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Adventure Gamers: Heaven’s Vault (3/05/19)

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“Day…is…discovered…sky?” “Eagle…is…open…light?”

I always thought I was a bit of a whizz at linguistics, but Heaven’s Vault, the latest title from the developers behind the hit story games 80 Days and Sorcery!,wants to show that there’s more to learning a foreign language than simply knowing the equivalent of “one beer please.” Never ones to shy away from making huge amounts of work for themselves, the team at inkle have created an entirely made-up vocabulary from scratch to be decoded. But rather than feeling like a trip back to school, the game’s eccentric characters and distinctive worlds turn you into a language-obsessed Indiana Jones, decrypting curios, uncovering the secrets of a forgotten empire and, naturally, running into all kinds of trouble along the way.

Playing as feisty archaeologist Aliya Elasra, you navigate across moons and stars, deciphering ancient symbols you find on trinkets you pick up along your journey. Set within a strange alternate universe called the Nebula, where robots and humans co-exist in a mostly peaceful manner, and spaceships ride along rivers of oxygen, hydrogen and ice, you find yourself tasked with hunting down Janniqi Renba, a roboticist who’s gone missing under very suspicious circumstances. You’re joined in your travels by your rational-to-a-point robot companion Six – so-called because Aliya has already broken or done away with five other mechanical mates before the story even begins.

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You move about as Aliya using the keyboard (or gamepad), with the mouse working as a free-moving camera. Aliya herself appears as a 2D, almost ethereally translucent figure set amongst rich 3D backgrounds. Hotspots like hidden treasure, people you can speak to, and alleyways you can walk down appear as yellow circles when you draw near, with the first line of dialogue Aliya will utter when they’re clicked hovering permanently above them. If there’s more than one hotspot within close proximity, it can occasionally be a little hard to interact with the one you want, resulting in a bit of frustrating mouse waggling. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly seamless and unique way of making your way through the villages, cities and ancient temples you’ll encounter on your quest.

When you find some loot, it’s likely there’ll be ancient glyphs scrabbled on it somewhere. Translating these can help you learn more about the world around you, and even point you in the right direction. The language inkle has created is completely pictorial and based on Ancient Egyptian and Chinese writing. During this year’s EGX Rezzed conference in London, Laura Dilloway, the Lead Environment Artist of Heaven’s Vault, wonderfully referred to the game as being the “Guitar Hero of languages.” And there’s some definite truth to that, in the sense of allowing you to tackle a very complex process in a simpler, more accessible way.

You’ll start off each translation with a bunch of scribbled glyphs and some suggestions of words underneath that you can try to match to each symbol. At the beginning it’s pretty much a case of random guesswork based on what symbol seems like it might represent one of the words below, or looks like another similar word you might already know. You won’t find out straight away if you’ve gotten everything right – it’s only when the same translations keep popping up that Aliya can make a judgement on whether you made the right call the first time around or whether that word doesn’t make sense anymore. Just like in Guitar Hero when you master a tricky tune, eventually things do start to click into place and you’ll feel like a linguistics pro. The first time Aliya confirms that she thinks your translation is accurate is just as fulfilling as slamming a difficult guitar riff in any of Harmonix’s musical titles.  

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Translating everything accurately on your first try isn’t essential (or even normally possible), but you can always go back again at any time to the transcriptions menu, which stores everything you’ve tried already for when you have more clues to give them another go. You could technically go through the whole game barely translating anything properly, as correct interpretations don’t further the bigger story as such. Instead, they help explain more of the backstory of the temples and shrines you’ve wandered through and occasionally help you pinpoint the exact location of an ancient site on your map a little quicker. So even if you find yourself hitting a brick wall in your linguistic pursuits, you’ll still be able to enjoy the narrative twists and turns as Aliya and Six venture further into the Nebula – you might just arrive at those twists and turns a different way compared to someone who’s deciphered everything closer to 100%.

The same is true of the way you interact with the various thieves, academics and merchants you bump into as the story progresses. For every conversation you’re given three options of dialogue to choose from, each with its own tone (from sassy to questioning to flirty or something entirely different) and a limited amount of time to select one. It’s hard to know how much these choices truly affect their respective plot strands in any grand way, but it’s fun having to quickly pick dialogue options and hope you’ve chosen wisely. For example, at one point you’ll have to decide whether to go along with or correct a confused villager who mistakes you for someone else. Agreeing with her could yield vital information she wouldn’t provide if you explain you’re not who she thinks you are, but you’ll not gain much approval from your anxious, ethically sound comrade Six, which could raise complications later on. As with previous inkle titles, half the enjoyment of Heaven’s Vault is in taking a risk on saying or doing something outlandish without knowing what the consequences will be.

Aliya and Six travel throughout the Nebula on the Nightingale, your part-boat, part-spaceship mode of transport. One right-click of the mouse propels your ship forward, whilst appropriate keystrokes steer it right or left alongside the atmosphere’s vaporous rivers. Arrows pop up on-screen to guide you on your route, and it soon becomes obvious that you’re not really driving the ship on its course at all, merely there to make it turn the right way now and then whilst the game does all the hard work. Which is perhaps just as well, because as you sail along warped zones of red, green and blue, Aliya and Six share philosophical exchanges about their recent mind-boggling discoveries.

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Space travel in Heaven’s Vault is all very well and soothing – the melancholic string score as you drift around really gets into your head – but my goodness the travel time between moons can feel incredibly slow. It doesn’t help that the Nebula’s geography is basically just faceless rocks and empty (if colourful) space, so there isn’t even anything that interesting to look at as you creep towards the more exciting prospect of translating more squiggles. Thankfully, since the game’s launch inkle has released an update that allows you to now fast travel between moons of the Nebula with the simple press of a button. You might miss out on some of Six’s cutting quips, but probably feel a lot less impatient in the process.

Every moon or clump of rock you land on, whether through fast travel or otherwise, provides a uniquely beautiful, fully formed landscape to explore once you’ve touched down. You’ll find yourself hurrying through the dirty slums of Elboreth, wading through the thick rice paddies of Maersi, and struggling to catch your breath on some secret sand-blown desert you’ve chanced upon in between. Along the way you’ll start to pick up on some of the incredible lore that the developers have buried in books, treasure and translations you discover: tales of a banished Emperor, a Holy Empire, and an entire religion of “loopists” who believe that when you die your body must be cast into the river or your soul will never find eternal peace.

