ADVENTURE SANDWICH TRIPLE
It’s been a quiet month and a half at The Challenge ™, with the unfortunate realities of work being pretty tough curtailing my ability to play games for hours and hours and write about them in a sort of formulaic way for hours and hours. I had a few games played but not written up, and I thought I’d bundle them all together in this immense and exciting single update.
There are sensible reasons for doing this, chief amongst them being the fact that these three games all tread over the same well-travelled path of the three to four hour indie adventure game template. Two are by Telltale (I have nearly defeated you, Telltale Everything Pack!) and one isn’t. If you fancy getting involved in this interactive buffet of reviews, try and guess which one is not Telltale. Write your answer down in a sealed envelope and send it to me, and I’ll tell you if you’re right.
54: Jolly Rover
Jolly Rover contains the worst line of dialogue I’ve ever seen in a game*. Upon gazing at a nearby fort, our heroic dog says “I’d say that was well FORT-ified, but then I’d be PUN-ished”. It’s got those capitals written into it an’ all. There is an important gap between so-bad-it’s-good and so-bad-it’s-terrible that this plunges headlong across, scattering fruit stalls and stacked boxes, and I feel compelled to share it with you.
Mainly, the game can be described as “What if Monkey Island was dogs?”, and I’m sure it is intended as a sort of toast to that colossus of adventuring. Nearly everything that is plot, puzzle or character has been lifted from that series and given four legs and a tail, and this isn’t a terrible idea. Earlier in the year I played Ben There, Dan That which played well with the general tropes of LucasArts Adventures, was funny, and added enough original ideas to make it distinct. You have to tread carefully, though, especially with such a great source, and swapping people for canines doesn’t really cut it. It’s more like dancing a hornpipe on its grave in huge ill-fitting boots.
I say nearly everything because it was decided that one thing Monkey Island was missing was hidden object sweeping. To me, hidden object sweeping is bizarre, it’s like stumbling across a functioning society that never invented the wheel. It’s bringing the hot, unadulterated pleasures of spot the difference into the 21st century when nobody wanted that to happen. And yet Steam is littered with franchises based upon that single mechanic, so they are obviously successful enough. Anyway, Jolly Rover presumably wanted a slice of that delicious money pie, so as well as picking up objects that you can actually use, you click absolutely everything to randomly find collectibles: crackers, coins and bits of flag. The crackers can be fed to your parrot for hints (which is a nice kid-friendly approach), but the coins and bits of flag just tally up to unlockables. Collect the full flag and you get a concept art sketch! I love the fact that the game seems uneasy with this too, with your character exclaiming seventy variations on “I don’t know why there are crackers here!” as his doggy brain begins to crumble.
And then, on top of that you have a points system, where every time you click on an object, or find an item, or talk to somebody, or complete a puzzle, you get points! And what do points mean? Ranks! You, sir, are dealing with a slippery sea turtle! It just feels like they’re piling more and more stuff onto the visual side to disguise the game. They’re distractions, but again, maybe it’s aimed at kids and that’s a good idea.
The puzzles are…mostly standard Adventure Game puzzles. I dunno, maybe this is an expression of the intellectual bankruptcy of adventure gaming in general? There’s only so many puzzles to go around, only so many new and exciting ways that objects can be combined. There’s a bit where you use a compass-thing to chart a course through a cave, a bit where you combine various things using a recipe. They’ve even managed to fit in some of the Cardinal Puzzles, the ones that go inside crackers and in the back of maths textbooks marked as “fun with numbers”. They’ve got the one with two different water jugs and you’ve got to use them to get exactly one litre. Oh god let’s just get Towers of Hanoi out while we’re here.
Well that’s not quite being fair, I think my note of praise for this game is going to be for the way they implemented a voodoo system, a collection of spells that you gradually cobble together to solve things in a way which isn’t just “access inventory, plug things in other things”. You get a sheet of possible symbols, you know the spells are going to be four actions from that sheet, but you’ve got to observe other people doing them, or infer them from statues, or realise that if you do a spell backwards it has the opposite effect. They weren’t overused and they were reasonably clever in their use, so well done for that.
