Carte Blanche: For a fistful of teeth review
Art of any kind has a tendency to stagnate over time as people hop on the bandwagon. One band begets another band that sounds just like them. A hit movie is followed by a string of copycat films raking in the dough from a proven formula. Eventually, someone decides to strike out on their own and try something against the grain, something different just to shake things up. Sometimes this is a success and leads to a new breed of art -- blues music turns into rock, which turns into punk music, etc. And sometimes the experiment is notable more for its defiance of conventions than for its actual success.
Carte Blanche: For a fistful of teeth is the latter type of game. We've all played adventure games, and we all know that mysteries are well suited to the genre. But Absurdus, the developers of Carte Blanche, decided to take these well-worn things down a different path with its new episodic series. The results are a film noir-style murder mystery that plays like a French art film mixed with an adventure game, with a healthy dash of role playing game conventions thrown in for good measure. It's an unusual mix, and while it doesn't quite succeed in its first outing, there's still hope for the series in the long run -- as a cult classic if nothing else.
You play the game as Edgar Delacroix, a pampered young man sent to Montreal in the 1920s to make his way in the world. In order to make ends meet, he takes a job with a local private investigator, hoping to learn the tricks of the trade. But while investigating his first case, a murder occurs, and the only one who can solve it is our intrepid hero. The initial premise seems a little thin and very much clichéd. But once you get into the game, with its cast of bizarre characters and its hilarious dialogue, it starts to grow on you until suddenly you realize that you're definitely not playing your typical adventure game.
Despite the murder mystery storyline, the tone of the game is anything but serious. As offbeat comedy usually is, the humor here is hit or miss, but for the most part hits its mark. The characters all have their endearing quirks, from the dimwitted identical Strozzi twins with their geographical birthmarks to the oversexed agency receptionist, and all are good for a laugh -- at least the first time you talk to them. Unfortunately you'll be revisiting the dialogue tree with each of the characters multiple times, and by the third or fourth time, the same jokes tend to wear thin.
One thing that needs to be stated about the writing is that because it takes place in the 1920s, it is a somewhat politically incorrect game by 21st century sensibilities. There are some comments that could be considered racist, a few digs at feminism and lesbianism, and quite a few political comments about unionizing the early part of the century. There's absolutely nothing malicious here, as it's all done playfully tongue-in-cheek, but if you're easily offended then you may want to pass this one by.
Carte Blanche wears its neo-noir and classic film influences on its sleeve, and it shows from the very first screen. The game is completely in black and white and uses a widescreen format, with black borders on the top and bottom of the screen. The problem with this is that while it looks very stylish, it makes for a lot of wasted screen space that could have been used for larger environments, or for the interface itself. The backgrounds themselves are very nice, with a ray-traced style and diffused lighting that gives a great ambience to the scenes. As with the warning about story, be aware that the game does feature both frontal and rear male nudity (although it is very cartoony), so be forewarned.
When I first heard the voices for Carte Blanche, I was taken aback. The vocal performances are so over-the-top and so badly done in a B-movie style that they couldn't be anything but a joke. And it's funny for a while, with accents from all over the map and all overacted. But like any joke that goes on too long, the vocals begin to wear on you very quickly, and by the end of your first hour into the game, you'll want to turn the volume down all the way and just pretend they don't exist. And considering that you'll be spending the majority of the game revisiting the same people and locations over and over again, this becomes a problem very quickly.
With such odd voices, I expected the music to be just as outrageous, but frankly there's not much to speak of. The soundtrack blends into the background, and after a few minutes playing the game, you'll most likely forget that it's there.
Navigation in Carte Blanche is handled through a map interface, with each location on the map consisting of one to two screens to observe from a first-person perspective. You'll start out with just your hotel and the detective agency available, but as time goes on you'll open up new places to investigate. The point-and-click controls are incredibly simple to use. Left-clicking on a hotspot will bring up a menu-style list of interactions, while right-clicking on the screen brings up your inventory, load and save screens, and also a list of your skills.
That's right, aside from your usual tactic of grabbing anything that's not nailed down, you will also need to develop skills in different areas in order to get past some portions of the game. This is an interesting concept, though in practice all it really means is that clicking on particular hotspots and using your available skills on them, just as you would an inventory item, will occasionally raise a particular skill. When this happens, a new area may open up, an existing hotspot may reveal new information, or a character may suddenly be willing to tell you more than before.
Unfortunately, unlike games such as Quest for Glory, where your skills feel like they have a tangible effect on the game, in Carte Blanche skill development just feels like a speed bump to slow you down from blowing through the game too fast. As for the skills themselves, some of them (like persuasion) make sense in the context of the game, but others (like taxidermy) don't seem to have any bearing at all other than as a joke. Theoretically, the skills are meant to carry over from game to game, allowing players to tailor their approach to future episodes with their decisions, but there is no real payoff in this game alone.
This is normally the place where I would begin talking about the gameplay in Carte Blanche. The problem is that there's no real gameplay or puzzling to be found. Put simply, this is a game that anyone, no matter how new to the genre, can finish in a matter of hours. The reason? While most adventures require you to pick up items, combine them, and decide what to use where, Carte Blanche takes care of all of that nonsense for you. A typical portion of the game consists of entering an environment and looking for things to click on. When you find a hotspot, whether an object or a person, you're provided with an Examine option, as well as a short list of all items, actions, topics, and skills that can be used there. So progress through the game becomes as simple as going from screen to screen, clicking on each spot, selecting each item available in your list, and then moving on to the next screen until the game is done. There's no thought required, as the game automates every decision for you. I could easily look past some of the game's other shortcomings and quirks, but if I wanted to devote this much time to just clicking through a game with no challenge at all, there's plenty of casual action games on the market that would give me the same thrill for less money.
The unfortunate thing here is that with more attention given to gameplay and a little less focus on being off-kilter for its own sake, Carte Blanche could have been pretty good. As it is, given the absence of puzzles and the fact that anyone can complete the game with nothing but repetitive clicking on hotspots and menu items (and in only a few hours at that), this isn't a game that I can easily recommend. Hopefully the next chapter in the story takes an upward turn, but for now this initial installment just isn't going to appeal to many people. The game has been released in the UK, but there's no sign of it on North American shores, and given the off-the-wall nature, short duration, and uneven quality of For a fistful of teeth, the chance of getting a wider distribution at this point is questionable. The potential for something fresh and unique is clearly evident in this episode, however, so here's hoping the developers are able to follow up with an improved effort in future. As for me, I'll be sitting around boning up on my Fellini movies while waiting for the next chapter to arrive.
An interesting game, but one that most likely won't appeal to a wide audience due to its self-solving puzzles and bizarre affectations.