Adventure charmer The Journey Down Chapter 2 has come hurtling in only, um, two years after Skygoblin's first part. However, with a lengthy, well-constructed and rather pleasant game as a result, it seems it was rather worth the wait. Here's wot I think:
New adventure games tend to make one of two mistakes. They either think they need to incessantly reference the games that inspire them as if this will incarnate their glory through the years, or they think they have to “update” the format in one way or another. Which makes it such a pleasure to report that The Journey Down Chapter Two does neither. It just gets on with being really good at being an adventure game. And this time, unlike its somewhat stilted predecessor, this feels like a fully developed, good sized game in itself.
The first chapter of The Journey Down came out in August 2010. Which makes it a really rather remarkable four years between chapters, if you’re being mean. If you’re being fair, you’ll point out that the first chapter was re-made in 2012/3. Still, that’s a year and a half to have forgotten the plot, making Chapter 2’s complete lack of a “previously on” pretty odd. However, it really does come down to: you’re Bwana, a pilot, who along with this mechanic friend Kito, are trying to get their plane working so they can help a client. The whys, the details of a book found in the first part, and what exactly is the forbidden Underland, remain questions.
Questions which are, I’m pleased to say, either answered or satisfactorily expanded upon in this second chapter. And it’s a significantly better chapter too: longer, more detailed, better puzzles, and a much better flow to the whole experience. It’s even prettier too.
The bulk of the game is set in Port Atue, a mist-shrouded, bleak town, ground to a halt by a faulty lighthouse, and ground down by an oppressive military police with a corrupt captain. However, none of this does anything to offset Bwana’s cheery disposition, who meanders through a gloomy setting with upbeat optimism, without ever seeming naïve. Lina, their client and now friend, is determined to learn some secrets regarding the mysteries of the Underland and the book that once belonged to Bwana’s father. But seems to have some concerning familiarity with the town’s evil leader. Hmmmm.
This plays out as a remarkably traditional point-and-click adventure, with far fewer clumsy puzzle-puzzles this time out, much more focused on inventory puzzles and conversation. And incredibly rarely, it manages to always leave a sense of progression. Solving a puzzle leads to a viable solution to another, rather than just another brick wall, and while this makes TJD an easier adventure than many, it’s also a far more satisfying experience.
One mistake the game does occasionally make is having you solve puzzles before a reason to has been given. But then, later in the game there’s a moment where it seemingly spoofs itself for this, which made me want to forgive it for the rest. There’s a steelworks, there’s the means to make a girder, and there’s not a very clear reason to do so. When it doesn’t immediately work, setting you up to solve a fairly obvious puzzle to do the ill-determined task, your character exclaims, “Aw man! I wanted to make a girder!” Yup – that’s as good a reason as any!
It does mean, by the end of the central act (which itself falls neatly into three sub-acts), there’s a run of puzzle solving puzzle solving puzzle solving puzzle solving puzzle, but, well, that feels great! A little contrived that you finally get the oil can you’ve known you’ll need just seconds before its purpose comes into play, but the flow of it all is lovely.
The voice acting is mostly splendid, with just a couple of weaker minor characters, and this time the recording quality is dramatically better. And the script is breezy while delivering a grim world, funny without ever chasing after punchlines. It is, however, overly wordy – certainly it could have done with some hefty sweeping of an editorial scythe. A few too many times I was rolling my eyes and fidgeting to be back in control of the game.
It's also very impressive looking, just managing to stay the right side of a fine, teetering edge. The game uses lovely hand-drawn backgrounds, almost Flash-cartoony in their style, but the moving parts are elaborately rendered 3D. It's a striking contrast, and one that I think mostly works really well. The only issue is some of those 3D renders do have that 1990s Vaseline-smeared look to them occasionally, a little bit 90s ray-trace demo. But that's mostly unfair, and often the cut-scenes are astonishingly complex and impressive.
There’s a really surprising amount of game in here, for something “episodic”. You’ll polish it off in a day, but a day, rather than two hours. And just when you think it’s over, it then gives you a whole other little chapter!
Middle chapters are often the weakest point of an adventure triplet, but that’s certainly not the case here. Chapter 2 is a big step up from the already decent Chapter 1, and delivers lots of rewarding answers on the plot, while introducing enough to make the final chapter worth waiting for, however long that wait might be.
The Journey Down Chapter 1 is currently on Steam for just 50p. Chapter 2 is out now, £5.40, going up to £6 at the end of the month. Or you can buy it directly from the developers via their Humble widget.