Thursday, 17 December 2009

Harry's 21st Birthday

Ah, the classic 21st. One last hurrah before the Terrible Twenties. Being vastly irresponsible and trying to piece together exactly what happened through the headachey next morning.
This looks to be the exact case with protagonist Tom's bessie mate Harry, with one key exception. He's a sadistic and powerful cyberdemon inhabiting the depths of Hell. As Tom, the player must prepare everything for the party and ensure nothing goes wrong.
I always like to start a game's review with its most praiseworthy feature. It sets a good precident and doesn't put potential players off. And by far the best feature is the humour! The game's witty narrative and dialogue had myself and no doubt many other players in stitches. The ending in particular made me laugh out loud.
The game is created using the sprites from classic shooter Doom, and in many ways its main audience is the fans of the game. There are many tongue-in-cheek references packed into the game (including the shocking truth behind why there is body armour and other human-friendly assistance in the depths of hell) and playing will give the golden oldies of video gaming good things to reminisce about. It's almost like Doom was a film (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of that one with the Rock) and this game is a massive DVD extra released for the remastered edition.
Beyond that, it's a wonderfully intricate game. It verges on the easy side, but being needlessly complex would ruin the fun appeal. The comparative length (it took me roughly half an hour to complete) leaves the player wanting more - this is a praise rather than a criticism.
All in all, Harry's 21st Birthday is incredibly inventive, brilliantly original and works as a fine tribute to a classic game as well as shining in its own right. It's funny, punchy and seamless.
Final Score: 8/10

Monday, 14 December 2009


Whoo! With a deal in the pipeline to feature my reviews on the AGS blog (that's right....the AGS blog) and more and more people visiting the site, my popularity is on the up! I'd like to thank my early readers, and assure you that the best is yet to come.

Which is what brings me to my latest play, Featherweight. Set in a post-apocalyptic future it deals with Thadd, a Featherweight scout (as in small and useful for recon rather than fighting, although the boxing-savvy will have already grasped the inferrence) for the humans in the war against the machines. And for everyone who's mind immediately sprang to California's current governor, this is like Terminator but it isn't Terminator. The two plots are similar, but Featherweight has more than enough individuality and flair about it to define itself separately. This is helped by the amazing scenery; Ben Chandler (or Ben304) pulls out all the stops in immersing us in the world of Featherweight, and it gives the game a fantastic edge. Debris, burned out cars, cracked architecture and more are used to achieve the desired effect, yet are also functional to the puzzles.

But back to the story. A young female scout has been captured by the robots and Thadd, disgusted by the complacency of his partner, goes on a one-man crusade to rescue his compatriot. Using ingenuity and stealth, Thadd must brave the dangers of the robot base.

A wildly inventive plot and gorgeous and oppressive artwork are two of the main reasons this game works so well, but they're not the main positive. Featherweight is in a similar standard of difficulty to Robbing the Princess, although the puzzles are different. I found myself sympathising fully with Thadd as he cursed himself for failing to advance. Featherweight features wonderfully crafted puzzles designed in logic and cruel problem-solving. There's a massive emphasis on trial and error; it took me five tries to disable the bars to my makeshift cell before dispairingly turning to a walkthru. Even though we're only dealing with two buttons, I would have been trying combinations for days. Despite the emphasis on trial and error, the game is particularly unforgiving in terms of the latter part. Detection is rewarded by having to catch yourself up via a gruelling journey from your cell, something that extends the game but frustrates, no doubt to the intense glee of the designer.

Despite all these great things there is a criticism to make, and it is a big one. While I'm sure it's recieved mixed reviews by players, I have to admit disliking the music intently. It's suitably futuristic, but is bizarrely light-hearted and perky. I perceived Featherweight to be a particularly dark game; in this critic's humble opinion it would have been benefited so much with a grittier, more oppressive tune.

But that's just one aspect. Featherweight is an extremely well made game and creates a futuristic setting that is both original and believable. I'd recommend it more to MENSA members than casual gamers, but to both groups it's incredibly entertaining.

Final Score: 8/10

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Retrospective: My favourite AGS games of all time

Everyone has games that they could play over and over again. The one series or developer that first piqued your curiosity with AGS and turned you into a lifelong fan. These games may have the same puzzles you've smashed through twenty times, but the brilliance of the game keeps you moving.

