Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter Q&A, with Wael Amr

2016 is due to see the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the next entry in Frogwares’ long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. As a fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments — which I called an “interesting, ambitious example” of thematic puzzle design — I reached out to Frogwares to find out more. Read on for my interview with Wael Amr, Frogwares CEO, in which we chat about The Devil’s Daughter and the broader adventure genre:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

Frogwares is perhaps best known for its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, most recently 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. How did you come to work on these games, and how has the series evolved?

We started to work on the series in 2001. Our first game was a very traditional adventure game at that time.

Every game we made since was different, in technology, scenarios, control scheme and gameplay.

The versatility of Sherlock Holmes allows to have more than one kind of gameplay or controls scheme.

Our last game, The Devil’s Daughter features probably the wider range of game mechanic we ever created.

 

The next Sherlock Holmes game will be The Devil’s Daughter, due for release in 2016. What can you tell us about its new features, and which do you consider the most significant?

I would say that the most significant is the rhythm of the game, that is rather dynamic. It is due to new mechanics of course, but not only, the new character controller, the removal of loading, make the overall pace more dynamic and active. Focus tests showed it was a very welcomed change. The heart of the game is cases investigation and it remains so.

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Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of my favourite classic novels, a picaresque set in nineteenth-century India. When the Secret Games Company launched a Kickstarter for a video game adaptation, I was keen to find out more. Read on for my interview with developer Jeremy Hogan:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.

Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.

 

 

Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?

Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.

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Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

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Sherlock Holmes vs the Cat-Hair Moustache

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is an adventure game that doesn’t feel like other adventure games.

Typically, adventure games give the player several tasks: exploring the environment, gathering items, talking to NPCs, and solving puzzles. The challenge comes from the last element, solving puzzles. Sometimes, this becomes a problem. Either the solution to the puzzle makes no sense (making a moustache out of cat hair), or the puzzle itself is out of place.

Crimes and Punishments contains several of these elements. There is a fair amount of exploration and talking to NPCs (both accompanied by a sort of “Holmes vision”, triggered at the touch of a button):

Sherlock Holmes CP - NPC
This never gets old.

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Valiant Hearts: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts wants to tell the truth about war. To do so, it uses puzzles, humour, and a goofy villain. That is the language of adventure games, but it is not the language of war, and the resulting contradiction has divided reviewers. My response was mixed – I appreciated the first half of the game, but found it “frustratingly inconsistent”.

After finishing Valiant Hearts, I’m a bit more positive – its second half features better puzzles and is truer to its themes. In the first half of the game, battle is sometimes terrifying, but just as often turns into pulling levers and carrying gears. The second half is cleverer. It reserves its baroque puzzles for sequences away from the front, where they feel much more appropriate. The second half also evokes a wider and, I think, more accurate range of emotions. Combat in the first half is uniformly negative. Combat in the second half is mostly negative – and sometimes thrilling.

Overall, Valiant Hearts receives my qualified endorsement: the less you mind the contradiction, the more you will like the game. Sometimes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating. Sometimes, it’s nerve-wracking. Ultimately, it says, the war was monstrous and unjust. It strikes me as a sincere attempt to convey the emotions of World War 1, and if you can forgive its flaws, I think it’s worth a look.

Valiant Hearts: half full

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts - Wasteland

I’m halfway through Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft Montpellier’s adventure game set during World War 1.  Billed as a “story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart”, VH‘s heart is in the right place — but its execution can be frustratingly inconsistent.

As with Ubisoft sibling Child of Light, VH‘s most noticeable strength is its presentation. The art is as lovely as its subject is grim: in eight hours, I’ve already taken 286 screenshots (several are at the bottom of this post). Environments are packed with detail, from the lights of pre-war Paris to a lonely skeleton buried beneath a trench, not far from a rusty shovel. Since that sequence calls for you to tunnel under the same trench, the shovel is a sobering touch. Who was that luckless sapper? We will never know — and that, I think, was the developers’ point.

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Waking Mars: The Verdict

The beauty of Mars. I took so many cool screenshots, but this was the only one that wasn't a spoiler.
The beauty of Mars. I took so many cool screenshots, but this was the only one that wasn’t a spoiler.

