Runaway: The Dream of the Turtle review
If the only gamers interested in Runaway: The Dream of the Turtle were those who played the original Runaway: A Road Adventure, I could save everyone a whole lot of time and energy with a mere four words: more of the same.
That's a simplification, to be sure, but one that will undoubtedly resonate with many players. Far more than most games, the original Runaway produced a polarized love-it-or-hate-it reaction upon its English release in 2003. To some, it was the embodiment of the modern classic, retaining the style and charm of the golden era adventures while using current technology to make it all feel fresh and new again. With other popular series shifting to 3D or more action-oriented gameplay, Runaway was the new standard bearer for old school adventures coming of age. To others, however, the game represented a pale reflection of the genre greats of yore, undeniably beautiful but deeply flawed and with a shocking lack of depth and substance. A victim more of failed expectations than its actual quality, perhaps, Runaway became something of a poster child for the disenchanted.
Almost four years later, the sequel is now upon us, and for better or worse, not much has changed in The Dream of the Turtle. Depending on which side of the fence you're already on, then, "more of the same" will either be a triumphant declaration of the same tantalizing promise or a bitter lament of the same agonizing disappointment. Of course, not all players are given to such extremes, and there are many more who haven't yet played the original -- a fact strategically reflected by the lack of the number "2" in the sequel's title in some territories. So for those not immediately swayed by the resemblance to its predecessor, let's dive into the details.
Picking up not long after the events of the first game, the story of Runaway 2 begins with Brian Basco and Gina Timmins still (or again) lounging about in Hawaii and feeling not a care in the world, let alone the cares of the world. Needless to say, that's about to change. Trouble in paradise is not far behind, when a seemingly harmless tour flight goes horribly awry, forcing Brian to shove Gina from the plane with the only parachute while he's left to crash land on the remote island below. And so begins Brian's new adventure of "save neck and find girlfriend", a rather frequent necessity in the original game that's carried over here on a much larger scale. You don't need to have played the original to follow along here (and in fact a handy recap option is included), but for those who have, the familiarity will leave you feeling like you've never been away.
This time around, Brian's pursuit of Gina takes him to the farthest corners of the world, and maybe a little beyond -- from tropical jungles to the frozen north, from an archeological underground dig to a sunken galleon deep underwater, through trans-dimensional space and into the depths of pure imagination. Along the way, the plot thickens with details of advanced alien technology and government conspiracy (naturally, where one goes, the other is sure to follow), and it becomes clear that Gina's whereabouts is closely connected to the larger story developments. It's silly, flimsy, preposterous stuff, which is exactly what Pendulo Studios had in mind. At no point does the game ever take itself seriously, knowing full well that the tongue-in-cheek premise is just the backdrop for a madcap romp filled with urinating toys, polar bear perfume, wannabe pirate credentials, and cockatoo resurrection. This whimsical sense of "adventure" is easily one of Runaway 2's greatest strengths if taken in the spirit intended. Even so, the game's ambitious scope does catch up with it before all is said and done, but more on that later.
Adding to the wacky flavour of the game is the bizarre cast of characters. Several are familiar faces from the original Runaway, including the eccentric Douglasville gang of Sushi the techno-geek, Saturn the inventor, and Rutger the Rastafarian. Also along for the ride, this time in a much more prominent role, is Joshua, the self-proclaimed genius with an unhealthy UFO obsession. The return of these characters is generally welcome, as each has a distinct, offbeat personality that suits the game well. Joshua is sure to get on your nerves as much as he does Brian's over time, but he's as endearing in small doses as he is annoying in large ones. Of the new characters, highlights include an uppercrust gourmet chef with no shoes and no home but plenty of attitude, a grizzled American army colonel who craves war as much as cigars, and a beer-guzzling lemur with a penchant for mischief. There are plenty of others characters you'll encounter in your travels, some of whom are entertaining, while some are completely forgettable and others are simply under-developed -- at least for now.
