Adventure Gamers Awards
I really enjoyed Runaway: A Road Adventure when it hit in 2003. The game had a lot going for it: striking cartoon graphics, slick cinematic sequences, memorable characters, a fun "dorky guy saves hot girl from dangerous thugs during a cross-country road trip" storyline. Sure, it had its faults, including some frustrating puzzles and pixel hunting scenarios, but at a time when "classic" LucasArts-style cartoon adventures simply weren't being made, Runaway was like an oasis in the desert. Then came Runaway: Dream of the Turtle in 2007, a much-anticipated sequel that threw costars Brian Basco and Gina Timmins into a new adventure set in Hawaii. I tried to like it, I really did, but this time around the game just didn't do it for me. Disappointed, I quietly uninstalled Dream of the Turtle, unfinished, and slipped it onto a high shelf where I wouldn't have to see it looking down at me with those sad, puppy-dog eyes.
Fortunately, the latest installment, A Twist of Fate, has restored my original faith in the series. Those who passionately hated both Runaway games and everything they stand for... well, you probably won't like this one either. But Runaway fans are in luck, because A Twist of Fate is a very satisfying finale. And don't worry if you're a total newbie--this may be the third game in a trilogy, but A Twist of Fate is a fine place to start.
In spite of Dream of the Turtle's abrupt "To be continued..." conclusion, at first glance A Twist of Fate seems to be entirely unrelated. The game opens with Brian on trial in New York City for a murder committed back on Mala Island, the tropical setting of the previous game. We see the tail end of his trial, with a decidedly more thug-like incarnation of the Brian Basco we know and (for the most part) love insisting on the witness stand that he doesn't remember killing the victim. With this admission, Brian is sent to the Happy Dale Sanatorium, where his competency will be assessed. Throughout this opening cinematic, these flashbacks are interspersed with moments in the present, as Brian's girlfriend, Gina Timmins, receives a disturbing phone call in the middle of the night. There's been an accident at Happy Dale, and Brian Basco is... dead?
Sure seems that way, as the game's first chapter begins at the young physicist's funeral. A heavy stone slab is lowered over Brian's grave and Gina is left alone to mourn. Then her cell phone rings, and she opens it to take a call from... Brian?! That's right, our hero has cleverly staged his own death as part of a dramatic escape from the sanatorium, and playing as Gina, your first task is to get him out of the ground and back up on terra firma.
There are six chapters in all, with the focus shifting between Brian and Gina--and between the past and the present--as they piece together what happened on Mala Island during the period of time after Dream of the Turtle's cliffhanger ending. As unintuitive as it may seem in light of this premise, it is completely unnecessary to have played that game to understand A Twist of Fate. You may have a hard time getting your bearings in the beginning, but that's simply because of how the story is being told, and those who did play the second game will be in much the same boat since so much has changed. Don't sweat it. Everything starts to gel soon enough, when the game flashes back to Brian's final day at the asylum, and before long you'll fall into step with the in medias res narrative.
Without giving too much away, the overarching plot involves proving that Brian didn't commit murder and clearing his name. In the present, this requires investigating certain unresolved aspects of the case to figure out who actually did it; in flashbacks, it means breaking Brian out of the asylum before his psychiatrist sends him back to court. It's not until the fifth chapter that the two story threads converge and links to the game's predecessor become apparent, and even then, the dots are never fully connected--at least, not in the way those who played Dream of the Turtle will be expecting. A Twist of Fate provides new players with a tidy recap of the important bits from the last game, then goes on to fill in the blanks that led to Brian's trial. The story sort of, kind of makes sense, but it's so disconnected from the expectations set by Dream of the Turtle's ending that I have to wonder if the designers scrapped a planned third installment and started over completely. In connecting these two games, Pendulo is asking players to take a huge leap of faith, and it's the weakest point in an otherwise compelling plot. Luckily, A Twist of Fate recovers from this shaky revelation to deliver a solid and exciting ending, so the bizarre twist doesn't ruin the playing experience.
A Twist of Fate's interface has had several upgrades, the first of which becomes apparent immediately upon launching the game, when you're prompted to set up a player profile. This is where your saves and in-game settings are stored, and it can even be password protected if you're the suspicious type. From the game's options menu, you can save or load, adjust the volume, toggle subtitles on/off, view the credits, and quit. These options are represented by large icons instead of text, probably because the game is later going to be released for Wii and DS. The volume controls don't allow you to you turn up voices independently from the music, which is problematic in a few scenes where the voice gets drowned out. Graphics controls are noticeably absent, although a file named RATOF-config.exe, which installs along with the game, can be used to change the screen resolution.
