Point-And-Click Lives!

If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s and you owned a computer, chances are you have a fond lingering memory of playing a Point-and-Click Adventure Game at one time or another. The genre was dominated in the ’80s by Sierra On-Line, bringing adventure games into the mainstream with their King’s Quest, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series. And they were prolific. The King’s Quest series alone had 9 games between 1980 and 1998. Leisure Suit Larry had 7.

A still from King’s Quest (1984). In those days you needed your HUD to tell you if the sound was on.

Once the ’90s rolled around another major player burst onto the adventure game scene. LucasArts spent most of the mid-to-late ’80s making action games for Atari and simulation games, sometimes experimenting with ideas like MMOs back in a time when the technology wasn’t available to make them possible. But after dipping their toes into adventure games with Maniac Mansion and Indiana Jones titles, they were posed to take over the genre starting with 1990’s The Secret Of Monkey Island. It was much loved and spawned an immediate sequel, as well as a long list of successful Point-and-Click titles, such as Sam And Max Hit The Road, Full Throttle, and sequels to their Indian Jones and Maniac Mansion games. Their run would last through the end of the ’90s, but advancements in graphic engines and a shift in the culture towards FPS and RPGs seemed to bring the heyday of Point-And-Clicks to an end.

Still from Full Throttle (1995). The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

The 2000’s weren’t all bad, though. Newly founded company Telltale Games released a slew of new Sam and Max games, as well as a brand new Monkey Island game Tales Of Monkey Island. The old Monkey Island games got a remaster and a re-release during this decade, too.

So if Point-And-Click ignited in the ’80s, exploded in the ’90s, and saw fading afterglow in the ’00s, it would seem that the genre has finally run out of momentum by the ’10s, right?

Don’t be ridiculous. Didn’t you see the title of this post? Point-and-Click lives!

(NOTE: This will not go into detail of the “New Adventure” genre that Telltale Games has perfected this decade with titles such as The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead, Tales From The Borderlands, Game Of Thrones, or Minecraft: Story Mode. And it certainly won’t go into the recent financial downfall of that company. That’s for another post!)

There are lots of new IPs out there in the Point-and-Click genre, and even more remakes, remasters, and long-awaited sequels (see The Odd Gentlemen’s King Quest and the re-release of Full Throttle). But, since I can only review so much, I’m going to focus on two that are fresh in my mind: MechaNika, and The Inner World. Both come from small developers and feature hand-drawn graphics, and can be picked up for a very reasonable price, making them terrific titles for gamers new to the genre or tentative veterans looking to wade back in.

MechaNika

Something so cute containing so much malice.
MechaNika – Mango Protocol, Spain – 2015

MechaNika is a very short, very accessible, and very dark adventure game. Those are it’s bad points.

You won’t spend more than a few hours on this one, but with a Steam price-point of $3.99 ($5.99 on Xbox) you will be getting your money’s worth. Every character, every background, every object you interact with in the game is hand-drawn in a cute, vibrant, and pseudo-anime cartoon network style. Think Adventure Time or Teen Titans Go made in MSPaint. MechaNika has a decidedly darker edge to it, however, and it’s this duality of cutesy innocence coupled with disenchanted angst that gives the game its unique feel. At times the game gets, admittedly, too dark.

Nika is a 7-year old that drinks cognac and wants to kill and destroy everything that she doesn’t deem “cool.” This is perhaps a funny subversion of expectations if it was a passing background exposition, but instead this is the main focus of the game. You are a tiny child that spends the game engineering a weapon of mass destruction so that you can kill your family, your schoolmates, your neighbors. You are playing a PSYCHOPATH.

The timing of the release of this game is important to consider (2015). That was perhaps the last year that a game with this theme could fly under the radar without a tidal wave of backlash, and perhaps rightfully so. There is no end to the list of games that have been made–or will be made–where large-scale mass murder is glorified and even expected of the player. But very few focus on a pre-meditated, intimate, fully-realized sense of malice and calculated destruction. Yes, the adults in Nika’s life are impatient, selfish, uncaring, mostly-garbage losers. Yes, life is tough when you’re a misunderstood child (or a misunderstood any age.) Yes, there is a disillusioned psychotic Supervillain living just beneath the surface in all of us that would like to burn the whole place down and start over. And maybe that makes this power-fantasy a little appealing. But should we indulge in those dark thoughts? In THIS climate? I can forgive Mango Protocol for not having the clairvoyance to see what the world would become in the next three years, and if I’m playing this game in 2015 I would appreciate the dark humor and storylines for what they were at the time: Harmless complicated adult themes floating amongst the sea of moral ambiguity that is gaming.