Science fiction, it is said, is the literature of ideas – a genre about going where nobody has gone before. Its iconic emotion is the “sense of wonder”; its iconic heroes are explorers and scientists. Now an indie game, Tiger Style’s Waking Mars, has distilled that spirit into a remarkable ten-hour package.

 

I wrote my first impressions of Waking Mars last year; you play an astronaut exploring a cave complex beneath Mars. Each area is home to a certain amount of Martian wildlife, and to progress to the next, you must increase the amount of life – the biomass – above a certain threshold. To do this, you flit about on a 2D, side-scrolling map of the area, planting seeds, tending to the newly grown plants, and collecting their secreted seeds to plant elsewhere or feed to animals. (While the game does look like a platformer, I found this is not the case; it emphasises exploration, not reflexes or timing, and in fact I recommend turning the difficulty down so you can focus on its strengths.)

 

This is a simple premise, but it’s done wonderfully. Over time, you encounter more, and more varied, species, each with their own ecological niche. There’s the Halid, your workhorse throughout the game: a plant with moderate biomass and the ability to produce a profusion of seeds. There are little scurrying creatures, which reproduce after eating Halid seeds; individually their biomass is trivial, but if you can fill a room with them… There are plants that offer high biomass, but that kill other organisms. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Along the way, you discover more and more species, more and more of the planet’s mysteries, and I wish I could spoil some of these for you – more than once, they made me think, “wow!”

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A formula for success: Back to the Future: The Game, Episode 1

For a fan of the movies, Episode 1 of Back to the Future: The Game strikes just the right balance between familiarity and originality.
For a fan of the movies, Episode 1 of Back to the Future: The Game strikes just the right balance between familiarity and originality.

 

 

I’ve just finished Episode 1 of Back to the Future: The Game, a 5-part point-and-click adventure game from Telltale Games of Walking Dead fame. (I estimate Episode 1 is around 3-4 hours long, which suggests that the entire series is 15-20 hours.) Rather than overlapping or rehashing the Back to the Future movies, the game is an original story that “begins” sometime after the end of the trilogy. It is very much a traditional adventure game, in which players control Marty McFly as he solves puzzles, uses items on the environment, and makes wry observations on his situation; if there are any elements of action or reflexes in BttF, I haven’t seen them yet. So far, I very much like it for two reasons: it succeeds both as an adventure game and as a homage to the movies.

 

As an adventure game, Episode 1 of BttF has the genre’s traditional strengths: it’s witty to the point of being laugh-out-funny, and solving puzzles makes me feel like a genius. The puzzles themselves are sensible and well-designed – no cat-hair moustache here! – and one, in particular, is amongst the best puzzles I can remember in an adventure game; while not challenging, it’s unique, hilarious, and perfectly fits the characters’ situation (1). Production values are a mixed bag; I do not find BttF’s graphics very attractive; but its excellent voice acting makes up for it.

 

As a homage to the movies, Episode 1 works equally well. The voices, as noted above, help; Christopher Lloyd reprises his role as Doc Brown, and AJ Locascio does a great job as Marty. But the writing is key, and I wish I could spoil it for you! As is, all I can say is that Episode 1 strikes the right balance between familiarity (“hey, cool, this is just like the movies!”) and originality; while it recycles the movies’ formula, the juicy details are all its own.

 

Overall, if you enjoyed the Back to the Future movies and you are a fan of adventure games, you should definitely check out Episode 1 of Back to the Future: The Game. While I can’t vouch for the quality of the other episodes, I do look forward to trying them out.

 

(1) For those of you who’ve played the game: “You’re treating me like a BACTERIA!”

Humble Bundle for Android #4: The Highlights (Waking Mars, Swords & Soldiers, Crayon Physics)

A screenshot of Waking Mars. Credit: Tiger Style

 

So I’ve had a few days to play around with the current Humble Bundle, Android #4– by way of introduction, this offers Android, PC, and Mac copies of five indie games (Splice, Eufloria, Waking Mars, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) on a pay-what-you-want basis. Paying more than the average (currently $6.61) will add another six games: Machinarium, Avadon: The Black Fortress, Canabalt, Cogs, Swords & Soldiers HD, and Zen Bound 2.

