Many gamers would remember the glorious days of graphic point-and-click adventures from LucasArts or Sierra. Most would probably say these are dead and gone (some would actually look up the term on Wiki), replaced by genres which are constantly changing. But Daedalic Entertainment proves again that 2D graphics can be just as beautiful or even more so than 3D engines and that linearity in storytelling goes hand in hand with open-world puzzle design. Enter stage: Jan Müller-Michaelis’ (Poki’s) Deponia.
(Germany 2012, developer/publisher: Daedalic Entertainment, platform: PC)
Girl from the sky seems to be a young man’s one-way-ticket out of his miserable life and an escape from his trashy planet, but it’s a long way for him to reach his goal…with the robot girl Goal, as there are also other more dangerous people looking for her.
Egomaniac personality disorder
The biggest issue players will have to deal with is the main protagonist. He’s selfish, he’s abusive and he can be a downright unlikeable character. True, he’s also hurting himself quite a lot which is fun as far as slapstick is concerned. But he also hurts quite a few other characters, some who might deserve it because they’re just as annoying, some others not so. It’s therefore hard work warming up to Rufus and not be annoyed by his sarcastic comments.
Fortunately the characters who inhabit Deponia are quite different, even though the game’s steampunk aesthetics and general idea of having a planet full of trash aren’t that original or innovative. But it’s still a world which is interesting to walk through when one discovers how every person reacts to Rufus’ actions.
A thin line between story and humor
Unfortunately as in most comic adventures, the plot is rather simple and character development nearly non-existent. It’s a shame because the idea of an invasion which threatens life on the planet Deponia is an intriguing storytelling device, so is Rufus’ (at some point quite touching) relationship with Goal, his dream girl. It’s too bad then that most of it takes quite a while to kick in. As Goal doesn’t have a lot to say, or rather she remains silent due to her coma-like state throughout most of the story, it’s difficult to see her as a fully-fleshed-out character. Of course like the name suggests, she’s only the goal for Rufus to reach Elysium and therefore another example of his egocentric means to achieve it.
Planned as a trilogy, the game suffers from revisiting the same locations far too often, and it also feels as if the story never takes off, as the relationship between Rufus and Goal feels a bit contrived. It simply isn’t convincing enough to work as a game on its own. Ending with a cliffhanger after just 5-7 hours playtime is only one of the ensuing problems.
The whole one-individual-saves-the-world (girl)-or-escapes-it concept isn’t new and it only works to a certain degree. Anti-heroes have been around since the beginning of adventure games, and Deponia just uses the same template adding a bit of (steam)punk attitude to it. Humor is therefore also a point of discussion: Most of Rufus’ rude comments aren’t that funny, even if one likes sarcasm. So it’s up to the NPCs to stand out. Some do, others don’t. There are obviously personalities which stick to the player’s mind, but as it’s still Rufus who stands in the spotlight, it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated being unable to play the others.
Puzzles wherever you go
What makes or breaks an adventure game is of course the puzzle design, and it’s classic point-and-click mechanics of the old days revived: Pick up everything which lies around, sometimes knowing what to do with it, sometimes only later finding out if it’s any use. Back to the 90ies then with trial-and-error for those who can’t get their heads around obscure puzzles or nostalgic love for those who don’t have a problem remembering what’s in every single screen.
And of course that’s exactly what makes the game less accessible to a wider audience, but still enjoyable for the select few. By wandering around the locations, talking to people, there’s a sense of place and the player learns how it all fits together, or he doesn’t. But remembering a location where a new object could be used and then when it actually does work, no matter how silly the action, is a joy to behold, and still shows why classic point-and-click adventures are still relevant today, maybe not for a trigger-happy and less patient audience, but for people who like to get lost in a puzzle-heavy world.
The tasks and solutions themselves never reach the same heights as LucasArts’ classics, and the mini games (which can be skipped) are more annoying than they are original, but overall it’s still fun to walk around, pick up and try out everything, something which worked in the golden age of graphic adventures, and still does today. It’s too bad then that sometimes the difficulty curve is quite steep, or like a rollercoaster it’s a bumpy ride with puzzles whose solutions are so obvious and some are simply too difficult to figure out. This might have something to do with the open nature of the game, but it can still become frustrating when not enough hints are provided and the player doesn’t have a clue what to do.
Presented in 90ies aesthetics
Graphics hail back to the good old fun Monkey Island 3 art style, as they’re detailed and colorful. Characters and environments are well drawn, so are the many cutscenes. The only downside (which many adventure games struggle with) are the animations. Slapstick ones are quite nice, but when it comes to walking and talking, it becomes obvious that those are still stuck in the past and show the low budget character of the game.
Still the steampunk visuals create a world of its own with many details to enliven the scenery. Further proof that 2D is not dead in comic adventures and that static images can be art, even if it’s not as sophisticated with its message. Later locations also offer a bit more variety than the town Rufus lives in as they have a much darker and more melancholic tone, therefore making the game world more interesting to look at.
Sounds like punk spirit
Voice acting in the German version is as great as one can expect from Daedalic’s partner Toneworx Studios in Hamburg. I haven’t played the English one, so I’m not sure how puns have been translated, but as the dialogues are sometimes a hit-or-miss affair, it’s maybe not that bad as in the case of a serious adventure like A New Beginning which can destroy the atmosphere if voice acting isn’t up to scratch.
Music itself offers some nice tunes, but they can become repetitive after a while. Songs in the German version are played by Poki (Jan Müller-Michaelis) himself on his acoustic guitar, which could be rather hard to translate as they are a mix of nonsense-and-wordplay-folk-music playing with the German language (of course with some lines being funny and others missing the mark).
An outdated new classic?
Deponia has been given high praise and ratings by many journalists in the (German) press, bought by many customers in (German) stores and therefore brought quite some hype and high expectations. As is so often the case with hyped games, they can rarely live up to it. Obviously it’s a very traditional adventure game which fans of the genre lapped up and still love to play now after its release as it was a refreshing alternative to the more streamlined adventures which offered less challenging puzzles and were more serious in storytelling and presentation.
But what it offers in obscure puzzle, character and setting design, combined with slapstick acrobatics, it lacks in storytelling and originality. The main protagonist is another thing which makes playing through the game difficult. So unlike Runaway which kickstarted the renaissance of graphic adventures, it’s not the hyped revival of comic adventures many say it is, but only a tribute to a bygone era with some obvious flaws which can be detrimental to the player’s enjoyment, depending on his personal preferences (read: patience and tolerance).