Wanted (The Westerner) review
Once upon a time in the West there was a cowboy called Fenimore Fillmore. In the most non-linear game this side of Tucson, he rode roughshod over cowboys, bankers, Indians and a mess of sideshow personalities. The game wrapped around this classic little adventure story was 3 Skulls of the Toltecs. Now, it may be argued that it wasn’t a perfect game, but it sure was fun. As time passed, the obscure title grew on folks and fast became a hard-to-get cult favorite, found only in a rare hosting on eBay or with luck on a forgotten Goodwill side shelf.
Meanwhile, something was stirring on the web. Revistronic, the development team behind 3 Skulls, had come up with a new title featuring none other than our old friend and hero, Fenimore Fillmore. This time he would star in a new adventure called The Westerner. After Revistronic signed with a North American publisher, the name was changed to Wanted: A * wild * Western Adventure, and the hype began.
This all sounds grand, except for one bothersome detail. Wanted just isn’t as much fun as the first game.
Why? That is a very good question. The dialogue has some real charm; in fact it has some very funny moments. The characters are in place. Some are memorable, others not great but also not bad. The look of the game is excellent. The music suits the game and never overwhelms. The non-linear structure is also here. Figuring out what to do next doesn’t matter much as you can drop one task and pick up another. Regardless, much of the actual gameplay feels like tedium this time around. In fact, it sometimes seemed like a job that I had to finish and at the end, there would not be a paycheck or even a tip.
Well with that out of the way, this is still a tough one to figure out. Usually I can just point my reviewer’s eye at a game that disappointed and say AHA! It’s the graphics or the puzzles or the… So let’s see.
Everything looks good in here
Wanted has a unique look to it as far as games go and it works; in fact, it works very well. Sort of a shiny textured cross between Toy Story and other recently released Pixar films. The look of this game varies from the cookie cutter graphics standard in most new releases and I would love to see this style again. It even has a very nicely rendered map feature that you use to get around the place. In fact, I wish that the last Monkey Island game had gone this route over the 3D look that was used. The evil sidekicks are all a bit larger than life and uniquely funny. The love of Fillmore’s life, let’s just say she sure is not your typical mild-mannered schoolmarm. I think there is a diversity of characters that has a definite appeal for those who loved the Monkey island games and others of that sort. The facial animations are exceptional and there is a high level of detail to their style and movement. Revistronic didn’t shortchange the environments either. This is one game where it really is a pleasure to just walk around the place--imagine Disneyland gone wild. If graphics were enough to carry a game into the A-list, then I would say Wanted truly shines. Throw in the first-class voice talent and you should have a winning game. But as we all know, a pretty package, off-beat characters and wonderful music are not enough to make a game worthwhile. It also needs, among other things, well-designed challenges, whether they are Myst-ifying mind grabbers or clever inventory applications. Which brings up a troublesome element of this game.
Busy Work and Chores
Traditional inventory-based or “the house that Jack built” scenarios are the predominant puzzles in Wanted. These are where you get the nail to hammer the board, which makes the wall, which makes the house that Jack built. These are fine and, depending on the side tasks involved, can even be a real treat. Sometimes they are done well in this game, other times they are sheer drudgery. One of the main reasons for this slide into tedium is a gameplay device that really cheats the gamer out of a lot of fun.
You will spend “way” too much time in Wanted raising money to buy things at the local town store, which is the only place to get these inventory items. Now we aren’t talking about just a little money, nope you have to get a bunch of it. Which is almost as much fun as growing the countless carrots you need to keep on hand to power up your pony. Now you can buy carrots at the store, but since you need every dollar you can steal, you will end up growing your own. And every time you look at your pony, he uses up a google carrots; so get ready to haul water to infinity and beyond. Well it isn’t quite that bad, but almost, so add this to the list of chores I would gladly skip. Meanwhile as your thoughts return to your constant cash needs, no fun for you since your “fund raising” is limited to another list of tedious activities. There is the ever-present trudging to the telegraph office to raise and collect money to buy more items. Then there are all the drawers and closets you get to check for “conveniently placed” dollars to “permanently borrow” for your mission. At first, the cut scene of Fillmore looking around furtively before snapping up the money is cute. After the first 10 or 12 times, it gets old fast. This is where the game truly felt like unpaid labor to me, even with all that money people left in every single one of their drawers and cupboards. Come on--where do you find a house like that! Give me a weird task; let me plot how to talk someone out of their grog--anything but play super shopper. I also would have liked more mini-quests involved in the town to provide incentive and reward as you got through this part of the game.
