Thursday, June 3, 2010

Adventure Game Renaissance

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpg Long-time PC gamers often have a soft spot in their hearts for the point-and-click adventure game. Brought into vogue by LucasArts titles like Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, the genre focused on witty dialogue and puzzle solving in a time when simple, story-less action games were the order of the day. You explored colorful environments with your mouse, pointing and clicking and gathering items to progress – this was something that even people who didn’t associate themselves with “gaming” could enjoy.

And then the genre sort of died for awhile, or at the very least went into a brain-dead coma. It was eaten, as most things were, by the first-person shooter.

But, lo and behold! A burgeoning indie scene and several risk-friendly game platforms (Valve’s Steam service for the PC, and the Nintendo DS) have pulled adventure games back from the brink, ushering in a new golden age where people can ‘get’ and ‘examine’ to their respective hearts’ content.

Today I’ll be looking at some of my favorite adventure game franchises, telling you all (even you there in the non-gaming crowd) why you need to pick them up and give them a whirl. ‘Get’ your DS or PC and ‘examine’ your screen, because there’s a ton for you to play.

Objection! – Phoenix Wright and Ace Attorney

phoenixwright What’s the Deal: One of my favorite series is Ace Attorney, which began life in Japan in the early 2000s. Originally Game Boy Advance games, they were later ported to the DS and brought overseas.

The games, loosely based on the Japanese court system, follow the adventures of several attorneys (first Phoenix Wright, and later others) as they fly through trials by the seat of their pants, almost always just-barely managing to have their clients found innocent against staggering odds. Evidence-forging prosecutors are the least of your problems – at least half the time, the poor saps you represent are all but ready to cave under pressure and admit to crimes they didn’t commit.

Why it’s Worthwhile: Ace Attorney is very much a part of the adventure game tradition – you investigate crime scenes, gather objects (evidence), talk to people, and use logic to fit the pieces together and progress. The courtroom sequences are what make the games unique, making you use the evidence you’ve collected to reveal contradictions in testimony and find the truth.

Excellent art, memorable characters, well-handled writing and translation, great music, and ridiculously over-the-top shenanigans are all icing on the cake. Not one single thing that any of these people do would ever fly in a court of law, but that’s part of the charm.

Future Prospects: There have been five Ace Attorney games released in North America for the DS, and as of this writing parts of the series have also been ported to the Wii and the iPhone. News of another game hasn’t hit yet, but I doubt the series is going anywhere.

A True Gentleman – Professor Layton

Layton(1) What’s the Deal: Professor Hershel Layton is a true gentleman, to the point where I worry that maybe he’s a little obsessive-compulsive about it. He loves tea, he has a classy top hat, and he’s always willing to help a lady in need. He even manages to maintain a close friendship with Luke, his boy-wonder apprentice, that doesn’t seem, you know, weird. In this day and age, that’s no mean feat.

These are all DS-exclusive games, arranged into two trilogies – the first trilogy sees Luke and Layton journeying to strange locales and solving puzzles to unravel the places’ mysteries. The second trilogy, which is actually the first chronologically, also tells the story of how Luke came to be apprenticed to Layton in the first place.

Why it’s Worthwhile: The Layton games ooze charm. Layton himself, with his top hat and British accent, is positively adorable, and the series’ colorful and distinct art style is a brilliant fit for the DS.

None of this would matter if the core gameplay were no fun, and Layton delivers – every single person, every single room, nearly every single object in Professor Layton’s universe is ready to offer you a brain teaser without the slightest provocation, and solving each and every one of them makes you feel super smart. The series also lends itself well to being played by multiple people at once, making them great girlfriend games.

Future Prospects: The series’ fifth game, the second game in the second planned trilogy, is due out this fall in Japan. The games sell pretty well here in the States, securing their continued localization – the third game, Professor Layton and the Last Time Travel, is coming here in late November. The maddeningly slow pace at which these games arrive from Japan is frustrating, but Layton fans can rest assured that the franchise is doing pretty well.

