I have never in my life received as much unsolicited abuse as while playing this game. “What the hell are you doing” is apparently the default response to seeing this pop up in your friends are playing. People who were perfectly happy to watch me throw my life away grinding Recettear somehow took it personally that I would spend my time on something with such a terrible name. And okay, yes, it has a terrible name. It’s more than that, it has a monumentally bad name, one that manages to capture the whole spectrum of ill-feeling towards indie and compress it into a mere 39 characters. There’s a random object, the promise of time travel, and more twee than a forest of lispers. What’s not to hate?
Honestly, I started off thinking the same thing. The game opens with the rambling mutterings of a professor and his robots then a chunky tutorial eventually instructs you to combine a random thing with a random thing in order to progress. This was dangerously close to yet another point-and-click adventure and I prepped the cyanide capsule accordingly. Fortunately it turned out to be something else entirely, something…intriguing.
Doc Clock casts you as the title character, and the aim of the game is to propel yourself across a series of bright, cartoony 2D levels. There’s slopes and tunnels and gaps and deadly deadly lava and everything else you’d expect a platformer to have, but there’s one extra ingredient that elevated it above that humdrum description. See, you can walk around but you’re old and slow, you can’t manage slopes and you die if you fall a small distance or bump into a wall overly harshly. Therefore, to get anywhere, you have to rely on vehicles to drive or fly you about to the end. The thing is, you make those vehicles yourself.
Your way of interacting with the world is a go go gadget claw, with which you can pick up and rotate objects. Put an object down so it overlaps another, and they’ll be connected together. Stick a couple of wheels on the bottom and you have yourself a car. Add some propellers and you can fly for short distances, which will take care of those troublesome jumps. Or you can wedge a spring onto the base and turn it in the required direction every time you need to make a leap, or glue a handglider to the back to ensure a slow descent. The capabilities and look of your vehicle are only really limited by the materials you have to hand.
To me this is a really interesting idea, as I’m all about the campaign, the combining together of little challenges into one long-form challenge. This is the first time I’d seen a physics puzzle game do anything more complicated than a series of discrete puzzles. Here, you used pieces to add to your car’s capabilities, and those capabilities to get more pieces, a pleasing feedback loop where doing something efficiently or well could genuinely matter, as it would affect the ease of your future success. How cool is that? What’s more, these weren’t just pre-ordained upgrades being bolted on to your flying-ma-jig, these could be placed anywhere, at any angle. Whatever vehicle you made, it would definitely be *yours*, a feeling I haven’t really had since the glorious modular unit creator of SMAC.
Then reality strikes: if you can arrange your items in any order and direction, then a lot of those ways are going to look cool but be completely unsuited to the particular physics of the game. My tractor up there had a tendency to flip backwards when I went up slopes, and I was forever having to tweak the facing of propellers and springs to get around. In a way, that’s good, you don’t just build an automobile and stick with it, you’re having to constantly adjust it to get through the various challenges of the level, shrinking it down to fit through gaps or bulking it up to bash through obstacles. However, the controls for building the vehicle are fiddly for the amount of times you have to repeat them and that curiosity and wonder is soon tempered with frustration at having to repeat the same task. It would have been excellent if you could save blueprints and load them up rather than having to repeatedly build the same drag racer. A side effect of that fiddlyness is it discouraged experimentation eventually, as you stuck to what worked and wouldn’t require you to spend five minutes carefully configuring to make it landworthy.
The level design unfortunately exacerbates the issue. In order to give you the challenge that would force you to change your transportation, it’s generally bad platform design. Hidden leaps, pools of instant death water, slidey icey surfaces, slopes that you just couldn’t drive up, buttons and levers that need pushing and prodding, lots of double-backing, and so on and on. Once the excitement faded I would have had a hard time finishing the game before I had slammed the keyboard into the desk, and then slammed the desk into another, larger keyboard. However, one more last genius slice of design strikes: actually useful time travel. At any point if you’ve fucked up, you can just rewind the game to any point in the level you’re on. Instead of doing it again and remembering to make the jump at that exact point, you can go back to the point just before the jump, and reconfigure the car so that you can make it.
I think that’s great, personally, it recognises that the challenge in physics puzzles is in the beating, not in repeating the dozen steps that you know work before you do the awkward one you’re not sure of. You’re never stuck because you can always do the chronological equivalent of taking a few steps backwards, sucking thoughtfully through your teeth and saying “Okay, what if I did this here”.
The level design is still pretty awful on the whole, but this does a great job of alleviating the potential buildup of frustration, and returning once more that freedom to experiment. You need that because the physics engine is so damn finickity that it doesn’t really cope with the possibilities on offer. And, really, there’s not enough possibilities, the game would be so much better if the pool of potential objects was twice as large, and you could tweak the vehicle while you were moving rather than having to painstakingly park up, get off and stick a sink onto the windscreen. It feels like that would help the flow of levels.
Oh and obviously as an indie game there’s a paper-thin ludicrous plot stapled on top of it but I think in this instance it’s pretty deftly handled after that opening clunky cutscene. The little snatches of conversation between you and your robot sidekick don’t interrupt the game, and add to the flow, commenting nicely on the world you’re driving/flying/jumping through. If you’re interested, robots have taken over the world, go kill ‘em. Yeah that’s about it.
Also, while these were a couple of new game ideas to me I did suspect it was copying something, somewhere, and Banjo Kazooie does seem a likely candidate. Both have a vehicle that you build up to get around a world, and both have a wisecracking sidekick strapped to your back. I don’t know enough about BK to say that it’s a rip-off per se but it was certainly influenced that way.
So, Doc Clock, despite my expectations, impressed me. It’s incredibly rough around the edges, for sure, it needs an awful lot of work to iron them out and remove frustration, it would benefit from far more free-form levels than the linear slogfests it settled on, but the core ideas of the game are excellent. Now if I play a platformer and there’s no ability to rewind time, they’re going to have to have a damn good reason.
3 stars, 4.5 hours spent (campaign, once)