Thursday, November 15, 2012

You Should Probably Play This: The Journey Down - Part 1: Over The Edge

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column. In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention. It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better. This time: Here be Jamaicans.

Go here if you want to listen to the music, it's not on YouTube.

An adventure game?  Heavily stylized 3D graphics over 2D backgrounds?  Jazzy music?  A thematic world based on the traditions of one culture?  A main character with an unexplained marking on his head?  That's right, it's Grim Fandango The Journey Down!

Okay, that opening paragraph wasn't entirely fair.  Although I wouldn't be surprised if the game's designers took some inspiration from Grim Fandango (which is a good thing, by the way.  I wish more games would take inspiration from Grim Fandango), the games themselves don't have too much in common.

I like the idea of sleeping in front of your refrigerator.  It would minimize the time investment for midnight snacking!
So The Journey Down is a projected four part series created by SkyGoblin, a Swedish indie development studio.  The Journey Down originated as a low-res freeware adventure game, created in Adventure Game Studio.  This here is the commercial version, with considerably higher production values.

The Journey Down (Part 1) tells the story of Bwana, an attendant at a gas station outside of the vaguely dystopian cyberpunk city of St. Armando, which he heads with his friend/adoptive brother Kito.  One day a woman named Lina comes to the gas station in search of a book belonging to the pair's vanished adopted father Kaonandodo.  Of course, the book holds forbidden secrets about the underside of the world (it's flat, apparently) and there are some shady types gunning after them and they're off on an adventure!  Or at least, I assume so.  Because this is an episodic game, so there's little actual adventure to be had in this installment.  I'll rant about that later, though.

Quality television, that.
So gameplay-wise we've got a third person point and click game.  Not the most revolutionary of genres, even if you've never played one you can probably figure out how it works.  You go around pointing and clicking on things, talking to people, collecting every item you can fit down your pants, and solving puzzles.  Oh, and remorseless thievery.  Obviously.

The puzzles are fairly nice for the most part.  They're not too hard, you probably won't get suck on them for too long.  This might be unsatisfying for some, but I like it because I am not a puzzle master.  My only real issue with some of the puzzles is that thing that often plagues adventure games: contrivance.  See, in order to not just be a slideshow of talking to dudes, adventure games need gameplay.  And this gameplay usually comes in the form of puzzles.  The effect of this is that developers tend to end up inserting puzzles where they just feel like they shouldn't be there.

Sorry The Journey Down, pointing it out doesn't excuse it.
I suppose it's a necessary evil of the genre in many ways, but it can be handled with grace by making the puzzles feel like part of the world instead of just tacked on gameplay.  For the most part The Journey Down does a fine job of this, but there are a few moments where the puzzles feel forced in.

The Journey Down also has moments of that other adventure game flaw: lack of a clear line of progression.  Often times I found myself presented with a puzzle.  I had no idea how it linked to anything that I needed to do, but it was a puzzle so solving it would obviously help out somehow.  This is connected to the previous point, about needing to insert puzzles in because otherwise there'd be no gameplay.  Adventure game fans might think I'm being pedantic about this and, honestly, I am.  I've played enough adventure games to recognize this sort of design and I know it's often necessary, but I still wish more effort was put into making the puzzles really blend in with the world and provide natural progression.

Oh, and my other slight gameplay problem is another that shows up often in adventure games.  Namely, that Bwana's leisurely saunter makes the fairly large amounts of backtracking you'll be doing more tedious than it needs to be.  The ability to run or even skip across screens would have been highly appreciated.

This man is clearly not evil.
The game looks great.  The design of many of the characters is based on the African tribal masks, and it's a really cool style.  The 2D backgrounds are very well done and quite elaborate, making good use of incorporating 3D elements for the moving parts of scenes.  The Journey Down is honestly one of the more impressive-looking indie games I've played.  Only real rough edges in the visual design are the animations, which sometimes aren't too smooth, and the lipsynching, which is non-existent (but hey, maybe people will like that as a throwback to the SCUMM days).

The music is top-notch as well, with a nice jazzy Jamaican feel.  You might get sick of the tracks playing in some of the ares you'll visit more often, but it's really quite nice.  There's a surprising amount too, many screens have their own tracks that only show up there.

Continuing on from sound design, the voice acting is well done as well, especially for an indie production.  The voices in general are expressive and have a good amount of personality (the main characters, especially).  Only problem I really noticed is that there was from time to time a bit of a drop in the recording quality, where the voices would take on a bit of an echo.  Minor thing, but it was a bit odd.

Those are some nightmarish visages by the bar.
The voice acting supports a pretty good script, as well.  Maybe not quite up to the awesomeness of a Grim Fandango, but quite well done.  It's light hearted and bouncy, most of the characters have a fair amount of personality, and, although not laugh-out-loud, it made me crack a smile frequently.

So!  Pretty positive review, yes?  Then why do I still have reservations?  It is because of EPISODIC GAMING.
Lemme first get this out of the way: I don't have anything against the concept of episodic gaming as a whole.  However, the very nature of an episode is that each episode should have its own complete arc with story and character development, even if it fits into a larger story.  The Journey Down, however, doesn't really do this.  It's very much a prologue, and in fact in many ways it feels like a prologue ripped off of a full game and made standalone even if it doesn't totally fit.  The plot doesn't really go anywhere outside of the opening and closing cinematics and, combined with its short length, its means The Journey Down Part 1 left me very unsatisfied.  Now, I understand why they have to do it, obviously.  SkyGoblin's an indie studio, and it's far cheaper to make the game in bite-sized chunks instead of making the whole thing at once.  I can say Part 1 made me want to play Part 2 when it comes out, though.  Although it was a slight experience, I did enjoy it, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the plot goes.

So, would I recommend The Journey Down Part 1?  Well...  So, it was originally $14.99, which was way to expensive for what it was.  Thankfully SkyGoblin reduced the price and it's now $6.99.  Honestly, though, I have a hard time recommending it even for $6.99.  Not so much for the length, 2-4 hours, but for the slightness of the experience due to its prologue-y nature.  It's a good game, certainly, but if you're looking for an adventure game you can probably get more value for your money around that price range.  Still, if you're looking for a new and unique adventure game, The Journey Down is quite good and shows a lot of promise for future installments.

You can pick up The Journey Down - Part 1: Over The Edge for $6.99 at GamersGate,JustAdventure, or Desura.  Check it out.  It'd also make a good intro to Point & Click games, as it's quite short, accessible, and easy going.

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