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.Continued on the next page...