The history of The Mysterious Cities of Gold is pretty wild. When the French-Japanese animated series ended its first run in 1983, the Famicom hadn’t even premiered in Japan. Fast forward about 30 years, and now not only has the show picked up where it left off, it’s even following in the tried and true tradition of video game tie-ins — and, unlike many other examples, its first attempt is a decent puzzle adventure.
Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths follows the main characters of Esteban, Zia, and Tao through the second season of the show as they search for the next City of Gold in China. A fully single-player affair, each level involves switching between the three children and their special abilities in order to navigate the typically large layouts, solve puzzles, and open the way to the exit. Esteban, the leader, can activate special sun switches with his medallion. Zia can squeeze through cracks in doors and walls where the others can’t go. Tao, a descendent of the Mu civilization, can decipher clues provided in ancient writings and send his adorably fluffy parrot, Kokapetl, to snag keys from guards.
You read that right — in addition to solving puzzles, the game includes a mild stealth element by requiring the children avoid guards that are stationed in most levels. The mechanic is more Looney Toons than Splinter Cell, however, as guards will only capture a character if he or she remains in their line of sight too long, as represented by a dotted line that grows solid. They never give actual chase, so scampering behind a wall or even diving into a barrel directly in front of a guard will cause them to look around confused for a second before wandering off, Slowpoke-like, back on their route. If you do happen to be captured by a guard, there is no real penalty — you are simply sent back to shortly before when you were captured.
The guards — like everything else in Secret Paths, for that matter — never feel like a genuine threat, but those who seek full completion of the game will still want to be careful. There are three optional challenges in each level: getting captured less than a set number of times, finishing the level within a set amount of time, and finding all the parchments before exiting. Getting captured will hurt your chances of completing the first two goals, while planning in advance is sometimes necessary for collecting all the parchments, as some can only be picked up by a specific character. You are able to move the camera over a level at any time to plot a route, although you may need to balance this action with how much challenge time you have remaining. Even with how relatively easy many of the puzzles are, there are still times you may escape a level with only a few seconds left (which feels rewarding) or go way over (which feels embarrassing). Levels also contain hidden chests that unlock illustrations, giving you yet another thing to ponder either going after or ignoring in lieu of the other challenges the first time you play.
It will be difficult to blame the controls for any missed goals, as Secret Paths provides very smooth options for both touch and traditional play. Characters respond immediately regardless of either control option and it is easy to switch from one to another. It is also clear that animation was a priority, as all characters move fluidly and the levels themselves, although a bit static, exude an artistic style that matches well with the show and are just pleasant to look at. The music, while not catchy, is a nice mix of swelling, exotic fanfares and peaceful Eastern melodies that lend themselves well to the copious amounts of thinking and sneaking on offer.
With all the beauty, it is somewhat a pity that the puzzles don’t seem to show much variety. The same kinds of pressure plates, buttons, items and switches will appear in every level, regardless of whether it takes place in an ancient cave or a luxurious palace. While the difficulty and complexity do slowly rise through the game, it still feels like you are trying to find the right combinations or moving the same objects around to open the right doors.
Potentially most exciting to fans, the game’s cutscenes are composed of footage from the current season of the show and look great on the Wii U, even if the English voice acting falters in places. Those who are not familiar into the series will likely have difficulty keeping up with the story arc as it is presented here. Each cutscene is played fast and quick with just about no explanation of who most characters are — think trying to understand a show by viewing only the recap of each previous episode. Options to view the backstory or character profiles would have been appreciated, but at least the game itself requires none of this knowledge to play.
Another blessing (or curse, depending on how you look at it) regarding the cutscenes is that levels will not open until after their respective episodes are broadcast. The copy of Secret Paths we had for review stopped at level 20 of at least 30 levels, with the rest said to automatically arrive at the end of the season. This is good if you want to avoid spoilers, but less positive if you just want to play the game. Hopefully, these levels will also hide new types of puzzles.
The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths does not offer a great deal in terms of challenge or variety, but what it does provide comes in a beautiful package that is easy and intuitive to work with. It’s a viable, appealing option for younger and less experienced players, and a practical no-brainer for long-time fans of the classic TV show. Those looking for something deeper may feel like they're heading down the wrong path with this title, but it's still worth investigating.