Like the previous Runaway games, A Twist of Fate uses a 2.5D perspective to create a quirky cartoon world akin to the hand-painted adventure games of old, with some impressive cinematics mixed in that show off the action nicely. As usual, Pendulo's artists have designed gorgeous cartoon backgrounds, with locales ranging from a sprawling cemetery to a secluded mountain cottage to the bleak interior of the asylum (complete with scary turn-of-the-century torture equipment) to the gritty New York City streets. During regular gameplay, however, camera cuts are a rarity and the scene's perspective rarely changes. This feels especially static in long dialogue sequences, during which the characters stand in place and communicate without noticeable gestures or facial expressions to punch up their lines. (Gina deciding which of three items to pick up by reciting "Eeny, meeny, miney, moe" doesn't exactly have the desired effect when she does it with her arms straight down at her sides.) This lack of movement keeps A Twist of Fate from truly achieving the dynamic, "interactive cartoon" feel it strives for.
This stagnancy is alleviated somewhat by the generous distribution of animated cutscenes throughout the game. Each chapter opens and closes with an extended cinematic, and shorter movies play after you solve a major puzzle or to illustrate important plot points. Most of these are well-integrated, but a few of them gave me the creepy feeling that the video I was seeing was not part of the same world I'd been playing in moments before, either because the perspective and camera movement were so different than the game delivered otherwise, or because the sprites just didn't seem to mesh with the environment. These examples are rare, though; in general, Pendulo has done a great job here as well.
A Twist of Fate's character design is similarly strong. Brian is appropriately world-weary with tired bags under his eyes and his close-cropped hair covered by a stocking cap, while Gina assumes the role of a trendy New Yorker with her chic hairdo, black turtleneck, and big sunglasses. (Don't worry, boys; her signature long hair reappears in a later chapter.) Memorable members of the supporting cast include a sadistic psychiatric nurse armed with a taser, an orderly who's crazy about Elvis, several well-caricatured mental patients, and a sword-wielding henchman named Wasabi. (No relation to Sushi Douglas.) The game's stylish look is underscored by its pop-influenced soundtrack, with vocalist Vera Dominguez once again providing lyrics on several tracks.
During play, a menu provides options to access the hint system, highlight all hotspots on the screen, open the inventory, review your progress so far, and adjust game options. These choices are represented by large icons that appear when you move your cursor to the top of the screen and are otherwise hidden; they're also mapped to the keyboard for convenience. Occasionally I ran into problems with the icons getting in the way when I was trying to access hotspots near the top of the screen, but generally this wasn't a problem. The cursor usually defaults to "look" when placed over a hotspot. Right-clicking can switch it to a "use" or "talk" icon, with descriptive text appearing at the bottom of the screen to clue you into what the result might be. Sometimes this text is used to make a joke--for example, "Check if it's true that the psychiatric diet makes you lose weight" when you attempt to use a scale at the Happy Dale Sanatorium--providing a payoff for players who comb the environment for interactive areas.
Previous Runaway adventures have been heavily criticized for illogical puzzles and pixel hunts, not to mention the characters' stubborn refusal to pick up any item they deem unnecessary at the moment. In A Twist of Fate, these problems are largely resolved. Brian and Gina now grudgingly take any item that's not nailed down (although at times they gripe that they don't understand why you're making them do so), and while there are still some tiny hotspots that blend almost imperceptibly into the backgrounds, the new hotspot locator makes them easy to find. The illogical puzzles have been scaled way back, and when you do get stuck, the hint system helps pick up the slack. It isn't especially context sensitive--more than once, I found myself unsure why I was being given a particular hint, not understanding where the game was leading me--but it generally gets the job done, eliminating the frustration that has plagued the series thus far. Plus, the hint system's set-up is comedy gold, providing one of the game's best laughs. I won't ruin the surprise here, but even players who abhor asking for help should make sure to use it at least once.
Even with these helpful additions, the gameplay still has a smattering of unfair moments, including some red herrings that made me curse the designers for sending me down the wrong path. Some players may like red herrings for ramping up the game's difficulty, but I'd rather not waste time on a puzzle solution that I have every reason to think is going to work, only to eventually learn that the game has led me astray. This happened too often to have been accidental and detracted from my enjoyment a bit.
