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Adventure Gamers: Murder By Numbers (27/04/20)

Find the original article here.

Whilst That Dreadful Disease forces us all to sing Happy Birthday to ourselves over and over again in the bathroom, I’ve been spending the last few days catching murder suspects by solving numerical puzzles with a robot. No, I haven’t gone completely insane through isolation (yet) – I’ve just been playing Mediatonic’s visual novel puzzler Murder by Numbers. The game is fairly unique in combining numerical grid puzzles known as “Picross” with the bright anime stylings of Hato Moa, creator of another visual novel Hatoful Boyfriend. As a non-Picrosser before this began, the sheer number of puzzles without too much change of pace did get a little tiring. But the lively cast of characters and fantastically upbeat soundtrack courtesy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney composer Masakazu Sugimori manages to add some much needed sunshine at such a dreary time.

It’s 1996, Los Angeles, and you play as Honor Mizrahi, a TV detective who soon finds herself having to become a real life investigator when someone is murdered on set. She’s joined by SCOUT, a sort of flying robot, who boots up in a nearby rubbish dump, unsure of why he’s been thrown out and what his purpose was beforehand. Seeking answers, he bumps into Honor whilst mistaking her for an actual detective, and so they form an unusual crime-fighting duo throughout four cases featuring different murder victims and locations but a recurring cast of characters.

It’s pretty handy that SCOUT decides to stick around, as it’s through his scanning function that you find objects of interest, which often become useful evidence. In each available location – static 2D backgrounds that you can choose to visit once unlocked from a list of destinations on the map – you normally have two options: “investigate” or “question.” The latter lets you interrogate any characters present and produce any evidence you might have. Choose to investigate the area and the screen will turn Matrix green as you use your robot chum’s viewfinder to scan the room with the mouse. When the cursor turns red, you’ve found something of relevance and by clicking you’ll launch into a Picross puzzle.

Screenshot for Murder by Numbers 1

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There’s a brief tutorial at the start of the game if you, like I, have never played this type of puzzle before. Thankfully the premise is fairly simple: fill in all of a certain number of squares in a grid and a picture will appear. There are numbered clues on the side of each grid to tell you how many squares on that row or column need to be filled in, and with a right-click on a square you can mark a cross to remind yourself it shouldn’t be filled in. Once you complete a picture by filling in all the correct squares, you’ll then be able to see what the object is, be it a screwdriver or a bottle of Sambuca, then add it to your inventory, with the potential of using it as evidence somewhere along the line.

As the game progresses, these grids get a little trickier to solve, either with groups of numbers in one line or more squares to fill in. You can choose at any point between easy and normal difficulty, easy meaning that “hints” are on by default and that completed rows are automatically crossed out, whilst normal mode sees hints having to be toggled on and off. The hints themselves however aren’t that handy in a pickle, as they only highlight which lines you can make a move on. A little more useful is the option to check for errors at any time in the puzzle, and even to fill in a few random squares. What would have been a great help but is sadly missing is an “undo” function to help you retrace which squares you’ve filled in previously to get to the root of a mistake without having to resort to hints at all. Such a feature might rankle Picross purists, but it would definitely have stopped me from straying to the hint option so often.

At the end of each puzzle, you get points depending on how difficult it was and whether you used any hints to complete it (use even one and you won’t get any points in that section – Murder by Numbers is a harsh taskmaster). These points contribute to your detective rank for the case, which starts at F and goes all the way up to A then S. Ultimately I found myself not really minding how many points I got or what rank I was – each rank achieved unlocks another short bonus Picross puzzle, and I had enough of those to get me by in the main game. 

Screenshot for Murder by Numbers 2

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There’s something quite satisfying about methodically working your way through the grid in each puzzle and everything fitting together. But there are A LOT of them to solve throughout the four cases, and the gameplay does start to get repetitive fast. Some of the more complex puzzles can take up to ten or fifteen minutes each to complete (at least for a tired brain such as mine), meaning that it’s probably going to take you about twelve to fifteen hours to finish the full game. There is a wrinkle introduced when you have to hack computers – it’s yet again another Picross puzzle, but this time it’s timed and if you fill in a wrong square you lose some of that time. But there’s no real punishment if you fail, you just go back and try again. These quicker bursts of puzzle solving don’t happen often enough to really change up the gameplay pace, however.

How much enjoyment you get out of playing Murder by Numbers probably depends on how much you love completing Picross problems and being constantly thrown into yet another brain-teaser every few minutes. Fans of this type of puzzle may well relish having so many of them to solve, but whilst I certainly did enjoy the slow burn of successfully filling my way through a grid, it felt like at least one more gameplay element was needed to keep things feeling fresh.  

Accompanying the action is Sugimori’s delightfully bombastic soundtrack, all catchy synths and bubblegum pop at its finest. It’s a testament to the composer that you’ll hear the game’s five or six short tracks over and over again as you work your way through, but never tire of them. There’s no voice acting, just text dialogue, but there are some excellent sound effects like a “slap” noise when someone is shocked, in keeping with the game’s anime styling.

Moa’s designs add another level of slick style to the presentation. Much like in other visual novels, the 2D characters are superimposed over static backgrounds, but as with the sound, little animations – such as sweat droplets when a character’s caught out – bring them to life. There’s also a great amount of distinguishing detail brightly drawn into everyone no matter how small a part they play, like the red-nosed, doughy parking inspector with a burst shirt button. Moa brings little touches to their appearances that straight away tell you so much about them and who they are. Environments range from the commonplace like a parking lot to the more unusual, such as a drag queen’s dressing room. And as it’s set in LA, naturally there some Hollywood settings like a glitzy award ceremony to attend too.

Alongside this riot of colour, for the most part the dialogue doesn’t disappoint either. There are plenty of jokes and sassy lines to enjoy, many saved for Honor’s gay best friend, make-up and hair “artiste” K.C., who serves up shady put downs like “the real crime are those eyebrows” with cruel regularity. Amidst the whimsical tone, however, the game isn’t afraid to be more mature at points too. I was surprised that halfway through the story the issue of gender identity was thrown into the conversation, as SCOUT, being a robot, is unsure why people keep referring to him as a “he” and what that means. Considering the game’s overall slapstick style, it’s thankfully dealt with in a sweet and thoughtful way – not what I was expecting from a Picross game about murder, but all the better for it.

Screenshot for Murder by Numbers 4

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Perhaps it’s to be expected with this madcap cast, but the story itself does suffer from wild leaps of the imagination. Plot lines tend to jump from one strange conclusion to the next, and after a cursory line or two no one seems that shocked at a flying robot that can talk and solve crime in the 1990s. You are given chances throughout the game to make your own mind up about who’s a prime suspect or what their motive might be through a list of dialogue options. But an incorrect choice just sees SCOUT explain why that doesn’t make sense and you’ll be asked to pick again, so there’s no real feeling that your choices matter too much.

Ultimately, Murder by Numbers feels less like a real detective game and more like a very detailed Picross game with a narrative attached, albeit one with a brilliant soundtrack and vivid graphics. For puzzle enthusiasts this will be probably more than enough, but story fans may wish for a little better balance so that the mystery elements could be given more time and the grid challenges broken up that little bit more. Either way, at least when you’re washing your hands you’ll have some excellent new tunes to hum along to.

Our Verdict:

Murder by Numbers combines the unlikely trio of maths, melodrama and murder in a stylishly animated equation that is somewhat unbalanced by its repetitive Picross puzzles.

3/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Interrogation: You Will Be Deceived (18/03/20)

Find the original article here.

Rather than scouring crime scenes, Interrogation: You will be deceived sees you play as an unseen, unnamed detective trying to break into the murky world of an underground terrorist group by gaining information through increasingly difficult – you guessed it – interrogations. But contrary to what the title says, don’t be deceived: whilst there are paragraphs of text to read, this isn’t a slow-burning interactive novel. Select the right questions and your suspect will slowly start to crack, but stumble once or twice in the face of stubborn resistance, especially in the game’s harder mode, and be prepared to reboot your case and ask better questions next time.

