Pizza Morgana: Episode 1 - Monsters & Manipulations in the Magical Forest review
When the wife’s away and there are no ready-meals in the house, I have been known to turn to the home delivery pizza to provide sustenance. After playing Corbomite Games’ debut Pizza Morgana episode, Monsters & Manipulations in the Magical Forest, that’s a habit I might have to reconsider. For the protagonist, a young girl named Jackie, a simple order for pizza turns into an unplanned journey to a dimension of magic, mystery and extremely strange toppings, not to mention a nice slice of gentle puzzling, if a little undercooked in places.
The game opens with our heroine lurching through a magical forest on a clearly out-of-control broomstick. Aggrieved at her rough treatment of its branches, a talking tree catches her and asks what is going on. The story of this episode thus unfolds as a flashback, explaining how Jackie came to be here. By introducing key elements of the story early on in this way, including the eponymous Pizza Morgana, owners of the broomstick, I felt an immediate incentive to proceed in the game to find out more about them.
When actual gameplay begins, you'll find yourself back in time at Jackie’s house, inadvertently summoning Abbie Positive, delivery vampire, and from there it’s a short step to Terramagia, dimension of magic. Coming to a satisfying full circle, the closing scenes mirror the opening, with Jackie finally taking control of the broomstick. The events leading up to this point clearly show that this is just the start of Jackie’s adventure, setting the scene for future episodes. All she really wants through this installment is to get back home, vampire-free, but clearly that is not meant to be. To further whet the appetite, there is also a “next time on Pizza Morgana” cutscene to close things out, showing additional characters and more of those introduced here. With the first half set in our world, this initial episode really only acts as a taster to the larger magical adventure still to come, but the designers have done a good job of making you want to follow along to see where it goes.
Control is simple point-and-click, with players initially only having control of Jackie. The default interaction is usually “look” but can be cycled to other commands with a right-click. The cursor will also change to an alternate action once you have looked at an item, if one is available. Looking at the available objects is worthwhile, as Jackie usually has some cynical pre-teen comment about such things as the disgusting habits of her brother and fruit not being “real food”. The humour of these comments is carried on throughout the script, with other characters’ distinct personalities revealed through their dialogue. Later in the game, you also get the option to control Abbie, with the switch between characters performed by clicking the other’s on-screen portrait. In a nice touch, the cursors change with the character controlled, like Jackie’s normal bright round eyes becoming Abbie’s slanted black ones.
Overall, the visuals have a comic book feel, which is appropriate since the game is based on a graphic novel by Israeli author Uri Fink. The majority of the game is presented in 2.5D, and the graphics are bright, clear, and fairly detailed for comic art, complete with suitable background animations like strange creatures flying past in the magical forest. Whilst the 3D character modelling is generally done well, there are occasional clipping issues, such as bits of Abbie’s legs appearing through the front of her skirt when she walks. Characters also just generally wave their hands at objects they interact with rather than making full contact with proper animations. Perhaps the most striking visual aspect of the characters, however, is the use of bold black outlines that are pronounced even by comic book standards.
In conversation, you will usually see a close-up of the character speaking, and the faces have speaking animations with some variations according to the tone of what is being said. However, these are generic loops that don’t even make a pretence of syncing with the words spoken, even continuing past the end of speech in some cases. Subtitles are presented as speech bubbles for the appropriate character. For cutscenes, the game adopts a comic panel format, the images sliding around the screen in line with the action depicted to make it more dynamic, even including limited animation to make them more than just static presentations. These mimic the style of the original comic book and allow for exaggerated facial expressions, sharing enough of the look and colouring of the game’s background art that they don’t jar with the graphics of the playable sections.
