Deponia is released today - the latest adventure from German developers, Daedalic Entertainment. Set on a planet made of trash, will it prove to be a big pile of rubbish, or a diamond in a dungheap. You can't refuse to find out - I promise it won't be a waste of your time. Here's Wot I Think:
I know that I misremember the adventures of the 90s. I know this because I've gone back to play them, and either games can erode over time, or they're mostly not nearly as amazing as I remember (with the exception of those LucasArts few). And yet it's so hard not to measure a modern point and click to the near-fictional memory of the past. Deponia, by all accounts, is every bit as good as many of the adventures back in the day. And by the same accounts, has all the same issues that we tend to forget. That, and what are now familiar problems with the translation from German.
However, it's pretty much impossible not to warm to a game that opens with a song. From Daedalic, they who brought us the lovely Whispered World, and the not so lovely Edna & Harvey, Deponia falls stylistically somewhere between the two. Not quite so cutesy and fairytale-themed as the former, and sharing the slightly more aggressive humour of the latter, you play Rufus, a selfish and lazy man determined to find a way off the trash planet of Deponia.
It's an absolutely standard point-and-click affair - gather various inventory items, each hidden behind dialogue and puzzles, to solve a larger problem. Do that, the story advances, and you repeat. And as you also might expect, the game is packed with eccentric characters, dozens of objects to steal and use on other objects, and a hefty pile of jokes.
And it hits reasonably often. Despite translation issues - and there are plenty - the game made me laugh a fair few times, and a number of the puzzles, while in no way original, presented a fair challenge. Then again, a number did not. And unfortunately, most of those came clumped together in the second (and longest) of four acts.
It's always hard to know how much has suffered in the transition from German to English. Quite clearly enormous amounts of the dialogue have received a far too literal translation, as if stuffed through Google Translate, and you end up with absolute nonsense. Opening a box near the beginning of the game I was told, "Phew, it looked much lighter lying in that cupboard." There was no cupboard. I'd opened the lid of a box. At one point I put a deflated balloon in a furnace (the correct solution was of course to have the balloon be inflated) and was insanely told, "Hehe, it tasted of window putty anyway." Perhaps the most bemusing was near the end, when clicking glowing candyfloss on any other inventory item, and hearing, "I guess the eye has to dine out tonight if it wants to be pleased."
Those are extreme moments, but the sense that you're not hearing the words as they were intended is pretty pervasive, and - as has always been the case with Daedalic games - often leaves you thinking, "Oh, I see, they meant..." rather than just laughing at the gag. Mad translations make a couple of the puzzles utterly bewildering, one going on about a "mauve muff" that has nothing to do with any of the word's meanings with which I'm familiar. However, thankfully the voice cast is really strong, and despite being given some tough dialogue to work with, they generally do a great job.
But that second act really is a thorn in the game. Opening up a huge number of locations all at once, you begin with a daunting number of options, all the act's puzzles dumped on you at once, and often leaving you solving things in the wrong order. The lack of narrative direction, and of one puzzle logically linking to the next, means too often you're left wandering, and a walkthrough is far more entertaining than spending hours searching out that one obscure action you missed. There are two puzzles that even after cheating to get past, I still have no idea how they could possibly have been logically solved.
And that's all a great shame, because afterward the game takes on a much more sensibly linear route, and the walkthrough was not needed again. What doesn't go away, however, is the slightly uncomfortable tone that comes from playing yet another anti-hero.
Rufus is basically a prick. While most of his apparent sexism could be simply put down to laziness, I really do not understand the desire for so many German adventures to cast you as someone so unlikeable. Rude to everyone, and with a bloated sense of self-importance, it's not a great deal of fun to be him a lot of the time. And while there's some attempt at a redemption late on, it's not meaningful. This isn't helped by the game's story focusing on an attempt to "get" a girl who fell out of the sky, an unconscious girl that the men of the town argue over "getting". The game's only other woman (if you don't include the post master/mistress, a cross-dressing parody whose voice constantly fluctuates between falsetto and booming thug) is Rufus's ex-girlfriend, who exists to nag, be unpleasant, and eventually be drugged against her will. It's not exactly enlightened.
The art style, despite being reminiscent of that in Edna & Harvey, is far, far better. This looks like the work of an expert cartoon studio, rather than doodles in someone's English exercise book. And the animations are really splendid - a great deal of effort has gone in there, as well as into the very many luscious backdrops. This is improved further by a fantastic soundtrack, the sort of tunes you want to leave running in the background.
So yet again, it's another German adventure that frustrates by almost being great, and often falling short of good. The story apparently just assumes we're au fait with sky elf robot women having removable memories, and assumes we don't care about utterly unresolved (and yet endlessly hammered into you) stories about absent fathers. For every puzzle that's on the nose, there's another that's unexplained nonsense. And for all the laughs, there are as many bewildering lines of gibberish. But it's beautifully presented, and other than a couple of glitching items and one line left in German, a lovingly crafted game in a genre where so many are so scrappy. I think, overall, I spent more time being frustrated than entertained, and perhaps too much time somewhere between the two.