Pictured: The developers impatiently waiting for me to stop lecturing them.

There are several other criticisms I could make in content, especially as it pertains to persons and animals. Often times characters exhibit culturally clumsy stereotypes and prejudices, and it’s hard to differentiate between what is the voice of the creators and what attributed as an intentional character flaw. Homelessness, unemployment, sex-work, cross-dressing, bestiality, homophobia… These topics are used as punch-lines, and often are approached with a tinge of judgement. To be fair, I don’t know anything about the cultural or social climate in Spain, where developer Mango Protocol is based out of. Perhaps people are not challenged to be inclusive or considerate of lifestyles outside of the “norm” in that region. But through the eyes of a conscious and thoughtful modern American, there were more than a few uncomfortable moments.

The controls at times were a little clunky. I assume that this was a problem mostly introduced in the port over to Xbox, as the limitations of a gamepad create intrinsic problems for Point-and-Click games. Still, there were moments when I felt like I was clicking on the same items multiple times in order to get them to be assigned to the correct slot in the backpack. This is a main driving aspect of the game, collecting items that can be used in unique ways in order to build your mech suit. It seemed like it was “highlight, move, assign, confirm” in order to say “Yes use this sharp thing for the sought-out pointy quest item.” It felt like too many steps. On a positive note, a USB flash drive clipped to your backpack controls the save screen, and her famous hip flask of cognac hot chocolate controls the hint screen. These were ingenious details that helped keep you anchored in the world even when you were interacting with menus.

Nika’s backpack, and main inventory screen in the game. Her hip flask and flash drive fit into the display nicely.

Even though its short and socially awkward (like Nika herself!) the game has a lot of redeeming qualities. The sense of adventure as you move through the world, searching for items and discovering things to click on and interact with really drive the game. The cartoony graphics keep it fun and interesting, even when you are crossing the same screens multiple times. It’s a fun environment. There are always interesting ways to use items, or combine items, in ways that give you a sense of accomplishment and pride. When you figure out a puzzle you get that little shot of “I’m so great!” that everyone wants to feel. The music is fantastic, as well, and there is a lot of atmosphere and mood created in each scene and location. Even though the game is short and ends somewhat abruptly (episodic…See Agatha Knife) you will never feel like the game was made cheaply or hurriedly. It wasn’t laziness on the developers part, and the game pretty much feels like it’s as long as it is supposed to be.

If you have read what I’ve stated about dark adult themes and minor insensitivity and aren’t immediately turned off, the game is definitely worth a play for the price. You might not have much replay value outside of achievement hunting, but you will enjoy your time in the world and with the characters. Some more awareness from the developers and a bit more content would make this a fantastic cute adventure. It’s definitely worth it to me to check in on Mango Protocol’s next project, 2017’s Agatha Knife (a character from MechaNika with her own prequel.)

The Inner World

Queue Alladin's
The Inner World – Studio Fizbin, Germany – 2013

If you are looking to be swept away into an immersive fantastic world full of colorful characters and mysterious physics, look no further. The Inner World boasts some of the most beautiful and creative hand-drawn graphics of any game I’ve played. Every detail is accounted for, and the freshness of the made-from-scratch environment will immediately intrigue you. This is not a typical fantasy or scifi setting, and although it seems to draw from some ambiguous European folklore, there is nothing recycled or tired about the universe and its inhabitants. Perhaps the closest comparison I could make would be that the world of Asposia is like a cross between Hyrule and The Brothers Grimm. But underground. And vaguely steampunk.

Really, the time and care that has been put into the world, the backstory, and the artwork is enough to make this game a must-buy at $14.99 for any adventure game enthusiasts. The depth and play-length is arguably longer than that price would predict (although in 2013 dollars it is probably spot-on.) But The Inner World has so much more than graphics that they did right. There’s a cast of characters that are funny, interesting, and seemingly alive and breathing with their own motivations, interests, and faults. While you won’t run into any M. Knight Shyamalan-style plot twists throughout your play, you will never know where the adventure will lead next, and every location and encounter is a new exciting surprise. There is nothing stale or boilerplate about this story.