Instead of reviewing a new game I'm going to devote this post to the top ten games that have made me consider signing off on CD games, the ones that have made me gasp, laugh, cry (err...did I say cry? I...meant shout. Yeah. A big manly shout) and cast my mind into eternity.

Note: No pictures this time. It proved too much of a bugger to drag them down to the appropriate entry.

10. Pleurghburg: Dark ages

Pleurghburg was one of the first games I played on AGS. And I can unreservedly say that I love it, even all these years later. The futuristic setting is clever and inspired. The puzzles are great. Frankly, I love the main character. Pleurghburg might not have engaged me as much as the others on this list, but it's a great game that I look on fondly.

9. Saw

Saw was one of those uniquely difficult games that pushed you to the readily-available walkthrus every time, yet made you feel guilty for not taking the time to think it out. Even using the Spanish-English translation pack was difficult for me! Saw was one of the great examples of technical game making. I know that if I played it now, I would have the exact same struggle as I did last time. And it's faithful to the films. That really can't be undervalued.

8. La Croix Pan

This game had everything for me. It was an adventure game. It was a first person shooter. It was an authentic WWII experience. And you got to kill Nazis. Short yet sweet, this game is and was incredible.

7. Rob Blanc

I didn't want to include different games by the same author in this list because it would be full of Yahtzee (and Grundislav) titles, but I didn't feel I could let the Rob Blanc trilogy go without a mention. While I first got familiar with the lead characters in the epic Yahtzee takes on the World I felt them come into their own during the three games. They're fun and funny in equal measure and I find myself still playing all of them from time to time.

6. Frank the Farmhand

It's probably best to mention that this list is devoted to the first episode of Frank, because I wasn't as impressed with the second. Frank the Farmhand (part 1) is a fast paced and witty tale of government conspiracies, deep-South racism and friendship that charmed me right from the word go.

5. The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1

I guess all my reasons for this are on my page!

4. Ben Jordan Case 7: The Cardinal Sins

As I mentioned, I wanted to avoid over-emphasising developers. But Ben Jordan has to grace this list more than once, and you'll see why. While the number one slot personifies the rest of the series, BJ7 deserves a mention of its own. And why? Voices. Music. Great storytelling. Awe-inspiring plot. Commentary. I've made myself clear.

3. Lost in the Nightmare

Playing Lost in the Nightmare: Save our Souls doesn't have the same effects as playing other games. It's the closest AGS has ever got to a full-on psychological experience. Terrifying and haunting, it was a challenge to both #2 and #1.

2. Five Days a Stranger

Do I really need an explanation? This is possibly the most famous AGS game out there, created an epic series to follow it and defined point n' click horror for generations. This is the Pink Floyd of adventure games; not just brilliant in terms of quality but for the influence its had on the genre.

1. Ben Jordan Case 3: The Sorceress of Smailholm

So we come to the end of our list with my favourite AGS game of all time. Don't get me wrong, BJ1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and (obviously) 7 each had a fantastic appeal of their own, but number 3 always holds top trumps for me. Maybe it's the spooky plot, the incredibly detailed (real) setting, the clever character study of everyone's favourite stuffy English professor, Percival Quentin Jones. But either way, this is my favourite. And I'll be playing it for a long, long time.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Robbing the Princess

I'm one of the first to admit that it's the depth of the story, not the complexity of the puzzles that attracts me to a game. Who wants to have every square inch of their brain challenged while they could be discovering deep family mysteries or having a conversation with that guy they thought was dead in Episode 2?

Sometimes, however, the alternative can prove refreshing. Alec and Suzy have tracked a stolen crate to a ship called the Princess. They have to find a way to get on board to recover its contents. Who are Alec and Suzy? Who knows! Empirical logic suggests they're not the rozzers (they have to break in) so we have to guess that the theft of the crate impacted them. Who stole it? Search me. And what's in the crate? It's a mystery. Not a Pulp Fiction-style 'what's in the suitcase?' mystery but a 'why do you care, just recover the darned thing' type mystery.

But the intention of creator OneDollar was not to skip massive story elements and hope the players filled things in. The intent is obvious; it does not matter why you want this crate, who you are, and why you find it acceptable to semi-poison sailors for their clothes. A back story is futile. Your objective is clear.

