Ape Law's first game, Albino Lullaby [official site], intrigued us when a demo of its twisted peculiarity appeared in February this year. Packed with potential, we couldn't wait to see where it was going, and how it would all come together. Has it worked? Here's wot I think?
Albino Lullaby’s demo suggested something very exciting. An enormously atmospheric exploration game, with a unique hand-scribbled art style, and some really quite horrendously creepy creatures. Exploring strange buildings capable of rearranging rooms, walls and floors around you via enormous mechanical constructions, you would piece together the deeply odd tale of monstrous tubular worm-things and their devotion to an unseen figure called Grandmother – I couldn’t wait to see how it would all come together. Unfortunately, it seems the answer is - technically - rather poorly.
The atmosphere is there. And the art is amazing. The buildings in which you crouch, panic, and sprint are quite remarkably designed, creating foreboding dingy hallways, then suddenly ludicrous architecture or the best toilet in gaming history. (If that’s not a quote on their Steam page, I’ll be distraught.) The design is undeniably Unreal 4, but with a fantastic hand-drawn look to the shading and textures. While too much is too often too dark, it’s never not a pleasure to look at. And good grief, the “grandchildren”, as they’re called. Imagine if a marshmallow grew taller, and then the sort of face that you’d wake up screaming after dreaming into existence. They sludge around, leaving behind a trail of green ooze, and when they spot you, only a load point or strange glowing blue light will stop their creepy shuffly chase. Yup, atmosphere is nailed.
Unfortunately, an awful lot else is not. It begins quite simply, just having you move about the peculiar main house, picking up poorly written notes (I can’t tell how much is deliberate, and how much is just bad writing) that allude to the twisted family of worm-things who live there, and pressing buttons because there are buttons to press. Soon, and rather splendidly, the Grandchildren reveal themselves, first in little glimpses, and then in full-blown just stood there in front of you being just the most awful things. The instinct to turn and run is exactly right – if they touch you, you die.
Or if you fall off a roof, you die. Or if you go near a wall that hasn’t moved before but moves and kills you, you die. Or sometimes there’s no clue in which direction to go and eventually your random running has you cornered by Grandchildren, you die. Or when you jump into an area that it looks like you’re supposed to jump but is in fact a dead end, you have to die by loading the previous checkpoint.
And those checkpoints are beyond awful. Hugely far apart, with no quicksave on offer, surprise deaths often come accompanied by surprise 'having to replay a huge amount of the level again' (and again). I traversed the same section of rooftops perhaps seven times because it was absolutely not clear where I was supposed to go, and experimentally dropping to a place below was sometimes the right thing to do, and sometimes not. Sometimes you should jump to a nearby platform, sometimes it’s blocked by an invisible barrier and you fall off and die.
What’s enormously obvious is Ape Law didn’t sit enough people down in front of the game and watch them play. There are a number of points where the “correct” direction is not obvious, and any other leads to inescapable locations or punitive deaths. At one point, completely bemused about where I should be going, I gave in and watched a very promptly uploaded Let’s Play. I watched that guy wandering around in circles for ten minutes in the same place. I finally spotted the way forward just before he did. That’s the sort of thing that’s easy to realise and fix, if you only watch people play your game during development.
The other huge leg of the game that’s far too wobbly is stealth. As you progress you gain equipment that allows you to fend off the Grandchildren, but ideally you want to go unspotted for as long as possible. The game very nearly gets that balance of stealth-stealth-stealth-PANIC right, letting you adapt from sneaking to freaking out and sprinting. It might work just fine but for the frequent lack of knowing where it is you should be sprinting to.
And indeed, it'd help if it were possible to have a better understanding of what triggers detection. At some points you can crouch right past a worm-thing, inches from him, and he won’t notice. At others, they’ll spot you from fifty metres away with their backs turned. A musical sting warns you you’re in trouble, but it remains frustrating that the rules seem to keep changing. And while I'm listing concerns, I had some performance issues in the game's final section, framerates dropping very badly, however it ran smoothly everywhere else - it's hard to be sure if that's an issue for everyone.
Albino Lullaby delivers all the atmosphere we were hoping for, but then fails to have a sturdy enough game beneath it. Failure is so easily come by, and invariably means replaying a chunk of game that becomes increasingly banal the more times you see it. And yet get past whatever moment, and something extraordinary will likely happen, riveting you once more into this peculiar and disturbing world. The voice acting is amazing, and really deeply fucked up. The whole thing is an experiment in oddness, and in that it succeeds enormously well, if taking some rather large cues from The Stanley Parable. But sadly, as a technical production, it's often more frustrating than interesting.
(Unfortunately, due to a Fraps-based disaster, all my screenshots for this game proved to be of Tweetdeck, so we've used press shots. Oops.)