Lost Horizon Review
Lost Horizon is a game that I agonized over for a long time before even buying, often looking up the game page and being tempted to buy it, but never actually pulling the trigger. For months the title randomly showed up in “recommended for you” emails from Amazon. It even went so far as to later show up in mobile form on an app store just to torment me further. Point-and-click games can go very right when done well, but they can also go terribly wrong and become unenjoyable slogs if the pieces don’t complement each other, and while the premise seemed interesting enough, the game’s relative obscurity struck me as a major red flag. After all, if it were the wonderful adventure it appeared to be, then surely it’d be more popular. Granted, that line of reasoning doesn’t hold up considering the many lesser-known games that I’ve enjoyed more than popular AAA titles, but doubt doesn’t have to be realistic to be effective. There was also the widely panned sequel that had to be factored in (because jumping into a series that resolves unsatisfactorily in later entries is never fun), a game that sold incredibly poorly if the internet’s near-complete absence of information on it is any indication. Eventually my curiosity snowballed, however, and I went into full “screw it” mode and bought the first game for PC on a whim. I often come to regret impulsive purchase decisions like that, but Lost Horizon is one of those rare gems that made me wish I had bought it even earlier.
The story and characters are enjoyable, though some aren’t very fleshed out
The game begins in 1936 Tibet with a British soldier named Richard escaping from attacking Nazis with the help of a monk and soon after being entrusted to keep an ancient secret out of their hands by escaping with the key. From there, you’re introduced to the boozy, womanizing smuggler (and disgraced former soldier) of a main character, Fenton Paddock, a friend of Richard’s who ends up being roped into an off-the-books rescue mission. This ends up taking him all across the world, which adds a welcome variance to the game’s many locations; one minute you’re combining random items in Hong Kong, while the next you’re finding a way to sneak into the Olympics in Berlin and being stranded in the Tibetan mountains. These many different set pieces not only keep things fresh, but also allow the game to have more of an action-y, adventurous feel to it than most point-and-clicks. Overall, I felt that the game’s story was paced pretty well, though things ended a bit suddenly toward the end.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because in a lot of ways it suits Paddock to have things end quickly once his mission is complete. Going into unnecessary detail about whatever it is Richard is tasked with protecting would ultimately prove to be pointless exposition that’d have to be shoehorned in, and it’d make no sense for someone as single-minded (to the point of occasional beefheadedness, though this often ends up being weirdly endearing) as Paddock to even care. In that sense, I found the end of the game surprisingly satisfying despite its suddenness.
The characters are the one area Lost Horizon could have stood to have improved on. They’re not bad, mind you—in fact, I found them all incredibly likable and interesting. The problem is that apart from Paddock, no one seems to get much characterization. That’s understandable enough given the fact that Paddock is going all around the world in a rush and doesn’t have the time to really get to know people, but there are two characters who I felt could have definitely used more screen time: Lord Weston and Kim. Lord Weston is both Richard’s father and a governor, and he’s the one who sends Paddock on the rescue mission in the first place. He shows up a few times throughout the game, but the last time you see him is before you find Richard, so it feels like closure is missing in that respect. That’s nothing compared to Kim, though, with her being an old friend/romantic interest of Paddock who accompanies him through parts of the early game, only to disappear almost entirely from the story; the two of them have an interesting history and a contentious/awkward dynamic that sets up some wonderfully brutal sarcasm, so I was disappointed to discover that her role ended up being minor and her presence temporary. This was made worse when I finished the game and unlocked the early prototype version (side note: including this kind of thing was really cool of the devs), only to discover that she was originally intended to be the main character. Instead, she plays second fiddle to Paddock, and I’d have preferred to play as both of them for the whole game like you do in several early scenes.
The gameplay’s really good, though the first hour is boring
This is mostly an ordinary point-and-click as far as gameplay goes, though there are periodic wrinkles to keep things fresh. The first and most interesting of these are the scenes that give you control of two characters you have to flip between, including one where Kim is driving a car and you switch items between her and Paddock (in back dodging bullets, naturally) in order to get rid of some dangerous pursuers. It’s an interesting system, though I can only recall three times it was used in the entire game; some more gameplay like that would have been appreciated because of how entertaining such teamwork tends to be. The second wrinkle are the puzzles, which are incredibly rare and range from a simple jigsaw puzzle to a frustratingly labyrinthine wiring puzzle. None of this is particularly difficult, though the majority of these puzzles are clustered together within a half hour of each other for some reason. I imagine that this could be annoying to some, but it bears mentioning that two of the puzzles actually give you an option to instead complete an easier version of them, and there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for choosing the simpler verisons.
