By John Walker on September 20th, 2011 at 5:31 pm.
I’m not sure what I want from an adventure game any more. I’m not even sure I want adventure games any more. When I play modern adventures I find them too simple and lament the lost art of the 90s glory years. When I replay 90s adventures I rediscover quite what obscure, obfuscated nonsenses most of them were. With my teenage patience for leaving a puzzle unsolved for days lost, while still wanting to be equally entertained, perhaps I simply don’t fit the criteria any more? Maybe the world really does just want the unending bilge of a lady detective solving supernatural crime, or sexist cartoons that endlessly self-reference. Maybe what I’m left with are the bite-sized portions of loveliness like Machinarium and The Dream Machine. And then I find myself rather enjoying The Book Of Unwritten Tales.
Which surprises me, since it does look troublingly like it’s going to fall into the latter self-referencing sexist camp at first glance. I’m pleased to say, having spent rather a lot of time with the first three chapters of the five chapter game, it’s avoiding that pretty well. Most of the time.
First of all, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. This is the only game I can think of that has a Welsh protagonist. A real one, not some incredibly dodgy accent. This is an important step forward for gaming. But the little gnome isn’t the only character you’ll play as. There’s a gremlin, rather confusingly called MacGuffin, and a tall elf lady with spray-on clothes. And all three are remarkably well voiced.
It’s also utterly gorgeous. The backgrounds, a mixture of hand-painted and astonishingly textured 3D objects (Bertram, the world’s fattest hamster being a real highlight of this – see the video at the bottom, he’s on the bottom-left), are remarkably beautiful, and for once the 3D animated characters within them are almost as good. Normally this is where the biggest shortcuts are taken, characters uselessly waving their empty hands around while apparently pouring a bottle or handing over a magic ring. But here a huge amount of effort has gone in to individual animations, and making sure most items actually appear as they’re being used. It’s crazy that this should still be something that stands out, but thank goodness it’s often gotten right here. The character design is also splendid, very detailed, and while very exaggerated caricatures, still impressively engaging.
Set in a traditional fantasy world, with dwarves, gnomes, goblins, elves, humans and so on, it borders dangerously close on pastiching painfully obvious targets like Lord Of The Rings, but seems to swerve out of the way at the last moment each time. The story is deliberately confusing at first, with references to a special book that must be recovered, and a ring that must be delivered, all in order to stop the terrible war that has been raging for years. To do this, naturally you must gather every loose object in the world, and click them on everything that’s fixed down. As it should be.
That’s not to say it entirely avoids more trombone-driven jokes. A mechanical videogame played by two of the fantasy characters is, of course, set in a world without magic or strange creatures, where you must visit the post office and file your taxes. A nice joke, made face-chewing by being over-explained with a punchline of “Why would anyone escape their own world for a fantasy in which you have to complete meaningless tasks?” or words to that effect. Yes, good idea, tell your player they’re an idiot. But in fairness, it’s a joke they keep building on, with some proper groan-inducing puzzle solutions, which is precisely how things should be.
What is currently not precisely how things should be is another extremely common mistake made by translated European adventures, and that’s the occasional gibberish. Sadly, what’s proving to be solid, if rather easy adventure, is being let down now and then by clumsy translation, or just complete nonsense being spoken. It’s one of those cases where the actors are doing their best with the lines given, but when they don’t make any sense there’s nothing they can do. It drives me crazy that this is still happening, that any adventure being translated into any other language isn’t being checked over by a native speaker before release. It’s just basic common sense, and yet it never seems to happen. There’s still time for Unwritten Tales, however, and I’d strongly suggest they address this to stop it from being the game’s biggest, needless failing. Also, hopefully something that will be fixed by the time it comes out will be the rather poor editing on a few of the lines, leaving in the actor’s comments before he delivers it. A line beginning, “Okay, how about…” is a touch frame-breaking.
Talking of which, the self-referencing does start to get a bit more bloated the further I go into this preview build. However, and won’t say how, I rather reluctantly enjoyed the manner in which the “I know I’m a game” business is delivered.
The game is absolutely enormous. If the three chapters I have are really three fifths of the game, then it’s one of the longest adventure games in years. And I’m pleased to say that so far it hasn’t outstayed its welcome.
We’re not talking about something that equals the classics. But we are talking about something that’s massively better than the full-length competition of late, with a lovely attitude, some genuinely funny jokes, and logical puzzles. It certainly relies far too heavily on distracting the guy to collect the object to complete the list of things you’ve been told to gather. Again and again. But then, heck, it’d hardly be an adventure without that.
So I think, perhaps, this is what I want from an adventure. Not impossibly difficult, not idiotically obscure, and not starring a sassy 28 year old with a mobile phone solving the murder of her uncle. But instead a good, long romp of entertaining nonsense. If the unnecessary mistakes in the dialogue can be fixed, and the remainder of the game continues the same without losing the pace, this is likely to come highly recommended.