 

Of these, I’ve dipped very briefly into Eufloria, Superbrothers, and Machinarium, but I’ve preferred to spend my time with Waking Mars, Crayon Physics (which I’ve owned on Steam for a while), and Swords & Soldiers (both on Android and on Steam). Brief thoughts below…

 

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Stacking – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stacking
A journey with dolls

 

Double Fine Productions’ adventure game, Stacking, has an illustrious pedigree: Double Fine founder Tim Schafer’s resume is littered with genre pillars, from Monkey Island to Grim Fandango. Born out of an internal Double Fine game jam, Stacking debuted on consoles in 2011, and has now reached the PC. How does it stack (sorry) up? Pretty well, thanks to two distinct strengths.

 

The first is its original premise: the residents of Stacking’s world aren’t humans, they’re Russian matryoshka dolls. Your character is the tiniest of all, but “stacking” into a small doll will allow you to jump into a medium-sized doll, which will allow you to jump into a large doll, and so on. Each doll has its own ability, which you can use while stacked into it. As such, instead of the usual “fiddling with every item in your inventory”, solving puzzles is a matter of working out which doll’s power to use – or, sometimes, which dolls’ powers, as some puzzles require the combined use of more than one. (Using multiple dolls is Stacking’s equivalent of “use every item with every other item”, but thankfully, the puzzles are more sensibly designed than that!) It’s fresh, it’s quirky, and at first, it’s a delight to stack into every doll in sight, in search of the next new ability.

 

Yes, you can stack into all those bicyclists

 

The second is how neatly it avoids the traditional sin of adventure games: the ease of getting stuck. Normally, adventure game puzzles have one solution, and if you can’t guess it, tough luck (short of resorting to GameFAQs). This is especially bad when the game expects you to, say, make a moustache out of cat hair. While Stacking does offer an in-game hint system, it also addresses the root of the problem: in this game, puzzles have anywhere from three to five solutions. One or two will usually be obvious… but the challenge comes from trying to work out the rest. This is a much better way of designing an adventure game: it lets you set your own pace (do I want to blast through, or tick off every solution?) and gives a good reason to be completionist (some of the solutions are laugh-out-loud funny).

 

Stacking’s greatest limitation is that its characters and plot aren’t very deep – not deep enough to carry the game. Without the compelling stories of, say, The Longest Journey or Gabriel Knight, Stacking relies on novelty value. And eventually, the novelty wears off: by the time I finished, I found the game less amusing and enjoyable than when I began. (I also stopped bothering with every solution: I just wanted to wrap up!) But Stacking is short enough for this not to be a serious problem – I finished it in ~8 hours, before it outstayed its welcome.

 

At the  end of the day, Stacking isn’t a great game, but it is a good one: the video game equivalent of a healthy snack. Cute, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious, it’s especially well suited for quick breaks – if you’re tired or short on time, you can dip in, solve a puzzle or two, and call it a day. Worth a look for genre fans.

 

You can buy Stacking (PC) from Amazon US.

 

We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: Around 8 hours.

 

What I have played: The main game.

 

What I haven’t played: The DLC adventure (“The Lost Hobo King”) included free with the PC version.

Postcard from a world of Russian dolls

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stacking

Stacking, Double Fine’s Russian doll-themed adventure game, is a treat for the eyes as well as the funny bone. In the above screenshot, a mismatched crowd queues up for tickets at a train station; their distinct designs, and the station’s warm ambience, speak to the love and craft with which this game was made.

 

Stay tuned for a full review once I’ve finished!

A wretched hive of SCUMM and villainy

Remember the classic LucasArts SCUMM adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island and Manic Mansion? This entry in the Star Wars Uncut project (fifteen-second fan enactments of individual scenes from Star Wars) is an awesome homage.

If you liked it, you can see the main Han Solo Adventures project here, and the Star Wars Uncut project here.