Reviewed: August 10, 2009
Released: July 29, 2009
Designed by the same well-known LucasArts folks who created Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and other games under that franchise, Mata Hari is an adventure game based (perhaps loosely) on the espionage career of the historical figure of the same name – a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and spy during the World War I period. The real Mata Hari lived what seems to be a rather dramatic life, and the game, expectedly, plays this up. During the course of the four chapters of the game, you guide Mata Hari into earning a successful career as an exotic dancer in Paris, becoming recruited as a spy, hobnobbing with a number of influential men, and performing various acts of seduction and espionage.
Mata Hari’s point-and-click interface is very cleanly and simply designed, relying on “token” icons for every interaction in the game. Using items, combining items, and even dialogue is all performed using these tokens. For instance, a character might ask Mata for a drink, causing a drink token to appear in the inventory. The drink subject token can then be used on the bartender, who will pour her a drink, which she can then pick up as another token in her inventory. In turn, the new item token can then be given to the guy who asked her for the drink. The token-based interface is very straightforward, and conveniently, the inventory and other interface elements automatically fade out of sight when not in use, lending the game a clean, film-like look during play.
The entire game seems to have been designed to be somewhat minimalist. From the generally easy-to-solve puzzles to the relatively small number of locations and inventory items required at any given time, every feature seems to have been created with simplicity in mind. As far as I’ve seen, it also doesn’t seem possible to actually fail the game, as any potential failures only seem to reset the situation. Players also have the option to enable a button for skipping mini-games that become too frustrating to solve, and if there’s any confusion as to the next step in a mission, Mata’s bosses are usually very generous about dropping her hints if she only asks. As a result, Mata Hari might not be the best fit for someone looking for a more difficult challenge, but it could be a good fit for those who enjoy adventure games more for the story advancement than formidable puzzles.
In any case, Mata Hari is actually a decent game (if a little cheesy and maybe not overly feminist-friendly), but some features could have definitely been better. For one, Mata’s missions really only take her among four different cities, so there’s a lot of back and forth traveling that can get a little tiresome, especially if she only needs to stop by a city for one little item. You can skip the traveling mini-game at later stages of the game (at the cost of forfeiting skill points earned), but even without the trouble of evading agents along the way, the constant travel still slows down the pace of a game that should probably inspire a little more tension.
For another, some of the situations presented in the game just seem downright unbelievable. I might, for instance, be able to accept Mata Hari being friends with Marie Curie (I have no idea if the two women were friends in historical fact), but it’s pretty preposterous that Marie doesn’t seem to even bat an eyelash when Mata blows up part of her lab. It’s also hard to believe in a lot of these cases that Mata’s able to steal the information that she does without getting caught instantly, as she does so many acts of espionage in full view of guards and other onlookers and in full daylight. Those portions of the game could have been better thought through.
Finally, I found the clumsy dance game – which you’ll be forced to play at least a handful of times before the end of the game – rather less than enjoyable, though your mileage may vary. Mata’s graceless gyrations in combination with the sensitivity of the timing make the dance mini-game particularly annoying. Other than that, though, Mata Hari plays reasonably smoothly and manages to incorporate a number of World War I facts and cameo appearances of several historical figures that WWI buffs might enjoy. It may not be suitable for young children because of its subject matter, but families with older children may be able to enjoy this title for its entertainment value as well as its slight educational qualities. It has its somewhat misogynistic moments, though, so parents beware of those as well.
The lush loading screen artwork and breathtaking backdrops in this game are truly beautiful. Quaintly European and peppered unabashedly with the intricate and instantly recognizable artwork of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha (a popular artist of the WWI era and one of my own favorites), the cafes, hotels, town squares, and train stations that Mata Hari visits are so detailed and artistically rendered that you might not mind at all that you have to revisit each area so many times during the game. The backdrops, while mostly static and presented in pseudo-3D (or 2.5D, as some call it), are brought to life with thoughtful animated details like moving clouds, hot air balloons, pigeons, organ grinders, and swaying ivy.
The character models and animations are admittedly a mixed bag, with some animated sequences looking very natural, and others coming across as somewhat clunky and marionette-like. The dance sequences, unfortunately, fall into the latter category, and given that dance is such a defining aspect of Mata Hari’s character; I was expecting something a bit more impressive. Despite all that, though, the overall impression left by Mata Hari’s complex and meticulous visuals is a charming one of mid-1900s, pre-war Europe.
Mata Hari’s soundtrack is also surprisingly superb. With a main theme that seems to echo Schubert’s famous “Serenade,” the soundtrack’s plaintive piano motifs and orchestrals set a pensive tone for the game that fits an environment of impending war. The sound effects and voice acting are also generally solid, though there are maybe one or two more emotional events in the game (e.g., a murder) that the characters seem strangely nonchalant about. Besides that detail, though, Mata Hari’s audio is one of its well-executed features.
Playing at a leisurely pace, I was able to finish the game in about 10 hours, but because the game has multiple endings depending on how much money you earned dancing, how many state secrets you were able to gather, and how much skill you’ve shown in avoiding enemy agents, it has some replay value as well. It retails for $19.99.
Simply designed and well suited to gamers who don’t mind a milder difficulty level, Mata Hari might not be one of the more challenging adventure games I’ve played, but it manages to be an enjoyable piece of historical fiction with excellent aesthetics and a fantastic soundtrack.