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The characters that populate these worlds are equally engaging – even bit characters like Elboreth’s shady slave master feel real and memorable. Headstrong and occasionally rather cold, Aliyah and her constantly concerned robot make a great pair of reluctant buddies whose relationship is even more rewarding to explore because you’re the one forming it through your dialogue choices. Aliyah’s dialogue in particular is evocatively written – “I dream these alleyways” or “spreading fear like a great poisonous snake” – but much of the conversation has a reflective, lyrical quality to it, echoing great Greek literature like Homer’s The Odyssesy in a way that inkle does so well.

Apart from the occasional musical swell when you make a startling discovery, the main sounds heard are background noises of birds chirping, pigs grunting and people bustling about their business. Occasionally at important points in the story, you’ll also get some voice-over narration from Aliyah, the only character you hear out loud (everything else appears as written subtitles). She is played with a down-to-earth British twang that works for the most part – strangely given the mystical, otherworldly atmosphere in which the game is set.

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For all its quirkiness, Heaven’s Vault doesn’t shy away from going pretty dark and quite frankly becoming outright unsettling at times. There were a few instances, particularly near the end of Aliyah and Six’s adventure, that I was shocked at how quickly things turned sour. As inkle’s biggest game yet in terms of sheer length (at least 12 hours from start to finish if you rush, but more like 20 if you properly search everywhere), it’s perhaps not surprising that the team decided to touch on bigger themes beyond the central plot. From the concept of resurrection to the fragility of memory and what makes us really human, there’s a lot to process.

The developers have tried to help make sense of it all by creating a “Timeline” menu covering historic events you unearth from the world around you, as well as your own actions in the present as Aliyah. You can easily bring up and access this at any point during the game, which updates as you continue through the story and make your choices. Much like navigating the Nightingale, however, I found the feature interesting to use once or twice, but then much preferred to just get on with the actual tale rather than reading about my past actions.

As perhaps is fitting for a game that ponders the art of translation, the pacing of Heaven’s Vault is at times relatively slow, even for traditional point-and-click fare. Scouring moons does start to feel repetitious ten or so hours in, and even the joy of decoding and unlocking new words starts to drag until a couple of plot twists freshen things up again nearer the end. But a bit of lag and other minor issues like imprecise controls aren’t enough to seriously taint this engrossing, enigmatic universe overall. Even when things slow down there’s always another new world to sail off to, a secret treasure trove to uncover, or another narrative strand waiting just around the corner. It’s a brave game that pursues an endeavour as sophisticated as semantics and etymology as its primary gameplay element, but happily inkle have once again created such an absorbing story filled with engaging characters to meet, charm and/or deceive that whatever your language ability, an exciting adventure awaits.

Our Verdict:

The detailed landscapes, engaging plot and intriguing premise of a completely fictional ancient language to decipher make Heaven’s Vault a game for which it’s worth getting lost in translation.

4/5

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Adventure Gamers: The Occupation (10/04/19)

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I’m crouching underneath a desk, staring at a lady’s knees, hoping she won’t notice me. She’s been sitting at the table for a few minutes now, unaware of my contorted presence, which is really eating up the time I need for my investigation. It may look right now like I’m some kind of pervert, but if I can get out from under the desk with my stolen evidence (and dignity) intact, I’ll have one hell of a story to write up – that is, if The Occupation’s finicky controls let me open the door properly first.

At its best, The Occupation places you in these kinds of tense, flinch-and-you’ll-get-caught scenarios seen in the best spy thrillers. For the most part you play investigative journalist Harvey Miller, out to seek the truth following a deadly terrorist attack in 1980s England that triggers a controversial bill – the “Union Act” – which threatens to control the populace and erode civil liberties. But you’re no Sam Fisher or Solid Snake; you don’t have guns or fancy gadgets at your disposal to incapacitate your foes. All you have are two interviews scheduled with the bosses of the secretive data-collecting corporation where the Act sprang from – and with those interviews a little bit of time to snoop around the buildings, gathering as much evidence as you can find to implicate your interviewees.

So off you toddle in first-person round the offices of Bowman Carson, trying to avoid the two main security guards Dan and Steve. When they tell you at reception that your interview with one of the bosses starts in an hour, they really mean it: The Occupation is a fixed-time game, meaning that as time goes by in real life so too do the minutes pass in these parts of the game. You can check the time at any point by bringing up your trusty wristwatch – if you’re late at the end for the interview, you won’t have as much time to ask your questions and therefore have less time to reveal the nefarious goings-on.

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You’ll have one or two leads given to you by your contact to fish out at the start of each timed hour (you get 60 minutes to snoop before the second interview as well), such as printing off an important email or getting into a certain restricted area. The rest you discover by reading notes, cracking safes and decoding computers. And as we’re in the 1980s, there are no hi-tech tools to help you with your industrial espionage – if you want to copy something from a computer, you better find a floppy disc to do so, and then a fax machine to send it off to your colleague back at base.

The first hour spent crawling around, eavesdropping on conversations and flicking blinds shut to disguise your nefarious deeds is mostly a blast. Developer White Paper Games capture that feeling of being an everyday person thrust into a Hollywood movie situation with aplomb. There are multiple ways to get into most rooms, which challenges you to be creative, be it through hidden vents, open windows, picked-up key cards or alarm codes, or even following behind security guards. Finding it too difficult to sneak past a guard who’s standing right next to a room you need to get into? Why not set off the alarm in another room so he goes to tend to that one instead!

Every second counts: if you get caught by Tweedledee and Tweedledum (sorry, Dan and Steve), then you’ll be escorted back to reception and lose valuable time needed to collect clues to question and hopefully expose the corporation heads later on in your interview. Cleverly, other actions eat up time too (it takes a whole two minutes for a safe to unlock once you’ve input the codes!), forcing you to make quick decisions in prioritising certain leads and disregarding others to get things done. You will find yourself having to suspend your disbelief a little bit – why on earth would any company with lots to hide let an investigative journalist wander freely round any part of its building alone, even the unrestricted parts?! But let the very, very laidback security attitudes of Beavis and Butthead (ahem) slide and there’s a tense, exciting hour of gameplay to be had.

