Review for Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens
I must admit that, despite being a fan of the first three games, I really wasn't expecting to find myself playing another entry in the Simon the Sorcerer series. Given that it's been several years since the release of the widely-criticised third instalment, and a good thirteen years since the one before that, there must now be an awful lot of people who have never even heard of the series, and many more who think it should have stopped while it was ahead so long ago. Nevertheless, with a new developer at the helm, an English-language version of Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens has finally made its way to retail, reviving the series once again for a new generation. Clearly learning from the past, Silver Style have avoided most of the pitfalls that Simon 3D fell into. Sadly, they've managed to fall into some new ones.
For those not up to speed with the series, it goes a bit like this. You play as the titular Simon, originally a cheeky, slightly sarcastic British teenager (more on that in a moment), who is transported to the Magic Kingdom by his dimension-travelling wardrobe (at least in the second and fourth games). Previous games centred around Simon's attempts to foil the plans of the evil wizard Sordid while meeting up with recurring characters such as Calypso the wizard, his daughter – and Simon's love interest – Alix, some demons, and Goldilocks. At the end of the third game, Simon saves the universe by preventing Sordid from taking control of the Nexus computer system, a location in which Simon first meets a double of himself.
Which brings us to Simon 4, in which Simon is called back to the Magic Kingdom after receiving a message from Alix in a vision. Upon arrival, it quickly becomes clear that his doppelgänger is up to something suspicious, and hurting Simon's hard-won reputation as a complete brat in the process. It's up to Simon to investigate and, as usual, to save the kingdom while he’s at it.
Several factors immediately set Simon 4 apart from its immediate predecessor. After the series’ unsuccessful move to full 3D and direct keyboard control, this game opts for a more traditional setup, with a mouse-driven interface and 3D characters on top of pre-rendered 2D backdrops. The action/timed sequences that Simon 3D experimented with are also gone, which will please many. There's been some change to the characters as well, which won’t be nearly as popular. Sordid is notable by his absence, with a new villain taking his place this time. And Simon has become less of a jerk, which is a good thing overall, except the change makes some of his actions rather out of character. He's also become an American – or at least his voice has. This last change is never explained, as there doesn't appear to be any in-game reason for it, and it might take a while for fans of the previous instalments to get used to. That said, it isn't itself a deal-breaker.
For the most part, the interface in Simon 4 is unobtrusive and intuitive, with a left-click interacting with objects and a right-click examining them, while an inventory bar appears when the mouse moves to the bottom of the screen. A double-click on exit hotspots can be used to skip immediately to a new location, which is very welcome given the amount of backtracking involved in the game. A simple keystroke, meanwhile, displays all of the hotspots on the screen, which helps to prevent any drawn-out pixel hunting. These are all positive elements, but there are a couple of things that irritated me during play. For example, I couldn't find a way to cancel an item selection in the inventory, leading to attempted object combinations just to free up the cursor. Objects are automatically deselected once you try to use them on something, which is a good thing given the previous criticism, but annoying when you want to try using an item on a handful of others in quick succession. A map is available in the inventory to allow speedy travel around the game world, which is another helpful device in its own right, but this is locked into position as the first item in the first row of an ever-expanding inventory, leading to a fair bit of unnecessary scrolling to get at it. I kept wishing the map was always visible on the inventory bar, irrespective of which row was selected.
Graphically, Simon 4's 2.5D visuals are pleasing enough, with plenty of detail and colour in the backgrounds, and a slightly-skewed perspective which suits the game. The 3D character models are also fairly detailed. From a technical standpoint, then, the game's graphics are perfectly reasonable, though they also struck me as being a tad bland and soulless. Sure, the artwork is much more proficient than the low-polygon, blurry-textured graphics in Simon 3D, but Simon 4's visuals lack the distinct cartoon style that featured in previous titles, and end up coming across as rather generic, despite the effort that has clearly gone into them. It also appears that time spent making the backgrounds and character models was time not spent doing animation, because there's a fair amount of this missing. Objects 'pop' in or out of the background as they're put down or picked up, and at one point when Simon changes outfits, the character model is simply swapped out for another one. So while screenshots of the game look perfectly fine, there's a certain lingering cheapness to the visuals when actually playing.
If the graphics are somewhat disappointing, sounds are even more so. The lone audio highlight is some nicely-written incidental music that successfully captures the fantasy mood, with a slightly modern twist. Sadly, none of this is particularly context-sensitive, which is especially notable during the handful of more dramatic scenes in the game that aren't accompanied by music nearly as rousing as the on-screen action is trying to be. Certain locations are accompanied by background sounds that help to inject a sense of life into what can be quite sparsely populated areas, though some work better than others.