You Fight Like a Dairy Farmer – Monkey Island

screenshot847-1 What’s the Deal: Nostalgia factors heavily into video games these days, and there are plenty of developers ready to capitalize on the fact that kids who played games in the early 90s are now twentysomethings with disposable income.

The Secret of Monkey Island was one of the LucasArts titles (along with Maniac Mansion and others) that were part of the first point-and-click adventure game boom in the early 90s. The first game follows Guybrush Threepwood in his quest to become a pirate, a goal which he attains by solving puzzles, using logic, and flinging insults.

The game’s snappy writing and colorful graphics won over quite a few fans and inspired three sequels before petering out in late 2000, but Telltale Games (which is staffed by a number of former Lucasarts employees) revived the franchise in 2009 with the five-episode Tales of Monkey Island.

Why it’s Worthwhile: Re: the original games, come on, it’s classic LucasArts. Re: the newer Tales of Monkey Island, come on, it’s Telltale. Both studios were/are renowned for making witty, entertaining adventure games that don’t necessarily break new ground, but nevertheless manage to exemplify the classic adventure genre.

Future Prospects: As far as brand-new stuff, it’s hard to say. Telltale is certainly not against revisiting successful properties, but to me Tales had the trappings of a pleasant walk down memory lane rather than the complete re-launch of an old franchise (but I could be wrong about that). On the other hand, people who didn’t experience the original games a couple of decades ago can play the updated remake of the original Secret of Monkey Island on the PC, the Xbox, or the iPhone, and can look forward to a similar re-release of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.

Seriously What is That Bunny Thing – Sam & Max

sam-max What’s the Deal: Much of what I said about the Monkey Island series can be applied to the Sam & Max series: LucasArts releases beloved adventure game in 1990s, Telltale Games later revitalizes franchise in episodic format.

Telltale Games offers several complete “seasons” of Sam & Max games for every platform under the sun – each season is composed of five episodes, which were originally released one at a time over a period of a few months. These games have strong Monkey Island DNA, and come highly recommended to fans of traditional adventure games.

Why it’s Worthwhile: See the same section under Monkey Island.

Future Prospects: I can’t imagine that Telltale can port the first two “seasons” of Sam & Max to any other platforms – I think they’re actually on everything, which is to say that adventure game aficionados have no excuse for avoiding them. Series fans will be glad to know that the first two episodes of the third season, The Devil’s Playhouse, were released in April and May, with another three episodes to follow at the rate of one a month. I see new seasons continuing for as long as the series is profitable.

Singing Cing’s Praises – Hotel Dusk

dsc00004editvm3 What’s the Deal: This one’s a little more nebulous, but most of the discussion here should probably center around Cing’s Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and its immediate sequel. Cing is also responsible for Trace Memory, a very early and awkward DS adventure game that can be considered uneven at best, and Again, which is by most accounts a slapdash swan song for the beleaguered studio (more on that below).

Hotel Dusk is better – as I mentioned in my review way back in the day, it’s a decent mystery story wrapped up in a disappointingly average game. As ex-cop Kyle Hyde, you wander the halls of the teeny Hotel Dusk and talk to people, finding out more about them and unraveling threads until the game’s mysteries come into focus. The sequel (Last Window: Midnight Promise), which has yet to grace our shores, is more of the same.

Why it’s Worthwhile: Hotel Dusk is one of those flawed gems that manages to overcome undercurrents of mediocrity to be a solid game. Gimmicks like Hyde’s notebook and the fact that you hold the DS vertically (like a real book!) charm, in spite of less successful touch screen mini-games and occasionally repetitive exploration. The characters and the writing are strong and memorable, and that’s what you’ll take away from this one.

Future Prospects: Pour one out for Cing – the Japanese studio filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and it’s unclear whether it actually exists at this point. Its last game to make it to North America, this year’s aforementioned Again, was poorly reviewed and seemed unfinished by most accounts. The Last Window may or may not ever make it to the States (look for news at E3, I guess?), and the prospect for future entries is grim. Still, enjoy what there is.

Now, go play some adventure games

Really, do it.