The very first thing I noticed about Lost Horizon was that it starts slow. Seriously; before your adventure can start, you have to find a picture of an old friend to jog someone’s memory and obtain their new addresses. To get this, you have to find the code to a safe because Paddock conveniently can’t remember the combination (it ends up being 1-2-3-4-5, which I took as an amazing Spaceballs reference). This requires hunting down his wallet, which requires catching a bat to help the boy who found it, which requires using an alarm clock on a trash can to distract a guard so that Paddock can grab a ball to distract a cat to keep it from alerting Triad thugs to his presence while he captures the flies he needs as bait for the bats.
Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed at first, though the barrage of early busywork was somewhat mitigated by all of the point-and-click conveniences being present: loading on an area transition automatically loads it, you can hit the space bar to highlight objects that can be interacted with, and only items that can be combined or otherwise cause Paddock to comment on them show you the “combine/use” hand icon. This makes things such as combining the items in your inventory a breeze, which is merciful given the game’s nearly nonexistent grasp on logic. For example, at one point you put ketchup on a door knob so that you can smash a camera ad on it and trick someone into thinking photography is banned in the area.
I was so invested in the game that I didn’t mind the bizarre logic or the game’s slow start (which definitely picks up later), though. What really bothered me was the fact that some parts of the game only allow you to perform the correct action once you’ve first looked at an object with a right-click to hear Paddock comment on it. The most annoying of these moments came when I was trying to open an underground door to a long-forgotten temple, something that obviously required piecing together a makeshift key to fit the indent in the door. I soon became horribly stuck, however, as the game refused to let me make a mold of the key, and it was only when I swam down and observed the painfully obvious space for a key that I was suddenly able to create said key by using the exact same method that refused to work before looking.
Miscellaneous pros and cons
To start with, playing as Paddock was weirdly refreshing because of how deeply flawed he is. He’s the kind of character you simply can’t get away with anymore in gaming because he makes a few offhand comments about women throughout the game that are the farthest thing from politically correct, and while you’d think that this would make him unlikable and unsympathetic, there’s an underlying lightheartedness to his personality that renders it more an amusing quirk than anything mean-spirited. It also makes sense given the time period, allowing his character to occupy the same kind of territory as adorably racist grandparents.
Finishing the game unlocks the prototype version, which I touched on earlier, but didn’t really go into any meaningful detail about. This prototype has German voice acting with English subtitles, includes placeholder characters in the unfinished opening cutscene, and only lasts for something like 15 minutes, but it also reveals how drastically different Lost Horizon’s setup was originally planned to be. Seeing how the game changed over time ended up being more interesting than I expected, and this is something I wish more developers thought to include as a bonus.
Then there are the random one-off additions that don’t really make any sense to include. This includes things such as an underwater “breath” bar that’s only used on a single screen in the entire game, something that acts as a timer of sorts and automatically sends you back to the surface once it’s depleted. While I appreciate the touch of realism this provides, timers don’t belong in point-and-click games. Period. There’s also an end-game fight scene where the action pauses and you’re able to select how to approach the next bit of combat (I’m hesitant to include a video, but here’s one for the curious—just be advised that it could be considered vaguely spoiler-ish), with your choices determining how the game’s villain ends up dying. I only ever found two different ways to kill her, however, even when trying totally different things, so this feature struck me as interesting, but underutilized.
Good graphics and music
The music here is orchestral, but the kind of bombastic orchestral with softer sections (where appropriate) that typically drives movies like Star Wars and other such adventurous movies. Orchestral is a lot like point-and-click games in that it’s easy to phone things in and end up with something bland and forgettable as a result, but they can also contribute a great deal of atmosphere and help subtly differentiate areas, and that’s something that Lost Horizon’s soundtrack manages to do incredibly well. The graphics are another bright spot, with the prerendered backgrounds being absolutely gorgeous and looking like paintings, and the character models being stylized so as to fit into the background without either being jarring. It gives the graphics a bit of a timeless quality that’s not cartoonish, but not really aiming for realism, either. Really, the only thing I can criticize here is that the game seems to have been designed for 16:10 and 4:3 monitors, meaning playing with a 16:9 aspect ratio gives you black bars on both sides of the screen. It’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things, but kind of strange nonetheless given the fact that this game came out in 2010.