Even more spring games

Saturday, June 8, 2024

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Tagged: reviews, open roads, animal well, pilgrims, isles of sea and sky, harold halibut

No particular category here. Some narrative, some puzzle, some of both.

  • Open Roads
  • Animal Well
  • Pilgrims
  • Isles of Sea and Sky
  • Harold Halibut

Open Roads

A walking (and driving, but you're a passenger) simulator about two women exploring their family history. The pitch here is pretty directly Gone Home as a two-hander: Tess, the teenage viewpoint character, exploring houses with her mother Opal. Plus the invisible presence of Helen, the grandmother who has just died. So a three-hander, really, spanning three generations.

(Compare The Wreck, which took a similar tack for a very different three-generation family.)

This is good but doesn't quite manage to be great. The back-and-forth dialogue between Tess and Opal is the whole of the game, obviously. It's got plenty of good bits, but I never managed to feel the whole thing as a complete story-arc-and-conversation. I suspect this is just the nature of voice acting in a free-exploration game. Every snippet of dialogue has to stand on its own, because you don't know what order the player will encounter stuff. So the actors don't have the crucial context of "we were just sniping / teasing / reminiscing with each other a minute ago."

The classical solitary walking sim is all monologue, which I guess is easier. You can shift tone at will and let the player imagine what's going on in the protagonist's head. Social dialogue needs more continuity.

Also, the visual-novel-style talking heads don't quite have enough variation. The animations are nice, but they start to feel stock pretty quickly: the laugh, the gasp, the scowl. The voice acting is more expressive but this just makes the animations look mismatched.

None of this is fatal, though. Like I said, it's a good game; solid writing, solid (if somewhat melodramatic) story. The two characters and their off-stage associates become very real, very quickly. The environments are vivid and varied. Exploring them is a good time, and having your mom along for the ride packs an emotional punch.

(It occurs to me that both Open Roads (2024) and Gone Home (2014) are set twenty years in their respective pasts. I assume this is what happens when adult game developers write about their childhoods, but it still leads to the delightful question of what these characters are doing today. Tess is in her thirties now. Sam and Lonnie are almost fifty; their kids could be on a road trip right now. I like to imagine them all these people meeting up for dinner occasionally.)

Animal Well

The most-discussed puzzle game of the year (so far!) so I hardly need tell you to play it. It's delightful. Not what we call "thinky" nowadays; it's a more approachable style of puzzle, exploration and clever platforming tricks and clues that the madding crowd will readily collate on the inevitable wiki page. But there's tons and tons of it. The world is enormous, and full of gizmos, and every time you find a gizmo you can go back and find more stuff to do in the world.

It's also delightfully generous about solving the traversal puzzles. Each time you find a new gizmo, some impossible screen become possible; that's the metroidvania way. But also, some difficult screens become easier. There's often several ways to get past an obstable, depending on which items you've found and how cleverly you use them.

And not everybody finds the items in the same order! Yes, there's some gating and a general outline of what happens when. But you have quite a bit of flexibility within that. So you can whale away on a manically precise bit of jumping -- or leave it and come back later. It may look completely different when you have the <spoiler> or the <spoiler>, and different again when you have both.

Secrets abound, as do endings-beyond-endings. I happily powered my way through the main quest, and then (just as happily) started peeking at spoilers to get bonus stuff. The generosity applies here too, by the way. The way I reached the bonus ending doesn't actually match up with the spoilers! There's multiple paths in; I don't think players have entirely sussed out the logic.

Anyhow, I now have all the gizmos, 61 of the 64 bonus you-know-whats, and two of the secret you-maybe-know-alsos. I can be done now. I had a great time.

(Spoilers indicate that groups of players are still discovering stuff, as I write this, two weeks after launch day. Players are still discovering new categories of stuff. This game is a heroic accomplishment by the creator, let me tell you.)

Pilgrims

A little point-and-click game from Amanita Design. I see it's five years old, really. But it was buried in Apple Arcade, which I've mostly ignored. It shifted to a regular iOS app release last month so that's when I played it.

It's sweet, as you'd expect from Amanita. It's not really like any of their other games, also as you'd expect; Amanita has never felt constrained to repeat Samorost forever. In Pilgrims, you play a group of PCs. The combination of map location, active PC, and an inventory list (a tidy card metaphor) gives you a nice combinatoric range to explore. It reminded me of Grow, a bit, except with more graspable consequences.

If you're into trophy-hunting, there's a whole range of obscure corner cases to try to find. Enjoy.

Isles of Sea and Sky

A block-pushing puzzle game that takes the concept about as far as it can plausibly go, and then doubles down.

It starts with your basic concepts (push crates onto squares) and then rapidly starts to throw in variations. Holes, water, key-lock pairs, collapsing floors, crystals that grow when you step on them, ice, lava, (you knew there would be lava), ...

