[11 March 2012]
It’s comforting to know that a company like Wadjet Eye can not just exist, but thrive in the modern gaming landscape. Wadjet Eye plays to a very specific niche gamer: the one convinced that gaming of any sort peaked in the LucasArts golden era of the mid-1990s. This is the gamer weaned on Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island, the gamer who likes a good puzzle but also enjoys the freedom to explore without repercussion.
Also, this is a gamer who prefers the pixel-heavy visuals of a VGA monitor to the near-photorealistic backdrops of modern entrants in the adventure gaming genre. Despite characters and stories that are entirely original, the framework in which those stories are presented is pure nostalgia bait.
While on the surface this may seem like a cynical way to draw eyes to the company’s games, one gets the sense that the stylistic choice is both practical (these games play on any computer and don’t need teams of artists just to get the rendering right) and a matter of what the small development teams who create games like Da New Guys: Day of the Jackass and the excellent Blackwell series happen to love. Loom, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango . . . these are games that resonate with a certain crowd, games that we can quote on a whim when prompted. One gets the sense that the developers of Da New Guys probably practice insult swordfighting in their spare time. There is nothing cynical at all about it. It wants to be liked, that’s all.
Now, even the most earnest labors of love can have their problems. While it’s unfair to compare Da New Guys to the Blackwell games given that they are two completely different franchises that live by their own rules, part of the appeal of the Blackwell games is the variations on the genre that they offer. There is no item collection per se, progression in the game centers on dialogue, and the fact that many of the most important characters are dead lends it a macabre vibe that works in its favor. Da New Guys, on the other hand, simply tries to be silly. There’s plenty of item collection, using items on items, visiting various locations to find more items, and joke after joke along the way. The characters are pure caricature, which may be expected given the professional wrestling setting, but makes everyone in the game feel as disposable as anyone else.
While Blackwell offered a nice variation on what we remember of the genre, Da New Guys is pure imitation.
Not only this, but until it is patched, it is a somewhat broken imitation. Throughout the game are a number of bugs that offer minor annoyances to the player at best and that break the game at worst. One time, I activated a dialogue sequence with a character that wasn’t in the scene. When the game figured it out, it threw an error and booted me from the game. This would have been fine, given that the game autosaves every five minutes or so, except that loading the last autosave just happened to put my character in a place where progression was simply impossible. Thanks to my lazy manual save habits, this set me back a solid hour or so.
Now, was this a catastrophic bug? No, especially given that this is a point ‘n click adventure game whose puzzles don’t change. All I had to do was exactly the same stuff that I’d already done, and I’d get back to where I was. The problem is, it’s the sort of issue that turns a game into busywork, and it was the worst of many bugs and problems that had plagued my six or seven hours of puzzle-solving. Some actions can’t be taken until a certain dialogue tree has been traversed, and there’s no good reason for blocking those actions other than to ensure that everything happens in a strict, prescribed order. LucasArts was masterful at allowing for the illusion of freedom in its linear stories; here, you feel constricted by the linearity.
Unfortunately, the one place where Wadjet Eye attempts to go outside the traditional adventure game template fails as well, employing “action” sequences in a point ‘n click adventure framework. A few areas in the game ask the player to perform a sequence of events in a set amount of time, usually while an adversary is distracted. Rather than allowing the player to contemplate a solution, these sequences force quick thinking and clicking, which seems like a neat idea until you realize that implementing such a solution necessitates a tiresome gameplay loop that is typically solved through the sort of trial and error that these games try to avoid. That these sequences try to exist in a world without true consequence means that the adversaries in these sequences are stripped of intelligence entirely, given that they seem happy to repeat the same sequence of events ad infinitum until you find a way to break the cycle. At least in a world where everything is static until you inspire change, the NPCs in the story can maintain some semblance of purpose to their actions (or lack thereof).
The episodic feel of Da New Guys gives the sense that this is a franchise in the making, so there is hope to be had, and it would be disingenuous to say I didn’t have some fun in my time with this wholly original batch of characters. Still, Day of the Jackass is too derivative to offer much more than a nostalgic grin. While it’s great to see adventures like this continuing to be made, it’s not enough for them to merely exist. They must also justify our love for a near-forgotten genre—a tall order, maybe, but one that Wadjet Eye has previously proven itself capable of.