What first strikes you – and thankfully, despite the plentiful opportunities to get violent, it’s not a fist – is its eye-catching graphics. Often when this gets mentioned in game reviews, it’s due to a title’s colourful 3D landscapes. That’s not the case here: its colour palette is very much of the noir-styled 2D black and white variety. But for a game that sees you rely as much on the visual clues of the suspects you’re interrogating as on what they’re saying, developers Critique Gaming have gone to great lengths to capture every flicker of fear and doubt on their faces. It’s indicative of Interrogation’s ambition as a whole, as alongside simple questioning there’s also a budget to manage, a team to build, and many more strategy and RPG-lite elements. Lengthy dialogue and punitive time limits near the end aside, all of these aspects come together to form a thrilling game of cat and mouse, just as happy to pose questions as it is to resort to violence.

After a brief but useful tutorial to go over the game’s mechanics, you start your intrepid career as an interrogator extraordinaire on a “normal” police job – a burglary’s gone very wrong (read: turned into a murder) and you have to interview the suspect and the victim’s husband to find out what happened. As you might expect, things aren’t quite as they first appear, and as you delve further into the husband’s backstory the terrorist group “The Liberation Front ” is mentioned. It turns out this mysterious gathering is gaining support amongst the country’s lost and disenfranchised, urging people to take matters into their own hands. Naturally your boss is worried, and so using the information you’ve already gathered, you’re made the head of a new task force dedicated to learning more about the dangerous Front and infiltrating their membership.

The rest of the game sees you trying to unmask the rebels’ shady leaders and stop multiple threats of violence through a series of intense interrogations of the group’s potential affiliates and informers. At the beginning you can choose either the “Challenge” or “Adventure” mode – the latter an easier version played more for the story, where you’re less likely to need to replay interrogations, and suspects are more inclined to offer up confessions quicker. Choosing “Challenge” mode makes your question periods more intense as suspects will require more persuasion to give up their info, and the time allotted in timed interrogations is often punishingly short.

The developers have made no secret that they don’t intend to give players an easy ride, and that they want it to feel like a real-life interrogation where suspects aren’t going to be willing to tell you things straight off the bat. Fail a round by running out of time or resorting to violent measures too often and you’ll have to restart that whole section again. This got a little annoying later on when interrogations became very complex with multiple suspects and story strands to uncover. The brutal time limits meant I ended up skimming through the many paragraphs of text to find the one question that would unlock fresh ones, rather than taking in each revelation and deducing what I needed to ask next. It feels like a sort of middle ground in between the punitive and simplistic modes might have been ideal, but for the most part “Challenge” mode adds plenty of excitement to make it worthwhile, with minor frustrations only setting in during the game’s final few segments, when you at least have better gotten to grips with the game’s mechanics.

Before each session you’re given a file that fills you in on details of the case as well as the person or people being brought in for questioning. Once you’ve had your fill of reading, you can arrange to have your suspect(s) seated across from you. You start with several topics to delve into on the left-hand side of the screen, including the “accusation question” in red, which is only worth using when you think your suspect is close to giving something crucial away. New questions arising through information gathered from the suspects during interrogation are displayed in yellow. The interface does a good job of helping you keep track of how far you likely have to go before your suspect cracks. There’s a pupil dilation monitor which tells you how open each person is feeling, and a heart rate monitor to show when they’re scared. The key to successfully completing a case is to decide whether empathy or fear is a better approach for each person, either by intimidating them, becoming personal, or catching them in contradictions.

Screenshot for Interrogation: You will be deceived 2

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You can even go full bad cop and torture your suspects if you feel like they’re giving you the slip. At any point you can decide to stop the tape recorder and select from options such as slamming your interrogatee against the wall, or even electrocuting them. The brutal sound of screams and moans from your suspect that accompany these actions are deeply unpleasant and very affecting to experience. There’s no voice acting in Interrogation, so aside from some tension-inducing background music, these startled screams are one of the few things you’ll hear.

Be warned, however: employ too much aggression and your counterpart may pass out, and more generally your public approval rating may go down. There’s little indication of what the consequences might be if it hits rock bottom, but later there’s a creative scene where you yourself are put under interrogation, during which any past indiscretions like a fondness for good ol’ torturing may pop up. In this way, the game manages to turn what could have been quite a gratuitous inclusion into a more nuanced, mature discussion about how far is too far to get the answers you need when deadlines and sometimes lives are at stake.

Interrogation works hard to make each question period feel new and fresh. You might be up against the clock to find out the location of a bomb that’s about to go off, or trying to discover the password for a secret server before the logins get changed and your way further into the terrorist organisation is lost forever. Alongside these are some surprisingly in-depth attempts at strategy and even RPG elements. For example, as leader of the task force, each round you’re given a set amount of money which you have to choose how to spend or save – do you invest in boosting your team’s morale by planning a weekend away or do you spend more money on HR reports to learn about their past life stories? You’ll also have to decide what specific tasks the three members of your team should be doing in between cases, from balancing the books to chasing up leads, all of which they can fail or succeed at depending on their morale and suitability to the task.

Screenshot for Interrogation: You will be deceived 3

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Whilst adding another unique layer to the gameplay, it’s hard to know how much either issue really feeds into the interrogations and therefore the main bulk of the game. Maintaining good team morale is useful for completing your extra side tasks successfully, which may now and then unlock an extra line of questions to ask your suspects, but I also managed entire question rounds fine without any extra help. You do get regular reports about how well the authorities and press think you’re doing alongside the public, but it’s still difficult to know what specific action has caused their view of you to go up or down. It’s a shame, as it’s a bold move to throw such different styles into the mix, but as the game progresses and there’s no huge impact on the storyline, they begin to feel more superfluous than adding intended depth.

Every few sessions you can pick up new skill sets to shape your interrogation style. Framed as photographs you stick into an album, each will give you different perks in the interview room. Some give you more options to threaten your suspects, and others even allow you to slip them a drink to loosen them up. Because these directly influence the main focus of the game, this lite role-playing element felt like a more worthy inclusion, rather than just another add-on to keep the game feeling fresh.

The people you pull in to question all have interesting and very detailed backstories, which you can dig into as part of your questioning. It’s clear a lot of research has been done for Interrogation’s script to make each person and their own personal philosophies seem authentic. They’re not always straight criminals – some might be concerned girlfriends whose partners have been acting suspiciously, others academics who can shed some light on how previous terrorist groups have behaved to help you with this one. A lot can be revealed in just one answer, if you have enough time on the clock to read through it properly.

Screenshot for Interrogation: You will be deceived 4

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Your team of three – Jennifer, Tab and Mordecai – each have their own past you can read up on if you want as well. Tab is an analytical number cruncher, Jennifer is the poster girl of the policing unit, whilst Mordecai isn’t afraid of getting his information from more illicit sources. Their slightly one-dimensional characteristics do make it feel like they’ve been shoehorned in to fit the strategy side of the game, such that you have to decide who might be better suited to each task, but the plot ensures that even with these limitations there are still some surprises along the way.

Another area where the game stands out is its animations. Every animation has been hand-drawn in black and white by rotoscoping more than 1000 photos of over 40 actors. For those of you who have played the interactive novel Hotel Dusk, the effect will be instantly familiar if a little more lifelike, creating the eerie quality of half-real and half-animated. It’s another extra effort that the team have made towards really stamping their own mark on the experience.

The developer’s ambition shines throughout the 5-6 hours spent playing Interrogation: You will be deceived and pays off in its thoughtful conclusion, a challenging but well-paced final interrogation. Whilst the strategy and RPG elements add a pleasing extra layer to gameplay, it’s the intense back-and-forth nature of the main interrogation mode coupled with some convincing writing and beautiful animations that really make it worth pushing through this game’s demanding challenges. If you want the playful contradiction-hunting investigative work of Phoenix Wright but gruffer, grown up, and sporting a secret penchant for the darker things in life, look no further.

Our Verdict:

Interrogation: You will be deceived ambitiously marries adventure, RPG and strategy elements with a dark edge that will even have you asking questions of yourself.

4/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard (27/12/19)

Find the original article here.

Note: Though the article content is the same, the review of The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game has been published separately with its own individual rating.


Whether faced with a possible ghost infestation or ruined parade decorations, there’s something about the charmingly carefree way that everybody in the Frog Detective universe brushes off issues and just gets on with their lives that makes it a very appealing place to want to dip into right now. And whilst we seem to be currently overrun with anthropomorphic detectives in the adventure game world these days, from comic book cats to trench-coat-wearing raccoons, no one does the animal sub-genre quite like indie developer Grace Bruxner.