In spite of these few annoyances, A Twist of Fate's narrative structure and gameplay work well together, with each chapter providing a unique atmosphere and set of challenges depending on what's happening. The storytelling feels more developed than in the previous installments, and I especially liked the surprises in terms of character control and narrative structure. (Without spoiling those moments, I'll just say that occasionally you get to control a character other than Brian or Gina or to initiate unexpected conversations that keep the game interesting.) My favorite parts were playing as Brian in the asylum, where the unstable patients he's locked up with provide fodder for some imaginative gameplay. In one creative example, Brian's roommate, a contortionist mime named Marcelo, gives Brian imaginary items that are then used to solve puzzles. I also liked that Pendulo's writers poked fun at Brian's situation and didn't make it entirely clear whether he deserved to be locked up or not. While at Happy Dale, Brian's personality straddles a blurry line between cynical realism and all-out nuttiness, and for much of the game I found myself questioning his sanity.
The puzzles are mostly inventory-based, with Brian or Gina finding, using, and manipulating items to get past obstacles. Runaway has a reputation for obscure solutions and unintuitive inventory combinations, but I found A Twist of Fate's puzzles to be fairly straightforward. When I did get stuck, it was more often because the game didn't provide enough context to understand what I was supposed to be trying next than because the puzzle solutions were too convoluted to figure out on my own. And thanks to the hint system, I was never too stuck to go on.
Other puzzles involve using dialogue to make two characters work together. In one example, Gina must feed answers to someone over the telephone; in another, Brian prompts an unstable mental patient to provide him with information. The dialogue puzzles run the gamut from satisfying to annoying, depending on how convoluted the goal is and how much extraneous dialogue you have to weave through before you discover the right answer. Since it's a comedy, I'd love to be able to say that A Twist of Fate's dialogue is hilarious and worth listening to no matter what, but the sad truth is that it's often not. There are a few chuckles here and there, but most of the time I was anxious for the characters to quit gabbing so I could go back to playing. The lines tend to be long, plus when you select an option from a dialogue tree, the character delivers it word for word, making conversation a tedious and repetitive affair. I wish the writers were as creative with the dialogue options as they were with some of the hotspot descriptions; this was a missed opportunity for them to crank up the comedy.
A Twist of Fate's humor is at its best when the writers poke fun at the game itself and the tradition that spawned it. There are several cheeky references to Gina's past as an exotic dancer, as well as quips about the previous games' unbelievable storylines. Sometimes Brian and Gina even acknowledge that they're characters in an adventure game and speak directly to the player, and there are several hints that if Brian actually has lost his mind, it's due to the ridiculous adventure game conventions he's been forced to put up with. Done too much, such meta-humor could start to get gimmicky, but A Twist of Fate includes just enough of it to stay funny without feeling overdone.
Pendulo is a Spanish studio, and on the whole A Twist of Fate's English translation is very good. Brian, Gina, and the game's other recurring characters have been recast, which some die-hard Runaway fans may object to, but no complaints here. The voice direction can be iffy at times, but the new actors do great work and fit well in their roles. I did get annoyed by the numerous instances where a character is supposedly reading aloud from a piece of paper or a poster that's clearly visible, but the actor's line is different than what's pictured. There are also occasional audio bugs that make characters sound like they're shouting through an echoing tunnel. These issues have no bearing on the gameplay, but they're sloppy in a game that otherwise feels slick and polished, and I wish they had been resolved before shipping.
Just like the last two, this newest Runaway game is sure to polarize its audience, for the simple reason that it never truly achieves what it strives to be--a classic "golden age" cartoon adventure game. I struggled with this conflict myself as I decided how to score A Twist of Fate. The Runaway fan in me wants to shout its praises from the rooftops, but my critical reviewer side is forcing me to reconsider the facts. Yes, A Twist of Fate is better than its predecessors in several ways. You can tell Pendulo put a lot of careful thought into its storyline, its design, and its interface. The hint system and hotspot finder make the game a breeze to play, the unusual narrative structure keeps the story interesting, and the distinct visual style makes it one of the best-looking adventure games released in this decade. It's a decent length, too, with each chapter taking me a couple of hours to play and the entire experience spanning an extremely satisfying three-day weekend. But the game does have problems--there are some bugs, the writing isn't always funny, the story gets a bit weird near the end, the characters stand still while they talk to each other, and at times some of the puzzles feel unfair.
Okay, so Runaway: A Twist of Fate is far from perfect, but you know what? I truly enjoyed playing it, and though this has been advertised as the final chapter of their adventures together, I hope it isn't the last we'll see of Brian and Gina.