Cockroaches in real life are no fun, and maybe that’s why there aren’t so many games with them in the lead roles. But Swiss developer Koboldgames’ Journey of a Roach might just be what the adventure genre and the misunderstood creatures need to survive.
Cockroach Jim has to help find his new friend Bud in a maze-like underground tunnel system and discover the secrets of a postnuclear world.
The story of a survivor
A cockroach as a main protagonist is an interesting idea, and even if Bad Mojo did it first with an FMV approach, the story still delivers a unique experience and succeeds in making the player sympathize with the crawlies he encounters. The plot seems simplistic at first, but soon introduces more mature themes other than the danger of a nuclear fallout. It’s also about obedience and hierarchy, while compassion and love for the small things in life are celebrated. If this sounds like too much environmentalist talk, it turns out to be less telling and more showing due to the lack of spoken dialogues. Except for some sounds the characters make, everything is told in images contained in speech bubbles, which is especially refreshing, considering how much time is spent in adventure games listening to endless conversations. The overall story development is a bit predictable, and there’s not much time to really get to know Jim and Bud with a rather abrupt ending, but the plot is engaging enough to walk or crawl from one environment to the other.
The world of fallout fighters
What is also surprising is how well the actions of the individual characters and a few image bubbles turn each NPC into a memorable person regardless of what one usually associates with the critters. Taking into account how hard it is for a comic adventure to have humorous and believable characters nowadays, it’s all the more gratifying to see the debut of a small indie developer achieve what so few others fail with their pseudo-funny writing. Just as an example, there’s a spider mom who cares so much for her babies who each have their pet peeves (no pun intended), while an old army general in the form of a cockroach with a cane remembers the good old times and wants to start a revolution. It’s these moments when one is simply lost in the world the developers created and wants to spend more and more time there. It’s only too bad that the playtime is just 4-5 hours.
Puzzling upside down
The puzzles are just as crazy as the characters who Jim interacts with. While they require a fair bit of obscure thinking, they’re generally a lot of fun to solve, while the additional third dimension makes them even more difficult. Despite the direct-control-system either by keyboard or gamepad, the game is still a classic point-and-click adventure with objects to pick up, to combine and to use with the environment or characters. Going up walls and walking on the ceiling adds another dimension and often requires thinking about how to reach areas after performing certain actions. This obviously means backtracking, and it isn’t always clear what to do or where to go, which becomes more of a problem in the last part of the game with quite a few rooms to visit and items to collect. Another issue of the puzzle design is that the objects are picked up without a comment of the character and one has to pay close attention to what the thought bubble says when looking at them in the inventory, as the hints are just as obscure to figure out.
Even if navigating the environment can be tricky and the solutions to problems are not always obvious, the imagination of object combinations and character interaction makes for a fun gaming experience, which is greatly helped by the way multiple goals can be achieved at the same time, something classic point-and-clickers have done so well. Getting stuck in one situation simply means other things can be done which can then again also open up more possibilities or paths. The way these individual tasks are connected in the game world and how the story plays out is encouragement enough to try out even the strangest ideas.
Stumbling blocks with falling down gameplay
Unfortunately, the unique control system makes navigating Jim’s surroundings cumbersome and fiddly. The camera movement can also be disorienting and to some degree nauseating for people with motion sickness when moving from the ground to walls and the ceiling. A hotspot key is helpful to find the right points of interaction or items which can be easily overlooked, although it’s often the case that some objects have to be circumvented. This is extremely annoying in some parts of the game when pixel-perfect movement is required. Avoiding traps is another problem which is not made easier by throwing the player back to the beginning.
Comic(al) 3D with groovy sounds to crawl to
Like the unusual characters and fun storytelling, the visual presentation of the game is original as well with a comic look refreshingly unlike the typical 2D hand-drawn backgrounds and static characters Daedalic is usually associated with. It might not showcase the best in 3D graphics, but the engine is strong enough to bring a vibrant world to life on even older computers with only few instances of slowdown. The animations don’t reach the same level of quality other 3D(-action)-adventures have, but they weirdly fit the critters’ own restricted movements.
The color palette is not as drab as one might expect from most 3D-adventures and the subterranean surroundings, but more varied, while the mix of cheerful jazz music and sometimes scary minimalistic piano sounds add immensely to the atmosphere. Cutscenes are presented in a doodle-style one has to get used to, but which again set the unique tone for this game, making it different from so many other comic adventures.
A roach to like and a game to love
Daedalic Entertainment has proven itself to be a developer with the knack for crazy comic and also some more serious point-and-click adventures over the years. Now it shows its publishing skills by introducing Kobold Games’ Journey of a Roach to the gaming world with much success in the process. The art style might not be for everyone, and the puzzle design can be a bit too obscure. But then again, when the solutions are just as much fun as the problems, sometimes even reaching the level of quality LucasArts games had back in the days, it shows the developer’s love for the genre and the understanding of what made those games so great.
It’s too bad then that the lovely crafted world and its characters with their own unique graphics style are let down by the lack of hints and a cumbersome control system whose problems become apparent in unnecessarily difficult sequences which require both timing and patience, something found in platformers, but which are out of place in this puzzle-heavy adventure game.
Even if the playtime is pretty short and the story isn’t particularly new, this is a title to recommend to all adventure game fans who prefer solving fun puzzles and being immersed in a memorable world with whacky characters over endless dialogues and cutscenes. Koboldgames is definitely a developer to keep a close eye on in the future.
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