PC adventure games have had their ‘golden age’ several times over, as opposed to some genres – the base building RTS, for example – which peaked and then declined in popularity. Back in the days of eight and sixteen bit home computers, Sierra hit out with many cut and paste adventure games: Police Quest, Space Quest, King’s Quest… It was LucasArts who became king of the hill though, with seminal titles such as Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle and Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders providing original, funny and engaging stories with outrageous characters and challenging puzzles. Probably the most famous of these is the Monkey Island series, which needs no introduction to anyone interested enough in adventure games to be reading this article.
By the mid nineties, there was a new king in town: Revolution Software, with Beneath a Steel Sky and later on Broken Sword. With thirty-two bit processing power behind the latter and fantastic animation, plot, characters and music, suddenly the adventure game seemed to be enjoying something of a renaissance. As 3D engines paved the way to the future of gaming though, it quickly evaporated again as people turned to first person shooters and open world games such as GTA III.
If there’s one thing the Germans excel at, it’s games. They consume board games like we consume television, and the talented folks at companies such as Daedalic Entertainment began a third golden age of computer adventure gaming with titles such as The Whispered World, the Edna & Harvey series and the utterly fantastic Deponia games. Somewhere in the midst of this, a group of students at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg’s Institute of Animation started working on a pet project. That group of students grew and took shape as Studio Fizbin, and the project became the game I’ve now played through twice on two separate platforms: The Inner World.
When will he stop with the history lesson and tell me whether this game is any good or not?
Soon, I promise. I believe the history lesson is important. Creating a game like The Inner World and making it successful takes raw talent, ambition, drive and passion. It can’t be accomplished with RPG Maker and its default assets. It doesn’t come as a plug-in for Unity. It’s every animation created from scratch, every character unique and purposeful, with good puzzles, a great soundtrack and fantastic art. It takes a multi-talented team of individual artists working as one unit to create something special; something which could only be fully realised in a classic point ‘n’ click interface.
Right from the opening animation, you know you’re in for something a bit special. As the gorgeous hi resolution hand drawn graphics pull back and the narrator gives you the history of Asposia, you’re informed the whole game takes place in a universe made entirely of earth; soil, dirt. The ‘world’ of Asposia is a spherical hollow in this earth, a land of Asposian citizens living in fear of the Basilians, a race capable of instantly petrifying anyone who gets in their way. Luckily, or so it seems, they have the guidance of their ‘benevolent’ leader, Conroy, who sees that his people are safe as long as they abide by the laws and rules he lays out.
The player takes control of Robert, who is as close as Conroy comes to family. Robert is naïve and trusting, and believes Conroy is keeping him safe from the dangers of The Inner World by keeping him locked up in his palace. You see, all Asposians have one unique feature: A long, pointy stripy nose. But Robert’s nose is different: Instead of stripes, it has a series of holes along it’s length, which Robert can use to play flute-like melodies. It’s only when a series of unfortunate events are set in motion by a pendant, a thief and a stupid pigeon called Peck that Robert leaves the palace – unceremoniously – and discovers he may not have been the only Asposian to be born with a flute nose…
The Inner World is presented, as I’ve described already, as a classic 2D hand painted point ‘n’ click adventure game. This means you move a cursor on the screen to various hotspots – items, scenery, characters, etc – and click to examine, talk to, or use that hotspot. When porting the game to mobile devices, instead of moving a cursor you simply tap on the screen where you think there’s a point of interest. Nice and easy. Translating these controls to a games console played with a joypad isn’t something which is a set process. There is no ‘best practice’, and several developers have tried to port their games to console with varying degrees of success. For me personally, I’m a fan of simplicity: Just replace the mouse with an analogue thumbstick, and have separate buttons for different actions. Broken Sword has done this since the first game was ported to the PS1 back in 1996, albeit without analogue control.
The Inner World has you directly controlling Robert with the left thumbstick, which works just fine. The issue is, you can’t interact with anything until you hit the ‘X’ button to show the hotspot you’re near visibly on the screen. At this point, you can hit the shoulder buttons to cycle through nearby hotspots, then press ‘A’ to select one, which then brings up three icons by the item you’re trying to interact with: Examine, combine with, or use / talk. You highlight the relevant option with the left thumbstick, hit ‘A’ again and continue from there. After an hour or so you’re completely used to it, but the feeling that it could be accomplished in a more intuitive way with far less button presses never leaves you, right up until the last puzzle. Sometimes, selecting a hotspot and choosing to ‘combine’ it with an item in your inventory doesn’t work, meaning you have to select the inventory item first from a ‘Y’ button menu, and then search for the hotspot. Why different buttons couldn’t be assigned to different actions I have no idea, but with a week to go until it’s full console release it may get patched in later. I hope so, because this is one of the two major game elements which holds a negative against my review, and having this altered / fixed would go a long way to creating a near-perfect experience.
The second issue I have, and it’s one that cannot be fixed – let’s hope the upcoming sequel addresses it – is logic. Now, I know that since the days of Zak McKraken puzzles in adventure games have been obtuse to the point of ridicule. (There was a puzzle in said game where you had to piss off a baker by ringing his doorbell three times, at which point he would launch a stale baguette at you from the upstairs window. You collected this baguette and took it back to your apartment, where you put it through the garbage disposal unit in the sink. Collecting a wrench would allow you to open the cupboard underneath the sink, remove the U-bend and collect the breadcrumbs, which could be taken to a different country on an aeroplane and given to a squirrel inside a tree accessible via secret doorway to give you access to a nest where an important plot item was laying). There are some puzzles in The Inner World which can only be completed by the old ‘try everything on everything’ process.
**MINOR SPOILER AHEAD**
One section of the game sees you having to get access to the upper part of a tree, which you do by finding a rock which screams every time you pass it. If you’ve convinced a particular creature into telling you there are a pair of glasses in a swamp, and fastened a hook to a reed to fish those glasses out, you can put the glasses on the screaming rock to magnify a fire ant, which is in fact the source of the scream. You capture the fire ant in a tin of mints, take it to the base of the tree, and put it in a nest, where an old guy with a crossbow shoots at it, embedding arrows into the tree trunk and allowing you to climb them like a ladder.
This kind of anti-logic begets puzzles which can not be satisfyingly completed, as you never figure out the solution, you just keep throwing random lumps of crap at the wall and hope that some of it sticks. Thankfully the whole game isn’t like this, but it’s the second major element which I take umbrage with.
Having said all that, it’s down to the import points I opened the review with to rescue this game from the adventure void. Studio Fizbin have created a startlingly original world, with memorable characters, great artwork, great voice acting and music and a fantastically original plot. The writing is balls-to-the-wall funny, as are many of the game’s animations, and the humorous dialogue translates perfectly from German to English (don’t worry – the whole games has English voice overs and text). Although the game has bad controls and random, unintuitive puzzles, the characters stay with you long after you finish playing, as do the fantastic locations and memorable events. The world is seriously well realised, perhaps even more so than Deponia, and every team member is supremely talented. You’ll never stop laughing at the pigeon or the worm – you’ll see – and Robert’s naivety is always the right side of endearing, as opposed to being frustrating.
With a sequel on the horizon, Studio Fizbin are vying for Daedalic’s crown and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how this particular revolution unfolds.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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