Far more irritating, though, are the voices. There are exceptions – one actor clearly had a lot of fun in his role as Hades, the god of the underworld – but for the most part this is an uninspiring collection of work, with emotional dialogue read out in a bland manner and emphasis on the wrong words in phrases. The voices for Alix and Swampy are particularly poor – the former apparently unmoved by any situation, the latter irritatingly high pitched – while Simon's double suffers the indignity of having his lines read by the same actor playing Simon, but in an incredibly (and inexplicably) strange, slow voice. As for Simon himself, his voiceovers are unspectacular but generally acceptable once the shock of the accent change wears off. In fairness to the actors, they're not helped by a script that occasionally suffers in translation from the original German, which also undermines much of the series' trademark humour that Silver Style were clearly aiming for.
Of course, problems such as these can be forgiven if the actual gameplay is up to scratch, and Simon 4 shows some initial promise in this department. The premise is engaging, with Simon trying to discover who his double is working for, and there are some quite clever puzzles – particularly one section near the end, which involves coordinated action by two characters under player control. Unfortunately, much of the game features some questionable design decisions by the developers.
The biggest problem concerns the use of Simon's in-game journal, which is ostensibly a nifty built-in hint system that also reminds you what you're supposed to be doing at any time. All of which is great, but in practice Silver Style have chosen to use this instead of expository dialogue from Simon. I lost track of the number of times that I had absolutely no idea what I should be doing next until I consulted the journal. The actual content of the journal, meanwhile, veers between handing you outright puzzle solutions even when you're just trying to find out what task you should be undertaking, and remaining unhelpfully obtuse even when the highest level of hints are selected.
The issue of the game solving puzzles for you remains a common one even outside of the journal. An awful lot of the activity in Simon 4 consists of talking to characters by clicking on new lines of dialogue, and these often appear without any reason for the player to think of asking them. Several times when I needed to achieve something, the solution was simply to wander around talking to everyone until I found a new line of relevant dialogue. There are some puzzles that require creative thought – at one point, for example, you're required to improvise in order to produce some items that a surgeon needs for an operation – but often an interesting-looking puzzle begins to emerge, only to be solved immediately upon talking to a character in the room next door.
On the other hand, the game also works hard to make life difficult for you at times. Simon is regularly forced to use a specific item to solve a puzzle, even when several others would work just as well. There's no obvious reason, for instance, why a liquid should need to be decanted into a cup rather than the bucket or pot that you’re also carrying around, or why water must be obtained from a particular container when there are plenty of other water sources scattered around the game world. Very occasionally the game does let you use alternative items, which just makes these other occasions more baffling.
Simon 4 is also very good at making you solve puzzles that do nothing but waste the player's time. The most irritating of these occurs when Simon is called upon to find a way into a castle. In order to find an entrance to the building, which doesn't appear to have a doorway, the player is required to go around the game world searching for plans of the building that mysteriously appear at this point in the game, and also to help a ghost to get a job at the castle, which itself requires several other tasks to be accomplished. And the end result of all this activity? Simon is told to walk to the other side of the castle, where there is no wall and he can simply walk through. Revealing this can’t even be considered a spoiler, as it’s merely the random outcome of all the completely unrelated tasks that precede it.
Mysteriously-appearing objects crop up other times as well, and far too often overall. Items regularly appear only when needed, which forces a constant retracing of steps in order to find them – often without knowing that anything should have appeared in the meantime. There are even mysteriously-appearing characters, who only turn up when Simon needs to talk to them about something, or who suddenly reappear after disappearing earlier in the game. Combine this with not being told what you're supposed to be doing and the odd puzzle that doesn't make a lot of sense even after you've solved it, and the end result is a fair amount of frustration.
Simon 4 even manages to fall short with its plot and setting. Aside from a creatively-designed visit to the underworld, which is full of classical allusions, the game is content to play out entirely within the confines of a town and its surrounding forest areas. Certainly, Simon 4 lacks the scale of previous titles, as what was a sizable city in the second and third games seems to have turned into a tiny village for the fourth, and the main villain turns out to be bland and uninteresting. That this evil person's dastardly plans appear to make precisely no difference to anyone in the Magic Kingdom other than the two Simons and Alix makes the need to thwart him feel pretty much unnecessary, too. The game also does a bad job of explaining the backstory for newcomers, which is a fairly serious problem after a half-decade of franchise inactivity.
All things considered, Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens is not a very good game, and yet it's not totally broken. It has plenty of flaws, but it also has occasional moments during which everything works – moments where the dialogue sparkles and the humour comes through, or where a puzzle comes clearly into focus. It's also a lengthy experience, so at least when you realize that you've spent the last hour solving unnecessary puzzles, there’s still plenty of adventuring ahead of you. But Simon 4 is a game that requires a fair amount of forgiving in order to really enjoy. The interface, the graphics, the sounds, the plot, the puzzles... nothing excels, and there are no real stretches of brilliance. And ultimately, that's the problem. At its best, Simon 4 manages to be mediocre, and at its worst it irritates with some fairly fundamental design flaws. I genuinely hope that Silver Style has learnt from its first foray into the franchise, because production on Simon the Sorcerer 5 is already well underway. And while the series is certainly welcomed back, this developer's first attempt is missing the earlier magic.