Adventure Gamers Awards
Slowly, gently, the Strong Bad series is gaining momentum. After beginning on a rather tame note in terms of plotline, puzzles and jokes, things are possibly on their way up, though the emphasis is decidedly on “slowly, gently”. Strong Badia the Free, like its predecessor, is fairly average as an adventure game. But unlike the meandering, day-in-the-life feel of Homestar Ruiner, the second episode’s premise is much more epic in scope. That’s right, epic. As in, Strong Bad decides to build his own independent nation. Sure, his nation at first consists of a tire and a stop sign (and currency made of board game money), but to fight the tyranny of the King of Town, he’s determined to start a revolution. Unfortunately for him, where Strong Bad leads, few are willing to follow.
In what will likely become a series standard, this episode once again opens with an email challenge (complete with mock-worthy punctuation): “Dont you think youd be a better ruler than the King of Town?” Strong Bad is ever ready to rise to the challenge, but he’s saddled by a major setback. The King himself (whose royalty Strong bad refuses to acknowledge, referring to him as the “of Town”) is up to seemingly random email taxing, persecuting, and house arresting of certain cranky, wrestling-masked protagonists. And it gets worse—he’s demanding ample supplies of Creamy Ding Snack Cakes.
Once you’ve helped Strong Bad escape his short-lived imprisonment, things get interesting. Your familiar travel map is stolen, replaced with a new world map you can only cross in stages. You’ll traverse plenty of new areas, or more aptly, new countries—many of the characters have set out to create their own nations in defiance of the King. And all the characters are here, including larger roles for the likes of The Cheat, Pom Pom, and Strong Mad. Even the Easter-Egg-of-a-character Homsar (whose original existence spawned from a mistyped Strong Bad Email) makes an appearance, and in an odd, mystical setting at that. Best of all, most are introduced one at a time, helping to make Strong Badia a better game for those new to the franchise.
Despite the higher stakes this time around, however, the game still feels like little more than watching a Homestar Runner cartoon. The adventuring elements are light and sparse, the inventory and dialogue puzzles enjoyable but not very thought-provoking. Making the depressive Strong Sad think he’s the victim of a fatal illness, for example, won’t take much deduction. But hey, at least the solution will knowingly produce hilarious results. Then again, it’s the challenge that makes puzzles so often memorable, and sadly there’s nary a challenge in sight. As a result, at times it feels like you’re playing the game on auto-pilot.
Thankfully, there are other places where the game shines. For example, the brothers Chaps have long been reigning champions when it comes to hilarious fake retro games, and Telltale now seems worthy of that legacy. The new retro title from Videlectrix, “Math Kickers: Featuring the Algebros,” succeeds over Episode 1’s “Snake Boxer V” in that it’s funny and quite playable. Kicking and fireballing your way through equations, the game is something like Math Blaster meets Double Dragon. Only here the math is dumbed down and boss fights entail button mashing to beat up too-complex equations. Simply brilliant.
Other mini-game treats are offered as well, including a distinctly prehistoric take on Strong Bad’s do-it-yourself comic “Teen Girl Squad” and a parody of the board game “Axis and Allies” called “Maps and Minions.” The latter is surprisingly fun--its obvious absurdity at first concealing the actual strategy for winning. Characters landing on the same territory “battle” by simply being their own flawed selves, and determining the weird logic of their relationships makes it the series’ most interesting puzzle to date.
Collectibles are more frequent in this game, which can be a nice change but also a downfall of sorts. While they certainly help players escape the tedium of talk-click-talk pacing, a few more involved and thoughtful puzzles would help to even things out a little. The metal detector is used more often and sometimes necessarily, which isn’t really a good thing. Elongated trips with the thing are less fun than a pixel hunt. When you’re spending significantly more time scouring for treasures, cards, and accessories than thinking about puzzles, it’s hard not to feel like something’s off in the adventure game dynamic. And what about unlockables? Completionists will be happy to collect, collect, collect just to earn that 100% “awesomeness” rating, but many gamers (including myself) may be disappointed by the lack of any sort of tangible reward.
Balance issues aside, though, Strong Badia is a polished and well-crafted game. The transition from flash cartoon to 3D game is seamless, retaining the style of the popular website. Historic, newsreel-style map transitions add to the adventurous feel. The humor is top-notch, delivered largely by Strong Bad’s neverending stream of grouchy quips. Some of the supporting characters remain kind of simple and dull, but they serve nicely as foils and the way they all work together is always quirky and fun. Matt Chapman’s many vocal roles are once again performed superbly, while the sound effects are cartoony, childlike, and occasionally serve as an ode to the 8-bit era of video games. The music is subtle and charming, popping in here and there as an interlude. The homespun folksy tune during the ending credits is a particularly nice touch.
All told, the second episode of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People includes a little more talking and lot more collecting than Homestar Ruiner, with the same marginal amount of small-scale puzzling in between. Perhaps overcompensating for the game’s WiiWare market, Telltale seems to be tinkering with the usual adventure game formula with more “bonus” items, but while experimentation is lauded, it’s hard not to think back on how well Sam & Max worked and wish for a similar gameplay focus here. Still, that series also took a while to peak, so perhaps its only natural that Strong Bad should still be finding its way. At any rate, the four hours or so spent playing Strong Badia the Free is a good time, just more amusing than challenging. Political domination is easily more compelling than a race that leads to a bothersome houseguest. As it stands, though, the series could still use a little more umph. It’s fun and all, but it’s often too reminiscent of the simple, mindless passivity of Saturday morning cartoons. Click… watch… click…