One of the biggest difficulties encountered when trying to create a video game with a cohesive story—where the beginning, middle, and end all complement each other—is that the designer has no way of knowing how the player will approach any given situation. Games are very different from other forms of media where the viewer is led passively along, exactly how the author intends. Along with the established charms of the series in general, the triumph of Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures Episode 3: Muzzled! is the cohesiveness of the play experience. The story’s through line is solid and doesn’t wander off into many tangents, and the puzzles are logical (in a cartoon sort of way, at least) and have an interesting progression of their own.
As our story begins, Wallace is putting the finishing touches on his latest invention: The Infiniflavour Ice Cream Maker. Think of a paint-analysis machine at a major hardware store, which scans whatever color you provide to create a matching paint. Similarly, the Infiniflavour scans whatever taste you provide to churn up a similar scoop of ice cream. (Am I alone in thinking this is Wallace’s first invention that would be awesome if it really existed?) He’s working on a deadline, as he’s promised to have the Infiniflavour ready (in ice cream truck form) for an upcoming carnival. Meanwhile, it seems the town’s dog shelter was recently destroyed in a violent storm, and all the poor pups are out on the street running amuck. Enter Monty Muzzle, a traveling philanthropist and entrepreneur, who’s organizing the carnival (the “Fundraise-A-Fair”) to raise money for a new shelter.
Monty Muzzle is this episode’s new character, and what a character he is. Strangely, by the end of the episode we know more about Muzzle, including his backstory and family history, than we do any other character in the series. This is thanks in no small part to the “Life of Muzzle” black-and-white viewfinders at the carnival, which illustrate his humble beginnings as well as his lifelong pursuit of charity and heroic deeds. In fact, the entire carnival seems designed as a love letter from Muzzle to himself, including a thrill ride called the Muzzler and a fortune-telling machine known as—ahem—Muzzmerelda. As one might expect, a man named Muzzle doesn’t truly have the most honorable intentions when it comes to gathering up dogs, and soon it’s up to the canine Gromit to figure out exactly what’s really going on.
When it comes to controlling Gromit (who gets the bulk of the play time this episode, with Wallace featured only briefly later in the game), there haven’t been any changes from the previous episode. If you decide to use mouse-and-keyboard, you steer your character with the arrow or WASD keys, using various other keys for tasks like opening your inventory and cycling through hotspots, while selecting on-screen items with the mouse. For this episode, I decided to play the whole thing using only a gamepad to see how it affected my enjoyment, and it worked pretty well. I liked using the shoulder buttons to cycle hotspots, and found it easier and more intuitive to drive my character with the left analog stick than the keyboard. Curiously missing from this scheme, however, is the ability to freely move the cursor, which takes away the same degree of control afforded by the mouse. Regardless of which method I’ve used to play, I continue to experience the same minor irritant of suddenly walking the wrong direction during a perspective-changing scene transition, but it doesn’t take away from the overall gameplay experience.
The impressive through line of the gameplay presents itself through frequent callbacks to the introductory puzzles throughout the rest of the game. There are three stray dogs who make their (unwelcome) debut by rampaging through Wallace’s cellar, damaging the Infiniflavour machine. Each has a personality quirk the player must learn in order to fix the Infiniflavour, and these same quirks come into play again later when Gromit discovers what Monty Muzzle is trying to hide. This sense of learning about the characters and their world, then applying your knowledge to solve puzzles, is present throughout Muzzled!, and it makes for a more rewarding experience than simply gathering everything you can and foisting it upon the environment until something works. Several of the existing locations are even closed off (e.g. the upstairs bedroom is blocked by boxes of sugar), further eliminating potential distractions from the intended track. The design isn’t perfect—it would be a stretch to call it “challenging,” and the final climax is a little too reminiscent of Episode 1—but it’s a vast improvement over the previous entry in the series.
Muzzled! continues the tradition of high-quality aesthetics we’ve come to expect from Telltale in general and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures in particular. The music is well-crafted and contributes agreeably to the atmosphere, while the voice acting transports the player to a genteel English village so effectively that I’m always in the mood for tea and crumpets afterwards. Monty Muzzle’s voice actor does a bang-up job at conveying a charismatic hustler with a secret contempt for the people he charms. The graphics are still near-cartoon quality, and the art design of the Fundraise-A-Fair is winning, from the giant, patch-covered Monty Muzzle balloon—around which a nicely animated car-spinner ride constantly rotates—to the “Are You Smarter Than a Chicken?” booth (you can win a goldfish!).
While the game is nearly the same length as the first two episodes—between 2 ½ and 3 hours for me—it feels like a more fulfilling experience thanks to the stronger storyline and better integrated puzzles. By using a human antagonist with specific goals, as opposed to the animals who were basically agents of chaos in the previous games, Muzzled! makes Wallace & Gromit better heroes through the presence of a better villain. Though I don’t want to give away too much, I also found Episode 3 to be the funniest Grand Adventure to date, especially the brilliant cliffhanger ending. I won’t go quite so far as to call it an adventure gamer’s best friend, but Muzzled! is certainly a worthwhile companion in the series.