Robert (left) is your main player-controlled character, with his new companion Laura (right) helping out along the way.

One of the first things you might notice about gameplay in The Inner World is that there are a TON of things in the environment to interact with. This serves two important purposes: to make the world immersive and living, and to make your puzzle-solving more dynamic and less on-rails. If there’s only one thing to click on in a room, like say a drawer, it’s pretty easy to know what you have to do to advance the story. If there are 17 things to click on in a room, well now you have to actually start using your brain and problem-solving skills to move forward. And the amount of detail they have put in…well, you’re gonna want to click on everything in the room anyway, just to see the interaction, or hear the comments the characters make. There are multiple lines for each interaction, and sometimes other characters in the scene will comment when Robert interacts with something near them. This sense of discovery–“collecting” all of the lines of dialogue–is part of what makes adventure games like this great, and Studio Fizbin didn’t cut any corners. The voice acting is top-notch, in a cartoony but cerebral and moody way. Think Rocko’s Modern Life or Invader Zim.

The puzzles in this game can be challenging, but are often fair and rewarding. On occasion, however, it does fall into that common Point-and-Click trap of having a sudden and ridiculous leap in logic. The Inner World focuses largely on combining objects and using them in strange ways, and although it is satisfying to puzzle it out on your own, there are rare moments when I said to myself “I would have NEVER thought to do that.” It doesn’t happen often, but it is there.

A seedy back-alley full of interesting characters to interact with.

This is where the game really innovates: the hint system. Sometimes you just get stuck, and with very little direction in your quest log and TONS of places and items to interact with, it can get overwhelming. Luckily there is a built-in hint system so you don’t have to go running to the internet for a walkthrough. It’s presented in a fantastic way, with cascading hints that slowly point you in the right direction instead of just coming out and saying what you should do. Seriously, there will sometimes be 15 hints of varying levels of clarity, from minor suggestions all the way down to straight forward direction. Sometimes you don’t want the answers given to you, you just need a little shove in the right direction. This system was SO appreciated in my playthrough. Sometimes it was just a simple question–“Have you explored the alley?”–and other times it was cryptic–“Sticks can be used for other things than walking”–but they piece by piece moved you down the path to success without blurting the answers out. I think every game could benefit from a hint system like this, and I appreciate the developer’s sensitivity in this matter.

I truly believe that The Inner World is a game that can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for atmosphere and world-building, not just adventure game enthusiasts. For those that specifically seek out Point-and-Clicks this is 100% a must-own. For myself, Studio Fizbin’s 2017 sequel The Inner World – The Last Windmonk is immediately on top of my gaming wish list.

There are a lot of similarities between these two games, and a lot of good things to take away from both. The main characters are both young and/or naive, and you get a good sense of their motivations very early. MechaNika has its own hint system in the form of Nika’s flask that grants her “inspiration”, but as helpful as it is to have a built-in character-relevant way to progress when you’re stuck, it pales in comparison to The Inner World’s slow step-by-step cascade of knowledge. Even though the themes in MechaNika are more in-your-face, The Inner World does not remain completely free of transgression. There are some moments where I wish Robert wouldn’t make romantically-charged comments, and there is one moment of blatant non-consenting contact that I wish the devs would have cut from the game. In fact, I didn’t need a romantic undercurrent at all. Perhaps its on account of Robert’s naive and sheltered upbringing that it makes sense to the writers, but I feel like the game and character relationships wouldn’t have suffered if it had been completely removed. Both Mango Protocol and Studio Fizbin have provided a mixed-bag on the social front, but likewise have both produced fine products at varying degrees from a pure gaming point-of-view. Fans of hand-drawn artwork would enjoy both, but when it comes down to it, The Inner World is a better game on all fronts.

I’m just excited that Point-and-Click games are still around.

MechaNika – Mango Protocol, Spain – 2015 (Prequel 2017 – Agatha Knife)

The Inner World – Studio Fizbin, Germany – 2013 (Sequel 2017 – The Last Wind Monk)

Advertisements