THQ, the publisher that will bring us Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon later this year, has taken the Nickelodeon license to new depths with their latest SpongeBob SquarePants adventure, Employee of the Month.
Fresh on the heels of his antics in Operation Krabby Patty, SpongeBob’s first adventure, our square yellow fellow with a penchant for puerile observation is once again absorbed in a colorful, comical quest. This time, Bob has won Employee of the Month for the 27th consecutive time, and his prize is a trip to the much-heralded Neptune’s Paradise theme park. Your goal is to get him there. As you might expect, the plot is full of holes, but so is our hero, so it works, and very well at that.
With icons reminiscent of Tony Tough and the Night of the Roasted Moths, you point and click your way to Neptune’s Paradise in typical adventure game fashion. Your quest will consist of accomplishing various tasks and item collection for the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom and others whom you meet in your travels, so character interaction is key.
The entire screen is used in game play, which is great, as the visuals are especially charming. At the top left of the screen there’s a treasure chest for inventory, though you will only have two or three things at any given time. On the far right is an eye scope that will access the map of the location you’re currently in.
Most of the puzzles consist of some inventory combining and abbreviated fetch quests where little deduction is necessary. There are no brain tinglers in EOTM, as it’s purely intended for a younger audience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun, if not short diversion. The replay value is moderate to low; it took some 3.5 hours for me to complete, and although the game is certainly fun enough to play more than once, you’re not going to see anything different. Were this game just a little longer, I would add a half-star to the score.
The game offers three levels, or areas, and you can only access the map of the level you’re currently in. Each new place becomes available usually in conversation, or when you retrieve a certain item, making it blatantly obvious where to go next. There’s very little backtracking, so the game is very linear. There isn’t a lot of hand-holding otherwise, but if you get stuck, or need a clue, you can click on a question-mark at the top of your display and get the narrator to drop a hint.
The backgrounds are all 2-D, with the same vivid color palette typical of the cartoon series. The difference lay in the fully 3D bi-pedal animation rendered to each character, which adds an excellent depth and exuberance to each characters movement. Voice acting is generally great, as the entire show's roster lend their talents. The soundtrack ranges from the signature slide-guitar/ukulele theme, with some background techno (yes, only SBSP could give you groovy underwater techno riffs).
In EOTM you can find several videotapes hidden throughout the game which will unlock a brief "making of" vignette, showing the transition from 2D sketch to final color of certain scenes. I wish more games would offer extras like this (such as The Longest Journey). Each level begins and ends with an animated clip, which is also accessible to watch through the main menu at any time thereafter.
One of the things that originally attracted me to SBSP (and has garnered criticism from some) is the different levels of humor. I found myself laughing at SB for entirely different reasons than my four-year old. For example, in one scene Patrick, Bob’s best friend, comes up with a good idea, to which Bob offers the compliment: “Patrick, your genius is showing!” This elicits an embarrassed response from Patrick, who immediately covers himself. My son didn’t understand the implication, but appreciated the slapstick, nonetheless. This type of humor has no doubt contributed to the success of this quirky cartoon series.
The transition from TV cartoon to video game couldn’t be truer, both in presentation and delivery, and while there’s plenty of SB fare out there for the twitch-inclined, this is a pure adventure game. It’s a sad fact that the majority of children’s software produced and marketed today is either too condescending, or paced in such a way that the youngster is impatient and unengaged by what’s going on inside the screen. If you have found this to be the case, or are yourself a SpongeBob collector or fan, this game is a must-have.