Descending Project Eden
After developing a series of Tomb Raider games, Core Design wanted to make something different and ambitious. The result was Project Eden, an action-adventure game where the player solves puzzles by using four characters. The game had good reviews but didn’t sell enough to warrant a sequel, which is a shame because the game had a lot of potential. Its setting is a futuristic world where megacities and skyscrapers are built to deal with overpopulation. The rich live at the top while criminals and the poor live at the very bottom. A police force called the Urban Protection Agency (UPA) maintains order in the city. My enjoyment of Project Eden was similar to the city of skyscrapers the protagonists descended. It started great but became dire the deeper I went.
The UPA consists of Carter, Minoko, Andre, and Amber. Carter is the leader and can open specific doors no one else can. Minoko can override weapons and systems by using her hacking skills. Andre is a technician who can repair things using his omni-tool. Lastly, Amber is a cyborg that can cross environmental hazards, such as gas and electricity. An opening cinematic depicts Carter putting on his equipment while Andre spends too much time in a bathroom stall. This scene is one of the few that shows the personalities of both characters. Carter is serious, and Andre is reluctant to accept the mission. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see Amber and Minoko interact before the mission briefing. After a poorly made innuendo by Andre, the team is given their objective. Engineers at the Real Meat factory have gone missing, and the UPA must find them. What starts as a simple rescue mission turns into a story that focuses on Minoko and her family.
The four members of the UPA lack personality and don’t feel like much of a team despite working together. They rarely speak to each other, and the relationships between them are nonexistent. The game’s levels are long, which would’ve been a fantastic opportunity for banter between the characters. You could learn more about the city and the UPA through what the characters say during exploration. Andre and Carter are opposites in several ways, but that never leads to conflict or memorable exchanges. Andre could make light of dangerous situations, and Carter could remind him to be serious. Amber has the most interesting backstory that the other characters never really touched upon and has nothing to do with the story. She suffered horrific injuries and chose to become a cyborg known as a “metalhead.” According to the manual, Amber became withdrawn and machine-like as the years passed. This change in her personality is common with members of the cyborg division of the UPA. This fascinating detail could’ve been used as a foundation to make Amber a deeper character. For example, exploration could start a conversation in which Amber reminisces about her experiences as a human. Perhaps she regrets her choice of becoming a cyborg and has to accept that she’s slowly losing her humanity. Having the story focus on Minoko isn’t a bad idea, but it happens unexpectedly. After raiding the Death Heads gang’s headquarters, the team encounters a blonde girl named Lucy, who morphs into a hostile creature. Minoko tells the rest of the team that she had a little sister named Lucy that died from a genetic illness. It turns out Dr. Joseph Molenski, Minoko’s father and a Real Meat employee, has been keeping Lucy alive by linking her brain to computers and freezing her body in a time dilation field.
Project Eden’s overpopulated city is interesting but not fully explored because most levels are set in drab locations. One cool moment occurs when Carter interviews a person in an abandoned shopping mall. Carter wants information, but the man won’t give it to him because the UPA doesn’t help the poor who live at the city’s bottom. This gave me a glimpse at what life in the city is like, and I wish there were more moments like this. Likewise, I wish I could see what the lives were like for the wealthy people at the top of the city. You start in a plaza but quickly descend into not-so luxurious places like Real Meat and a construction facility. According to an interview, the team behind Project Eden’s development never hired a scriptwriter. Instead, they handed the duty of writing the script to the programmer, Gavin Rummery. This could explain why the characters are flat, and the story is forgettable. Designing the gameplay probably took precedence over writing a great script.
Maybe grungy and industrial locations allow for better puzzle design than affluent areas. If that’s the case, puzzles are Project Eden’s greatest strength. Many of them involve finding ways to overcome environmental obstacles such as gaps and locked doors. The solutions are never impossible and often require you to scrutinize the area. The solution to a path your team can’t cross may involve using the rover, a remote-controlled device that can fit through cracks in walls and floors. More complex puzzles require the use of each character’s specialty. One level has a large pipe that swings back and forth near a ventilation chamber with a locked door. One character has to enter the pipe and shoot the locks off the door while Minoko makes the ventilation chamber rotate by using her hacking specialty. The inside of the chamber is filled with gas that only Amber can divert by flipping a switch. This allows Andre to enter the chamber and repair a nearby door Minoko can open. The puzzles that took a team effort to solve were the most enjoyable parts for me.
However, solving puzzles eventually became uninteresting due to the mundanity and length of the levels. Each level took me nearly an hour to complete, and most of that time was spent solving puzzles and backtracking as other characters. Project Eden has a four-player mode that doesn’t have the problems you would see playing alone. In single-player mode, you have to maneuver the characters one by one to make sure nobody is left behind. There were moments when I found a door only Carter could open, but he was standing still in an area far away. You can order the rest of the team to follow you, but their AI isn’t perfect. Characters not controlled by you will follow you clumsily. The four-player mode seems to be the intended way to play the game, but I can’t find any footage of it online. Traversing the long and mundane levels while solving puzzles one after another quickly became tiring. Sections of the game that emphasized talking to characters and learning about the city would have been a way for the player to wind down from solving puzzles. Instead, there’s combat in the form of firefights that drags the game to its lowest point.
Combat is the worst part of the gameplay for several reasons. The enemies’ artificial intelligence causes them to run around and fire at you without any regard for strategy. As a result, firefights become clumsy and unentertaining. Sometimes enemies will run into walls, attack you at spawn points, or never use their weapons at all. Running out of ammo is also an issue. There were many moments where I ran out of ammo and had no way to defeat an enemy. This forced me to return to a charge station to replenish my ammo. The final boss had so many hit points that defeating it required multiple trips to a charge station which took out any potential tension or excitement. Fighting enemies became the least enjoyable at the zoo level. The lighting in the zoo was dim, and enemies kept reappearing. Project Eden’s combat didn’t need to be fantastic; it just shouldn’t have been bad and in the way of the puzzles.
**Plot spoilers below**
The ending of the game begins with the team deactivating Lucy’s time dilation field. This requires the team to press four buttons simultaneously. There is a level of suspense as each character does their part while the level’s melancholic music plays. This is a nice moment but is followed by a lackluster ending. Molenski transfers Lucy’s consciousness into a robotic body, and the two walk away while waving the UPA squad goodbye. Minoko waves back, and the credits roll. This ending is abrupt, short, and unsatisfying because it doesn’t explain how the UPA squad will return to the surface. For all I know, the mission is never completed, and the characters are stuck at the city’s bottom. Ascending the city as a final level or two would’ve been an appropriate conclusion to the game. Even a cutscene where the characters are back at headquarters would’ve at least been somewhat satisfying. A person who streamed the game had the same reaction to the ending as I did. He chuckled and was left speechless.
I enjoyed Project Eden until its flaws began to mesh together. Fun puzzles were broken up by poor combat. The overly long levels combined with the shallow story zapped my motivation to keep playing. The hollow characters and partially realized world were disappointing because they had potential that wasn’t met. The extremely unsatisfying ending made a bad last impression, to top it all off. Project Eden showed promise at the surface but ended up being disappointing by the time I reached the bottom.