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If only it had been kept to an hour. Whilst the first main segment of The Occupation is flawed by its tricky interface and controls, the AI is merciful enough and the gameplay fresh enough for the issues to be largely forgiven. Shuffle on to the second building for Miller’s investigative tour de force, however, and things get a lot more irritating. Suddenly ol’ Pinky and Perky can spot you through solid walls (and yes that’s Dan and Steve again patrolling an entirely new building – I hope they’re on fat paychecks with the kind of mileage they must have to cover every day on their shifts). There’s no map to pick up so you’re often bumbling around trying to get a feel for where you need to go, across several entire floors. Your dossier holds all codes, key clues and leads you pick up along the way, but clicking through folders in real time takes ages, and becomes especially frantic when you’re alerted to a guard in your vicinity and just need to find somewhere to hide.

Even worse are the clunky controls, especially annoying when you need to do fancier footwork to avoid being spotted later in the game. Climbing up boxes or crawling through vents can take several attempts with a keyboard and mouse, and opening doors often feels counterintuitive, as depending on what side you’re on they’ll often open towards you rather than away from you – meaning you have to step back and try again. For a game that places a lot of value on player speed and precision, having such awkward mechanics and unwieldy systems detracts quite heavily from any enjoyment gained from playing at being stealthy.

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The game only saves after each chapter is completed, probably an attempt by the developers to make every action count and not allow you to get to know your environment too well by saving all the time. This is a bold move, but it means that you’re either going to have to live with every mistake you make due to ham-fisted controls and suffer the consequences in the storyline later, or restart the whole sequence all over again. Thankfully a recent patch seems to have cleared up some of the more game-breaking bugs (losing a key game item forever if it’s accidentally swapped with another) that the launch version suffered from, which would have made the save system even more frustrating.

After you’ve done your snooping it’s time for the actual interviews. Once everybody is sitting comfortably, you scroll through a list of questions (some of which will only appear if you’ve found enough information or clues to ask them) and present evidence to back them up. If you spent the whole hour faffing around and weren’t able to follow through with any leads, you’ll miss out on unveiling key plot points and finding out what’s really been going on behind closed doors – although the game does a good job of allowing you to find this out later through new evidence you can uncover, so that you don’t feel too punished for any earlier mistakes made.

There are a few shorter non-timed sections in between The Occupation’s main investigative bread and butter, which feel like they’re mainly there to flesh out the plot and, quite frankly, stretch out the game length at times. Most of them consist of walking between buildings, although one has you playing through a flashback of the night after the terrorist attack as a former employee of the shady Bowman Carson, picking through the debris of the destroyed building after the attack, trying to find answers. Currently there’s no chapter selection in the game, meaning if you want to revisit the actual spying and sneaking bits, you’re going to have to play through the whole game again. The developers have said they are considering implementing a chapter system in the future, which would be a welcome move for anyone wanting to perfect the fixed-time sections in particular.

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Although meant to be relatively realistic, the 3D graphics have a Dishonored-like slightly cartoony feel, while examinable objects provide a pleasant sense of weight and heft to them when you pick them up. The game mainly has you exploring offices and occasionally balancing on handily placed ledges outside windows, so locations do begin to feel a bit samey, apart from brief strolls along a canal and through a leafy park lined with rows of terraced houses. The Occupation does a great job in these brief trips outside of offering a glimpse into an area rarely visited in games – 1980s North West England – and it would have been great to experience more of this, at least through flashbacks if not the present day.

Whilst Mr Miller remains uncharacteristically mute (for a journalist), actors voice his various contacts in helping gather evidence for your report, as well as their shady corporate counterparts in cut scenes and in-game conversation. Dialogue, particularly from your enigmatic informant of the shady dealings inside the company, can feel a little hammy at times, to the point of detracting from the game’s worthy political agenda. The in-game audio as you creep and crawl around fares a bit better. You’ll hear radios (with an actual DJ introducing tracks in between) blasting out catchy pop hits – original tracks recorded for the game – and you can collect vinyl LPs to play at the various record players you come across. It’s a welcome break from the sometimes comically dread-inducing Jaws-like drone that plays on a loop whenever a guard enters your vicinity and forces you to hide. Hearing it for the first time does spark a sense of mild peril, but when you discover that the best solution isn’t to carefully inch your way around the room but to leg it in plain sight around a corner until they just decide to give up and carry on with their business, any supposedly tense music quickly becomes nothing more than irksome.

This sadly sums up much of The Occupation: supposedly full of intrigue and mystery, but often feeling a little farcical in its implementation. The narrative throws up so many themes it wants you to reflect on – immigration control, individuality, civil rights, government oppression and data security to name but a few – but when you’ve only got a short span of time to chunter through endless notes and emails, it’s hard to take in every code word, name and plot twist and make sense of it all. The ending feels like it wants to build to an emotional, heartbreaking choice for the player, but after such a whirlwind of information throughout the short 4-5 hours of play time, I felt more relieved that the game was over than contemplative. Kept as a tight, one hour real-time run of code-breaking, safe-cracking and vent-crawling, The Occupation would have felt slight but strangely more purposeful, even with the clunky control issues. Instead, by expanding the scope of the story and the abilities of your opposition, the end result is a rushed narrative and over-zealous AI, for which no amount of panicked knee-watching can fully compensate.

Our Verdict:

There’s a fair bit of fun to be had sneaking about the workplace in this first-person fixed-time thriller at first, but The Occupation ends up overstaying its welcome due to some clumsy implementation.

2.5/5

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Adventure Gamers: Trüberbrook (13/03/19)

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Trüberbrook is that guy or girl you’d instantly swipe right on Tinder. This mystery adventure game, set in late 1960s rural Germany, grabs your attention immediately with its beautifully detailed graphics. Designers btf have hand-built every bit of backdrop in the game from scratch as a miniature scale model, then captured it with a 3D scanner and only then blended it with the game’s animated characters. The effect, of a night’s sky or rugged forest where every star or tree is unique and meticulously brought to life, is stunning. Like many a hastily swiped hottie, however, the game never quite delivers as much on some of its other elements as it does on its looks. Fortunately there’s enough witty dialogue and puzzles to solve along the way that it’s only near the final chapter that things go from casual fun to overly complicated.