And thus, the reviewer then has to rate the game by its content. And, ladies and gentlemen, Robbing the Princess is hard. This critic is ashamed to admit he referred to the walkthru more times than he should for such a short game. The puzzles are fiendishly intricate, and for such a short game there's a lot to puzzle over. The game feature of switching between two player characters not only shows a high level of initative on OneDollar's part, it also creates an opportunity for complicated and challenging puzzles as Alec and Suzy have to swap items that the other can successfully operate.

The game was made in 25 days (a MAGS entry) and the workmanship is evident. And the total lack of music is not as much of an issue as it could be; music is essential to edgy horror and epic fantasy games, but for puzzle games ordered around challenge rather than storytelling it's not exactly missed. The artwork is crisp and looks impressive on the window size.

So to conclude, Robbing the Princess is a fun, challenging and extremely well-made game. The comparable length means that it won't get massive replay value, but I certainly enjoyed myself.

Final Score: 7/10

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Shai-la of the Sith: The Investigation

Chicken and rice. Coke floats. Chili and chocolate. Cheese and pickle. What do the above have in common, you may ask? In each case, some clever bugger decided that combining things people love made for a surprisingly good idea. And it paid off.

The Investigation, the latest episode of Marion's story of dark Jedi Shai-la, has truly earned itself a place in the above list by combining Cluedo and Star Wars. Forget the current spate of inane film/TV board game tie-ins, (Disney Monopoly anyone?) what if you had a game that promised both a crime to solve and an authentic Star Wars experience? That's just what Marion offers in the game that promises a replay value far extending your usual AGS game.

While the best content the software has produced is invariably of the point-and-click variety, so much respect is due to the few innovators who dare to experiment beyond adventure games. In the last few months we've seen war games, shooters, RPGs and a whole variety of creative efforts. A fully-functioning board game is the next step, and I for one welcome the future.

But let's focus on what makes it an unmistakeably Star Wars experience. The story starts with an assassination attempt on everyone's favourite black-hooded baddie, Emperor Palpatine. Palpy's been so traumatised by the attempt that he's forgotten completely about it. Cue returning series hero Shai-la to investigate the most likely suspects. In come the more familiar Cluedo elements: was it Darth Vader with the lightsaber in the Sith Meditation Room? Was it Mara Jade with the blaster in the TIE docking bay? You get the idea.

At the time of playing and reviewing, there are a few nasty bugs in the game that deserve a mention. For a start, I wasn't able to find out if I was right at the end once I'd made my accusation, because I started flying around and the game wouldn't progress. Secondly, the 'yes' button doesn't work when trying to quit; I had to exit the game via the keyboard. But I'm not considering bugs into the game's review because it's still undergoing updates and patches. While there could have been more beta testing, it'd be cruel to mark down a great game because of some temporary snags.

And it is a great game. The game manages to avoid the inevitable boredom of the space in any computerised board game when the other six players are making their turns with smooth character animation. As a bonus, your suspect sheet does not tick off names are they're disproved, forcing the player to concentrate on the action rather than twiddling their thumbs and minimising to check Twitter until it's their turn again. I was originally going to include the lack of cross-offs as a criticism, but it's a good way to keep people involved.

The graphics are artfully done and give the game a feel that's pleasantly close to the trilogy. Palpatine's facial animations could be described as a minor part of the game, but you see him on every turn and it's good to see how well it has been done. The animation of the dice and the moving characters is a fun touch and although the character movement is stationary, watching Darth Vader's turn still gives you all the excitement you got when you first saw him in A New Hope. The music is faithful to the films and engaging, making a refreshing break from the banal tunes in computerised board games that makes you want to rip your speakers out before passing go.

To put it simply, this is an incredibly fun game. Having never played the first instalment of Shai-la I can't compare it to its predecessor but you'd better believe I'm playing that next. And whatever the incredibly inventive Marion develops next, one thing is for sure. The force is strong with this one.

Final Score: 8/10

The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1

Every so often, a series arises that becomes permanently stamped into the chronicles of AGS history. It rewrites rules. Shows the potential of the genre. Becomes a deity and a symbol. Several titles spring to mind: the Chzo Mythos, Ben Jordan, King's Quest, Manic Mansion. Often imitated yet never bested, these games will live on and be played far after Chris Jones and crew packs in software design for good. If the first instalment is anything to go by, the McCarthy Chronicles looks to enter this lofty hall of fame. The series is the brainchild by new developer Calin Leafshade, whose flair and penchant for deep storytelling will surely earn him a place amongside his creation in the AGS hall of legends.

