A slightly shorter, but still very much full-length sequel to last year's The Book Of Unwritten Tales features the previous game's best characters. But can The Critter Chronicles repeat the same grin-inducing entertainment, perhaps this time without falling apart at the end? Here's wot I think:
Last year's The Book Of unwritten Tales was a fine showing. A genuinely good adventure, muddled toward the end by translation issues, it was a pleasure to finally have an old-school adventure to recommend. Its sequel, The Critter Chronicles, is rather more difficult to get behind. The translation issues are almost entirely gone - bar a couple of lines it's a pretty immaculate job - but where the first game proved to be a really decent set of challenges, this time the puzzles are, well, a mess. And similarly, it becomes progressively poorer the further you get. Yet, despite it all, I haven't laughed out loud along with a game this many times since Portal 2.
It follows on from the end of some elements of the first game's story, while definitely establishing a specific story of its own. Gone is the previous game's lead, Wilbur, and the woefully under-written Ivo, this time wisely focusing on the two best characters from before, selfish human Nate, and purple... er... thing, Critter. A Critter, it seems, is some form of alien - the Muppet-like creatures appropriately resembling Sesame Street's Martians, and this time their at the centre of the story. While you begin as Nate, attempting to escape from his Orc foe, you eventually stumble upon a group of Critters trapped in the icy waste of the Northlands, having had a valuable crystal stolen from them by the green frog-thing baddy from the first game. (There's a certain sense that budgets were saved by reusing older characters without much sense of narrative progression.
Although, despite the name, you do spend an awfully long time playing as Nate before you even meet the Critters, and then spend more overall time as him throughout the game. My hopes of a Critter-only game haven't quite come to fruition, and I was certainly disappointed to learn that all the other Critters speak English except for our main purple hero. But hey-ho, the reality is the game, with Nate at the helm, is very funny. More nuanced this time out, less of an overt prick, he delivers some great lines and is far more amenable to play. But where the game really gets its big laughs is in the slapstick and the plain silly. Where the first game had me calling out for a Critter-based sequel, this one has me wanting the penguins to be the next main stars. These poor birds are victims throughout the game, and the absolutely lovely animations mean their suffering is always appropriately dawwwww-inspiring. Fitting a penguin with a hat with a fish dangling off the front of it, to watch him charging around trying to catch it, is madly cute and incredibly funny.
But those puzzles. The game is in five chapters, although the fifth is more of an epilogue. For the first two, I got through with no real problems, but never with a sense of achievement. The game seems to fundamentally misunderstand how to structure puzzles, almost always requiring that you solve them before being told about them. Decades of playing point and clickers means I instinctively pick up and combine everything that should be, and know where it's likely going to want me to use such a thing, but that feels like an empty, mechanical experience, rather than one of having laterally manoeuvred my way to cunning solutions. By the third act things become so desperately poor that even clicking everything on everything on everything fails to deliver any results, with the game never making any notion of what you're actually trying to achieve be clear to you.
I'm trying to get two enemy guards out of the way to an entrance to a submarine. Of the various things on screen is a penguin. I have, already, managed to swipe a bottle of brandy (by disguising another bottle with a similar-looking label and switching them out), but at no point knew why I was doing any of it. And so, in utter desperation, I tried to give the penguin some brandy, just to see what might happen. Nothing - Nate refused to do it. So once again I was trying every combination of every imaginable thing (no walkthroughs are online yet), and failing, knowing I want to get past a guard, but not being given any hints or suggestions as to how. Traditionally talking to such a character would reveal a weakness, something to exploit, by the daft use of inventory objects and local scenery, but not here. Nothing is pre-empted, only latterly applied. And so it was that in further, exasperated desperation, that I gave the whiskey bottle to Critter and had him give it to the penguin.
Of course. So the penguin gets drunk, and attacks the guard, and leads to his falling into a hole in the ice... There's absolutely no way to have expected that, to have planned this path, and there was no suggestion by the game that it might be a viable choice. And this is no exceptional example - it's the rule throughout, and increasingly poorly delivered the further you get. Solving a puzzle never neatly leads on to being given the next, and mostly rewards you with a sense of having progressed nowhere.
It really made me laugh in those first two acts, and as bad as the third and forth acts are, I want to reiterate that. Its sense of total collapse sadly even includes the humour, with lovely, surprising lines of dialogue being replaced by lame, useless sexist jabs. (Although there are some entertainingly spiteful remarks made to a spoof of a PETA member.) I went from being very pleased to have a new adventure to recommend, to simply resenting the experience.
It has splendid voice acting, some really good jokes, hilarious penguins, and despite the very dated graphics, absolutely love animations. But it just doesn't have a great adventure game underneath it, and one that gets progressively worse the further you get.