The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles review
Point-and-click adventure games are something of an acquired taste. In ye olden days (otherwise known as the 90s), Lucasarts gave the US a penchant for the genre with classics like the Monkey Island series and Grim Fandango, but these days it’s the Germans who can’t get enough of them.
A New Beginning, The Whispered World and both the Deponia and Edna and Harvey series all have Teutonic backgrounds, as does 2011′s The Book of Unwritten Tales which was so well received that the developer, King Art, has decided to dig a little deeper into its world with a full-blown prequel. The Critter Chronicles explains how two of the protagonists from the first game – Nate the roguish layabout and his pink, furry companion-thing Critter – first met. It involves aliens, Yeti, mild abuse of penguins and an orc from Bradford.
Yep, it’s an adventure game.
I’m not sure if Mazaz the greenskin bounty hunter is canonically from West Yorkshire, but her voice actor seems to think so. Thankfully her lines were the only piece of the game’s presentation that didn’t sit quite right with me, because the graphics, animation and audio of the rest of The Critter Chronicles is brilliant.
The 3D environments are lush and detailed, the animations are very slick by adventure game standards and the translation troubles that mangled the jokes in the first of the Unwritten Tales are gone, leaving a script that’s not exactly brimming with belly laughs, but has a great deal of good humour regardless. Penguins on treadmills, evil guards reading naughty magazines and lots of fourth-wall breaking are the order of the day, along with the usual array of sarcastic one-liners and wisecracks from Nate.
Point-and-clickers are fuelled almost entirely by the charm and appeal of their worlds, so it’s as well that Aventasia is as interesting a world as you’ll find in the genre. It’s almost a fantasy parody, but the inch-thick layer of polish on the surface of The Critter Chronicles makes it a pleasant place to spend a few hours.
Book of Unwritten Fails
Getting past the first twenty minutes, that’s the hard part though, because when it comes to gameplay The Critter Chronicles is almightily obtuse. It has some wonderfully promising moments that show real inventiveness on the developer’s part, including a painting puzzle where you wield the brush with the mouse and – gasp – a lock picking mechanic that’s actually interesting.
It’s such a shame then that the core gameplay falls into the same traps as every second-rate adventure game going. The problem isn’t that you have to pick up an assortment of seemingly random objects, then combine them and use them to solve unlikely puzzles, as this sort of thing has always been a staple of the genre and when used correctly does have a certain quirky charm.
Instead the problem is that the puzzles lack any requirement of thought from the player. Sure you’re the one who’s doing the clicking, but you’ll often have no idea what you’re efforts are leading to. A rudimentary catapult might require several pieces, but you won’t know what you’re building until you’ve finished making it, and even once it’s done you’ll have no idea what the purpose of the catapult is until it does something improbable in a cutscene. It’s like doing a jigsaw blindfolded as a German programmer tells you where to move your hands.
Those lovable Germans…
Still, the blindfold is very pretty, and I can’t find it in me to condemn The Critter Chronicles. Some of the simpler puzzles are neatly executed and the main beats of the story flow at a good pace. Its errors feel more like the result of naivety, of a studio finding its feet, than of incompetence. That might sound like a pointless comment to make, even an excessively generous one given that this is the second game in the series, but there’s enough charm in the setting and in the quality of the presentation to make me think so.
The team that worked on the game is clearly a talented one having created some lovely environments and engaging personalities, but hopefully any further books of Unwritten Tales can make the same strides in gameplay. The best I can say about The Critter Chronicles is that it makes me eager to see what the developer can do with a sequel. It might be awful, but at least I want to find out.