But on to the game. Our titular hero is Rick McCarthy, a morose 1940s private eye. Vilified by the public and local newspapers for his actions on his last case, he spends his days in a deep depression that threatens to engulf him. An urgent call to his office leads to a gruesome discovery in a church, with a box of matches the only lead to what happened. The matches lead him to the Grosvenor Hotel in the country, run by the sickly Michael and staffed by perky-yet-frightened maid Sarah. As McCarthy investigates the ancient hotel, it becomes very clear that something sinister is going on. There are strange howls at night. Constant guest Victoria sees strange, wolf-like shapes out of her window. And just where has the groundskeeper disappeared to?

There is so much to praise in Episode 1 that it is difficult to decide where to start. Possibly the best feature of the game is the meticulously-created atmosphere. I doubt a single person played the game without being captivated by the sinister, oppressive atmosphere all around the hotel. This atmosphere is generated with nothing more than rain, shadows, the sound of thunder and a subtly eerie music score. TMC is a horror game in every sense of the word, terrifying players without exposing them to so much as a hint of actual danger. Those who like to analyse games might be so bold as to guess that part of the hotel's dark and gothic appearance corresponds to the way McCarthy sees things in his intensely depressed mind. But perhaps that's looking too much into things.

The atmosphere is made even better by Leafshade's incredible attention to detail. Step in a puddle and you'll be treated to a squelching sound. Step on the wet gravel and you'll hear a pleasing crunch. The sound effects could not be better, and I'd be surprised if Calin didn't record them personally. As a result, they make the player feel as close to the game as possible, making things all the more unnerving.

Which is where we come to voice acting. Calin Leafshade has made a gutsy move making one of his first games with full voices, and it heightens the experience tenfold. The designer voices Rick McCarthy himself, giving the character considerable depth. All characters have highly believable voices, with special mention for the housekeeper Sarah. Not since Ben Jordan 7 have I seen such a realistic portrayal of a real person; out of all the leads, I'm sure many could imagine actually meeting her the most.
Honourable mention must be made in terms of interface. The McCarthy Chronicles has a unique control system that involves holding the left mouse button until the usual options (talk to, use, look at) appear. It confused me to start with but soon became preferable to the usual scrolling through icons to find the icon for legs to walk. I could also see it becoming cumbersome in later-episode tasks where split-second timing is essential, but apart from that it's above criticism.

It's probably time now to discuss the inevitable bread and butter of all games, the puzzles. While TMC:E1 isn't the most challenging game on the market, the tasks are innovative rather than standard. Calin Leafshade obviously subscribes to the game designer's doctrine that puzzles should be more believable than 'give me this miscellaneous multi-coloured item and I'll give you this key' style tasks. The player gets plenty of chances to utilise McCarthy's gumshoe skills and solve problems based on logic rather than simply using Item A on Object B and hoping for the best.

For those that like to get to the point rather than digest scores of paragraphs, The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1 is an incredibly imaginative, superbly atmospheric and creepy game. It features beautiful, gothic artwork and sound that deserves awards. The characters are well-developed and authentic to the setting, and the plot intricate and advanced. And for those that want things even more to the point? Play it. Then play it again. You'll be enthralled.

Final Score: 10/10

Start of an era

Welcome to the domain of the Blue Cup Critic! If you're familiar with the point n' click gaming software of Adventure Game Studio, enjoy its games, have a passion for adventure gaming in general or like reviews of things you've never seen or played, then you've come to the right place. If none of the above applies to you then, uh, I guess you haven't. Feel free to browse some pornographic entertainment, which I'm sure is why you're here anyway. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, take a look around.

But for those more familiar with AGS, this is a review blog devoted completely to the games you love. And why? Because I can't think of a more fitting tribute to my favourite game developers than to praise their efforts (save actually donating money or producing a game they might enjoy playing) in a format people may actually read. I will tend to review games I have enjoyed, but will do the duty of every critic and dive into unfamiliar territory to discover AGS's hidden gems.

So make yourself a cup of tea, relax and enjoy my reviews. I promise I won't disappoint. Much.