The Tales of Bingwood: Chapter I - To Save a Princess review
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.
Speaking of pirates, the tavern is one of the comedic highlights of the game, with plenty of Monkey Island references, although the group of buccaneers at a table are more self-important than important-looking. There's plenty of other comedy, too, from the free sample of laxative powder that you acquire (no prizes for guessing that you'll have to slip it into someone's drink), to the Batman-esque punch-up scene that you observe from afar (no action sequences here). Nothing made me laugh out loud, but it’s all pretty witty and kept me going with silent chuckles.
Where I feel Bingwood most fails to keep up with its otherwise high standards is in its puzzles and some of the logic in the game. You've usually got three or four fetch quests going on at once and Tom doesn't seem to have any problem fitting spades and fishing rods alongside another dozen or more items in his inventory. That’s completely expected in this type of adventure, of course, but the puzzles lack diversity and fall prey to the old chestnut of having items that are perfectly suitable for storing in X but demanded by the game to be stored only in Y, forcing you to find a slightly different receptacle (which you can acquire only after doing another fetch quest) to put them in. And then you find that powder Z doesn't even need a container at all to be kept in your bulging pockets. This type of problem crops up a few times, though for the most part the puzzles are reasonably constructed, with clear clues ensuring that the game is not too hard. There are also a couple of timing puzzles to add a bit more interest, but when you reach the end of the game, you’ll still have the feeling that you've done little more than be a gofer. This is only the first chapter in an ongoing story, but it’s disappointing that all you've ultimately managed to do so far is cross a ravine to leave town.
Strangely, some sequences that seemed to be puzzles prove not to be puzzles at all. For example, you come across a broken fishing net beside Tom's father's house. Looking at it, Tom says "I should fix that net" and yet if you then click again to try to fix it, Tom says "Nah, I'll do it later." Now, I'm sure many of us do this kind of thing in real life, but in an adventure game it can lead you to think that there's a puzzle there that doesn't actually exist. Similarly, you later manage to read only the first instruction from a treasure map before it gets blown away by the wind. It looks like there might be a puzzle to work out the location or retrieve the map, but instead a hotspot inexplicably appears for you to simply dig up. It seems almost like a plot device that was discarded with remnants left in the game, or just one that was never properly followed through.
While the game’s developer, BugFactory, has a name that might strike the fear of technical glitches into people’s hearts, I encountered only one Vista save bug in Tales of Bingwood, which was already fixed by the time I reported it. Given that the game engine itself (yes, they coded their own game engine from scratch!) and content were created by a two-man team in Finland, this kind of oversight is excusable, although it did let me spot a few additional things in forcing almost an entire second play through. For example, you can usually click through dialogue if you're a fast reader or press the Skip button for cutscenes you’ve seen already, but there are quite a few long sequences you can't bypass (including that interface tutorial, so make sure you save right at the start!) and if you keep clicking through a conversation, it doesn't seem to register all the clicks: I had to click various times for each line to move on. This probably affected me having to replay more than it might most players a first and only time through. However, when you get stuck in a game you go around trying everything again in traditional adventurer fashion, and if you have trouble skipping over responses that you've seen before, it can get annoying. Sometimes topics you've finished with disappear from the dialog options, and sometimes they don't, so this is a particular problem.
Some people may not mind fetch quests or these small but noticeable quibbles, but they contribute to the overall problem of Tales of Bingwood feeling a little too derivative in the wrong way. Yes, it's inspired by classic games and created almost as an homage, but even a gaming experience that values nostalgia can cover some new ground of its own. Unless a complete parody or remake, a game really should have something unique about it, and To Save a Princess doesn’t manage to establish much identity of its own. Perhaps that’s the result of only being the first chapter, so there’s still plenty of opportunity for the series to grow, but at least for now that’s all there is.
Despite these weaknesses, I'm sure that most people who liked the handful of previous retro-styled commercial releases like the Blackwell series, Super Jazz Man, and Adventures of Fatman will enjoy this game as well for its lighthearted humour, charming artwork and style. It's not very long (three or four hours at most), but it’s less than 8 Euros (about $10 or £7) to download from the official website, so it won't break the bank. There’s also a playable demo available, which provides a helpful sample of the full game. To Save a Princess doesn’t get us very far along in that ultimate goal, but it does show lots of potential from this team, so I look forward to BugFactory’s next chapter and hope they can improve on those areas the introduction has fallen a little bit short.