So far, so alright, then. A little derivative, sure, a little overenthusiastic in adding shit in, but basically fine. Here’s my problem though: the game is utterly joyless. This is a two-man job, with the voice artists and writers putting in sterling shifts to ensure that you realise this is a serious dog pirate adventure. Leading dog James Rover is the worst culprit, delivering his lines like a recovering alcoholic telling of how he was before he sobered up, all careful delivery and regrets, but with the lines he has, there’s not much he can do. You spend the whole game listening to his earnest, clipped diction, waiting for something to happen. Characters are cardboard cutouts to fit the plot. There’s no wit, no zip, no pace, no fun. Remember that pun back at the start? I think that’s the high point of the game’s comedy. The art is very nice, but the animations just don’t have any slapstick to them.
And no, I realise that games don’t have to be funny, but with Adventure Games you either have that as your hook (see LucasArts), or tension and atmosphere (see Broken Sword). Jolly Rover has neither, just blindly following the Monkey Island template. Escape from a ship, win over a pirate captain, confront a corrupt governor, wash up on cannibal island, secure the love interest, defeat the ancient voodoo evil. Furthermore, I found it downright unsettling in parts. As I’ve said, it has the feel of a kid’s game to it, but occasionally completely breaks character. Most notable was on said cannibal island, a place that the pirates are afraid to tread. Just as in Monkey Island, things aren’t as they seem.
Because what’s actually the case is it’s a tribe of mandog-hating womendogs, who are killing any that do set foot on the island. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but the glee with which the game talks about “bitches” here, and the way that they are defeated by realising that they love men after all (you get unmasked by your future love interest) really seemed…off. Switch out the dogs for humans and it’d seem flat-out wrong because there’s no cheerful cartoon canines to distract you. There’s other moments that put me off my initial assessment of this being a kids’ game, and the overall impression is that they don’t know what the game is aiming for, beyond that original scrawled note: “What if Monkey Island was dogs”
It’s a homage to Monkey Island in the same way that my balls are a homage to the Taj Mahal: Something of the magnificence of the original has been lost, and they probably shouldn’t win any awards. And they incorporate hidden objects.
2 stars, 3 hours
*Okay, second worst. The worst remains that killer exchange from Invisible War
Alex Denton: Small time crooks don’t need jet fighters.
Sophia Sak: Small time? SMALL TIME?? I’ll show you small time! Small time to live!
Back when the Earth was young, when giant lizards roamed the land and the air was a sulphurous haze, Telltale released their first adventure game with their very own engine. Signalling their desire to licence things rather than create their own IPs, it’s based on the Belgian comics that absolutely nobody has heard of. It was the first episodic game and it fed into every Telltale game that’s happened since, so in a sense it’s historic. However, it only lasted two episodes and it wasn’t until Sam and Max that they found the way to do a full series on a tight schedule, so it should only be seen as a stepping stone.
The fact that it’s based on a comic is phenomenally obvious throughout, as Bone is the most linear game of all time. I include Dungeon Siege in that analysis, which was about the adventures of Linus the line. Your quests are clearly laid out, the tools with which you should solve it are pointed at with a large flashing neon arrow, and so you potter around, doing what the game tells you to do.
Curiously there are some aspects of the game that are better than what came immediately after. What I most want to praise it for is the use of multiple perspectives. Bone isn’t the name of one guy, the game is about the three Bone cousins, and you take turns to play them, often in the same locations. I’ve got a weakspot for this, for some reason. I enjoy seeing the same gamescape through different pairs of eyes, it gives a more personal connection and helps you know the characters better.
For example, most of the first episode is taken up with getting through a sort of generic fantasy forest, all strange beasts to out-think and paths to find. You do this first as Fone Bone, the “normal” cousin, helping out the big guy so he lets you past and just generally being a nice fellow to all the creatures of the forest. Then you face the same obstacles as Phoney Bone, the eeeeevil capitaliiiist cousin, who tricks the big guy into concussing himself, screams, snarls and stomps. I actually really like Phoney, he seems to be the only guy with his head screwed on and he provides what passes for comedy. Anyway, mixing up the game like this helps keep it relatively fresh.