You play young American physicist Hans Tannhauser, who has arrived at the titular German village having won the trip in a lottery he never even knew he entered – a problem we’re all in favour of having. The developers have a lot of fun showing what a fish out of water the scientist is in the mountainous Germanic setting. I wanted to click on every little object, whether the knight’s armour in the middle of town square, a cinema poster or even a simple hanging bucket to discover more about this weird, nearly-deserted place and hear Hans’s reaction to it, as they never disappointed.  Justin Beard, the voice actor for Hans, does a great job of capturing the physicist’s gentle American bemusement.

Being a scientist, Hans also has a trusty Dictaphone, on which he records reflections of the world around him. I enjoyed “collecting” these observations on different objects as I pottered around, feeling like a real professor, and you can even play them back again if you want, in recorded sound quality. Tannhauser eventually arrives at the wonderfully titled Pension Waldeslust, his hostel, but doesn’t quite receive the warm welcome he was expecting. In the middle of the night someone sneaks into his room and steals his precious documents. With the help of straight-talking fellow scientist Gretchen, also in Trüberbrook for her own research, Hans decides to embark on an adventure to uncover the thief, get back his work, and along the way discover the mysteries of this quaint yet secretive village.

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Throughout the journey, usually alone but occasionally accompanied by Gretchen, Hans comes across some delightfully oddball characters. You chat with the village’s loonies by clicking on them to bring up a verb coin, which in turn brings up various dialogue strands, all fully voiced. With so many selections, Trüberbrook is thankfully the good kind of adventure game where you know what line of dialogue you’re supposed to choose, but you go through every option anyway because the writing is such that it’s fun to have a natter with everybody about everything. Trude, the big bosomed blonde hostel receptionist with a penchant for massage rods is a particular highlight, as is Barbarossa 2000, a lonely robot who just wants a friend. There’s an occasional smattering of “I’m Bobbin, are you my mother” and other LucasArts references sprinkled in here and there, but really the script is so well written that in-jokes aren’t needed for a laugh.

Moving Hans is a simple case of pointing and clicking – a double-click makes the quiffed scientist run (albeit slightly hunched over; this isn’t your typical all-action hero after all) and tapping on certain hotspots highlighted by the cursor will bring up the verb coin, though only certain items will elicit the “hand” or “gear” icon indicating that they can either be used or something can be used with them. In similar typical German efficiency, holding down the spacebar highlights any interactive objects in the area, although cleverly if there isn’t any light or Hans can’t see, then the hotspots won’t appear. With so much to click on in the game, the indicator is a welcome touch and actively encourages you to explore everything.

Any items you do pick up go into your inventory, but unlike more traditional adventure games, once they’re in there you can’t mouseover or click on your items to find out what they are or anything about them. Sometimes I found if I failed to examine something before I picked it up, I had no idea what it was because Hans would simply put it in his inventory straight away rather than describing it. This is made slightly less frustrating by a cartoon image of the item flashing up on the screen when collected, albeit briefly, so most of the time I was able to roughly guess what it was from the picture. (If you need a refresher, you can open the non-interactive inventory bar to see the same but smaller images of all your items again.) It was only once when the object in question was a RAM module that I didn’t have the foggiest idea.  Still, it felt odd carrying round lots of items, the purpose and description of which I could only vouch for with 80-90% confidence.

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In most of Truberbrook’s puzzles you find and pick something up, then use it with another object somewhere else in the map to make something happen and move the story along. The task is more in locating the items to pick up than in knowing where to use them, as the verb coin takes away any challenge. For example, if you’ve picked up some bait and a fishing rod, there’s no way of using your own initiative to combine them in your inventory to go fishing. Instead, once you’ve picked them both up, all you have to do is wander to the pier and click on it, and the verb coin will show you a picture of the only items you are able to attempt there, although not all of them are used successfully. In other words, any difficulty around which item should be used where is essentially gone.

Some people may prefer this simplified approach and there are still some fun puzzles to enjoy – one where you have to take part in a “Swap Shop” equivalent of trading goods with lots of different characters to get the one you actually want is particularly entertaining. If there was an option to toggle whether the verb coin reveals the items you need to use or not, that might have been a better way of keeping the easier option if people need it but letting more seasoned adventure gamers have a challenge too. As it was, I was still entertained by wandering around and interacting with random junk, knowing I’d find somewhere to use it without needing to think too much about it. There are also one or two puzzles that do away with the need for inventory altogether, such as an intriguing one based around deciphering symbols from different historic eras, which brings a nice change of pace to the puzzle-solving rhythm.

The music of Trüberbrook is in keeping with its nostalgic, mysterious setting – all inconspicuous, looping jazz-lite guitar and saxophone chords, lending the game a certain noir vibe. At one point in the story you get to sit back and listen to a band perform a melancholic number where you choose the verses, with beautiful lyrics like “galaxies are like diamonds in the palms of his hand.” It’s an atmospheric interlude between the pointing and clicking, though you can still do some of that to set off decorative fireworks until the song is finished. During conversation with the locals, actual German voice actors feature their own natural accents when speaking English, a little touch that helps make everything feel that bit more genuine.

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Before the tale came to an end, I had ventured beyond town to discover dark caves, a snowed-in weather station and boggy swamps, all beautifully lit and some of them revisited at entirely different times of day and night. What’s particularly impressive is the amount of animation included to really bring to life each scene – particularly knowing it meant blending CG with real sets. The very first scene is especially breathtaking, as if btf knew that everyone would be judging them on their unusual visual technique and decided to make it something special. As you potter about at a gas station, the deep night’s sky teems with a million stars, whilst a purple neon sign flickers idly and individual fireflies float dozily in the air. Nothing later quite matches up to this Van Gogh-like vista, especially the game’s final scenario, which jettisons any picture postcard beauty for a static confrontation inside a grey building.

