Adventure Gamers Awards
LOG ON. About to start Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender. The game's backstory is told in the manual through Rex's automated log. That's an original idea, and it's rather hilariously written, so I'm going to do the same for my review. It's all about a guy called Rex Nebular, his space ship (the "Slippery Pig" certainly sets the game's tone), his interior decorator, and how he got hired to find a vase on a planet that seems to have disappeared. And he's going to have trouble doing that, I guess. When starting, the game is asking me to set the storyline to either naughty or nice; I'm choosing the former and can't wait to see what that entails. LOG OFF.
LOG ON. Wow, fifteen years after its release, the game's starting to show its age! The motion-captured characters and digitized voices look and sound terrible now. Thankfully, the voices stop after the intro. Anyway, I was right about Rex getting in trouble. As soon as he approached the planet (which turned out to be cloaked), a big ship that was manned only by women shot him down. He crashed on the planet, underwater, and it's now up to me to get him out of there, find the vase, and escape from that planet. Haven't encountered the naughty bits yet, but I'm sure we'll get to that soon. By the way, what the hell is a gender bender? Well, only one way to find out. LOG OFF.
LOG ON. All right, I'm in the middle of some sort of savannah, and now I know what a gender bender is. The planet is inhabited only by women, and the gender bender is something that allows them to procreate nonetheless. Of course, in this situation, Rex tends to stick out somewhat. That should allow for some interesting puzzles, I guess. I've yet to see the naughty bits -- at least, I hope so, for what I've seen so far wouldn't make a nun blush. Oh, and the game's not really making any use of Rex's log, as a narrative device or otherwise. So I guess I should do the same and switch back to the usual format. Too bad. LOG OFF.
As you have probably gathered by now, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender is a sci-fi comedy with some adult humour. Let's start by dispelling whatever fantasies the word "adult" might have conjured up in your sick mind: Rex Nebular is not porn. Nor erotica. Nor even Leisure Suit Larry. Indeed, the Naughty / Nice choice is nothing more than a marketing ploy, since the only difference it toggles is two seconds of pixellated breasts (in the distance) early on in the game. So don't get excited. True, there are some more or less "adult" situations and puns here and there (regardless of what option the game is set to), but nothing you wouldn't see on TV daily.
As a matter of fact, the game's humour plays far less on sexual overtones than on gender stereotypes. So all men, beginning with Rex, are messy, dirty, obsessed with cars and weapons, and generally dumb, whereas women tend to be colder, preoccupied with their looks, and downright bitchy most of the time. There is really nothing new here, but the game's long descriptions and conversations are worth a few chuckles. Some parts even manage to be really hilarious, such as being questioned by Doctor Slache, a sadistic female doctor who knows how to make you understand she didn't like your answer.
Rex Nebular hasn't aged too badly as far as design is concerned. The puzzles are all inventory-based, and are always logical and fair. The game even comes with three difficulty settings (easy, difficult, very difficult). The easier settings remove some puzzles here and there, especially in the harder and less-linear second half of the game. Still, I wouldn't call the game "very difficult" even at that setting, and it's probably safe for most people to choose that one. As a matter of fact, the main reason to get stuck is probably the rather copious amounts of pixel-hunting involved. The game acknowledges the problem once by pointing at a hard-to-spot item with flashy arrows, but it's unclear why this instance was singled out, or why the designers thought of handling the issue in such a weird way instead of fixing the original problem. To be fair, the presence of important items is always pointed out in descriptions when you right-click to examine the larger surroundings. Unfortunately, it is tempting to stop relying on those, as they can contain a few mistakes (such as referring to elements which are not present at the time or at your chosen difficulty level). So you'll end up having to explore screens carefully, ideally on your first passage if you don't want to end up revisiting the ever-expanding gameworld when you get stuck.
One thing that may seem dated design-wise is that the game has a few dead ends, where it's possible to use an item in an unhelpful way and not be able to get it back afterwards, or where you can be stuck if you fail to write down some information. Such situations are few and far between, and rather easy to spot in advance, but they may not sit well with players more accustomed to modern games where saving is only necessary when you stop playing. Fortunately, the game also knows how to make things smoother for the player sometimes. For instance, while Rex can, and will, suffer many gruesome deaths on the course of his adventures, the game then automatically restores him to just before your fatal mistake.
The interface is another feature that works towards making your life easier, except that the game doesn't show the names of hotspots when hovering over them by default. This option can be turned on, and I advise you do so. In most other ways, it's very similar to the classic LucasArts interface, with your inventory and a list of verbs at the bottom, but there are a few improvements. The most noticeable is that it feels alive: the game is quite richly animated, and so is the menu, with spinning items and an animated (but completely unobtrusive) background that reflects the area you're in. Sure, it's just glitz and eye-candy, but it works great!
At the opposite end of the spectrum, sure to elude you at first but having deep gameplay implications, is the absence of the generic Use verb. It is replaced with two more focused verbs (Put and Throw) and a series of contextual actions depending on the item considered. These actions allow the designers to add humour to the game by providing various silly options, such as massaging an audio tape or gnawing on a pair of bones. But they also remove a problem that plagues many other adventures. Far too often I've been stuck because an item had to be used in a way I hadn't thought of, while the game seemed not to understand me when I tried to use it in a different way. Thanks to the contextual list of possible actions in Rex Nebular, you're provided with clues about how an item may be used in the game. While it may make some puzzle solutions more obvious, it also makes them a lot fairer, and I wish this system had caught on instead of the "use an item on a hotpot and pray the game has guessed what you're trying to do" design that seems to be the norm these days.
It's a shame that the game was not as successful in the music and art departments. While I guess you can say it fits the settings appropriately, the mostly-ambient soundtrack is completely forgettable. The graphics are just as boring, despite some attempts at having many little animations here and there. The hand-drawn backgrounds, with their dull tones and general lack of style, seem to have had trouble adapting to the limit of the 320x200 resolution, being left fuzzy and dirty in the process. As for the character sprites, while the use of video capture may have provided some smoothness in animation, it ends up making all characters, even in close-ups, look like blurry, featureless blobs.
Still, Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender remains a pleasant experience. It is very solidly designed, reasonably long, and consistently humorous (though only rarely hilarious). But solid and consistent games are rarely those that achieve cult status, and Rex Nebular failed to find a little something that would have set it apart and made it really memorable. As it is, it is well worth playing, but bring your log along on your adventure if you don't want to forget having ever played it soon after having finished it.