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Adventure Gamers Awards
When rumors of Gobliiins 4 first began circulating, I half-expected it to be a joke, or at least nothing more than wishful thinking from a devoted niche. The odd, humorous series by French developer Coktel Vision was impressive in its day, but it’s been fifteen years since the last game, and even its biggest fans must have doubted the possibility of a resurrection after all this time. Especially since they aren’t even typical adventure games, but rather a slapstick, escape-the-room style puzzle experience with light story elements, something often frowned upon by genre veterans. Still, the series is fondly remembered by those who played the originals. They had a unique charm, they were funny, and their bizarre puzzles were fully absorbing, and the years have done little to quell the desire for more goblin adventures.
Much to my delight, the news of a sequel was no joke at all, and better yet, it has proven to be arguably the best game in the series to date. Spared of the license limbo afflicting so many older series, this latest installment was developed by Société Pollene and produced by a Russian company, Snowberry Connection, but series creator Pierre Gilhodes was back at the helm, ensuring the new game shares the same Gobliiins style that fans have come to love. For newcomers, yes, this new iteration is still decidedly puzzle-based, but Gobliiins 4 gives you plenty of reasons to care about the surreal world in which you’ve been placed, even if it’s just to see the next gag, creature or contraption. Whatever your motivation, this title is a treat, and you’ll find yourself soon wrapped up in the challenging but addictive puzzles and the comical interactions of the goblins.
The previous games have varied their approaches to puzzling, as well as the number of playable characters (which, cutely, are represented by the number of i’s in the title). The original Gobliiins had the right dynamic (three goblins for maximum mischief, single screens), but there was an unnecessary health meter that punished you for missteps in a largely trial-and-error adventure. The second title, Gobliins 2, featured (you guessed it) two goblins and no more health bar. Although the goblins could move simultaneously, their antics were toned down with one fewer member, and you occasionally had to traverse multiple screens to solve puzzles. Goblins Quest 3, published by Sierra, was mostly a lone goblin affair, aside from picking up sidekicks to help with puzzles. While a worthwhile game in many respects, it didn’t have the tight-knit, focused feel of the original, and consequently felt too much like a meandering King’s Quest game than a unique Gobliiins title.
Gobliiins 4 represents the best of all worlds. Here Gilhodes has used what worked in Gobliiins (one): a motley cast of three clumsy yet plucky goblins, weird worlds to explore one screen at a time, and a wide assortment of devious puzzles—but this time without the cruel health bar. There is no way to permanently mess things up in a level, meaning restarts are unnecessary. And, like Gobliins 2, characters can move at the same time, working together to solve the problems facing them. On top of that, each level in Gobliiins 4 has a distinct, clear goal, which other games in the series rarely had.
While perhaps streamlined a little too much for some, this format greatly eases potential frustration and boredom. My own biggest draw to the adventure genre is the pacing. It’s often ponderous, almost meditative. Even when inevitably getting “stuck”, I’m mellowed out enough at that point from carefully exploring environments to handle the situation with a certain thoughtful clarity. And yet there’s nothing worse than walking back through dozens of screens with little idea of where to go or even what to look for. So it’s to this sense of pace that I can attribute to a good chunk of my love for Gobliiins 4. By keeping things toned down to easily digestible single-screen puzzle scenarios, the game provides some of the most manageable yet challenging experiences in any adventure game.
One feature the Gobliiins series never featured prominently was story, and it’s true that Gobliiins 4 is equally short on plot, which is advanced only by short comic-style panels between the self-contained chapters. The game is free of introductory cinematics and narrative cutscenes, but the premise involves helping the King Balderone find his missing aardvark Riri… only to get caught up in plenty of obstacles along the way. The first challenge is merely gathering your busy cohorts for the King’s mission, but once together, the trio land themselves in such predicaments as spider-friendly dark tunnels, a field of singing “foolweeds”, and even on other planets. The lack of story is never a distraction, as it keeps the focus squarely on the puzzles themselves, and yet throughout this very weird tangent of odd, distracting missions, you’ll always feel like there’s a good reason for your actions.
Upon starting the game, you’ll find that the opening menu screen serves as a tutorial. It looks exactly like one of the levels you’ll be playing, only there’s no real goal, and clicking on items will give you a brief primer on how to control the goblins. Moving the three heroes around is easy to do, and to complete puzzles it’s necessary to utilize each goblin’s distinct shtick: detective Tchoup is the only one who can pick up and use items as inventory, Perluis the wizard can bring things to life with magic, while Stucco the Viking possesses brute strength. The opening two stages are played with one and two goblins, respectively, introducing each character’s abilities and easing players into the more complex task-sharing of the later levels.
It isn’t always easy to know which goblin to choose (or what to do with whomever you select), but there’s a certain sense to these puzzles once connections are made. Some might call Gobliiins 4’s puzzles illogical, but really they just rely on "dream-logic", requiring you to get into the goblin world mindset to understand. That’s not to say you won’t experience some trial-and-error or tedious pixel-hunting; there’s a little bit of both. But mostly you’ll have an idea of what needs to be done: in one stage, you’ll simply need to punch a ticket… but in this game, of course, you won’t do it with anything you’d expect. The game encourages you to think creatively, and never punishes you for mistakes.
