Former AGS adventure, The Journey Down, has now had its first (and so far only) chapter remade and re-released as a commercial product. How does it do going from retro-pixel adventure to something more modern, voiced and priced? Here's Wot I Think.
It fascinates me yet again that it takes the small, indie developers to show that 2D point and click adventures can still look modern. With some very nicely rendered characters, and enough artistic flair, the game suffers nothing from not having 3D backgrounds or a camera on a spinning top. What was previously a lovingly crafted pixel-drawn game is now a lovingly crafted magic-science drawn game. And what previously had some rather dubiously typed out racial dialects now has some only slightly dubious racial dialects spoken. The tale isn't greatly changed, with a few more puzzles thrown in, and the result is still a solid, if sometimes opaque, adventure.
Bwana is a Jamaican pilot, running a gas station in a borderline dystopian city, close to The Edge. He lives in the adjoining house, along with his childhood friend, engineer Kito, struggling to make a living in a city where people don't seem to pay for gas much any more. An evil power company, also the owner of the local rail infrastructure, and perhaps the government too, is increasingly imposing restrictions on the residents of the town, and clamping down on any discussion of what might lie beyond The Edge.
A mysterious woman appears, interested in a book that might be in the attic of Bwana's building, and in getting transport in their now pretty defunct plane. So this first chapter is about restoring the plane (from engines to steering wheel - no, they call it the steering wheel), via the magic of traditional point-n-click puzzling. So obviously to get a propeller you're going to need to remove the fan from the ceiling using a fishing rod, that you need to get from the guy by scaring him with a rat. Remember the deal?
How these puzzles hang together for you is likely a personal thing. I found things a little overly disparate here, not as neatly signposted as in the original version, and sometimes just a bit too obscure. A lot run smoothly, but of course which falls into which camp can really depend on who you are and how your brain works. Impressively, there is someclue dropping built in on delays, meaning if you look at the same object enough times, eventually it will nudge you a little further. That's great when it happens, but does rely on your already being on the right tracks. Not have a clue that the missing ingredient for the recipe is in a certain location in a certain place, and little is there to push you in that direction. But again, that's fairly standard for the genre, and most attempts to address this end in the games becoming frustratingly simple. It demands you dig for that place of patience you might once have had, and keep sniffing around the locations.
I'm not sure how I feel about Bwama's protests each time he encounters a more traditional puzzle. Shouting about how annoying they are isn't a great plan immediately before then demanding the player do them anyway. Although there's one moment that pays off on the gag that pretty much forgives it.
The actors brought in mostly do a good job, only let down by the recording quality. Most of the time it's just fine, but oddly in the middle of conversations characters' voices will dramatically change quality, as if they were recorded in a completely different place on a different day on different equipment. That may well be the case, of course, especially if pick-ups were needed, but it does make things feel a little amateur wherever it appears. And the accents themselves, that made the original text-only version seem a little... uncomfortable, certainly help by mostly appearing to be authentic. Exaggerated, but authentic. However, the one sticking point is the same as the most awkward character in the original - the Japanese-maybe chef who shrieks in an Ss and Ls muddled cod-Asian accent. It could be better.
Cutscenes are of special note, incredibly well rendered and remarkably professional for such a small indie team. And they don't skimp either, with a lovely long final sequence to enjoy, setting things up for the next episode. And the character design is splendid, faces based on authentic masks from areas like Tanzania and Mozambique. But you know what? A bit of the charm is gone, with the loss of the pixels. Just a bit.
It's not an exceptional adventure game, but it's an interesting beginning to a series, and a great example of how neat a 2D adventure can still look. The characters are very likeable, and the setting - while now needing to be significantly fleshed out - is an interesting one. Ultimately the game's main flaw is that, as elaborate as it may be, you're basically fixing an aeroplane for a couple of hours. If the series can find a way to maintain its high standards, and allow the consequences of your actions to have more narrative impact, then this will have been the introduction to a classic series. A bloody expensive classic series.
The crushing aspect here is just how much this short chapter costs. At £10 (GamersGate, Desura), I think SkyGoblin are really pushing their luck. And with it not being immediately apparent how many chapters there will be, it's not possible to know what sort of investment you're being asked for here. Even if it were only four chapters, that would still make this one of the most expensive adventure games in many years. With a five-part season pass for a Telltale game generally costing around £16, I really think they've made a mistake. Which is a great shame. You can of course still get the original version of the game for free.