Any notion of the brooding noirish atmosphere found in similar detective-based games is reserved solely for the jazzy soundtracks here. Instead, both The Haunted Island and The Case of the Invisible Wizard serve up a sunny, whimsical slice of comfort and light absurdity. Both episodes’ colourful cast of characters, with their hilariously drawn blank-eyed, grinning faces and bizarre personality traits, are a delight to interact with. Each story will only take about an hour to complete from start to finish, and those hunting for complex puzzles will certainly not find them in either of Frog Detective’s adventures. But sometimes in this world of strained relations and ever-increasing tensions, a cheerful amphibian and a gaggle of wonderfully weird animals to chat with is all you need.

Screenshot for Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard 1

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In both games you play as the eponymous investigator, frequently referred – to his face – as the “second-best detective” in the world (the first, of course, is Lobster Cop). Players control our froggy friend using the directional or WASD keys to move freely in the 3D world, left-clicking with the mouse to interact with things or people and right-clicking to zoom into objects with your magnifying glass (a feature that seems to have no benefit other than to make objects or characters morph comically out of perspective).

For most of both installments, you’ll view the world directly through our sleuthing croaker’s eyes, apart from when he chats to the locals and the camera cuts back to his usually puzzled expression as they mention something ridiculous (this happens a lot). Each game sees you assigned by your chipper supervisor to a particular case: in the first you’re to find out what’s going on with – you guessed it – a supposedly haunted island, whilst The Invisible Wizard sees you heading to Warlock Woods to find out who’s spoiled all the decorations for the new guest’s welcoming festivities.

The two plot lines are mainly excuses to get you off interrogating a host of weird and wonderful characters. From Haunted Island’s pose-striking alligator Fresh X to Invisible Wizard’s singing rhino Mary, whose terrible voice has caused the whole village to soundproof their rooms, Grace Bruxner has shown a knack for writing amusingly silly oddballs that you’ll want to just stay and gab with as long as possible. It’s almost a shame that the dialogue for each character is reasonably brief; at least with the sequel there’s a little more to ask each animal and more creatures to speak to.

Screenshot for Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard 2

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There’s no voice acting, but the dialogue appearing in a rounded, childlike font is refreshingly down to earth and often laughably informal. Characters frequently insult our gumshoe and then apologise for their impoliteness, the detective replying with a jovial “no worries!” or something similar before getting onto his next round of questioning. Everyone is so appreciative of everyone else and conversations so unaffected by tension of any kind, it put this conflict-avoidant writer deeply at ease – which feels odd considering you’re spending your time with an eye-patch-wearing lion called Ralph, but hey, I’m down for it.

Haunted Island finds you on the hunt for items that can make an explosive device (pasta, a chunk of gold and some wool, naturally) to knock down a wall which may be concealing a spooky ghost. Whilst you do have an inventory at the top of the screen that displays what items you’ve got, you can’t select them for use with lots of different objects as with more traditional point-and-click adventures. Instead the on-screen inventory mainly serves as a reminder of your possessions, and you’ll only be able to use the items through dialogue options (e.g. give big shell) rather than where you see fit.

In the second game, though the mechanic of finding and fetching necessary objects is similar, each character has a particular want – from a party hat to a collection of handmade pies – that needs fulfilling for you to progress the story, in many cases supplying you with another item in return which will fulfill someone else’s need. It’s all pretty basic stuff and even the most casual adventure game player won’t find anything here to trouble them. 

Screenshot for Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard 3

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Invisible Wizard helps you keep track of your inventory as well as each character’s desire and their possible motives for mucking up a parade in a handy notebook. In keeping with the game’s fanciful style, you get to decorate your book at the beginning with a variety of fun stickers, from a smiling fried egg to a grinning cactus, just for your own frivolous amusement. After meeting each character in Warlock Woods, a page will automatically get filled in with learnt details about that animal, ranging from the professional to the slightly less so – “a private boy” or “long snoot.”

Unfortunately in my first playthrough, I never got a prompt to tell me that the notebook could be brought up at any time by pressing Tab, seemingly due to a bug. I’m glad I played again and discovered my loss, as there’s plenty of mad little scribblings to leaf through and chuckle at which can be easy to miss at first glance, plus a funky “suspicious” sticker you can whack on and off of characters’ pages, for no real reason other than you’re in an accusatory mood.

Both the haunted island and Warlock Woods are simply designed with a rather minimalist art style but they are bathed in bright, pastel colours, easy on the eye and inviting to explore. The settings are small and won’t take long to get around, but there’s plenty of pictorial in-jokes and oddities to discover, such as peeping into the characters’ homes in Invisible Wizard to discover pictures of Grace’s dog on the walls. And I can’t emphasise enough how funny each animal looks before even uttering a word to our leaping investigator, their wide-eyed, blank faces setting up the deadpan humour perfectly.

Screenshot for Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard 4

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Dan Golding, who previously created a brilliant ambient soundtrack for Untitled Goose Game, does a great job here of composing several dramatic scores for both episodes that work well with the tongue-in-cheek comedy and mildly absurd jokes. The wailing saxophone and soft drum brushes of the series’ main theme could be mistaken for a more serious film noir accompaniment (I got definite Grim Fandango vibes) but works even better in the context of playing a little frog as he hops around interviewing a cat called Susan. Invisible Wizard’s intro, which sees our impassive web-footed protagonist make his way to the forest on an incredibly slow cart whilst the music builds up more and more melodramatically, is probably one of the funniest scenes in the whole game.  

The two adventures are so short that you’ll be able to complete both in one sitting, but a choice you need to make near the end of Invisible Wizard means there’s a little bit of replayability if you want to discover both endings. Really, though, with worlds as well-realized as they are in the Frog Detective series, you may just find it fun to revisit both titles to bathe in the silly warmth of its cast, locations and admirably zany dialogue a little while longer. Thank goodness a short scene at the end of Invisible Wizard suggests another episode is already planned to make another splash in our lives sometime in the near future. 

Our Verdict:

Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard expands on its predecessor’s strengths with an even wider cast of loveable, eccentric characters to question, all the while keeping the original’s sunny charm and humour.

4/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game (27/12/19)

Find the original article here.

Note: Though the article content is the same, the review of Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard has been published separately with its own individual rating.


Whether faced with a possible ghost infestation or ruined parade decorations, there’s something about the charmingly carefree way that everybody in the Frog Detective universe brushes off issues and just gets on with their lives that makes it a very appealing place to want to dip into right now. And whilst we seem to be currently overrun with anthropomorphic detectives in the adventure game world these days, from comic book cats to trench-coat-wearing raccoons, no one does the animal sub-genre quite like indie developer Grace Bruxner.

Any notion of the brooding noirish atmosphere found in similar detective-based games is reserved solely for the jazzy soundtracks here. Instead, both The Haunted Island and The Case of the Invisible Wizard serve up a sunny, whimsical slice of comfort and light absurdity. Both episodes’ colourful cast of characters, with their hilariously drawn blank-eyed, grinning faces and bizarre personality traits, are a delight to interact with. Each story will only take about an hour to complete from start to finish, and those hunting for complex puzzles will certainly not find them in either of Frog Detective’s adventures. But sometimes in this world of strained relations and ever-increasing tensions, a cheerful amphibian and a gaggle of wonderfully weird animals to chat with is all you need.

Screenshot for Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, The 1

View all screenshots »

In both games you play as the eponymous investigator, frequently referred – to his face – as the “second-best detective” in the world (the first, of course, is Lobster Cop). Players control our froggy friend using the directional or WASD keys to move freely in the 3D world, left-clicking with the mouse to interact with things or people and right-clicking to zoom into objects with your magnifying glass (a feature that seems to have no benefit other than to make objects or characters morph comically out of perspective).

For most of both installments, you’ll view the world directly through our sleuthing croaker’s eyes, apart from when he chats to the locals and the camera cuts back to his usually puzzled expression as they mention something ridiculous (this happens a lot). Each game sees you assigned by your chipper supervisor to a particular case: in the first you’re to find out what’s going on with – you guessed it – a supposedly haunted island, whilst The Invisible Wizard sees you heading to Warlock Woods to find out who’s spoiled all the decorations for the new guest’s welcoming festivities.

The two plot lines are mainly excuses to get you off interrogating a host of weird and wonderful characters. From Haunted Island’s pose-striking alligator Fresh X to Invisible Wizard’s singing rhino Mary, whose terrible voice has caused the whole village to soundproof their rooms, Grace Bruxner has shown a knack for writing amusingly silly oddballs that you’ll want to just stay and gab with as long as possible. It’s almost a shame that the dialogue for each character is reasonably brief; at least with the sequel there’s a little more to ask each animal and more creatures to speak to.