I was similarly excited by the game’s early promise of an eccentric Stranger Things or Twin Peaks-style adventure with lots of surreal intrigue, but it never quite gets there. A brief spell in a local Sanatorium trying to prove you’re not an alien has great potential, but instead it’s over and done with so quickly and never really referred to again that it feels pointless. For all its quirky cast and alluded-to mysteries of a sinister organisation running things from the sidelines, the plot feels a little rushed, and big narrative points are met with more of a shrug than a gasp. The game does a great job in setting up a shadowy village on the edge of nowhere for you to get lost in – only to get lost itself in confusing plot strands that don’t really go anywhere, at least until the very end. 

That said, for the majority of the seven or eight hours of gameplay, the well-realised characters, unusual setting and beautiful landscapes provide enough reason in themselves to explore this enigmatic world. Trüberbrook is at its best when you’re simply wandering around in the alpine air, bumping into people with interesting tidbits to tell you and picking up weird objects like time travelling prototypes or funky glowing marsh mushrooms. Like many a whirlwind romance, things start to fizzle out when it gets more complex than that – but there’s such warmth and charm to be found throughout, you’ll still look back with fond memories on your time spent together.

Our Verdict:

Reveling in its own eccentricity, Trüberbrook’s quirky characters, stunningly vivid backdrops and engaging dialogue for the most part make up for some flaws in its ambitious but rushed narrative.

3.5/5

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Adventure Gamers: Rainswept (25/02/19)

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It starts with a gunshot to the head. Well, actually, Rainswept starts with a warning that the game contains references to suicide. So straight away it’s clear that despite the pastel colours and slightly cartoonlike 2D graphics, this will be a dark and emotional ride. Developer Frostwood Interactive do their best to deliver on their promise of an adult story with powerful themes, featuring a detective with a messed-up mind and a murder mystery that isn’t quite what it seems. In some standout scenes, with the help of a melancholic soundtrack, they succeed. But Rainswept has a lot in common with Night in the Woods, not just its palette but also large parts of its narrative (lonely protagonist and creepy goings-on in small town America) and gameplay (interacting with the local characters through dialogue choices). Whilst games borrow from and expand on each other all the time, here the comparison only highlights the elements that don’t quite meet Rainswept’s high ambitions, packing a torrent of emotional beats into just a few hours of gameplay when a steady drip would have been more impactful.

You’ll recognize protagonist Michael Stone as soon as you see him. He’s the archetypal detective featured in so many other games, films and books: chain-smoking, unshaven, jaded and lacking in sleep, with dark thoughts on his mind. He’s arrived in the small town of Pineview to help out the local police force with what they believe to be an open and shut case – a murder-suicide of local couple Chris and Diane, who were seemingly having marital issues leading up to the incident (therapy is much more expensive than a gun these days). Naturally, there’s more to it than meets the eye, both with the case and with Detective Stone, who suddenly has a violent vision at the start of the investigation, creating some kind of new world record for “shortest length of time before my co-workers get concerned I’m probably not fit for this job.”

Graphically the game has a light cartoonish touch: people have button eyes but no mouths, and character animations are a little comical. For example, the protagonist’s long bandy legs never quite seem in sync with the rest of his body when you’re moving him about. It certainly adds a level of comic eccentricity to the experience, but the quirky tone can feel a bit off at times, especially considering the mature subject matter.

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As the dysfunctional Stone, you’ll navigate the 2D streets and bars, shops and houses of Pineview using the keyboard. Points of interest pop up as a magnifying glass icon as you walk past them. When clicked, hotspots open up verb coin options of looking at, using, or talking to the object or person in question. The developers are reportedly also working on a mouse cursor option that doesn’t require being near objects to interact with them. While this feature wasn’t available at the time of my playthrough, its absence didn’t really cause an issue because there’s very little in the way of puzzles here, and not a huge number of objects are vital to the story. Any slight challenges, such as getting a dog to let go of an important photograph (as you do), rely mainly on picking up an item nearby (usually in the same screen) and then using it.

Much like Night in the Woods, the lack of puzzles seems intentional. Rainswept is a narrative-focused game rather than a gameplay-heavy one. Detective Stone only has a few days to try to wrap up the case before the town’s big festival comes, and the chief has more important matters to attend to (small town cops apparently love festivals). The story is split into these distinct days, with each one more or less starting with our investigator waking up and meeting his partner Officer Blunt in the cafe for a lowdown on the objectives he should look into for that day, whether that be meeting the coroner or interviewing a potential suspect.

You’re then free to travel around Pineview and carry out these plans in any order you see fit, and can interact with various characters around town that are going about their daily lives, just for the hell of it. There’s a rudimentary pop-up map that can be used to guide you to your goals, but the street system takes a little bit of getting used to, and often it’s more fun just wandering around anyway. You can check your objectives at any point or even bring up the journal where Detective Stone writes all of his notes about the case, though you’ll never need to refer to any of these to solve anything, so it’s more just for show, or for remembering the names of the people you meet.

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You can opt to completely ignore chatting and get on with cracking the case, but then you’d be missing out on some of the game’s best moments. Whether helping come up with lyrics for a street guitarist’s latest song; rolling your eyes at Grandpa, the town’s resident elderly lothario; or shooting the breeze with a group of teenage skaters, these fun little encounters make Pineview – and Rainswept as a whole – feel more alive, and as the days change so do the differing dialogue options. If anything, even more could have been made of these interactions: more people or different characters that pop up over time, or some secret areas to discover that would encourage you to explore that extra bit longer and create a richer world. As it stands, they’re just a fun but slight distraction to the main story.

Without any voice acting, the dialogue appears in text boxes above the characters, using a basic font that takes a little getting used to at first. You’ll soon get past that and into conversing with the locals, suspects and your fellow officers. Once you get gabbing, you can select what to ask from a couple of options, along with deciding on certain occasions what to reveal about yourself or whether to share your thoughts about a situation, or just remain silent. It’s hard to know how much these choices really affect the gameplay; in one situation I was asked by Officer Blunt whether I liked fiction or non-fiction books, and so I played through both scenarios by going back to my save game. I got a slightly different response depending on what I said, but that appeared to be it. Still, it’s a nice extra feature that gives you the feeling that there is a bit more going on in a game that doesn’t offer much in the way of a challenge – even if that choice is purely cosmetic.

