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Carte Blanche hands-on archived preview

If ever there was ever a more appropriately-named development studio than "Absurdus", I've yet to discover it. I say that with some affection, of course, but even if I didn't, you can be sure that the little four-man independent team from Canada wears the moniker like a badge of honour. Although hardly a household name, you may have experienced the bizarre stylings of Absurdus through their debut adventure, Eye of the Kraken, a commercial adventure now available as freeware. But if Kraken was off the wall, the developer's next adventure is off the floor, the ceiling, and most of the furniture, too. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but doing so is fully in keeping with the spirit of offbeat eccentricity that characterizes Carte Blanche: For a fistful of teeth.

After starting up a preview version of Carte Blanche recently, it didn't take long to realize that it's going to be a game quite unlike any other. For starters, it's done entirely in black and white and shown in letterboxed format, which puts it in pretty limited company already. But the visual presentation is only one of the game's distinctive features, overshadowed before long by its gameplay and overall attitude of "anything goes".

As the game begins, Edgar Delacroix has left home for Montreal in the 1920s, determined to make a man of himself in the big city. In need of a job that suits his impressive academic background, Edgar unwittingly applies to become a private investigator -- a role for which he's totally unprepared. That's where you come in. When a (rather dubious) artifact is stolen from a nearby antique shop, Edgar is sent to investigate the crime, but rather than simply piecing together the clues you uncover as you would in conventional mysteries, in Carte Blanche you'll be focused more on training Edgar in the skills he'll need to succeed.

If the notion of "skills training" sounds a bit like roleplaying terminology, you're quite right, though the similarity here to actual RPGs is superficial at best. Carte Blanche is a point-and-click adventure through and through, with no combat, timed sequences, or death. What it does have are character statistics that reflect Edgar's proficiencies. At the beginning of the game, Edgar is a novice not only at his job, but also in the ways of the world. But experience is the best teacher, and Edgar proves a quick study, living and learning under the player's guidance. With the phrase "character development" taking on a more literal meaning, Edgar gradually levels up in various abilities. These skills are generally not improved through repetition, but simply by applying the right one in the correct situation. Looking at irrelevant hotspots, for example, will typically earn you an amusing response, but it doesn't do anything to help your investigation. Spot a vital clue at a crime scene, however, and your Observation rating will increase. Without that increase, you won't be able to recognize other key clues later on.

Many of the skills are vital to your investigation, such as Deduction, Persuasion, and Examination. Others are there seemingly for entertainment value alone, as things like Music, Ventriloquism, Sensuality, and Taxidermy never provide a practical use, but you'll still want to ring bells, throw your voice, pet lizards, and scrutinize stuffed camels to maximize your opportunities. Then there are still other abilities like Tail, Bargaining, and Spying that are tailor-made for a P.I. but play no particular role in the game. Is this an oversight by the developers? Not at all, as finishing the game allows you to export your character for use in later Carte Blanche installments.

Later? Yep, you read right. Carte Blanche is another in the growing line of (gasp!) episodic adventures. The total number of episodes has yet to be determined, but like the current game, each new installment will feature its own distinct cases to solve, though an underlying story arc will tie them all together. The developer's intended goal is to allow players to progress differently, each according to personal preference. That's a worthy aim, as it creates all kinds of possibilities for future episodes, but it's also an ambitious one, and the first game only scratches the surface of that potential, so it remains to be seen if they can pull it off over time.

To some, this kind of RPG-style stat focus may sound like an unwelcome immersion killer, and it's certainly an artificial element that keeps reminding you that you're playing a game. On the other hand, it's a continual source of pursuit-and-reward that most adventures lack, and the change of pace is refreshing. Besides, if there's one thing that will never happen in Carte Blanche, it's forgetting you're playing a game, even if you try. For Absurdus, it's all about the fun, and at no point does the game ever take itself seriously, ranging in tone from mild tongue-in-cheek to silly tomfoolery to over-the-top outrageousness. Let's face it, when you're comparing a naked fat man's butt tattoo with a map of Idaho, will a few Scam upgrades really make you question the game's realism?

Much of the game's quirky charm comes from its eclectic cast of characters. Edgar plays the straight man himself, but he's surrounded by the likes of an excitement-craving coroner, dimwitted identical twin thugs, and an entrepreneurial paperboy, to name just a few. The setting is a factor here, as Montreal in the '20s was a multi-cultural hub of both legal and illegal commerce, and Carte Blanche takes full advantage with a wide range of English and French Canadians mixed with Italian, Russian, and Irish immigrants. Probably more, too, as the game self-referentially acknowledges that in Montreal, "everybody has a funny accent." The voice acting plays this to the hilt. Conversations are fully-voiced, and many characters are so heavily accented and ham-handedly acted that it ends up being amusing. I'm assuming this is deliberate, because some are completely ridiculous, particularly Edgar's ageless and seemingly genderless secretary, who sounds like an angry parrot coughing up a furball (and since parrots don't have fur, one can only imagine how it got to that point).

In fact, the whole game really has a B-movie feel, but one where the developers are actually in on the joke. Plot gaps? Who cares! Continuity errors? Pshaw. Endlessly repeating dialogues? So what. Genre conventions? Break 'em. Rules? What are those? Certainly political correctness is cast aside, as the game includes a small amount of borderline racial humour that will surely raise some eyebrows, but there's nothing at all mean-spirited about it. It's simply another example of the developers poking fun at everything and anything. If you plan to play Carte Blanche, then check your sacred cows at the door.

Needless to say, the game's interface is also non-standard. Carte Blanche is generally presented using a first-person perspective, though it will remind absolutely no one of the likes of Myst. Each location consists of a single screen, and movement is limited to travelling between areas via a stylish city map. Clicking a hotspot will bring up a menu of all possible actions, including the correct inventory item if one can be applied, which significantly (read: entirely) cuts down on any thought required. In fact, it's a stretch to say that Carte Blanche even has "puzzles" in the traditional sense. You are required to collect inventory items, pick the correct path through branching dialogues, and utilize the appropriate skill when necessary, but these are essentially just sequencing issues. Because the game largely automates your choices, there are only ever a certain number of options available to you, so if you find yourself stuck, all you really need to do is cycle locations until you find the one new option you haven't yet tried. The result is probably the easiest adventure I've ever played, which isn't inherently a bad thing, but I can't help but suspect that many gamers will crave a least a little more challenge. Whether there's still time to tweak the interactivity and difficulty level in this episode, I don't know, but it's certainly something for Absurdus to consider going forward.

With such a unique vision, you'd figure Carte Blanche would scare off play-it-safe prospective publishers, right? Surprisingly, that's not the case here, as G2 Games will be publishing the game in the UK. Fresh off its release of Pathologic, G2 is showing a remarkable commitment to innovative titles that others probably wouldn't touch, and Carte Blanche certainly fits that bill. No firm release date has been announced yet, but the game is currently in the final stages of development, so fans of the wacky and weird can probably look for it in the not-too-distant future.

[Intelligence] competence increased by reading.


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