For those who've been following it for the last few years, Toby Gard's Galleon had become something of a legend in videogame circles—though not for the right reasons. It first came into the spotlight for being the brainchild of the Tomb Raider creator, but soon turned into one of the industry's most high-profile no-shows. The game is so late, in fact, that it was originally slated to be a blockbuster on the Sega Dreamcast. Delay after delay plagued the game, and many (including myself) wondered if it would ever appear. It has, and although it arrived with a whimper, not a bang, I'm extremely glad that it materialized. In my view, Galleon is a textbook case that proves the phrase "better late than never" to be true.
The star of the game is swashbuckling sea captain Rhama Sabrier; two women, the redheaded magic user Faith, and Asian martial artist Mihoko accompany him on his journey. The trio is in pursuit of the turncoat responsible for killing Faith's father, and to prevent him from gaining power from a potent herb thought to be extinct. Their chase takes them across the high seas to several fantastic islands filled with mystical and terrible sights.
Just a few minutes past the opening scenes, Gard's influence is clearly felt, and grows stronger as progress is made through the game's seven levels. And though it is not connected in any way save for the man behind it, Galleon is without a doubt the spiritual successor and one possible evolution of what Tomb Raider might have become if Core hadn't run the series into the ground with too many sequels and not enough innovation.
In fact, just the opposite of Tomb Raider, Galleon is something of a gamer's game—a superb treat for connoisseurs containing many fresh concepts, bold ideas, excellent challenge, and an outstanding sense of restraint. Going further, I feel quite comfortable in saying that if the disc had managed to come out sooner than it did, it would have been nothing less than a landmark title setting pace for the industry. Don't believe me? Galleon features huge, expansive, and highly artistic 3D worlds requiring thought and acrobatic finesse to navigate, similar to the direction taken by Ubisoft's acclaimed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Galleon also sports supporting characters used in actual gameplay, not just the cutscenes, along with a basic system for controlling their actions. The end result is something akin to having more able versions of Yorda, the ghostly companion that made Sony's ICO such a masterpiece. These are just two examples, but the thing to remember is that Galleon had already incorporated these ideas before ICO or The Sands of Time ever went into production.
Besides those features, Galleon is built around a unique new type of control where the player decides the direction of the character's movement and leaves the details of getting there to the character itself. For example, I can point the camera towards a series of ledges leading to an overhang, and rather than worrying about trying to jump from ledge to ledge, Rhama will automatically grab, hop, and skip up onto the right surfaces and lift himself up in order to grab the overhang, his movements flowing naturally from one animation to the other. This new system, in conjunction with the vast areas to explore, create a fast, kinetic energy and adept feeling that isn't usually found in platform games. Instead of fearing high places and long drops, Rhama commands them boldly and takes me along for the ride.
The elements I've mentioned alone would be more than enough to make an above-average game, but Galleon goes further with level design and puzzles that remain interesting and intriguing throughout the length of the adventure. There's a sense of maturity; of an intelligence and taste rippling beneath the polygon exteriors of the tropical volcanoes, coral reef castles, and shattered cities floating in the sky. Instead of reveling in the usual clichés, these designs strike out in their own direction and challenge the standard approach to navigation and exploration, making me deal with each area in new ways.
The best example of this was a small segment of the game called the Room of Death. Filled with a series of spikes, buzzsaws, and blowtorches, my first instinct was to nail a split-second window of opportunity between the perils and try to leap through unscathed. I realized I was playing a different sort of game when I stepped back and really took a good look at my surroundings. Above the sharp edges and spinning metal was a small cave entrance, and by having Rhama scurry up the side of the wall and crouch into the opening, I bypassed the room entirely. Finding that route was almost as though the developers were winking at me knowingly and saying that such pedestrian obstacles were beneath them.
I have almost nothing negative to say about the game, though there are a few wayward bits held over from Gard's former work that haven't been completely left behind. For example, combat has historically been one of the worst parts of the Tomb Raider experience, and the same could be said for Galleon. Rhama's skills include proficiency with hand-to-hand, swords, and one-shot pistols, but the interaction with enemies and hit detection aren't as tight as they could be. The game also has a bad (and surprisingly archaic) habit of spawning enemies in ambush points, at times even letting them appear out of thin air. Things like this can be disappointing, but in light of how much the game gets right, it's not too hard to forgive.
I had contemplated ending this review without discussing the visuals, but along with its delinquent timeline, Galleon has also become a bit infamous for its graphics. Clearly, work on the game was begun in a different era and I'd bet that the screenshots on the back of the box have been enough to discourage many people who would most likely enjoy the gameplay. The character models and some parts of the environments are indeed very rough and angular, but after only a few minutes I stopped seeing what they didn't have and started seeing what they did; a charm and coherence within the context of Galleon's world that was impossible to ignore. The game is unquestionably well-realized, and regardless of Rhama's low polygon count, watching the captain execute a series of leaps, grabs and landings miles above the ground is a joy to watch.
I found Galleon to be an exquisite experience from start to finish. Its huge set pieces, impressive vistas, and engaging mechanics are as strong as the sense of personality and creatorship behind them. It's clear to see the potential for how great Galleon could, and would, have been had it been able to avoid the pitfalls and problems that delayed it for what is essentially an eternity in videogame terms. It's just a terrible shame that the things it would have pioneered in the past have already been done by other games in the years between its conception and birth. Adding insult to injury, most players won't bother to give it a second glance when comparing the graphics to the current wave of techno-candy and high-octane sequels. Galleon's vision is amazing, its design was literally a huge leap ahead of its contemporaries, and I applaud the work without reservation. But there's just no way around one unavoidable fact—its brilliance will likely go unrecognized because it simply took too long to arrive.