Screenshot for Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, The 2

View all screenshots »

There’s no voice acting, but the dialogue appearing in a rounded, childlike font is refreshingly down to earth and often laughably informal. Characters frequently insult our gumshoe and then apologise for their impoliteness, the detective replying with a jovial “no worries!” or something similar before getting onto his next round of questioning. Everyone is so appreciative of everyone else and conversations so unaffected by tension of any kind, it put this conflict-avoidant writer deeply at ease – which feels odd considering you’re spending your time with an eye-patch-wearing lion called Ralph, but hey, I’m down for it.

Haunted Island finds you on the hunt for items that can make an explosive device (pasta, a chunk of gold and some wool, naturally) to knock down a wall which may be concealing a spooky ghost. Whilst you do have an inventory at the top of the screen that displays what items you’ve got, you can’t select them for use with lots of different objects as with more traditional point-and-click adventures. Instead the on-screen inventory mainly serves as a reminder of your possessions, and you’ll only be able to use the items through dialogue options (e.g. give big shell) rather than where you see fit.

In the second game, though the mechanic of finding and fetching necessary objects is similar, each character has a particular want – from a party hat to a collection of handmade pies – that needs fulfilling for you to progress the story, in many cases supplying you with another item in return which will fulfill someone else’s need. It’s all pretty basic stuff and even the most casual adventure game player won’t find anything here to trouble them. 

Screenshot for Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, The 3

View all screenshots »

Invisible Wizard helps you keep track of your inventory as well as each character’s desire and their possible motives for mucking up a parade in a handy notebook. In keeping with the game’s fanciful style, you get to decorate your book at the beginning with a variety of fun stickers, from a smiling fried egg to a grinning cactus, just for your own frivolous amusement. After meeting each character in Warlock Woods, a page will automatically get filled in with learnt details about that animal, ranging from the professional to the slightly less so – “a private boy” or “long snoot.”

Unfortunately in my first playthrough, I never got a prompt to tell me that the notebook could be brought up at any time by pressing Tab, seemingly due to a bug. I’m glad I played again and discovered my loss, as there’s plenty of mad little scribblings to leaf through and chuckle at which can be easy to miss at first glance, plus a funky “suspicious” sticker you can whack on and off of characters’ pages, for no real reason other than you’re in an accusatory mood.

Both the haunted island and Warlock Woods are simply designed with a rather minimalist art style but they are bathed in bright, pastel colours, easy on the eye and inviting to explore. The settings are small and won’t take long to get around, but there’s plenty of pictorial in-jokes and oddities to discover, such as peeping into the characters’ homes in Invisible Wizard to discover pictures of Grace’s dog on the walls. And I can’t emphasise enough how funny each animal looks before even uttering a word to our leaping investigator, their wide-eyed, blank faces setting up the deadpan humour perfectly.

Screenshot for Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, The 4

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Dan Golding, who previously created a brilliant ambient soundtrack for Untitled Goose Game, does a great job here of composing several dramatic scores for both episodes that work well with the tongue-in-cheek comedy and mildly absurd jokes. The wailing saxophone and soft drum brushes of the series’ main theme could be mistaken for a more serious film noir accompaniment (I got definite Grim Fandango vibes) but works even better in the context of playing a little frog as he hops around interviewing a cat called Susan. Invisible Wizard’s intro, which sees our impassive web-footed protagonist make his way to the forest on an incredibly slow cart whilst the music builds up more and more melodramatically, is probably one of the funniest scenes in the whole game.  

The two adventures are so short that you’ll be able to complete both in one sitting, but a choice you need to make near the end of Invisible Wizard means there’s a little bit of replayability if you want to discover both endings. Really, though, with worlds as well-realized as they are in the Frog Detective series, you may just find it fun to revisit both titles to bathe in the silly warmth of its cast, locations and admirably zany dialogue a little while longer. Thank goodness a short scene at the end of Invisible Wizard suggests another episode is already planned to make another splash in our lives sometime in the near future. 

Our Verdict:

A short but very welcome burst of childlike absurdity, The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game makes up for its simplicity with its brilliantly written cast of characters and deadpan humour.

3.5/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Still There (11/12/19)

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In space, no one can hear you struggle to work out which button to press. And that’s precisely what you’ll spend a lot of your time doing in GhostShark’s psychological point-and-click sci-fi adventure Still There. Half “Firewatch in space” with its engaging story of isolation, grief and loss aboard a ship, and half “Papers Please also in space” due to its complex technical puzzles, this game isn’t for those lacking in concentration. Its commitment to not dumbing down its challenges (unless you actively choose to) is admirable, and when everything clicks into place and you complete a mammoth task, it can feel magical. The problem lies in getting to that point, which, due to the huge array of onboard controls and obscure spaceship manual you must consult to have any hope of understanding your goals, means solving puzzles often breaks down into furiously clicking switches and buttons in the hope of something working. The intriguing story and small but lively cast of characters help make the occasional frustration worth persevering through, but with a few tweaks to the puzzle introductions and ideally a hint system, this could have felt less like a drawn-out space odyssey and more like an out-of-this-world adventure.

The tale kicks off several decades in the future as you take control of Karl Hamba, the sole human inhabitant of space-lighthouse The Bento, stuck performing the same maintenance tasks day in and day out alongside your chipper AI companion / overseer Gorky, there to assist and keep an eye on you for your employers Brane Co. Karl’s adrift not only atmospherically but also mentally, unable to forgive himself for the initially unknown fate of his young daughter Eshe and the wife he left behind, Hani. So, much like Firewatch’s Henry, he plunges himself into deep isolation, only functioning to wake, eat, perform his tasks, sleep and drink excellent Italian coffee. And just like in Campo Santo’s wilderness adventure, it doesn’t take long for that self-imposed prison to be suddenly disturbed by an outside force that changes everything – in this case a distress call from a stranded ship and its mysterious captain Elle.

The compact Bento is split into five rooms: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, exit hatch and control room. You navigate in first-person between rooms by holding down the right mouse button and dragging left or right to pan the camera along a side-scrolling plane – or there’s an option to fast travel to a room by clicking its icon in your slide-out inventory at the bottom of the screen. The lightly pastel-coloured hand-drawn depictions of Karl’s surroundings are bright and eye-catching, and your exploration of each area is accompanied by the occasional looping ethereal piano chords or context-sensitive sound effects (the flush of a toilet or the click of a keyboard). From the oven to a toilet paper roll, most objects can be interacted with, a single left-click bringing up icons to examine closer, pick up, or combine with an item in your inventory. Each room is packed with things to scrutinize, sometimes overwhelmingly so, especially when you’re searching for a tiny fuse or battery amongst the mess.

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You will need to use that oven, as alongside the more technical tasks Gorky and Brane Co. want you to complete, you also have to nourish yourself throughout the several days that split the game into chapters. This means cooking up bland space paste and even the unpleasant process of recycling your own urine into water…for you to drink. The developers want you to experience the full reality of what surviving alone in space would entail, with tongue firmly in cheek, and it’s equal parts disgusting and hilarious.

Your usual daily routine, before everything goes a little pear-shaped, consists of things like signaling Brane Co., sending back coordinates of constellations, and playing your space beacon (a MIDI keyboard you need to rewire and then play specific tunes on to alert other spaceships to your presence). Puzzles often have a coding (if this, then that) or logical quality to them. For example, to set up a signal to the corporation, you’ll need to consult your technical manual and work out where to place a set of jumper plugs in a grid of numbered slots so that the signal moves from the mainframe to your modem and then to the high frequency antenna. Even before everything steps up a gear when you try to rescue the stranded ship and Elle, little things disrupt your tasks as the days move on to make them that little bit harder, such as the signal to Brane Co becoming distorted. Now you’ve got to find a way to amplify it first, before connecting it up as usual.

You’ll be consulting your reasonably hefty technical manual, and Gorky, for hints on how to perform procedures like this, but both are pretty unforthcoming with advice – for one puzzle Gorky simply told me to consult the manual, which is littered with dense diagrams and scientific quotations. Clicking on those descriptions does give more explanation in a slightly-easier-to-digest account, but still I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing rather than actually solving the puzzles.