On the one hand, this is great: there's lots and lots of kinds of puzzles to be made from this stuff. And the game does! On the other hand, it's not the brain-breaking semantic godstuff of Baba Is You. It's just more kinds of crates and more kinds of squares. I eventually reached a point where there were too many different things on the screen; the prospect of exploring all their interactions got exhausting.

On the third hand, the environments are pretty awesome. They form cohesive environments -- islands, obviously -- which are loaded with sneaky secrets and hidden paths. The bonus puzzles aren't Animal Well deep but they'll keep you going for a while.

Come to think of it, some of Animal Well's multiple-solution factor applies to Isles. There are often several ways to solve a level. It may be impossible at first; when you collect a certain power it becomes possible, but tricky. Later, as you gain more powers, you can take shortcuts and the level becomes easier.

Mind you, this means that when you gain a new power, you have to run around a lot of places to see where it might apply. Animal Well did that too, but Animal Well is pretty speedy to traverse. In Isles re-exploring can be slow, and trying new stuff in a level can be really slow. Especially if it turns out you're still stuck on it. Once you reach the tricky levels, assaulting one might be ten or twenty minutes of block-fiddling -- trying various strategies in various combinations. (You hit "reset" a lot.)

And there are a lot of tricky levels.

I have to say that I've ground to a halt (at about 75 stars). It was a slow grind, because every couple of days I'd boot it up and run around an island looking for something I'd missed. And I'd find something! And make progress! A tiny amount of progress, for hours of work. (I've been looking at hints, too -- but not walkthroughs.) For my own sanity, I have to declare this game over.

But it's extremely clever. I enjoyed 90% of the puzzles I solved, if not 90% of the time I spent.

Harold Halibut

A big fat cinematic point-and-click game, if by "cinematic" you mean "Claymation". The titular Harold is the handyman on a starship stranded in an alien ocean. Life goes on, but where is it going? Clean the intake filters, scrub some graffiti... until a fishy alien person floats into view.

You'll find a few puzzles, but this game is mostly on the narrative side of the fence. You're steering Harold through the story rather than solving his problems. To be fair, Harold's problems are figuring out what his life should be. If a complicated machine is on stage, the game is (rather deftly) presenting the experience of messing with a machine, not using it to convey a puzzle per se.

So, the narrative. It's ambitious but somewhat unfocused. The game looks amazing: dense, hand-modeled sets blended with sea-lit underwater vistas. I'd love to know what the production process was like. (Spoiler: video.) The characters are completely convincing... clay animated figures? It truly looks like an animated feature. (Quite unlike the low-poly Wallace and Gromit games that Telltale once did.)

But this is where the plan starts to go wrong. The character animations are all crafted with perfectionistic care. It's clear that the designers wanted to render every action and beat. They never rely on point-and-click tricks like "your hand twitches and then we swap in the new object sprite". The problem is that too often, craft blows past fussiness and into tedium. When you click on something, Harold walks over and positions himself exactly right for the interaction. Every transition is slip-perfect -- but that means an extra half-second delay every time you do anything. Same goes for the cut scenes. So much care in the animation and direction, and for what? A nagging feeling that I could be peeking at my friends-list between lines of dialogue.

The story, too, is oddly unfocused. A whole lot of story happens, but it's hard to tell what the emphasis is, other than "Harold is a nice guy". He is, in fact. He is accustomed to doing everything for everyone, with only the shallowest of complaints at the routine of his life. The perfect fetch-quest protagonist, right? But also the sort of person who, upon seeing an alien fishy person in need of help, helps without stint or care for cost.

The rest of the cast is, well, comedy stereotypes. Only without the comedy? The game takes everything perfectly seriously. But not in the "ridiculous events taken seriously" sense of classic farce. It's just stuff happening to characters that include an Italian himbo schoolteacher and a one-handed Jewish auntie scientist. Nor is it satire; it's not driven by, e.g., Douglas Adams's neutron-collapsed rage at the inanities of life. The overly-corporate CEO isn't there for the narrative to lash out at capitalism. She's just part of the plot.

It's aiming at romantic comedy, or what romantic comedy would be if you substituted a phlegmatic pixie dream nonbinary fish person. Platonic comedy? But the rom-com model needs enough com-plot to balance the rom, and this story doesn't hang together.

All that complaining aside: a lot of the game works! Like I said, the visual construction is fantastic. The characters are one-note but thoughtfully played. I was happy to get to know them. At the end of the game, I happily took the time to go around to all of them and say goodbye. And, while I've taken my shots at the animation style, some of it works really well. There were some wonderfully conceived set-pieces in there. The comic timing sometimes worked. The cinematic direction has genuine flair.

If you want to relax in the vibe of being a good person, dreaming of a carefree life under the sea, Harold Halibut may be the game for you. You just have to be patient with it.


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