The soundtrack is pleasant enough, generally running in fairly short loops in the background. Suitably dramatic music plays when necessary, and magical portals activated later in the game come with a soothing harp sound. There is a Pizza Morgana theme played over the closing credits, but this could really do with remixing, as the vocals are quite hard to hear. The game also comes with a reasonable selection of sound effects, from the footsteps of a character walking to the rustle of leaves in the forest. Where the game really excels in the sound department, however, is in the voice work. Claudia Christian takes the role of Abbie Positive and Robin Atkin Downes plays the Watcher, a large, robotic-looking magic policeman. Both have extensive film and TV resumes, making them comparatively big names for a small games company to use. Of course, a big name is no guarantee of a stellar performance in voice acting, but here both actors put in real effort, giving their roles proper character and feeling. Even the lesser known Mia Alon puts in a sterling performance as young Jackie. It is this delivery that allows much of the script’s humour to come to life, the delivery adding as much as the actual lines being spoken.
In one scene late in the game, Abbie and the Watcher have an extensive conversation about filling out criminal incident forms, in which both accurate answers and complete lies elicit amusing exchanges. Whilst I was pretty sure how to resolve this puzzle early on, I was happy to run through the various options for quite some time, just to get all the many variants of this particular conversation. Unfortunately, there are also occasions where you will be stuck hearing the same dialogue over and over again. Once Abbie is loose in Jackie’s house, practically every attempt to use an item you think might be useful results in the same response. In many situations, characters also have idle dialogue, which generally consists of a handful of lines repeated at regular intervals. If you attempt an interaction as one of these monologues starts, both the spoken words and the speech bubbles temporarily overlap, creating a visual and acoustic mess.
As well as the extensive dialogue puzzle, there are numerous inventory puzzles and a quite inventive challenge towards the end of the game involving word translations and item combinations. This puzzle provides further amusement as random combinations of words produce decidedly odd results. The game has two difficulty levels, which affects how much needs to be done to solve the puzzles. There is also a hint level which can be adjusted separately in the options menu. Hints are given by way of self-reflecting character monologues, so they mostly fall naturally into the game without breaking the immersion, and are delayed at lower hint levels.
At the “Easy” setting, the game could serve as an introduction to adventures for younger gamers or those without any genre experience. There is nothing unsuitable for a pre-teen audience, though children much younger than ten may not appreciate the humour as much. On “Hard” the puzzles are undoubtedly more tricky, but they are probably still not hard enough to slow down an experienced adventurer. Usually only one or two additional steps are required, and both locations and inventory are quite limited. The sojourn into the magical forest consists of only a single screen, and even in Jackie’s house you can only access the main floor and one of the upstairs rooms. The most items I ever had at one time were three (not counting words stored in inventory in the translation puzzle). For both levels, your current goal is always displayed in the top left of the screen so you never have any doubt of what you are trying to achieve.
There are a few additional features that merit mention. Pizza Morgana includes a Facebook application that allows it to make automatic status updates of your game progress. “Got to Magical Forest” will probably be somewhat different from the normal updates people post. This option has to be manually activated by players from the main menu screen, so it won’t affect the game or your Facebook account for those with no desire or ability to use it. The game also has an Autosave on exit, useful for those who forget to save, and presents a comic panel recap of the story so far on continuing or loading a saved game.
Unfortunately, I did come across a couple of bugs in the game that reflect a lack of polish. At one point, Abbie spoke in a room upstairs when the character was actually downstairs, causing her speech to appear from thin air. Later, in the translation puzzle (on Hard), conversation bubbles sometimes appeared with no actual speech when Jackie was suggesting what words to combine. There are also one or two translation errors (the game is Israeli in origin) but with the sheer volume of dialogue this is hardly unexpected.
Overall, I found Monsters & Manipulations in the Magical Forest a very enjoyable experience, and I look forward to further Pizza Morgana episodes. The central premise of a mystic pizza delivery company sets the scene for an alternative take on fantasy, and the cast do an excellent job of bringing this world to life. There are definite rough corners that could do with smoothing out, but nothing that should require great effort to resolve. Hardcore adventurers won’t find much challenge here, but if you are looking for a light humorous game, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Being an episodic game, it is relatively short, as I completed it in a couple of hours, but the single game price reflects its brief duration. Also available as part of a five-episode season directly from the developer’s website, the full cost will compare favourably with other commercial games, assuming they’re able to see the adventure through to completion. That’s always a challenge for episodic series, but if Corbomite Games manage to iron out the kinks and keep up the quality, I eagerly anticipate my next opportunity to see more of Terramagia and its denizens.