Episodic content in adventure games has become the norm after Telltale Games introduced old franchises from the LucasArts era to the mass market. Now indie developers seem to have found their own way of telling stories in a TV-like format.
After SkyGoblin’s retro version of The Journey Down: Chapter 1 (which is still available for free on their Website) hinted at the potential of a classic point-and-click adventure with black African roots, the HD remake boasts with more puzzles, story and of course better visuals and sound design.
The Journey Down: Chapter 1 HD (PC)
(USA 2012, developer/publisher: Skygoblin, platforms: PC, iOS)
Out of luck and money, two brothers have to help a young woman who is looking for a way into an underground world. But some shady characters are on their tails, so it’s high time to get out and away.
It’s a breathing, living jungle of a city with stories to tell
There is something strangely familiar about how the game world is shaped and how the characters interact, for those who grew up with LucasArts adventure games like Grim Fandango. The former might not be the biggest and the latter not the deepest those familiar with the classics will have encountered , but they form a coherent whole, i.e. the player is immersed in a believable setting where he’s motivated to explore and experiment.
The story is not the most sophisticated (at least in the first episode), but it at least hints at some more elaborated plot. With each task the player has to complete, more clues are given to what happens in the background. By talking to the NPCs one also gets to know more about the world, another incentive to progress in the story and not just solving puzzle after puzzle just for the sake of it.
Laugh and talk, mon!
Humor is of course an important part in a comic adventure, and even if it never reaches the highs of LucasArts games, it’s still fun to listen to each individual telling their own stories and pet-peeves. Slapstick scenes are present as well, but again it never feels as if the developer tries too hard to make the player laugh (something the Deponia series is so disappointingly doing). Dialogues always have the right length, over-exposition is never an issue, another thing a lot of adventure games seem to struggle with these days, no matter if for serious or comic purposes.
Exploring the locations and interacting with its quirky characters is only half the fun. Harking back to classic point-and-click adventures, the way is sometimes more interesting than the goal. Cutscenes hint at a bigger picture and so do some characters talk about the background story of the world around them, but it is the gameplay where the game truly shines.
Dig these puzzles!
The way characters and objects are interwoven is quite an achievement, considering that it’s so easy to get lost and stuck in other examples of the adventure genre. Puzzles have their own logic, but they’re usually easy to solve, due to enough hints and few hotspots. Some are quite original and even if typing in codes is not the most fun, at least the game at some point self-consciously makes fun of the genre itself.
What makes the puzzle design even better is that talking to characters does not only give clues as what to do next, but is also necessary for solving certain problems. Aside from giving a deeper understanding of the game world, it’s simply a joy to traverse all the locations, finding the connections between them and working on multiple puzzles at the same time.
Jivin’ and lookin’ damn fine
The presentation in its HD make-over is pretty flawless: an amazingly catchy soundtrack, professional voice acting (make sure you know your Jamaican English) are only part of the immersive experience. The high-res visuals (especially the water effects) are simply beautiful to look at and the cutscenes deliver a cinematic quality rarely seen in indie games. The character design with its African masks is quite unique, even if walking animations could be improved.
Unfortunately there were some slowdowns, making walking from one screen to the next a mixture of patience and slight annoyance. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future update or in the following episode. A hotspot key is not available as well. It’s true that there aren’t that many objects to find, but it would make the game even more accessible to a wider audience and if future episodes feature more items to pick up, it would definitely be an improvement to include it.
A classic point-and-click adventure in a modern suit
The Journey Down: Chapter 1 HD may look a bit like Grim Fandango, still with its black African roots in character design and voice acting it’s not simply a rip-off, but a homage having its own identity. Soundtrack, voice acting and background visuals add to one of the best presentations in the indie adventure genre so far.
Gameplay doesn’t disappoint either: Not since the LucasArts days (or What Makes You Tick: A Stitch In Time has it been so much fun solving chains of puzzles without any frustrations. They might not reach the same level of originality, but this doesn’t distract from the fact that this comic adventure is simply a wonderful trip back into nostalgia land with its own unique twist. Only its playtime of around 3 hours is a bit disappointing, and of course waiting for the next instalment (which won’t be anytime soon) will demand a lot of patience from adventure game fans.
Buy the PC game on
SkyGoblin’s website with various distribution channels
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