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As Detective Stone looks further into the lives of the murder victims, you also get to play out flashbacks of the first time Chris and Diane met, and how it went so wrong. These moments are easily some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful in the game. Playing as Chris, one effective scene sees you on a date with Diane in the very beginning of their relationship, taking a boat out to a distant island. As the two reflect on their own insecurities and loneliness, against the backdrop of a blueish purple sky, the experience opens up into less of a “whodunit” and more into the drama of two people and how they later fell apart. It’s a touching recollection, relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outcast or a little bit isolated from the world, written with just the right amount of subtlety and maturity.

Such moments are made even more poignant by Micamic’s beautiful soundtrack of lilting piano chords or jazzy syncopated rhythms, depending on the situation and mood. Whilst there are only a handful of main themes looped throughout the game, I found at least one or two of them running through my head even when I wasn’t playing Rainswept, simple yet instantly memorable.

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Unfortunately, key points are also undermined occasionally by a lack of finesse. In a clearly poignant scene between Chris and his wife, Diane suddenly becomes “Daine”, and in another instance Chris asks “do you have any how beautiful you look?” It’s obvious what is meant, but in such emotionally charged scenes all it takes are slight slip-ups to tarnish the moment. Similarly, that moving musical score suddenly cuts to silence when you go to look at your map, and sometimes if you linger too long drinking in the scenery, it will just stop altogether.

As you near the end of the investigation, you’ll also delve into the detective’s own haunting memories of a past relationship, which explain why he’s having so much trouble sleeping. Between this, dipping into Chris and Diane’s backstory, and solving the murder case at present, the narrative strands start to become a little overwhelming near the end as they vie for attention. Depending on whether you make it your top priority to give that guitarist your finest lyrics every day or just rush through the game, there’s probably about 6-8 hours of gameplay all in all. The final reveal of what really happened that night between the couple doesn’t have the climactic feel you might expect, because you’ve been too busy dealing with so many other elements in such a short space of time. Themes of rape, death of a loved one, and PTSD are all hurriedly tackled long before the game’s denouement, more than some games fit into twice or three times the length.

Rainswept is a game that right from the start makes it clear it isn’t afraid of addressing big issues, and should be celebrated for being able to carry it off for the most part. At times, however, this ambition gets the better of it. Not only do several of these elements feel rushed, but there isn’t much actual gameplay to help flesh them out. Another casualty is that basic elements such as script and sound editing lack polish, while engaging features like discovering more about the town and its residents get sidelined. Still, the visuals are stylish, the music wonderfully atmospheric, and the flashbacks scenes in particular are deeply touching, so if you do manage to weather some of the game’s more preposterous moments, there’s a breath of fresh air to be had in its more reflective moments.

Our Verdict:

Rainswept bites off more than it can chew with its ambitious story of love, murder and loneliness, but within the sometimes confusing narrative strands there’s an involving game with a beautiful soundtrack to discover.

3/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game (5/12/2018)

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The cult of author H.P. Lovecraft has never been stronger in video games, as the master of cosmic horror has got his (tentacled) grip firmly on developers’ thoughts these days. Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game tries to bring something new to the party, using a mix of classic logic puzzles and choose-your-own-adventure-style gameplay, all framed within the panels of an interactive comic based on the world of Lovecraft. However, even with such a short game its initial ideas become repetitive, and the addition of one final frustrating puzzle was enough to send this writer into a demented spiral more frenzied than the sight of the great Cthulhu himself.

The story starts in a skippable sequence pre-menu screen, with our unnamed protagonist aboard a frigate heading to New England. Inevitably the ship never makes it to its destination, with a terrible storm plunging it and most of the crew into the murky depths below. You manage to make it ashore to a deserted island, but your only passage away from the lapping waves appears to be an ancient dungeon – the Temple of Nameless Cults. Does everyone have their Lovecraft bingo cards ready?

All of this plays out in a beautifully hand-drawn graphic novel style, with each panel representing the next scene in the story. The tale is conveyed in written comic book-esque boxes and font, with the player clicking a “next” box when ready to move on to the following page. The panels aren’t completely static, with one early standout scene drawn from the point of view of the protagonist as he slowing sinks further under the wreck of his battered boat above the waves, his hand outstretched in front of him and framed in inky blue as bubbles move and float around the screen.

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While presented in the same style, it’s a shame that when you enter the dungeon most of the pretty attention to detail is lost in drab grey rooms. The occasional lurking monster spices up the colour palette a little, and a scene where you have to shoot a gun into the darkness is illustrated in true comic book style with the giant word “BANG” ripped in two by a bullet, but otherwise the inventiveness of the artwork at the beginning gives way to the necessity of trawling through rooms and solving puzzles.

There isn’t much else involved story-wise as you traverse the creepy temple in search of safety, and the game gets stuck in its main mechanics. There are three floors to explore, the first two consisting of 20 rooms each to tentatively venture through. Each room is adjoined by two or three others and you must choose which one to enter by clicking on a box neatly entitled “enter room 5” or something similar. However, some rooms are filled with traps, ranging from bottomless pits to great tentacled Shoggoths ready to eat you whole.

If you enter a room that has a trap in an area next to it, the game will warn you: “there’s a draft nearby” for when you’re near a bottomless pit, for example. Your goal on each of these floors is not only not to die (!) but also to find a particular piece in one of the rooms that will slot into that floor’s puzzle, which when solved will allow you to head deeper into the mysterious cave. If you die, you return to the beginning of that floor again, and as the traps are procedurally created, there’s no point remembering which room held a trap the time before as it’ll all have mostly changed your next time around.  

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Once you find a map for each floor, the puzzle of finding out which rooms have traps in them becomes quite a fun game of logic, as you can cross reference which rooms were said to have something bad lurking next to them and work out a path through the labyrinth. However, until you find the map, which is in a different room every time you play, there’s very little you can do but enter new areas in a trial and error way, hoping you’ve picked one unoccupied by something wanting to kill you. This makes gameplay a little frustrating and quite scattershot at the start, as you pick random doors without much thought or precision. It might have made more sense to include the map from the very beginning, but perhaps the idea was to lengthen this short game as much as possible, which trundling around for direction certainly does.