You'll spend plenty of time gabbing with this ragtag bunch throughout the game, and conversation is a fairly painless affair, if a little cumbersome. Dialogue trees offer several topics at any given time, and each leads to multi-tiered branches that further flesh out the subject. Eventually, though, you'll need to wind and weave your way through all of them, so you'll frequently find yourself looping back around just to try a different path. All options remain available even after exhausting them, and there's nothing to distinguish used topics from new, so you're on your own to keep track of what you've already covered in full. A bigger nuisance is the identical animations that occur each time you initiate another conversation with the same person. Most are relatively short, but they add up over time, and they end up feeling like an animated load screen that'll make you think twice about how much you really want to talk to someone again.
One of the biggest complaints from the first game was not the supporting cast, but the stars, as many felt Brian and Gina to be bland and unlikeable protagonists. It's safe to say that there's a marginal improvement here, though perhaps not enough to satisfy everyone. Surprisingly, while given equal billing to Brian in the game's advertising, Gina is a non-factor in The Dream of the Turtle, remaining a background motivation but never a player throughout this particular adventure. Alone in the spotlight this time around, the ever-yappy Brian has shed his former dorky bookworm image here, but even duded up with a swagger and 'burns, he still lacks much in the way of charisma, which is in stark contrast to the colourful characters around him. He may look cool, but he's still the same ol' Brian underneath.
While probably the right idea to have the protagonist play the (relative) straight man, the decision emphasizes a problem partially concealed by the zaniness of the NPCs: the game just isn't very funny. While goofy accents and outrageous personalities are amusing at first, they're simply no substitute for quality writing, and the dialogue in Runaway 2 regularly falls flat. The lack of humour isn't an inherent weakness, of course, except the game so desperately wants to provide laughs that you can't help but notice it generally doesn't. There are a few smirks and chuckles to be found here and there, but by and large it's a fairly yuk-free experience.
At least the dialogue received a solid translation from its original Spanish (a few too many subtitle inconsistencies aside), and the diverse cast is brought to life by quality voice acting for the most part. Like its predecessor, Runaway 2 makes the mistake of over-using the same actors for multiple roles, which is really distracting at times, but not often enough to matter. I'd also have preferred to puncture my own eardrums than listen to Sushi's out-of-character ditzy bimbo performance any longer than I had to, but such problems are thankfully the exceptions rather than the otherwise positive rule.
More than any of its eclectic characters, however, the real star of Runaway 2 may just be the visual presentation of the game itself. If the humour doesn't fully warrant a "comic adventure" description, then the artistic design certainly does. As they were in the first game, the colourful, stylized graphics are absolutely stunning, the many cutscenes favourably compare with animated television cartoons, and the quirky scenarios covering a wide range of locations really allowed the artists some freedom and fun, and it shows. The lush, pre-rendered letterboxed graphics are vivid and bright, and so rich with detail that you might think it'd be hard to distinguish interactive items from non-interactive at times...
... And you'd be right. No doubt some people are cringing already, but the dreaded pixel hunting from the original does return for an encore performance. Unlike in other games, where the expression refers to items unfairly hidden, in the Runaway games it means placing items in plain view, but lost in a crowd of equally plausible other objects. It's hard to fault developers for displaying too much, and indeed it's actually a praiseworthy endeavour. The end result is the same, however, which is routinely forcing careful cursor sweeps over an entire screen to be sure you haven't missed the one hotspot you didn't know you were looking for. It feels more like a chore than a challenge, and a handy hotspot locator like the one used in Secret Files: Tunguska would have avoided some unnecessary frustration.
Even exits can be difficult to locate at times, particularly as your third-person perspective often doesn't cover an entire scene. Instead, you'll have to walk Brian over to the edge of the current screen, where the game will rather choppily scroll along with him until it settles on its new view. A faster movement option would have been nice at times like these, but its absence isn't a big issue, and the rest of the point-and-click interface is intuitive and efficient. A smart cursor shows where interaction is possible, and inventory and option menus are just mouse clicks away. The inventory presentation is particularly slick, supporting the standard close-up and combine options with a variety of concept art and an animated image of Brian describing each object in detail.
