The 'HCA' in HCA - The Ugly Prince Duckling, for those who aren't familiar with the abbreviation, stands for Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen, of course, was the 19th century Danish author and poet most famous for his fairy tales, including "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Little Mermaid" and naturally, "The Ugly Duckling". This game, the first adventure from Danish developers Guppyworks, is not a direct adaptation of any of Andersen's works. Instead, it promises to portray a comic, fictional version of a young Andersen's actual life, quite different from what the history books describe.
The game begins with a 14-year old HCA trying to find work in Copenhagen of the Golden Age, somewhere around the year 1820. With no money and low social standing, however, his options are limited. Soon after his arrival, he comes across a tailor who, in time-honoured adventure style, sets HCA a quest to complete before he can join the tailor's service. This task introduces us to a special feature of The Ugly Prince Duckling: the "social gameplay" system.
Social gameplay is, simply speaking, a measure of HCA's social standing. This determines which characters HCA can speak to at any given time (without them getting offended at being approached by such a lowly oik and ignoring him) and where he can go. For instance, a scruffy commoner off the streets would not be allowed to enter the high society quarter of the city -- guards would turn a person of his lowly stature away from the gates. Of course a tailor's apprentice on a fitting job would have a good reason to enter this area, and would be allowed access. Meanwhile, others may have nothing to do with HCA if he's not properly attired as one befitting their social status. Perhaps working in a tailor's shop could have fringe benefits?
As the game progresses, new areas will be opened up to players as HCA advances in social standing. Which is good, because he'll need access to all of them in order to save a princess who has been enchanted by an evil troll. (What would a Hans Christian Andersen story be without a fairy tale plot, after all?) Meanwhile, this troll, disguised as a sinister man named Mr. Schwartz, is busy spreading disease and darkness across the land. The only way to stop him is to find a missing tinderbox to bring light back to the streets.
If the tinderbox sounds familiar, that's because it's a reference to one of (the real) Andersen's fairy tales. The game promises many such references and characters taken from Andersen's works that will appear throughout the game for players to discover. Overall, as many as sixty characters -- some familiar and many completely original -- will populate the game world, featuring proprietary AI technology, which Guppyworks claims will make their behavioural characteristics much more realistic. Interestingly, dialogues with these characters are purely one-sided and non-interactive. There are no dialogue trees here, as HCA will listen, but not speak.
The art in HCA consists of 3D characters on richly detailed, pre-rendered backgrounds, using a wonderfully stylized presentation. The ambient animations are noteworthy, with lapping water, drifting clouds, and plenty of human and animal (and fairy tale creatures somewhere in between) activity on the streets, making the game feel much more dynamic than many adventures. The visuals really are stunning, and yet Guppyworks says the game ought to run well on even aging computers with 256MB of memory, and a 64MB graphics card.
HCA - The Ugly Prince Duckling comes advertised as an "adventure/action" game. With so many games blurring hybrid lines these days, this may be cause for concern among adventure purists. However, aside from what is reportedly a very minor amount of simple fighting (in which you can't die, only lose the fight), HCA is a classic adventure in all respects, if not entirely traditional. Instead of waving your cursor around on-screen, hotspots are highlighted by HCA's head turning toward items of interest, similar to Grim Fandango. Even better, the control scheme offers something for everyone, with an option of point and click or direct control to maneuver HCA about.
While many of the game's puzzles will involve inventory applications and overcoming social obstacles, we were told HCA will also include various other logic conundrums craftily worked into the plot. There is also a simple maze of sorts, as the quarters of the city are connected by an underground tunnel system through which HCA will need to learn his way around. You'll also need to help HCA collect enough money to proceed, which adds a certain degree of optional gameplay. Spend too much to help yourself out of tight situations, and you'll need to find an alternate source to replenish your supply beyond the meagre earnings you accumulate. To help HCA out along the way, he keeps a journal, which keeps track of any quests he's been given.
We knew very little about HCA before E3, as it came out of nowhere only a few weeks before. While we were already impressed by the incredible looking screenshots, we were even more pleased to see in person how polished the game is already looking. Guppyworks is targeting a release before year's end, and while no word of international publishing has yet been revealed, that is almost certainly just a matter of time, as it promises to be a fun, lighthearted game, with a novel setting that should appeal to any adventure gamer.
And if the short term future looks bright for this game, the long range forecast could be even better, as the developers have a series of five games (each a full-length, standalone title) in mind to build on the HCA franchise. Given the wealth of narrative resources provided by the author himself, the potential definitely exists for a long and intriguing series starring this young Mr. Andersen. Guppyworks may be a newcomer to the genre, but if our E3 demonstration is an indication of what's to come, they'll soon be making a name for themselves with HCA – The Ugly Prince Duckling.