Young children are a tough demographic for the computer game industry, as they can definitely be a fickle group. My nephew will take the most lovingly crafted game and toss it to one side because he doesn't like the way a character talks, or because a puzzle is a little too difficult, or the story is not one that he likes. So for a little-known Polish developer to not only put out a children's game, but an original children's adventure game, takes some guts. And with Great Journey: Mr. Penguin's Letter, the gamble definitely pays off with a game that's not only enjoyable for children, but also adults who haven't lost touch with their inner child.
The story behind Great Journey is a simple one, but will definitely appeal to children. You will play the game as your choice of either Tony or Annie, two children who live in the town of Old Port. They get a letter from their friend Penguin one day asking for their help. Someone is dumping garbage all over Antarctica and the animals need Tony and Annie to help them catch the culprit. First they'll need to find their way across the world by boat and plane before they can track down the infamous Garbage Dumper and restore order.
I was honestly surprised by the storyline of the game. It's by no means a deep narrative, but then again it's a kids' game, so one shouldn't be expected. But throughout the adventure, the characters you meet are so charming and fun that their quirks and twists really add to the story. From the polar bear who runs Antarctica and makes up new rules as he sees fit, to the peanut butter-craving castaway and his alligator friends, Rebelmind does a great job pulling you into the story and keeping you there, and promotes a subtle lesson about our impact on the environment along the way.
Graphics are one element that will make or break a game for younger kids, and Rebelmind definitely kept this in mind when they were developing the game. Presented in a third-person perspective, Great Journey's characters are kept fairly low-polygon, but the pre-rendered environments are a wonder to behold. Everywhere you travel through the game, from lush tropical islands to the colds of Antarctica to the town of Old Port, you'll be treated to colorful cartoony graphics that are not only beautiful, but also full of hidden interactive animations and clues.
Music is kept fairly low-key, and something that in many cases blends into the background of the game. But the voices are just what I expected from a children's game. All of the characters are incredibly distinctive, and even though they have somewhat stereotypical accents at times, they manage to pull it off. Everyone from Tony and Annie to Penguin and the castaway are wonderfully voiced, and it really adds to an already great game.
As befits a children's game, the gameplay in Great Journey is kept very basic. Point-and-click movement is handled through a green footprint icon, and when you are in a place where you can jump, the icon will turn blue. When you begin one of several minigames, however, the controls often switch to the keyboard. Examination of items is handled through a magnifying glass that you will pick up at the beginning of the game and will be the most important item you find. Clicking on items in the background with the magnifying glass will yield items needed for puzzles, tokens that can be used for hints in the game, or at the very least a funny animation. The hint tokens are a nice touch, as those who don't need them can ignore them, and those that do aren't just handed hints, because they have to first find the tokens to earn them.
Great Journey is definitely an adventure at its core, but it does contain a fair number of action-based minigames. Inventory items are necessary to solve some puzzles, but along with a large number of jumping pattern puzzles, you'll be navigating boats and planes around obstacles, ski jumping, and even throwing peanuts at a monkey in order to fatten him up. And while these won't be difficult for most players, it could pose an issue for very young children. The controls have a tendency to be a little finicky at certain points, and there are some puzzles that you'll find yourself doing over and over because you missed a jump due to bad timing. Luckily, if this happens you'll just start over back at the beginning of the challenge.
For the most part the game is fairly simple, and except for some of the challenges mentioned above, is perfect for both younger and older kids (the game comes recommended for ages six to twelve). The length of the game, for me at least, came in at around four hours, so you can probably expect six hours or more for children. You can replay the game as the other child, though the adventure plays out exactly the same way for each. Fortunately, once unlocked, the minigames can be accessed from the main menu and played independently of the main story.
Usually at this point in a review I would be saying that parents should definitely be picking up Great Journey for their kids, but in this case I can easily say that even those without kids should think about finding a copy of this game to play. Originally published last year in the UK by GMX Media under the title Great Journey, the game had since become rather hard to find. Fortunately, it has recently been released in North America by Meridian4 with the subtitle Mr. Penguin's Letter, so don't let the opportunity pass you by again. Trust me, you definitely won't be disappointed.