You'll soon come to appreciate these added touches because you'll see them so often, as the vast majority of puzzles in The Dream of the Turtle are inventory-based. They're also incredibly absurd. That's a loaded statement, I know, but once again the absurdity is fully intended. Off-the-wall inventory puzzles have long been a staple of comic adventures, and Runaway 2 is simply carrying on the tradition. Sure they're illogical from a real-world perspective, but anyone mistaking this game for the real world has bigger problems to worry about. Be forewarned, however, that if you're still having nightmares about a banana on a metronome, this game will cause you to wake up in cold sweats. Accepted for what it is, on the other hand, the gameplay here contributes rather nicely to the atmosphere of frivolous fun.
Unfortunately, while the nature of the puzzles can be embraced with little reservation, the quality of them can leave something to be desired. The main culprit is another holdover from the original Runaway, which is an extreme linearity imposed without warning. Following the tried-and-true method of picking up everything that isn't nailed down, in any given location Brian may pick up six or seven random objects for no apparent reason. At times he'll even self-referentially comment on lugging around things he has no use for. Invariably, however, you'll need to learn or do a few key things in a rigidly specific order in order to make any actual progress. No way is Brian going to pick up this eighth object or try that next interaction without due cause, even if he's just done similar things that make no sense whatsoever.
Now, I'm a big supporter of a more thoughtful process than try-everything-on-everything gameplay, but it's a delicate balancing act with player freedom that Runaway 2 rarely seems to get right. The problem is that what the player thinks means less than what Brian thinks. It's not enough to make your own leaps of logic to reach a puzzle solution; you'll then need to jump through all the arbitrary hoops to convince Brian. Even this approach has merit, but the inconsistencies continue here, as Brian fluctuates wildly between being a genius who tries things I hadn't even considered, and a complete moron who needs to be cuffed upside the head for failing to recognize what's painfully obvious. The restrictive design makes its presence felt in other ways, as well, though none quite so prevalent as when training the idiot savant. Some actions need to be performed multiple times when a single attempt would have sufficed, while others need to be performed precisely as intended, even when other available alternatives would work just as well. A few such examples can be easily overlooked, but the cumulative total in this game makes it impossible to ignore.
The developers could have avoided some of these problems simply by incorporating more variety of gameplay. I like inventory puzzles as much as the next person, but too much of anything gets repetitive when that's all there is. Surprisingly, the game even passes on its own opportunities to branch out, like handing over an unknown door code in full, no questions asked. Aside from a couple of half-hearted dialogue puzzles, it's not until the end of the game that you'll encounter a different kind of brain teaser. It's a breath of fresh air even then, but by that point it feels like too little, too late.
Referring to "the end" of the game suggests completion, of course, and that's not entirely true of The Dream of the Turtle. Following a growing trend in the genre, Runaway 2 is actually a prelude that comes with a big, fat "To be continued…" label attached. While one plot strand is more or less resolved, it's not even a self-contained one, so there's very little payoff and the storyline remains completely open-ended when the credits roll. In Brian's own summarizing words, then, the game is simply a "tiny appetizer" preceding the "main dish" still to come. It's still a pretty substantial serving, as most players can count on a good fifteen hours from start to finish, but if you're considering the dinner invitation, whatever you do, don't come to the table hungry.
When all is said and done, Runaway: The Dream of the Turtle seems like a small step backwards for the franchise. It's not so much that the game itself is worse (though the absence of Gina and lack of closure will be unpopular developments), but it so closely emulates its predecessor that even the mistakes and weaknesses of the original have returned, and Pendulo's inability or unwillingness to address key issues is disappointing. Of course, for those who loved the original, there is much to love here, but those turned off by the first game and feel that "runaway" was a wise instruction will find little enticement to return. Everyone else can expect a reasonably entertaining but uneven gameplay experience tucked inside the shell of one of the most beautiful comic adventures ever made. If you're still unsure whether to snap this one up, sleep on it a while. You've got plenty of time before the sequel still to come.
If you loved or hated the first Runaway, you'll love or hate the sequel for all the same reasons. For newcomers, The Dream of the Turtle is a solid adventure, but one that falls short of its abundant potential. Maybe next time (which the ending makes inevitable).