They put a .. ”what” … in my adventure game?!
Now time out for a small rant about puzzles. I have watched with amusement and occasional irritation, as people attempt to narrowly construe what is an appropriate or recognizable challenge in an adventure game. I think that a puzzle/challenge exists whenever you have to think, strategize or finesse a victory over a challenge. I would add that defeating this challenge should also advance the game in some noticeable way. Now the puzzle may be abstract, it may be mechanical, it may be verbal and it may be physical. The shoot the arrow through the hole in the rock in Timelapse comes to mind as a classic strategic physical puzzle. But assuming a loose adherence to the two conditions above, if it hits those marks, to this reviewer it is a puzzle.
This leads to the controversy over Revistronic’s decision to place a must win shooting gallery puzzle in the game. This is a difficult item to categorize. On the one hand it is an arcade-style challenge, complete with graduated levels and all that jazz. But, the degree of difficulty in the levels varies according to how well or poorly you shoot your targets in the earlier rounds. By thinking a bit about the rewards for the puzzle and adapting your game accordingly, you can get an easier or harder challenge depending on your preference. This added strategy element turns this into more of a physical puzzle rather than just a straight “twitch” challenge. After painstakingly playing this every which way to test out some things, I beat this easily enough after I made some calculated adjustments in my shooting. One thing worth noting for some players: For those with high-speed broadband access to the net, you might want to disable your net access and associated firewall as it plays havoc with running this part of the game. But whether it is beatable or not, the real question to me is should it be in the game at all?
I had a chat once with a developer about puzzle choices and they admitted liking a particular type of challenge even though they knew most adventure gamers did not share their love. So I asked, “Well, is this a game for you or a game for them?” Though I did not have a particularly hard time with this arcade-type puzzle, knowing how adventure gamers as a rule (even those who don’t mind them) would prefer or even insist that their games not have this type of puzzle, I have to ask, “ why put this in the game?” I think that even if some players tolerate this sort of challenge and maybe even a few others enjoy it, Wanted would have been more gamer friendly without it. And that is a reasonable request—to have a game that is enjoyable and engaging, rather than merely beatable. I think the game quality would have been raised a notch if this puzzle had just been eliminated.
A Likeable Tale
At the start of Wanted and through the first third of it, I felt it was very story light. However, as the game advanced, I came back around to warm up to this aspect of the game. It doesn’t have a tale full of detailed depth, but it was better than I thought at first and the ending is definite fun. It redeems the game in many aspects and gains back some favor with this gamer. Wanted has a cute plot, with a few little side ventures and even a few nods to the past. The story’s growing appeal has much to do with the developing characters and the increasingly better dialogues and cut scenes. Now again, this isn’t the deepest of plots, but then again neither were the Monkey Island games. But the game captivates at times and shows some solid charm. The initial storyline is beat the bad guys, save the homestead and get the girl. It evolves to include revealing a murderer, though you have a good idea of the killer from nearly the beginning. To top it all off, there are also some fun little vignettes that charmed: a son who really wishes his Dad was a bad guy about to be hung, rather than a simple farmer; or the bit about what getting the girl might really involve in the end; and other little witty observations along the way.
So we are at the trail’s end with good old Fenimore. How does Wanted measure up? Middling is what I would say. It has its fair share of misguided inclusions or errors in judgment, but it has sparkle and sure does look pretty. I was not thrilled with this game initially, perked up about midway through and by the end had to give it fair credit for what it did right. I also laughed myself silly one or two times and am very forgiving of a game that wins a genuine laugh.
I think that if you are a fan of Monkey Island styled games and badly need a fix of some great cartoon styled graphics, offbeat characters and insult sword – er –“Sarsaparilla” fighting then you will have a good time with this game. Otherwise, keep it in mind, but perhaps until after the current feast of better titles slows down. I do have high hopes for future efforts by Revistronic. They have a great new graphical style that is original and wonderful to experience. I think by focusing on all the things that were done well and letting go of a need to have a game fattened by busy work, their next game should be a solid hit.
The graphics, characters, cinematics and other high points are unfortunately pulled down by an over-reliance on busy work gameplay and a shortage of fun challenges. The end result is a great game that might have been.