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This is a running theme that only gets worse as the obstacles get more complex and are split into several subsections. For instance, changing the ping setting of a nearby satellite so that a missile collides with it (instead of the Bento) requires you to find your ship’s “public key,” then work out how to conceal your own signal, then access the ship’s database, then work out what the “private key” or ping setting is (by using a system of dice, one that tells you how many accurate key numbers you have and one that gives you hints on what the position of those numbers should be), and only then finally inputting your ship’s private key onto the nearby satellite. If you manage to get through all of this without once wildly clicking around your control room’s many switches and levers, furiously slotting in various computer chips and trying to find out what on earth a private key is, then you have a less focus-addled brain than I.

There is an option to make puzzles easier by clicking an icon in the corner of the screen, which either reduces the number of steps needed to complete a challenge, or sometimes wipes out the puzzle altogether. I only stooped to this level twice; I was reluctant to because you won’t get an achievement if you use it, but felt compelled to out of a desire to get on with the story. It was a last resort, as it felt quite unsatisfying to have to give in and especially to have the challenge skipped completely. When you do get the grasp of what you’re supposed to be doing and accomplish a particular objective it’s a great feeling, so it’s a shame that there isn’t a gradual hint system within the game that feeds you clearer suggestions if you’re stuck, so that you still feel like you’re deciphering something rather than giving in and missing something entirely instead.

Thankfully, even through some of the densest challenges, the intriguing plot and wacky characters made me want to persist. There’s a streak of dark humour throughout the dialogue, which pops up as text in comic book-style speech boxes. (Just wait until you find out what’s making the buzzing noise in one of the control panel’s cavities.) Your computer pal Gorky has particularly sarcastic sensibilities, his little cheeky animated face of various emojis flashing up on your ship’s computer screen to tell you to get back to work or when cracking another joke of poor taste.

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And then there’s Karl, whose tale of utter heartache made me shed the occasional tear IRL and is likely to do the same for anyone who’s lost someone close to them. Still There does a good job for the most part of depicting mental illness and specifically the mind-numbing struggle of depression. In one of the frequent dream sequences, a voice asks Karl if he’s okay. Even if you want to front up and choose the “I’m not OK” dialogue option, your cursor freezes, forcing you to choose denial. Near the end of the story this quiet, understated portrayal of the vicious forces that can bind someone to such demons does become slightly more melodramatic as Karl tries to come to terms with his past. Nevertheless, for the most part the game deals with its serious subject matter with real understanding, maturity and creativity – no mean feat at all.

As well as solving fiendish puzzles and urinating there are some small extra side quests to complete, such as playing chess with Gorky or caring for your pet tuatara. (You can even choose a name for said lizard, who I was then reasonably sad to see pass away due to my *ahem* forgetfulness. RIP Li’l Ricky.) These only serve as minor distractions to the main events, which, depending on how long you end up taking to crack some of the trickier challenges, will last you anywhere between 6-10 hours. Once you’re done there’s little reason to go back, unless you’re a completionist and want to get every achievement or take another crack at solving any puzzles you may have skipped on your own.

More casual gamers may find Still There floats too far into the stratosphere of the technical to really enjoy and appreciate its detailed world and myriad switches. On the other hand, an adventure that refuses to hold your hand can be a rare and sometimes appealing quality in these times of patronizing tutorials and simplified gameplay. Indeed, if solving intricately designed puzzles in a pretty environment alongside a thought-provoking narrative sounds like your bag, then buckle up – you’re in store for a wild space ride of buttons, bodily functions and baffling brainteasers.

Our Verdict:

Still There’s elaborate puzzles and willfully obscure explanations may scare off casual players, but stick with this meditative adventure and you’ll find much to enjoy within its thoughtful depiction of a lonely life in space.

3/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Wanderlust: Travel Stories (21/10/19)

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At the beginning of the year my dad went on an epic four-month cruise trip around the world. As he progressed in his latest attempt to become Manchester’s answer to Phileas Fogg, another collection of photos would drop into our WhatsApp conversation. There he’d be, a tiny outline against the majesty of Egypt’s pyramids or snorkeling through the clear blue waves of the Coral Reef – and the less said about the occasional shot of him lazing in a hot tub the better. Playing Wanderlust: Travel Stories had the same effect as those multitude of holiday snaps, in that it was so engrossing an interactive travelogue that not even halfway through I found myself booking a holiday of my own just so that I could be the one experiencing something new and exciting for a change.  (Your tourist tips for Reykjavik, please!)

This narrative-driven text game, made up of over 300,000 words and inspired by real-life accounts, will grab any small part of you that longs to be a free spirit and won’t let go. Like any excursion into the unknown, there are blips here and there – one or two of the tales do begin to drag near their end and the photographic backdrops don’t always shine. For the most part, though, the detailed descriptions brilliantly fling you from your armchair to halfway across the world, and the choices provided allow you to effect some influence on how the experience plays out.

The game begins with five strangers: Adilia from Portugal, father and daughter Henry and Henriette from the UK, Martine from Germany, and Tomek from Poland, all meeting on Easter Island. They recognize in each other kindred travelling spirits and decide that they’ll meet every night during their stay to hear each other’s respective stories of the journeys that changed them. The discussions between them and the tales themselves all take the form of scrolling text on the left-hand side of the screen, against a backdrop of actual photographs. Much like in the fictional text adventure 80 Days, there are choices to make that shape how each person responds both in the present and within their own story. And like in inkle’s lauded globetrotting adventure, sometimes those decisions are as basic as selecting whether your current character drinks a beer or a cocktail in Bangkok, while others, like deciding whether or not to rat on a deceitful crewmate aboard a ship bound for Antarctica, can have altogether more dramatic consequences.

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After chatting amongst the group you’ll be taken to an overview of the globe for the start of a new chapter. There are four main segments in Wanderlust lasting between an hour and up to four or five hours each, plus four smaller “anecdotes” that take around ten to fifteen minutes. That’s a lot of text, but the writers at Different Tales have done a good job of making most of those paragraphs exciting to read. Drag your mouse around to one of the countries with a story and you’ll be greeted with a romantic, James Bond-like title (“Today Is Always Gone Tomorrow,” “This Isn’t A Love Story”) of the journey you’re about to embark on.

Each story is set in a different part of the world and follows our travellers at a different stage in their lives. Tomek’s main adventure explores love and spontaneity in Barcelona and other European cities. Henry and Henrietta’s experiences intertwine as the father takes a luxury cruise (whose dad would do such a thing?) around Antarctica, whilst his daring daughter plots a far more challenging path through the frozen seas on a small working ship. Martine’s tale follows the German in her younger years discovering Thailand and herself on a gap year adventure. And Adilia’s expedition sees her crossing Africa and wondering where she fits into everything following the death of her best friend. Throw the extra anecdotes into the mix – a sweatshop in Bangladesh, rusting war planes in Papua New Guinea, and trolls and whales on the Faroe Islands to name just some, and there’s a large collection of narratives to immerse yourself in. Each feels very fresh compared to the last and can be played in any order you see fit, though once you’ve launched into one you’ll have to play it to the end before you get to move onto another.

It’s not only dialogue or action options you get to decide but other elements of your trip too. My favourite story, Tomek’s, starts with the timid Pole entranced by a girl he’s just met in Spain. Having managed to pluck up the courage to ask her out for drinks, everything seems to be going just right but when buying another round he returns to find nothing left but the Polaroid the pair took together with the intriguing sign off to “meet again one year later, same time, same place.” The story proper picks up almost a year later back in Poland, when Tomek determines to step out of his humdrum life, do something spontaneous and travel across Europe to see if his mysterious crush will be there waiting for him. You’re given a budget of €500 and have to choose how our Romeo will spend it to get to the Spanish city. Choose to fly and you’ll get there quicker, which might give you more time to remember which bar you met at that night a year ago (things are a little hazy), but you’ll miss out on the new people and chance encounters that travelling on a train across the continent will open up, even if the latter option means you’ve only got fine margins to make it on time for your meeting.

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There are no actual puzzles to solve along the way, but in addition to managing money at different points for each journey, there are also stress and fatigue levels in the top right-hand corner to monitor, along with your mood. Certain narrative options you select will affect the first two bars in some way, and if they’re both high your mood will soon drop from “Optimistic” to “Sad.” As I followed Tomek’s travels towards Barcelona on the train, because I’d kept him feeling relatively energetic by choosing to nap and eat regularly in between speaking to people, at one point he reflected, “so far, so good.” Being in low or high spirits will in turn mean specific dialogue options won’t be available to choose from.

