesis point – also indicated on the top screen – so you can't afford to make too many mistakes. In these sections you'll often find yourself trying to remove a key or similar object, but will find things such as pens or notebooks in the way. Working out how to move any hindering objects out of the way in the least moves possible is the challenge here.
At all times you have access to a menu which serves as a place for storing items you've collected, saving the game, and much more. As the game progresses this menu becomes more and more useful – eventually you'll be able to travel to all the places you've been before through one quick click of a button, rather than having to journey across the entire length of the ship just to pick up a pencil that you didn't bother with before. There is also a really handy hint system for if you get stuck. Clicking on 'Hints' provides you with a list of all current mysteries; by choosing one Hitomi will go back over conversations in her mind, or else think to herself about possible things to try – giving you a good idea where to start looking without simply throwing the answer in your face and ruining the experience.
Parascientific Escape does exactly what it is trying to do. A gripping story – albeit sometimes almost too fleshed out - a great visual appearance and a very enjoyable gameplay system all contribute towards an enjoyable visual novel. Sometimes the dialogue sections can feel quite draining, especially if you've been playing for quite some time and enter a particularly lengthy section, as it is impossible to save your progress at these points, but for the most part they work really well.
A must try for fans of the story adventure and escape genres, and maybe a good place to start for anyone else who is interested.