The Tales of Bingwood is a new episodic series that should inspire great waves of nostalgia for old school adventure gamers, and for good reason. The debut title from indie studio BugFactory Games, Chapter I: To Save a Princess has been 15 years in the making (with development actually starting on the Amiga) and was deeply inspired by the first two Monkey Island games, as the authors themselves admit. It's not a pirate game (although there are some pirates), it's not a parody (although it’s witty), but the comedy and artistic style are similar to Guybrush's early adventures. In setting out to capture the spirit and atmosphere of those games, the developers have certainly achieved their aim, though this first effort doesn’t prove quite as successful in executing other aspects of the game.
Players control Tombrandt Driftwood (I told you!), son of a fisherman who wanders into town to find that the King's daughter has been kidnapped by an evil wizard: your typical medieval fantasy situation. Rescuing the princess carries great reward, including her hand in marriage, so Tom decides to give it a go. Heading off toward the dark forest where the wizard lives, he finds that the wizard utterly destroyed a bridge and the workmen assigned to fix it won’t work without pay. Since the money to pay the workmen is raised by bridge tolls and no one can use the bridge, you’ll need to bypass this vicious circle and find another way across the gorge.
This first series chapter involves Tom getting off the starting blocks, and simply getting out of town is the largest obstacle in helping him to fulfil his destiny. In order to escape Bingwood village, players will need to find a way past the guards into the castle and out to an island in the bay, with such stops as a cliffside bird's nest and a secret goblin lair along the way. For most of these tasks, you’ll have to go through the age-old adventure trope of going somewhere else to get an item first, which of course you can't get until you've done another fetch quest for someone else, and so on.
Before all this, however, there's quite a thorough introduction to how the interface works in a dream sequence, where Tom’s future self tells you how to use different cursors, manipulate inventory, etc. While this may be overkill for any seasoned adventurers, it’s a great tutorial for those new to the genre. The point-and-click interface is a cross between classic LucasArts and Sierra: along with your inventory, the action menu is presented in a bar at the bottom, where you can choose Talk, Use, Look or Move interactions, though right-clicking also cycles between them. Each on-screen object or hotspot has a default interaction of Look, but after looking, the cursor automatically turns to the "natural" action for that type of object: Use for inventory and objects, Talk for people. It all works pretty well, so you can use one or two mouse buttons as you prefer, although it might have been nice to have keyboard shortcuts for each type of interaction as well.
There's a host of characters to chat with around Bingwood, including the gossipy miller who can fill you in on all the local goings-on, and the farmer who generously lets you off after pinching a whole host of items that are lying around his farmhouse (and you certainly will be picking up everything that isn't nailed down). There's also a sleepy guard, an ex-pirate landlady at the tavern, a Schwarzenegger-like blacksmith and a balding sage. The conversations are usually quite witty and well-written, and the characters are well-defined if slightly stereotypical. Tom himself is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist, although he too is straight from the "ordinary guy who wants to be a hero" mould. Each character’s dialogue is fully voiced, and the acting is generally of a high standard, the one exception being that of the female tavern proprietor whose voiceovers struck me as unnatural.
Graphics are beautifully drawn and animated, but the game only uses 320x240 resolution (presented in full screen or a 640x480 window). The view screen is even smaller, as the inventory takes up a sizable bottom section, so backgrounds are really 320x200. Other independent developers also use this resolution and many players like the retro look, but there will always be those who find it simply too dated for their tastes. Presumably you know who you are and whether this will be an issue for you. For the resolution chosen, the visuals here are very nicely done, with scenes of forests, islands, houses and castles all done in a clearly cartoony but semi-realistic style. There is even plenty of animation, a welcome feature that’s often limited in indie productions. The only quibble I have with the graphics is that poor Tom (and any other character) seems to be taller than most of the doorways. There must be a lot of bumped heads in Bingwood village!
Music is even more “retro” than the graphics, though not in the sense of being limited to the capabilities of the Monkey Island era of computers, but rather in creating a medieval ambience for the game. The rural village and its castle, woods and other environs are conjured up wonderfully by the evocative soundtrack and its rustic, folksy themes, although some of the tunes have the classic piratey kind of style to them.Continued on the next page...