Potential frustration is leavened by the silly, playful nature of the game. Mistakes don’t feel wrong, they simply feel exploratory. For example, Stucco can punch a giant mushroom, which bounces back and knocks him out. As a result, the other goblins guffaw at your mishap, but Stucco revives none the worse for wear. And for the most part, you’ll get an idea of who needs to interact with what from these animations, so it never feels like a waste of time to experiment. There are some time-sensitive actions required occasionally, and these could prove troublesome, but such moments are short and can be tried again if necessary. The earlier levels may lull you into a fall sense of confidence with their pass-like-clockwork degree of puzzle solving, but really they’re meant to serve as a simple transition into the extremely difficult levels you’ll encounter later.
The signature style and artwork of the older Gobliiins games have returned, but this game marks the series transition into 3D. The detailed sprite work of previous games is certainly missed this time around, but the cartoonish look and animation of Gilhodes’ characters is certainly true to form. You’ll meet many large, friendly creatures and even talking vegetables in your travels through continually unique environments. One stage takes place in a train station with a living train, another in an oversized and demented children’s room laden with riddles, and yet another places your adventure inside comic book panels. During all this, you’ll notice plenty of animated background delights to keep you distracted, many of them surreal—such as a fish flying cheerfully around a castle, or a skeleton peeking out from behind boxes. On a technical level, the graphics aren’t quite up to snuff with the current generation of games, but the characters manage to be lively and well animated, with a personality that’s refreshingly different from most 3D adventures.
Aside from the goblins’ physical gags (and the friendly mocking that ensues), much of this game’s personality comes from the noises they make. The sound effects aren’t as wild and cartoonish as they were in previous games, but the odd, unintelligible voices are definitely present, and faithfully so. The English subtitles that accompany this gibberish are almost as strange, and yet I found myself giving in to whatever requests or statements were made by characters. When I encountered a self-proclaimed dentist trapped in the teeth of a monster’s mouth, I thought, “why, of course!” When I eagerly embraced the instruction to steal lettuce from a creature named Saladini to feed a sick worm-friend that I was riding, I knew the game had brilliantly sucked me into its craziness. Whether by voice or text, the game’s language is instrumental to adding believability and texture to its world.
The instrumental music is odd too, but not in the way you’d expect, as it’s not really weird like the rest of the game. There’s the bizarre instrument here and there (the jaw-harp in the first stage was a surprise), but mainly you’ll be hearing a lot of medieval compositions with piano, flutes, and plucked string instruments. While sometimes tinny-sounding and lo-fi, it’s surprisingly pleasant, and most importantly, non-repetitive, as you can expect a new, varied track with each stage.
Getting around is a simple point-and-click affair. Click on a character to control him, and point to where you want to go or what you’d like to interact with. Double-clicking allows you to run, which is useful since it can take some time to traverse screens otherwise. Switching characters on the fly is easy, and perfect for multi-tasking; you can have one goblin head towards one object while having another goblin fiddling with another on the other side of the screen. The only other element of the interface is Tchoup’s inventory, which is accessible with a right-click. The inventory is relatively minimal, and you’ll notice that only particular items carry over from level to level. This feels odd at first, but you’ll likely appreciate the reduction of (inevitable) trial-and-error puzzling. A few of the items feel a tad overused, since they’re used in much the same way, making new puzzles feel slightly less dynamic, but this is a small gripe.
The save system, however, is a little troublesome. As much as I appreciate the series faithfulness of this entry, I’m not quite sold on the archaic password system used by Gobliiins 4 at level completion. Sure, I love me some retro games, but getting out a pad and paper to write down a ten-digit code? Not a fan. The game auto-saves your latest level anyway, but the inability to save mid-level or have any control over save files is one aspect the series should have left behind for good.
There are “only” 16 stages in this game, which may sound short, but there can be a dozen or so puzzles in each level, all working towards one cohesive goal. And there’s plenty to do in all of them, so you could easily end up spending over an hour (or even days) wracking your mind over a tiny puzzle within one level. One of these levels is a bonus stage, unlocked only if you collect an elusive gold tooth in previous chapters. Some are more difficult to see or find than others, but if you do miss one, you’ll probably want to go back anyway, as the puzzles in this game are rewarding, and the solutions never feel too out of reach.
There are those who will dismiss Gobliiins 4 as a mere puzzle game, but unless you play adventures only for their stories, I can safely say that this game is worth the time of any point-and-click adventurer. More isn’t always better, after all, so if you’re up for a challenge in something a little different, get comfortable during the easy first stages, then prepare to explore fantastical surreal worlds one screen at a time, succumbing to their dream-logic puzzles, and laughing at the antics of the stooge-like goblins in this very welcome return.