J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars is a beautiful and chilling adventure game reminiscent of classic point and click titles. Developed and published by CBE software, J.U.L.I.A. takes the player on a journey of discovery, tragedy, and betrayal. Supported by snarky AI companions, you probe the mysteries of an alien solar system and the ill fate of an expedition.
Released in September 2014 the Game’s development has a Cinderella story of its own. An exclusive distribution deal soured leaving the two man development team with nothing to show for four years of work on three different games including J.U.L.I.A.. With few options left to them, the team turned to Indigogo and gave publishing their game one last shot with a very minimal budget $5000 campaign. The risk paid off and J.U.L.I.A. was funded more than twice over.
The plot of the J.U.L.I.A. begins with high tension as the player character, Rachel Mathers, is awoken from a sixty year cryo-sleep amidst blaring sirens and insistent PA announcements. The game’s characters cover the immediate scenario in conversation as the player solves a series of logic puzzles to repair the “Probe”. We’re introduced to the Probe’s command and control AI, J.U.L.I.A. as well as the lander/exploration mobile robot (MOBOT).
The game follows a linear path with branching elements following the initial probe repair sequence and the exploration of the first planet, Xenophon. The game branches out slowly to more planets in the system with progression expanded by acquiring technical upgrades for MOBOT, the first of which is only acquired after completely exploring the ruin of the expedition on Xenophon.
There are seven planets to explore in J.U.L.I.A. and each one holds a piece of the puzzle that is the story of the game. There are two major plotlines to piece together. The first is discovering the fate of the expedition in the sixty years Rachel has been asleep. The second is the history of the solar system the expedition was sent to investigate. Scenes and vistas on the varied planets are presented via a series of static images from a fixed point of view navigated by selecting doors and exit points.
The game progresses by uncovering small pieces of the story at a time. This is accomplished by solving a variety of puzzles. These puzzles take many forms though the game and are varied enough to keep from becoming repetitive. One of the most common tasks is searching for passwords for datapads. This is done in two ways, the first is finding passwords in unlocked pads, the other is using a hacking device, obtained early in the game) to decrypt them.
J.U.L.I.A. keeps a steady pace thanks to mildly challenging puzzles and an interface that assists the player in finding points of interest. The interface and hud are simple and intuitive with very little leading needed to understand them. There is even a running log menu that keeps track of the passwords and clues you need to progress. Where difficulty exists a legend screen is readily available to keep the player on track.
Unfortunately this aid is not available in all instances. As an example, while exploring the water world of Zenobia I came across the wreck of a submarine. The interior is dark and the only light provided is a flashlight that illuminates a small radius around the cursor. The highlight feature is disabled in this room. This left me in the dark(pun intended) and fumbling when it came to the puzzle event for this world. Instead of adding difficulty it only added a feeling of frustration which only increased in other areas where this feature was disabled.
This is not the only weakness in the game. Late in the game’s story you are tasked with assembling a puzzle that recaps the story of a mythic being, Ith. However certain details the puzzle cites were never covered in conversations to this point. The result is fumbling through a puzzle until you either come across the answer by chance or taking the easy road and looking up a guide. Though infrequent, the presence of puzzles like these seem only to prolong the game instead of contributing to it.
Another low point is the voice acting. While the voice actors’ performance isn’t bad, their delivery felt half hearted in several places. Rachel more than anyone seemed to phone in much of her dialogue. Her tone shifts dramatically, with one line carrying shock and anger and the line following is flat and conversational. Other examples include differences in the pronunciation of planet names by different characters.
In the end the weaknesses do not fully take away from the overall experience. J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars has a very provocative story to tell and delivers it in a fun and engaging adventure that not only worth the price of purchase but also is worth at least a second playthrough.
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