There are a couple enduring truths about Wallace & Gromit. One is their dedication to the idea of better living through gadgetry (if somewhat reluctantly by Gromit), and another is their belief that no good idea can’t be turned into a business opportunity, and subsequently taken too far. Both of these conceits come to the forefront in their latest Grand Adventure from Telltale Games, The Last Resort. In this second of four episodes, it’s summertime, but the forecasts call for nonstop rain throughout the foreseeable future. Providing an inventive solution to this weather problem, what starts as an attempt to cure Gromit’s Seasonal Affected Disorder by creating a sunny seaside haven in the cellar ultimately turns into West Wallaby Street Water World, where paying customers can escape their own June Gloom—with Gromit, of course, now stuck in the kitchen preparing a banquet while Wallace schmoozes the clientele. Despite this well-constructed setup, however, The Last Resort represents a sophomore slump, with a paint-by-numbers approach to puzzle design that leads to a very easy, extremely brief experience.
The focus is clearly on the storyline this time around, as the only new elements introduced are all plot-related. The locations available are the same as in Fright of the Bumblebees (i.e. Wallace’s house, his front yard, and the town square), though the house interiors have been re-decorated as a beach resort, and the cellar is so different as to qualify as a completely new location. There is one new human character in the form of Duncan McBiscuit, a barrel-chested Scotsman and a competitor for Miss Flitt’s affections (though to what extent Wallace can be considered competition when his only effort towards Felicity is a vague sort of pining is debatable). McBiscuit is loud, aggressive, and childish, with a bushy red mustache, and if only he wore a kilt he could be considered the perfect Scottish cliché. There are also some new animals, as we learn that Miss Flitt owns a pair of two-faced twin puppies (Poodgie-Woo and Tinkie-Wee), who are the pictures of grace and decorum when their mistress is present, and evil psychotic terrors to everyone else. They provide a direct contrast to loyal, even-tempered Gromit, but their entire construction, down to their names, is another cookie-cutter stereotype.
Unfortunately, the predictability extends to the puzzle design. While I realize there are only so many types of puzzles in the world, and don’t expect to find something that has literally never been done before, the fact that one of the most unique puzzles from Episode 1 (playing Mad Libs at the newsstand with Mrs. Gabberley) returns here, constructed in almost identical fashion using the exact same character, seems forced. It’s like a hit Saturday Night Live sketch that returns two weeks later with only minor changes and finds significantly diminishing returns. At least wait a few episodes to recycle that trick! The rest of the puzzles are standard fare, where you collect as much inventory as you can, then distribute it to the appropriate parties. It’s all mildly diverting, particularly when confronted with a mini-whodunit later in the game, but it never really feels that creative, as folks tend to give pretty specific instructions about what they need.
Strangely, the difficulty actually ramps down from Episode 1. Even when you consider customers who’ve never played an adventure game before, and are only interested in the series because they love Wallace & Gromit, there shouldn’t be quite this much hand-holding needed. It almost seems like the designers had intended to include more challenge, but then ran out of time. At the beginning of Chapter 2 (breaking the game up into four “chapters” is one of the few changes introduced), Wallace is faced with a crowd of angry customers demanding refunds. He makes a checklist of their names, and has to figure out how to please them before dinner is served. Classic adventure setup, right? But once you question everyone, two-fifths of the customers on the list instantly decide they’re happy after all, and don’t really need anything. Interesting new set pieces like a rotating souvenir photo backdrop and a Punch-and-Judy machine are also severely underutilized.
If you played Episode 1 and had troubles with the keyboard or gamepad controls, you’ll be disappointed to know they’ve gone unchanged in Episode 2, though I can say you gradually get more accustomed to them. One element I was unaware of previously is that you can use the Q and E buttons on the keyboard to cycle through available hotspots on the screen, which prevents the possibility of overlooking any elusive items, although it’s unlikely that will be an issue for most people anyway. The TAB key will also highlight all hotspots if your video card can handle it, though mine, apparently, cannot. It would be nice if info like this was available in the tutorial (which is carried over intact from Episode 1 for anyone starting here or needing a refresher), but oh well. Still, despite the series not yet launching outside of the PC, it’s all too clear that the Xbox 360 was the lead design platform, especially when choosing “New Game” instructs you to look with the “right analog stick” and select with A (since on the keyboard, “A” is actually “move left”). Oops?
Aesthetically is where The Last Resort shines brightest. You may not spend the next few days humming catchy tunes, but the music provides a perfect backdrop to the atmosphere of the episode, and anything more memorable would only distract. The simulated claymation graphics are technically impeccable, with the same level of detail that made Fright of the Bumblebees look like a cartoon somehow made interactive. I absolutely loved the art direction as well. There’s a charming quality to the Water World décor, as if it’s all hand-built and painted by well-meaning amateur carpenters, evoking a false nostalgia in me about beach communities that may (or may not) have existed before I was even born. I can’t imagine a more inviting imitation resort than the one Wallace constructs in his basement. The voice-acting continues to win, and even if you were originally put off by Ben Whitehead filling in for Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace, by the end of this episode even the diehards should be embracing him as a suitable replacement.
I now feel a bit bad that I complained about the brevity of Episode 1, since Episode 2 ends so much sooner—just over two hours for me. Even the endgame sequence feels cut short, as it lasts perhaps five minutes, with little of the same sense of danger or excitement evoked in the last title’s climax. Still, as long as it lasted, I want to make it clear that this is not a bad game, but compared to Fright of the Bumblebees (and certainly one can’t help but compare it to Sam & Max, even if we try to judge it on its own merits), it doesn’t provide as satisfying an experience. The graphics, voice acting, and music are still excellent, the premise is again amusing and appropriately quirky, and the puzzles are competent and sometimes clever. Yet the product as a whole feels rushed, and disappointingly formulaic so soon into a new series. With episodic adventures, we accept a certain amount of reused characters, locations, and ideas, but over-reliance on such recycling is an easy trap to fall into. Hopefully the designers approach the third episode with a little more ambition to give us a truly new and distinctive experience next month. After all, Wallace & Gromit themselves never settle for the average or the typical, so their fans should expect no less.