That group dynamic is a large part of what is worthwhile about the game, there was a natural chemistry and interplay between those three cousins (the third is Smiley Bone, the enthusiastic one I guess) that you rarely see in a game (Sam and Max, by comparison, took about two seasons before they actually gelled as a duo). That said, this is a game that is retelling, exactly, a comic. It’s not “based on” a universe, it’s a word-for-word recount. It would be a shocker if the characters didn’t gel. The supporting characters aren’t bad either, and they feed into a plot that makes at least some sense, but then the same disclaimer applies. Arrayed against that positivity must be some simple facts: Everything that has been changed to make this a game has made it poorer. The controls are horrific and imprecise, interactivity is low, the world is a blobby mess and the characters look like potatoes that have learnt to walk. Look at these faces.
When the character is a brightly coloured blob, like the Bone cousins, that’s great! They can recreate that. When it’s a person with a nose, they freak the hell out. So, it didn’t create a more vibrant world to explore, it didn’t have a single good puzzle, and it handles like an egg on another egg. The story itself is fine, it’s retold with warmth and some heart, but Telltale have added nothing. There’s not much to be gained from playing Bone, now. Everything that is here is done better, quicker and more wittily elsewhere in their catalogue. Just buy the comics.
1 star, 4 hours
56: Puzzle Agent 2
Puzzle Agent 2 features the return of Special Agent Nelson Tethers, from the Puzzle Division of the FBI. He solves problems using, uh, puzzles. Getting pretty tired of typing the word puzzle at this point.
I couldn’t quite decide if the look and feel of this game were a conscious decision or whether the developers had a budget of about eight pence, but for some reason I really like the look and feel of it. Mainly it’s Tethers’ goggle-eyed expression, it fills me with a deep sense of joy. The whole game is set in Scoggins in Minnesota, a wintry backwater town full of people who have fallen right out of their tree. You wander around the various snow-covered parts of the town, having incredibly awkward conversations in which Nelson tries to get to grips with what the actual conspiracy he’s investigating is. The answers you get never quite sync up to the questions you ask, they’ll sometimes bring in their own ridiculous pet theories, and normal conversational etiquette can fuck right off. At the end of every conversation, Tethers summarises the talk and advances his own theories into his Dictaphone, generally while they’re looking right at him, and sometimes getting offended by how he’s interpreted them.
The town wants to be left alone, it has a lazy sheriff, a town anthropologist, a puzzle enthusiast obsessed with a human-bigfoot hybrid, a brotherhood obsessed with bringing back gnomes, people disappearing every week and murderous astronauts wandering around the forest. The phrase in my head is “the right amount of off-kilter”. Nothing really makes sense, but it isn’t strictly played for laughs, and it isn’t being smugly looked down on by Agent Tethers. It’s just the world that the game is set in, and I appreciated that. It’s charming, in a weird way.
However the game is called Puzzle Agent and so while you’re wandering around conducting your enquiries, wild puzzles appear! And this is the less-good side, as they are dreadful. I mean, we’re not talking Adventuring fare here, we’re talking middle of magazine stuff. Maybe in a section called Brain-Teasers, or Noodle-Twizzlers. What’s worse, they only seem to have researched let’s say six types of puzzle, and then repeat them ad infinitum. There’s one where you put photographs in chronological order, ones where you calculate the amount of power going through a network, ones where you rearrange furniture to make a path through a room, ones where you spin two wheels around to move objects to the right place, ones where you place down basic instructions to move around a grid, and…oh I misspoke, there’s actually only five types.
It’s not like they’re even difficult, most puzzles you can do within a minute, and there was barely any where I even had to write something down. Where you do fail, it’s because of unclear or poorly-worded instructions. I’m not good at puzzles! I don’t think laterally! Even I thought they were piss-easy, and that shows a complete lack of respect for the meat and drink of the game. You do them because they’re there and it brings the end of the game closer but there’s no fun in them.
So yeah, if you want this as a mental stimulant, avoid like the plague, but if you fancy three hours of reasonably weird awkward conversations, this is the game to buy!
2 stars, 4 hours.