One thing that I’ve come to learn as a reviewer for Gamedot is that 80% of games for review are not ones that I’d consider buying. In most cases there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in them, with Alien Breed 3: Descent and Greed Corp springing to mind, but they’re titles that I would otherwise only have glanced at, perhaps if they managed to make it onto the Steam storefront.
Adventure games are probably the clearest example of these. I’ve reviewed three of them in the past six months: pirate-dog mash-up Jolly Rover, the asylum-bound Edna and Harvey: The Breakout and further pirate weirdness in the revival Tales of Monkey Island (freshly reviewed on Gamedot this very day). Each had its moments, some more frequently than others, and each brought about some frustration; but what strikes me is just how similar they all were.
In their current state, point-and-click adventure games are a novelty, their mechanics having barely changed from where they were in the 90s, when Lucasarts dominated the genre with games like Grim Fandango, Sam and Max Hit the Road and the original Monkey Island adventures. The gameplay in each of the three modern successors I reviewed was identical, following the standard formula of A) pick up everything that isn’t nailed down; B) use and/or combine items in bizarre yet weirdly logical ways to solve puzzles; C) wonder who dreamt up this madness. The genre appears to be entirely stagnant.
Tales of Monkey Island occasionally came up with something different, such as the use of world-altering maps and a face-pulling minigame, but these inevitably resulted from or led into more of the same puzzles. Likewise, Jolly Rover (which apes classic Monkey Island in just about every way) introduced a neat voodoo spellbook that ended up being absorbed into the other puzzles. Edna and Harvey had the worst gameplay of the three not because its rivals had cooked up different ideas, but because its execution of the same time-honoured principles was woefully inadequate, including as it did a overly cluttered inventory and brutally difficult puzzles with facepalm-worthy solutions. Perhaps even a double facepalm (resist urge…to post…Picard and Riker picture…).
The best conclusion I can come to regarding the genre is this: success rests almost entirely on presentation. Good writing, characters, voice-acting, art design and music are what differentiates these games from one another. Despite Edna and Harvey being one of the most infuriating games I’ve ever played, its oddly unsettling plot and unique tone damn near converted me, whilst Tales of Monkey Island was easily the best of the three because it was the funniest, best-looking, best-sounding and most endearing because of it. The gameplay was also a step ahead, but this wasn’t what made me rattle off the whole thing in a few days: what managed that was the aesthetic appeal of the thing, especially the characters, who had more charisma individually than the other two games could muster from their entire casts.
Jolly Rover, by contrast, was instantly forgettable, if pleasant enough when being played, because it played everything so safe, particularly with its archetypal characters and unimaginative locations. In the end, I gave it seven out of ten, that oddly-dreaded gaming score which indicates ‘satisfactory’, and a score which, in hindsight, I would lower. Monkey Island got an eight, because it was an excellent adventure game but one still stuck with being, well, an adventure game, whilst Edna and Harvey got a five when its gameplay alone would have merited only a three or a two (or even a one – dare I go there?). I’ll likely end up reviewing more point-and-clickers soon (Telltale’s upcoming Jurassic Park adaptation looks intriguing) but it’s hard to see them and the genre as a whole escaping from the mid-table. They’re fun, they’re enjoyable, but they’re not really going anywhere.