For the most part these management elements give you a greater sense of personal investment in the stories. It’s relatively easy to turn your mood around fairly quickly from even the most miserable of sulks if you want to, and there’s never a frantic feeling of death or failure awaiting you if you choose “wrongly” like in some of the options in 80 Days. Occasionally it’s a little unclear as to why an option you’ve chosen has affected your mood in a particular way – why would resisting adding paste to a meal in Thailand necessarily result in more stress? – but typically player agency works in harmony with each journey and enhances them. For some stories you’ll get the chance to pick what to wear, and even that transforms the narrative in subtle ways. Choose to buy a set of “hippie” clothes on the Khao San Road in Bangkok as backpacker Martine, for instance, and later on people you meet may reference your “free” nature.

Whilst Tomek’s story is expertly paced and builds to a thrilling “will they, won’t they” finale, one or two of the others do suffer from feeling a tad longer than they need to be. Perhaps it’s because I found Martine’s youthful naivety less endearing than the older travellers’ offerings, or simply because it’s the longest chapter in the game, but I began to grow weary near her quest’s three-quarter mark. I can’t fault the quality of script, however, which always paints a grand picture of the modern world and its breathtaking beauty – perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s written by the creators of The Witcher alongside seasoned travel journalists. Cape Horn is dramatically portrayed as “destroyer of ships, eater of souls,” whilst the calm activity on board a ship after an epic storm in the middle of the thrashing ocean is perfectly described as “just the wind in the ropes, the water slapping the hull, our hushed conversations.” It really does take you to the heart of what makes travelling our planet so exciting.

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The sound design also does a good job of drawing you into each story’s little world, mainly through effects like crowd chatter or the lapping of waves against the shore, depending where you are. The occasional instrumental track floats in and out as you travel too, which inventively sounds suddenly muffled if you choose to drop off to sleep. The background pictures used to set up each scene don’t always feel quite as relatable due to their stock-photo-like blandness: a paragraph about a whaling ship run aground is illustrated simply with a fat seal on the shores on an icy coast. Start travelling long distances within a given chapter and an animated line shows your route as you move across the globe. It would’ve been great to see a bit more animation like this throughout to bring the story to life visually as much as it is descriptively.

Wanderlust: Travel Stories manages to capture the essence of travelling so well, mixing immersive text descriptions with creative strategy elements that far outshine the occasional generic photographic backdrop. As an interactive narrative it’s also memorable for its locations, characters and themes, whether it’s a twenty-something discovering herself or an introvert’s first taste of stepping out alone. It’s not an “adventure” in the traditional sense, but if you’re looking to experience an exotic vicarious vacation, this game will take you there many times over. Just please don’t show my dad; I wouldn’t want him getting any more ideas. 

Our Verdict:

A variety of engrossing “choose-your-own” quests based on real-life travel memoirs, Wanderlust Travel Stories’ vividly written text will have you longing to start your own exotic adventure.

4/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Pilgrims (11/10/19)

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If I could bottle the spirit that must go into making every Amanita Design game, I’d be very rich and happy. The Czech developers behind beloved indie titles like Machinarium, Samorost and the recent CHUCHEL have done it again with their latest title, Pilgrims, creating an infectiously joyful romp across a beautifully hand-drawn 2D kingdom of dragons, kings and princesses, without even writing one line of dialogue. Sure, it’s a short trip, but the unlockable achievement system and gameplay mechanic that sees you building a card deck of objects and characters to combine with different environmental elements at will means there’s plenty of replay value. And with such fun to be had boozing with priests, fighting bears and cooking up potent magic mushroom formulas, who wouldn’t want to return?

The story itself is slight but perfectly told using Amanita’s trademark combination of pictograms in speech bubbles and spoken gibberish, wonderfully performed to match each character’s personality. A beaming cleric speaks nonsense in a high-pitched sing-song tone whilst a monarch sounds regal and haughty. You play a traveler desperate to be taken down the river on a boat by a sleepy old hag, but to stay awake she needs a particular type of songbird. So you set out to search for it, given free rein to explore the map from a bird’s eye view and choose your next location.

Drop into a particular point on the map – a pub, a pond, a castle and so on – and you’ll be taken to that locale, where you’ll get to use the game’s inventive card-based system (a variation of the one originally introduced as a minigame in Samorost 3). After a short skippable cut scene, which normally lays out what you need to achieve, you can decide to play one of a number of cards in your collection. Rather than a traditional inventory, the objects you pick up – a gun, a pot or a bunch of flowers, to name just a few of the dozen or more in total – and the characters who join you along the way – a beggar, a thug and even the devil – are transformed into a playable deck at the bottom of the screen, to be used in whatever combination you like.

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For example, you might arrive at the pub and decide to play your pilgrim card. By clicking and dragging the card onto the scene, you select him as the character you want. Next, the bartender indicates you need money if you’d like a beer (typical!), so you drag your coin card up and now the pilgrim pays for a drink. Not all the puzzles are as simple as this – there’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between locations to get what you need (you won’t always have the required cards at hand and will have to go find the necessary objects somewhere else first), but everything is fairly easy to figure out and doesn’t require too many leaps of imagination. There are different ways to progress through the game, so whilst you do have to complete a quest for each character you collect (help the devil capture someone’s soul, get the beggar a house, etc.) to eventually find that blasted bird, there’s more than one way of getting to the end goal for each.  

As well as just experimenting to see what reaction using every different object with every character has, what really opens the game up to endless opportunities for mischievousness and creativity is that the cast react differently depending on who you choose to play in each setting. Return to the pub and select the beggar and you’ll get a beer on the house – which when combined with another paid-for beer with your coin card results in getting far more sozzled than you ever can as the traveler and unlocking further hilarious animations. It’s a simple take on the typical adventure game system of finding and combining objects with things to solve puzzles or just for fun, which fits really well with the primitive fairytale setting.

Alongside the quirky dialogue of gobbledygook is a full score by Tomas Dvorak, also known as Floex, who previously composed for Amanita games such as Machinarium and Samorost 3. It’s a mix of live instruments and organic electronics played to excellent comic effect according to what’s happening. For instance, get the beggar blind drunk and suddenly the cheerful music slows and stutters, notes stumbling over themselves, much as your character does. Accompanying the individual context-specific sound effects, the score builds to create an evocative and whimsical soundscape that manages to get to the heart of every monster, hero or civilian effortlessly and wordlessly.

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As with their music, Amanita rarely fail to provide the goods when it comes to beautiful backdrops and Pilgrims is no different. Each character’s card is adorned with little details highlighting their abilities and goals, the traveler’s depicting a little boat and a speech bubble to highlight his skills at persuasion, amongst other symbols. Likewise every location is hand-drawn in a muted colour palette, reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in a traditional children’s book of fairytales. The action all takes place in a fairly small window in the middle of the screen, presumably to accommodate mobile platforms, but even this ends up further adding to the storybook picture effect.

Every new little animation (cheer up a leprechaun, feed a fish man – just your usual goals) unlocked after achieving an objective fills in a separate card deck in the achievements menu. There are 45 achievement cards to collect overall, and in one playthrough I managed to find only 19, meaning whilst you might “finish” Pilgrims you won’t have truly completed it until you’ve played it through at least a couple of times. That’s just as well as it’s a short game: I reached the end my first time through in just over 45 minutes. Like with all the best games I play, I tried to eke out as much play time as possible and was sad when it finished so quickly. It would have been fantastic to have a few more locations to explore or characters to collect and play along the way, mainly because it’s such fun whilst it lasts.

Alas, every journey must come to a close and so it is with Pilgrims. The finale concludes fairly abruptly, perhaps because this is a game made for replaying, so there’s no time to dwell too much on the end before it’s back to the beginning again. Those looking for a deep, branching story arc or complex puzzles would do well to look elsewhere, but you’ll be missing out on one heck of a game if you do. The pure upbeat energy and creativity poured into every facet of Pilgrims means that even as one of Amanita’s shortest adventures, it still manages to shine amongst the developer’s best.

Our Verdict:

A slapstick romp through a stylish kingdom of loons and beasties, Pilgrims’ simple but inventive card-based inventory system and replay opportunities turn a slight game into a journey you’ll want to complete again and again.