If you do end up in the room with a hulking Shoggoth, you’ll kickstart a reaction mini-game. In this you’ll need to quickly choose one of three rooms for the protagonist to run through, with a timer at the bottom ticking down as the monster gets progressively closer to chomping on you. Not-so-cryptic advice will appear to hint at where you need to go. For example, when the three doors are marked with an eagle, a shark and grass symbol , the hint tells you to “follow the path of the earth”. This mini-game adds some much-needed change of pace to Lovecraft Quest – unless you keep dying. If you do, it soon becomes clear that although beginning in a different room each time, the sequence of scenarios you have to react to are exactly the same every time. A little bit of variety even in the order of the situations would have kept this more exciting, but maybe that says more about the amount of times I died than anything!

Other threats don’t take up quite as much time. Smelling a “foul stench” means a Dagon (another mythical Lovecraft monster) is near. You can choose a room to fire a gun into in the hope that it’ll hit the slimy beast, but if you’ve chosen incorrectly and don’t wound the creature, the sound will alert it and you’ll be gobbled up whole. There’s also no mini-game or second chance in avoiding the bottomless pits – if you step into a room containing one, it’s back to the start of the floor.

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Once you’ve sidestepped the traps and found your piece as well as the puzzle it fits into, it’s time to get solving so you can open the door to the next floor. Both of the first two floors have quite similar puzzles – one featuring tiles in the wrong places that need to be slid into the right sequence to depict an image (Cthulhu!), and the other consisting of four cogs which each need to be turned so that they too form a picture the right way round. Both of these tasks are fairly easy and even with a bit of mindless clicking can be overcome.

When you reach the final floor, there’s no more room-hopping but instead three bigger puzzles to solve. It’s here that some form of in-game notepad might have been a helpful thing to include, especially as one riddle basically consists of you pressing many symbols in the right order. (Cue bits of paper with weird scribbles on them filling my room, making me look not unlike a cult member myself.) And then there’s the final puzzle. Appearing simple, it merely requires you to turn 16 horizontal rods vertical, opening four locks to the next door. However, turning one rod vertical turns the whole row or column of rods next to it too. It’s hard to put across the frustration of not being able to work out a logical pattern to the puzzle, particularly when previous conundrums were fairly straightforward.

Shamelessly after many, many attempts I found myself seeking help online and even then only worked out the solution because it was alluded to as being similar to one in another game made many years ago, so I looked up the walkthrough for that instead. No doubt some minds more akin to the intellectual Lovecraft will be able to figure this out much quicker than I did, but the overriding feeling I was left with so close to the end of the game was annoyance. Some form of hint system, even if still kept fairly vague, might have helped alleviate the irritation at the final hurdle.

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Most of the sound is made up of effects such as dripping water and monstrous grunts and wails, set alongside a short spooky-sounding score playing in a loop, different for each floor. Although relatively innocuous for most of the game, this repetitive soundtrack during the last puzzle quietly drove me round the bend, and eventually forced me to forcibly jab the mute button.

After one final mini-game, the story ends quite abruptly with a typically Lovecraftian (read: depressing) take on events. Much like in a choose-your-own-adventure book, which route you take will leave you with one of six endings – one “true” outcome on completion of the entire game, or five others to experience throughout, depicting your character dying in some grisly fashion (and sending you back to the start of the current floor to try again). This adds some replayability to a short game, which – annoying last puzzle or not – should still be wrapped up within two hours max for a single playthrough.

The gameis available on PC, but also on Android and iOS devices, and it’s the latter formats that make the most sense here. The short mini-games and self-contained puzzles perfectly lend themselves to the pick-up-and-play approach of mobile gaming. Regardless of platform, OGUREC’s adventure initially stands out for its visual style and seemingly choice-driven gameplay, but ultimately fails to build on this promise. Lovecraft famously hated games, noting that they and sport “ought not be ranked among the major phenomena of life”. By merely borrowing some elements of the author’s mythos to enhance a series of puzzles and timed events, however beautifully drawn, yet leaving behind the compelling story that makes that universe so rich, Lovecraft Quest – A Comix Game unfortunately does little to prove Howard Phillips wrong.

Our Verdict:

Stylish to look at but short on substance, Lovecraft Quest: A Comix Game has a few fun puzzles to beef up its brief story, but too much repetition stops it from becoming a Great One. 2.5/5

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Gaming Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer (06/11/18)

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It isn’t every adventure game that can make you chuckle from its start menu alone. Yet from the outset Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer, with its surreal instruction to “kiss the keyboard”, raises a smile. As the titular P.I. and his robot buddy progress through a comic cartoon tale of body bags, bongos and many, many teeth (I cannot stress enough the amount of teeth), this continual eagerness to be abstract and wacky starts to grate. Unfortunately, this and some issues with dialogue and pixel hunting mean that Nerd Monkeys’s inventive style of play just isn’t enough to stop this sequel from jumping the tracks.

This isn’t the first title featuring our dynamic duo, but having not played Murder in the Hotel Lisbon myself, there was very little in The Express Killer that didn’t make sense, save the odd in-joke. Detective Justin Case, who like any good detective starts this adventure by waking up in a foggy haze of alcoholic regrets, has just recovered from a questionable night out on the town when he and his hovering mechanical sidekick Clown Bot are assigned to an intriguing case on that most exotic of all public transport – a train.

A killer is loose on the express route from Lisbon to Porto: passengers are being very violently terminated and it’s up to Case and Clown Bot to hop on the train to find the culprit and (loco)motive. Thus starts an enjoyably farcical quest, at least at first, as the pair race to interview every passenger and potential suspect on board, whilst all around them more and more commuters get bumped off with alarming and darkly hilarious regularity.

