Review: J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars

In 2012 a puzzle-adventure game was released about a scientific expedition to a far-off star system. This game followed Rachel Manners after she wakes from cryo-sleep aboard the expedition’s probe, only to discover her fellow crew members are nowhere to be found. This game was called J.U.L.I.A., and CBE Software seem to be rewriting the past with their latest title, J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars. No, it’s not a sequel – it’s in fact an enhanced edition that has built upon the original.

Developer: CBE Software s.r.o
Publisher: CBE Software s.r.o
Reviewed on: PC
Also Available On: Mac, Linux
Release Date: Available Now

J.U.L.I.A. seems to have been a real labour of love, focused on creating an updated and edited edition of a somewhat poorly received game. This could have been a risky venture, yet Among the Stars seems to have evolved from its original state of ‘enhanced edition’ to become its own retelling of Rachel’s journey and one that hosts brand new gameplay and storytelling. You can’t even buy the original anymore!

The description of Among the Stars being an “interfaced-based adventure game” is somewhat limiting. True, the gameplay occurs within a variety of simple windows that contain the mini-games and puzzles you encounter; yet it’s the attention to detail that keeps this style of gameplay moving. Details as simple as moving graphics that make your probe’s computer screen feel more animated and subtle sound effects that make the interface feel more technical and sci-fi worthy. If you’re a fan of those stereotypical science-fiction familiarities like spaceship blueprints and robot upgrading, Among the Stars‘ lovely UI is the place to be.

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The point-and-click sequences aren’t a let-down either, and it helps that Among the Stars is a beautiful game. It’s an increasing occurrence that indie games are matching the graphical aptitude of bigger titles; details like the shadows and dust particles are really quite stunning. When much of the gameplay involves exploring a largely motionless environment with your mouse, the setting’s atmosphere is very important, and Among the Stars has nailed this; the celestial music and animated sound effects breathe life into these environments, making them a joy to point-and-click your way around. A great example is the planet Ambrosia (yes, my first thoughts were of custard) with its rambling jungle, highways of vines and timid natives. However, the hint system provided offers a little too much obviousness; a bright green button on the top-right corner of the screen enables “show everything clickable in the vicinity” mode, which feels quite belittling to the simple pleasure point-and-click games provide when suddenly spotting that important clue you missed before. Although, when choosing not to use this feature clue finding is a challenge. You know enough attention has been dealt to designing these environments when you’re stumped in the first area.

Whilst I’m not a great fan of overly helpful hint tools it’s important that difficulty in these kinds of games gives way to understanding; it’s going to be hard to solve any puzzle if you don’t understand the objective you seek. Unfortunately, that’s often the case in Among the Stars; an example is when Rachel and Mobot encounter an alien race, whose unknown language is a barrier to overcome. The language unscrambling puzzle is put in front of you without any instruction, so you’re left with little to do but click on one of the options and hope it turns green for a yes. When finally figured out, the puzzle itself is very simple and takes less than a minute. I guess you could say figuring out the puzzle’s purpose is the challenge, yet it feels frustratingly vague in practice and completing it holds little satisfaction. Thankfully there’s some range in the puzzles on offer. The analyser tool involves dragging and dropping items found on a world into a scanner that then tells you any biological, chemical, spectral or data information about the object.

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This little tool is less about interaction and more about reading the descriptions of what’s found, but there’s still the knowledge that important information in the story is gained through your involvement, as opposed to the information magically dropping into your log. These easy-interactions are a nice perk next to the challenging point-and-click scenarios and puzzles.

And next to this are the text-based conundrums – there’s quite a lot of reading involved if you want to get to grips with character’s back stories, conflicts and relationships. The journal entries and emails you uncover are enigmas in themselves, and in a puzzle-solving sense it’s wonderful; paying attention to the hints made by these unseen characters is important, making the story and the player’s place within it much more engaging.
A good example is unlocking Barth Krylov’s datapad early on in the game. You can trial-and-error his passcode until you get it right thanks to a hacking SD card, yet it’s only with the knowledge you uncover from Claudia’s datapad that it’s really possible. It’s even necessary to note things down at times, which is a lovely, quirky feature that makes the game more involving. Not all of the particulars will be noted in your log, so you’ll have to use your memory! Or a pen and paper.

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An issue I found with progressing through Among the Stars was the almost overwhelming names and events dropped into emails and present in journal entries – especially when you’re reading them in no sense of order. Yet this has been considered by the developers, and the ‘Mind-O-Matic’ tool feels very unique in puzzle games. It is a completely optional feature that is essentially an interactive mind-map the player can manipulate and arrange how they wish, in order to understand the progression of the narrative a little better. I love this little inclusion as it shows how great player feedback and attempts to improve less polished game features can be.

Beautiful visuals
An engaging range of gameplay styles
A dense sci-fi atmosphere
A number of puzzles are frustratingly unclear

For sci-fi enthusiasts out there, Among the Stars is a definite treat. There are six planets to visit, technology inspired puzzles and even the relaxing nature of planet scanning, which happily reminded me of Mass Effect 2. It doesn’t hurt that the game looks and sounds gorgeous, too. There is a great scope in gameplay, although the major puzzles unfortunately struggle in that they usually feel unexplained and unclear. Overall, it’s certain that the simple description “interface-based adventure game” doesn’t do J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars justice.

Review copy provided by CBE Software
Official Game Site

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