4.5/5

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Adventure Gamers: Telling Lies (23/08/19)

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It’s during the eighth minute of watching a stranger read his daughter a bedtime story in Telling Lies that I decide that this might not be the video to crack my case wide open, but at least there were plenty more private conversations where that came from to spy on.

If the premise of scrubbing through very personal FMV-style recordings to piece together an enigmatic story sounds familiar, it’s probably because creator Sam Barlow has been here before. Telling Lies is like the developer’s 2015 cult indie hit Her Story told on a Hollywood scale. Whilst the earlier game had you sorting through fragmented clips of seven fictional police interviews of a victim’s wife to try to uncover the real story behind his disappearance, here players are given a whole NSA database of video files to find, rewind and fast-forward through, captured from the Facetimes and webcam footage of four different people over two years.

In gameplay terms, this boils down to a much bigger cast and a much wider narrative to unravel. Big doesn’t always mean better in Barlow’s latest – its vastness can sometimes leave the investigation feeling rudderless, overwhelming you with detail – but its ambition is startling, and if you can bear spending an inordinate amount of time watching actors staring blankly and nodding, the sudden plot twists rival any of this summer’s blockbuster thrillers.

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As Sam explained in our extensive interview about the game, the story kicks off with a woman entering her apartment, plugging an external hard drive into her laptop and booting it up. She opens the NSA database of video files and types the term “love” into the search bar, bringing up a number of videos featuring people saying that exact word. From there on out the computer’s desktop becomes the player’s as you take control of the unknown protagonist searching through the database, her presence mainly detected through a slightly eerie reflection of her face on the screen.

Whilst Her Story starts with the premise of a missing person and asks you to find out what happened and why, Telling Lies begins without giving away even these basic motives for why you might be doing what you’re doing, or even who you are. It can feel a little daunting at first, especially if you’re used to the many games out there that prefer to hand-hold with a tutorial on anything and everything. Your only clues are on the laptop itself, such as a note left by the person who sent you the hard drive, as well as a wordy PDF file which acts as an instruction manual to explain how the video search tool works – worth reading, even if it is a little long-winded.

Once you’ve perused these initial documents, it’s time to get snooping. There are three main tabs on the database server: Search, Bookmarks and History. Search is where you type in keywords or phrases which will in turn bring up certain videos that feature them. Importantly, your results will always be limited to the first five clips, so to find others further down the list you’ll have to be more detailed in your wording. Clicking on a video thumbnail will let you see where exactly the phrase you’re searching for is located, and you can then jump in and play it from that point.

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You can’t, however, start a video from the beginning. This means often you’ll find yourself rewinding from the end of a dramatic conversation like an argument, and slowly discovering the cause of it in reverse motion – a cool feature that adds to the slow reveal of the plot. Rewinding or fast-forwarding through the clip requires you to drag your mouse to the left or right-hand side of the screen, a quicker action denoting a quicker speed. It mostly works, though keyboard shortcuts for the same actions might have helped, as occasionally you have to drag the mouse a couple of times to highlight how fast you want to move through the video.

Then it’s down to analyzing the clips themselves and figuring out what on earth is going on. Each video is taken from one side of a conversation captured over the Internet between 2017 and the end of 2018. You can find the other side of the chat somewhere in the database too, so often the first puzzle is working out a phrase to input that will find the person on the other end of the exchange. As a hypothetical example, a person in one video might react to an unheard comment by saying something like “A dozen red roses? You shouldn’t have!” (You can see why I stick to reviewing and not script writing.) You could then put in “dozen red roses” into the search and up would pop not only the original video, but also hopefully a second from the other point of view, filling in the rest of the conversation.

Just like in Her Story, the clues aren’t always audio-based – sometimes a visual element, such as a picture in the background or a discussion going on behind the speaker, will give away just as much as what’s being said. Piecing together what’s happening and who everyone is will be a slow process, but one which, much like the recent Return of the Obra Dinn, rewards patience and ingenuity with immense satisfaction when you do uncover some new information, no matter how subtle.

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Once you’ve discovered enough from one conversation, you can keep delving deeper by picking up on any unusual words or names mentioned to see if they’re used anywhere else. Rather than typing your searches manually, you can pause the video and click on the subtitles of any clip and search for that specific word, or drag your mouse over a whole sentence to search for all of it. You’ll then be presented with an abundance of new clips – some that took place earlier and others that occurred months after the first video.

This is a mystery that requires a lot a note-taking to make sense of the tremendous amount of detail Barlow has brought to the world. To that end, the desktop features a Simple Notes program for you to write up any relevant information you have gleaned along the way, but bizarrely this function seemingly can’t be brought up whilst a video is playing, meaning you need to keep stopping the current clip to record your thoughts and then bringing the video back up again. Instead I used trusty paper and pen to make my deductions – a little archaic given the contemporary plot, but needs must.

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Perhaps I’m not cut out to be an analyst because I rarely used the Bookmarks or History functions either. The more organized gamer may delight in the fact that you can make a bookmark at any point in any video. You can even sort your bookmarked videos into different sections using Tags to mark them with different subjects or themes. History simply keeps track of all of the terms you’ve searched for and the videos you’ve viewed, which I did at least use once or twice after having a complete lapse in memory as to where I’d gotten to. Some may well get more use out of these two functions, but even with the huge number of files to sift through, I rarely found myself  in dire need of cataloguing things any further.

The talent portraying the four core characters – Logan Marshall-Green of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Kerry Bishé from Argo, Alexandra Shipp of Dark Phoenix, and Angela Sarafyan from Westworld – plus a host of other people they interact with, had a significant task on their hands of making their one-sided dialogues believable. Not only in the things they say, as each of them spends as much time listening during their video clips as they do talking. Fortunately the actors all do a great job of capturing every slight facial expression and verbal tic to reflect their emotional reactions, which helps make the plot feel that bit more real.

Part of Sam Barlow’s approach to making this all seem so natural was to rent out a “compound” that featured different houses and other buildings so that the actors would feel as if they were having a remote conversation whilst both sides of their exchanges were simultaneously being filmed. It sounds ambitious, but it really paid off. I genuinely did feel like I was getting to know these characters as a strange voyeur, listening in on their most intimate conversations and sharing their personal highs and lows, at times almost feeling uncomfortable that I was being made privy to something clearly not meant for me.

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I was intrigued by Marshall-Green’s lonely and desperate environmentalist (no names, as finding out what everyone is called is part of the puzzle) and why he never saw his wife and daughter anymore. But others may be pulled more towards Shipp’s sweet yet slightly naive musician, or Sarafyan’s flirtatious webcam girl. Just as in real life, you’ll find yourself drawn to some people more than others, and it’s possible to focus on their videos more, shaping your personal experience of the story through your preferences. As the game’s title suggests, not everything they’ve recorded is necessarily the truth, so it’s up to you to determine who (if anyone) can be trusted.

The nature of the video clips in Telling Lies helps add to the sense of realism. Compared to Her Story, which set everything in similar drab police interrogation rooms, here Sam has capitalised on the notion that the files are captured from the Internet (and therefore could be shot almost anywhere) to go full Spielberg and explore multiple different locations. Along with the obvious bedrooms and offices, we vicariously visit house parties, a primary school recital, and even take a walk outside on the street. It’s another clever way of reminding you that these are the everyday lives of others you’re dipping into, as well as helping to keep each clip feeling different and fresh to watch.

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Our mysterious leading lady boots up her laptop at midnight, and as each hour passes in real time a short cue, whether her boyfriend interrupting and telling her it’s late, or her getting up to get a drink, reflects that the clock is ticking. The game takes place across a fixed time period, so five hours in you’ll be given a clear sign that you can end the game then and there or keep on searching. After those five hours spent scouring the database, I had found and studied roughly half of all of the video clips on offer, which gives you some idea of the wealth of footage available. If you do choose to end your investigations there, you’ll be treated to a few concluding cutscenes and then given the chance at the main menu screen to hop back in again to chase any leads you might have missed. You’ll also unlock a Report option which runs down the things you focused on and what you might’ve ignored – basically a neat way of letting you know how much of the game you have completed and how much of the story there is still to reveal.

Despite its early opt-out ability, Telling Lies is a game that requires much more than the basic five hours to fully appreciate, and not just because it’s nigh on impossible to get through every clip in the time provided. The less said about the plot the better, except that it’s set in modern day USA, weaving together the public and private relationships between the four main characters against the backdrop of protestors campaigning over the building of a new oil pipeline. It’s complicated, to say the least, and that’s without accounting for the fact that you’re normally viewing sequences out of order and then only one side of a conversation at a time.