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The game is divided into several acts, the majority of which are spent on the train, which is itself split into three carriages to explore. It may sound as if there’d be very little to discover after a few minutes of car-hopping, but nearly every inch of screen in this adventure hides an item to be clicked on or collected, and it wasn’t until near the very end that I found myself tired of trundling through the same three rooms. Interaction happens through a verb coin interface; a left-click brings up icons such as a mouth to talk to someone or a hand to use an item, and Clown Bot acts as your floating inventory. However, puzzles in the main section aboard the express are largely made up of locating the correct objects hidden around the train and then notifying passengers when you have them, rather than any challenge in combining them or even using them, which is half the fun in most other adventure games.

And then there are the teeth. With a bit of persistence, most of the items that need to be found can be discovered fairly easily, but one challenge asks you to find 29 teeth – visualized as 29 tiny white pixels hidden amongst the train carriages. It’s most appropriate that this task felt like pulling teeth – I ended up finding the majority of choppers whilst taking part in other challenges, but the search for the last few became a very frustrating and boring game of pixel hunting. Some I just couldn’t find at all despite combing the screen several times with the cursor, which highlights items when hovering over them to make them very slightly easier to see. I eventually and somewhat reluctantly turned to a guide to find the final few. After discovering the locations I was glad I did, as without dragging my mouse over every inch of the screen they would have been impossible to spot, especially as the pixels for the particularly difficult ones aren’t even white. It feels like the developers added the teeth problem to make up for a lack of complexity elsewhere, but it would have been better for everyone’s sanity to not have as many, or at least keep it as a completionist’s target rather than one of the main goals of the game.

Along with the item gathering there are also some inventive mini-games scattered like so many body bags throughout the story. Whether it’s having to correctly fit those 29 newly-found rotten and infected teeth back into their rightful denture sockets (complete with gungy gum sound effects) or remember the correct pattern played by a stereotypical bongo-playing Jamaican whilst inhaling questionable substances from a pipe, these games are enjoyable and help to break up the story, and I would have preferred more of them than the scavenger hunting.

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Once the requirements for each passenger / suspect are completed and all objects relating to them found, Case and Clown Bot get the chance to interview them. This comes in the form of another mini-game which those who have played Murder in the Hotel Lisbon will recognize. You must decide whether to have the Detective or CB conduct the interview, and then in a simplified interrogation à la L.A. Noire, choose the correct question out of a selection of three and the inventory item that backs up your line of questioning to “crack” the suspect and find out whether they’re hiding anything.

Unfortunately, the questions themselves make little sense. Each round you get correct, the music becomes more and more frantic and the gestures of the suspects become noticeably more exaggerated and outlandish, but there’s little logical explanation as to why your questions are causing this effect. Why is a banker getting worried about his fake moustaches left behind in a different carriage being discovered – and why would that mean he might be the murderer? Like much of the other components of the game, the idea behind the interview stage is entertaining and it’s admirable to see an adventure game willing to keep throwing different formats and ideas at the player, but the execution just isn’t quite up to scratch.

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General dialogue between Case, CB and their fellow passengers suffers the same fate. There’s the occasional funny joke, particularly of the meta variety – e.g. Case asking what’s wrong with a character and CB explaining that his animators aren’t finished with him yet so he can’t reply. But some rushed English translation from the original Portuguese means that occasionally a word is spelt wrong, or that a non-English word (e.g. “mas”) is slipped into the translation by accident. It’s not a huge issue in the grand scheme of things, but it does serve to detract from the immersion the game is trying to create.

Nerd Monkeys are obviously fans of breaking the fourth wall, as every five minutes when something significant or supposedly funny happens, a silhouetted audience pops up to hoot, jeer or laugh, perhaps to excuse the real audience not doing so. This really gets quite tiring after a while, and I searched in vain for an option in the settings to turn this off. Similarly, the joke that Case can’t remember anybody’s name isn’t particularly amusing to start with and only gets more annoying the tenth or eleventh time it’s repeated. Humour may be subjective, but there’s very few who will find themselves chuckling out loud as the Detective once again slips up with a name – unless they’re a member of the lively on-screen audience who can’t seem to get enough of it.

But you have to hand it to the indie development team for their persistence in trying to make you laugh. Perhaps one of the best gags of the game is a visual and audio one. Passing from the economy train carriages to first class, the view suddenly turns from depicting grotty, falling-apart seats and cracked windows to grand chandeliers swinging from the ceiling, champagne and a billiards table, whilst the soundtrack switches from looping piano to Petzold’s prim and proper “Minuet in G Major”. In general, The Express Killer’s pixel art calls back another game starring a befuddled detective and non-human sidekick duo, Sam & Max Hit The Road, though less pixelated with slightly cleaner definitions. Having so few scenes and most of those consisting of train carriages means that there’s not as much in the way of detail – a few more extra things to see akin to the first class joke wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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All dialogue is written, with no voice-over, so sound is mainly in the form of the repeating score which changes slightly depending on the location or situation, as well as a few sound effects (gungy teeth!). Click on a street band busking at the train station, however, and you’ll be treated to a rousing rock number. The usual short tracks of jazzy flutes and keyboard chords are catchy enough and fairly innocuous sounding, so whilst not particularly memorable, they do serve their basic function without grating on you as they’re played again and again.

The game is relatively short, taking roughly 4-6 hours to finish, depending on whether you choose to complete the optional side quests, and of course on how long it takes you to hunt down those elusive teeth. Without giving too much away, the final reveal of the mysterious killer is fitting for the surreal story and surprisingly one of the strongest parts of the whole plot – it’s fairly unlikely you’ll be able to guess whodunit without a bit of abstract thinking.

If you’re willing to look past some of the annoying issues in Detective Case and Clown Bot in The Express Killer – the occasionally confusing dialogue, laborious pixel hunting and slightly limited puzzles – then there is a somewhat fun game to be enjoyed here. Nerd Monkeys clearly love adventure games and their enthusiasm for the genre can at times be infectious, making you hope for more amusing mini-games or unexpected twists in the bonkers plot. It’s a shame, then, that such moments are all too rare, and what you’re left with instead is a game that grinds to a halt whenever it’s about to pick up momentum.

Our Verdict:

The Express Killer’s eagerness to entertain is a breath of fresh air at first, but its relentless surrealism and some unnecessary pixel hunting soon undermine its creative mini-games and plot twists. 2.5/5