5 years between the original and its sequel is a long time, especially when it comes to games. Many have been lost in translation or development hell, few live up to the fans’ expectations which are part nostalgia and part experiences with titles of the same genre which have been released over the years. Deck13’s newest adventure title with the hapless hero Jack proves that an old dog can still learn new tricks and the comic adventure genre isn’t quite dead yet.
Adventurer Jack is back, this time looking for a legendary treasure which will change his life. Now he also has to decide if honor and glory are more important than the love of his life Amanda, or is it the city dame Eve he meets on the way?
An adventure with choices you make
Story and character development are more interesting this time around. The former is helped by more suspense and mystery, coming closer to the Indiana Jones feeling the first game tried to imitate and mostly failed because of its emphasis on slapstick humor. The latter is not only seen in fewer but more interesting sidekick characters, but also in some gameplay aspects which are not often found in adventure games: freedom of choice.
At certain scenes in the game, the player is asked for which of the two female protagonists he wants to take sides. He earns sympathy points for the one, but loses them for the other. It might not change the overall puzzle design, but the outcome of the story and how Amanda and Eve react in certain situations make these decisions more interesting. It doesn’t sound like much, compared to RPG heavyweights like Mass Effect in which more freedom of choice is offered, but for a comic point-and-click adventure it adds depth and originality.
Dreams and consequences
What makes the storytelling even more appealing are dream sequences in which Jack sees his state of mind and some decisions he made in the past reflected. These are visually surreal and beautiful to look at. They also add more variety to the typically colorful locations so well-trodden in the genre, not only because they create a whole new world, but because they offer puzzles which hail back to the LucasArts dare-me-I’m-a-puzzle-that’s-ingenious-even-if-it’s-head-scratchingly-hard-to-understand-the-first-time-around standards.
Despite the psychological implications in those sequences, there are even more action scenes which are breathtaking. The faster pace is not only felt in adrenaline-fuelled chases on cars and planes like in the good old Indy flicks, but also in fighting sequences.
Similar in style to beat’em ups like Streetfighter, the opponents have a bar of health which has to be depleted by the right attack or defense moves. These are acquired during the game not by fighting, but by solving puzzles. Learning by puzzling, so to speak. Sometimes it can drag on a bit, as the individual moves are random, but it’s still fun to watch Jack use some silly-sounding fight techniques. It’s not as original as the old insult sword fighting in Monkey Island, but way better than the obscure Monkey Kombat in the fourth iteration of the LucasArts series.
Wiggle and jump me roughly
Controls weren’t great in the first game, and they aren’t much better in the second one, actually being made worse by an awkward jumping mechanic. It’s not as third-person-action-adventure-y as some purists might accuse it of, but the handling definitely needs some getting used to. Holding a mouse button and changing the directions in which Jack goes by moving the mouse left and right is one thing, but jumping over obstacles with an extra right-mouse-button-click which are just unnecessarily put in the way of the player and don’t add anything to the gameplay is simply a head-shakingly-weird design decision leading to frustration.
Puzzles to make your head spin around
Puzzle design is usually very original, and some solutions will stick to the mind of the player even after he finishes the game, something few comic adventures in recent years have achieved. As locations are usually small enough not to get lost, motivation is high to walk around and find the right spots of interaction with the correct items. This might not always be logical and clues are rare, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that the tasks remain fun, no matter how obscure they become.
Linearity at the beginning also changes to some more multi-tasking later on when various locations can be visited and Jack has to think about more problems to solve. These are usually well-implemented in the story, and unlike the first game, it never feels as if puzzles cover up a rather weak story, as both are intriguing enough to keep the player interested until the end.
Proudly presenting cartoon-like aesthetics
Character animations and background graphics are simply great and turn the game even more into a cartoon than the first title already achieved. Slapstick moments and action sequences couldn’t be handled any better, editing is spot-on and the love for detail can be found in each environment and facial expression of the characters. All in all this creates a cinematic experience which fits both the humor and suspense of the story. Soundtrack and voice acting (in the German version) are also of a very high quality and it’s a joy to listen to the catchy tunes and illustrious cast of characters delivering their funny lines.
A worthier sequel than expected
Jack Keane and the Fire Within is a strange case of a good first game made better in the sequel: tighter storytelling, better graphics, more variety in the environments, fewer but more original puzzles, decisions which influence the game’s outcome and the relationships between the protagonists add another layer to the proceedings.
The presentation is more action-oriented, but this is no bad thing as faster pacing and the emphasis on set pieces make the game the adventure the first one tried to be but never reached its full potential. Only the weird point-and-jump controls can be a bit fiddly, and more clues for the puzzles could have made this more accessible for a wider audience
It might be a shorter experience than the first game, but during the playtime it offers its audience an entertaining romp of action and fun most classic adventures can only dream of, making it one of the most cinematic 3D comic adventures released so far which doesn’t shy away from some original ideas.
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