When the narrative twists are uncovered there’s a great sense of achievement, but too often the game’s earnestness for realistic conversations can be its downfall, because in between the excitement there’s a lot of waiting, dragging the mouse back and forth, and watching people nodding and reacting to something you can’t see. Despite the inherently cinematic nature of video clips playing out in real time, the deliberately slow pacing means that occasionally the sense of enjoyment and discovery is put aside for a greater sense of authenticity. It’s a shame, because when it does strike a balance between playability and realism, the game feels incredibly engaging and innovative thanks to its talented cast, sharp dialogue, and its bold attempt to try what no one else is doing right now. In fact, though it appears to be more Hollywood on the surface with its lengthier videos and bigger entourage of recognisable talent, Telling Lies shines brightest when it takes a leaf out of its quieter, more unassuming predecessor and focuses on simply telling its story. 

Our Verdict:

A grander take on Her Story‘s FMV database search idea, Telling Lies proves Sam Barlow is still the master of the carefully crafted reveal, even if at times this particular web of deceit unravels a little too slowly.

3.5/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

Adventure Gamers: Draugen (07/06/19)

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Golly, there’s some frightfully spiffing twists and turns in Draugen when it isn’t going overboard with the old-fashioned dialogue, what what! The first-person “fjord noir” (an unusual sub-genre which I can only hope encourages future anomalies like “car park-erotic drama”) from the studio behind Dreamfall Chapters is set in picturesque 1920s Norway and draws you into an intriguingly busy narrative filled with cursed mines, Nordic mythology, family feuds and potential child murder. But despite a surprising mid-game plot reveal and some genuinely creepy atmosphere, the upper class British slang is just too grating and the story eventually too overwhelming for even this old bean to fully delight in.

The plot joins Americans (no doubt of high class backgrounds; hence their propensity for Britishisms) Edward Harden and his younger, annoying companion Lissie on their quest to find Edward’s sister Elizabeth (or Betty, as she is also confusingly called). From the last letter he received from his dear sis, Edward believes that Elizabeth is somewhere to be found in the quiet, rural Norwegian village of Graavik, and is driven to travel there from Massachusetts, meet the mysterious Fretland family who live there, and find out why he hasn’t heard from his sibling since. Rather than a big Norwegian welcome (Velkommen?) though, the pair disembark to find the village completely and rather eerily empty. That, coupled with their boat suddenly disappearing from the dock, means there’s nothing for it but to investigate the unsettling town and uncover what happened to its inhabitants, and possibly Elizabeth along with them.

So far so foreboding, and Draugen does an excellent job of ratcheting up the spookiness as you go about your journey. Edward spots things out of the corner of his eye that suddenly disappear, and there’s an ever-pervading sense that you’re not the only ones left here. The sound effects in particular build a very troubling atmosphere – all creaking floorboards, banging doors, and ringing bells with nobody ringing them – which, alongside some quite disturbing plot points really help keep you on edge as you venture deeper into the secretive village and its surrounding environs. The game’s score, composed by Simon Poole, adds further creepiness to the tense parts, swelling suddenly as Edward makes another portentous discovery or using ominous percussion strikes to mark that something disturbing may be just around the corner.

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Alas, your companion Lissie does her best to destroy this atmosphere with her chirpy and sarcastic nature. She’s obviously supposed to exist to wind poor old beleaguered Edward up (and later story developments do explain the reasons behind this a little more). Even so, the constant “old beans” and unnecessary “we’re sitting ducks out here, quack quack” chatter start to grate precisely a few minutes into the opening chapter, and no amount of explanation several hours later really helps exonerate that. It’s frankly a bit of a relief in the few scenes when she says “pip pip” and Edward can have a breather for a while.

Unfortunately, gabbing with Lissie is a key part of the experience, so there’s not much peace and quiet to be had. Fortunately, voicing Edward and Lissie, respectively, actors Nicholas Boulton and Skye Bennett do a good job of bringing to life their ongoing dialogue and making the relationship between the pair feel believable, a very necessary feat considering how much of the story rests on their telling of it.

Draugen is split up into six chapters, with each chapter representing one day. Over this time, Edward and Lissie delve further into the mysteries of Graavik by exploring new areas of the Fretlands’ house and the village surroundings. The rather frail and easily tired Edward will frequently rouse from his slumber at the beginning of chapters to find Lissie missing or away investigating something, so players have a “Call Out” option to try to find her, which uses something akin to echolocation to follow the shape of her voice (a pulsing circle much like an audio wave) to her position.

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When you do find your companion, you’ll often be presented with one or two short single-word conversation topics to choose from, e.g. “Betty” or “Graavik”, which when highlighted show a further brief description (“Edward wonders yet again what drew Elizabeth to this remote place”). You’re usually only able to pick one topic out of the list of conversation options, whilst the others disappear, but it’s hard to know how much of a difference, if any, selecting one subject over another makes in story development, as the game doesn’t seem to bring up any of your previous choices later on. Still, it does add a slight degree of replayability to the short story, which can be completed in just a few hours.

Those three hours or so will see you take in the village of Graavik in its entire Norwegian splendor. You can almost taste the fresh outdoor air as you trudge (using either a gamepad or keyboard with your mouse as the camera) beneath the autumnal orange trees and past crisp snow-capped mountains, rendered in scenic 3D both in broad daylight and fog-shrouded darkness of night. As you go about exploring, there are set points where Edward can sit and sketch the quaint rustic scenes before him, which then get added to the pages of his journal. Whilst there’s little point to discovering all the drawing spots apart from unlocking an achievement, they’re still welcome little breaks from some of the more harrowing parts of the story. The journal also includes a hand-drawn map of the area, which fills out more as you discover new places, and can be brought up at any time if you’re not quite sure where you’re supposed to be going.

Much of the rest of your time in pretty Graavik will be spent interacting with points of interest (denoted by ever-present hotspot indicators) throughout places like the old mine, a boarded-up church and the abandoned general store to further the story. There’s no in-game inventory as such, so any items like a key or items of clothing that Edward is certain are Elizabeth’s get stored for automatic use when needed. The lack of puzzles or item-combining frees you up to become fully immersed in the backstory of the Fretlands and the village’s dark past by investigating mementos like diary entries and photographs.

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The streamlined gameplay – you can often wander anywhere but rarely have a reason to diverge from the linear path – allows the story to be brought heavily into focus, with so little else to occupy your attention. For the most part it delivers: Edward is an unreliable narrator, and as his search for his sister becomes more desperate, the game has surprising revelations under its belt to shock you, including some that cause great friction between the two protagonists and others that deal with Edward’s own internal struggles.

It’s a shame then that by the end of the game it still isn’t sure whether to focus on Edward’s issues or what he and Lissie uncover about the village. The former are given closure on one important point and yet left wide open in others, while any loose ends from the mystery of Graavik are literally dismissed in a noncommittal throwaway line that frankly seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re left wanting to know what really did occur here and why, and whilst the credits tease that this might not be the last we see of Edward and Lissie, I’d have much preferred to have the main plot points specifically relating to this chapter of their story (even if there is more to come) to be resolved before moving onto another adventure – especially as there’s so much emphasis earlier in the game on determining what happened.

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Another mystery that may never be solved is why the game is called Draugen at all, given that the titular mythical monster from Norwegian folklore is only mentioned in offhand anecdotes, and even then only once or twice, ultimately being of no consequence at all to the investigation. If there is more to come from this series, perhaps that part of the tale will be fleshed out further, but it seemed like an odd pick for this debut adventure at the very least.

Look past the hokey dialogue and slightly odd title choice and there’s a suspenseful tale of tragedy running through Draugen. Its twists and turns come as real surprises, and its gorgeous scenery belies the chilling atmosphere that envelops it in bucket loads. But just as you’ve forgiven it for the linguistic “flourishes” of its talkative co-star and are settling into the unsettling adventure, the game decides to abandon any hope of ever figuring out what’s going on and sends you on your way again, back through those clear blue fjords. Poor form, old sport.

Our Verdict:

Draugen offers plenty of shocks and chills set against a unique, scenic backdrop of rural Norway, but is sadly let down by some jarring dialogue and a confusing conclusion.

3/5

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Gaming Reviews Reviews

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