Review for Pajama Sam in ‘No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside’
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Among the younger generation of adventure gamers, there are two words that will bring fond memories back for many: Humongous Entertainment. Co-founded in 1992 by Ron Gilbert, the company grew a reputation for being a staple of children’s entertainment, offering a variety of point-and-click games dubbed as ‘junior adventures’ for 3-10 year olds. One of Humongous’ original and imaginative franchises was Pajama Sam, whose gaming credentials span four adventure titles and several other puzzle games. Originally launched in 1996, the first game in the adventure series has recently returned to the spotlight with the Nintendo Wii re-release of Pajama Sam in ‘No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside’. Though this review focuses exclusively on the PC version, the game has lost none of its original charm, holding up as well today as it did when it was new.
Sam is an average kid, if you look past his turquoise skin and hair. The opening cutscene shows him lying in bed reading his favourite comic book, the mighty Pajama Man. The story is cut short when Sam’s mum opens the door, reminding him that tonight there will be no lights left on like usual. She flicks the switch, and Sam instantly becomes a trembling mess. Determined to overcome his nerves, however, he decides to capture Darkness, the personified version of the dark, just like his fictional superhero does. To achieve this, Sam plans to disguise himself, sneak up on Darkness, then shine light onto him and suck him into containment. But first he’ll have to locate his foe in an unfamiliar world full of bizarre surprises and various obstacles. It’s a plot based on a fear that many children can identify with, and Sam becomes a positive role model in bravely standing up to it.
Before venturing to seek out his opponent, Sam needs to collect three key belongings from his messy room: a mask, Portable Bad Guy Containment Unit (a lunchbox) and torch. At this point, players are allowed to move the mouse around, clicking on objects for Sam to check if anything is hidden beneath them. This scene acts as a tutorial stage, introducing the simplistic controls of ‘one click does all’. When all of Sam’s superhero items have been found they are stored in the inventory, opened by hovering the cursor towards the bottom of the screen. It’s a very accessible, clean interface which works well and avoids any clunkiness or frustration.
Finally kitted up with his trusty trio, Pajama Sam marches into the cupboard, which transports him to the Land of Darkness, a place surrounded by trees and bushes against the backdrop of a starry night sky. Sports equipment and clothes (also found in Sam’s room) are dispersed within the vegetation, hinting at a link between Sam’s imagination and this strange new world. Following a cobbled path, Sam is soon stopped in his tracks by a group of anthropomorphised trees. They introduce themselves as custom checkers, and swiftly confiscate all of Sam’s belongings and scatter them throughout the land. It’s now Sam’s task to recover his stolen items so he can defeat Darkness once and for all.
The trees are just a sample of the unusual characters that will make an appearance. Sam is the only human (if you can call him that) in this world, an innocent and friendly young boy who is keen to assist others. Along the way he’ll encounter a toaster, a coat stand and a fridge, to name but a few of the everyday items that have come to life. The most memorable are Otto the boat and King the mine cart, both of whom you’ll help out with their troubles. They act as modes of transport, and thus you’ll spend more time connecting with them than anyone else. It’s a shame other minor characters don’t play a bigger role, because everyone has a unique personality (such as the carrot trying to rescue his friends from being used in a salad and the over-worked water well) and I’d have liked to interact more with this colourfully assorted cast.
A key element for any children’s adventure game is voice acting – if the performances aren’t engaging, it’s likely that interest will be lost quickly. Thankfully, every moment you spend with these characters is a delight thanks to the brilliant and varied voices. Ranging from Sam’s high and chirpy voice to Otto’s hesitant and slightly wary style to the quiz show door’s enthusiastic zeal, each actor injects a highly distinctive personality into their respective roles. The music complements this perfectly, with upbeat tunes keeping the mood light while mixing in the occasional chime to add an unearthly air. Music even takes part in the game itself, with furniture dancing in secret and kitchen appliances singing about their functions.
There aren’t any selectable dialogue options when in conversation, as clicking on characters usually only produces a couple of different responses at most, but what is provided doesn’t lack in quality. The writing was done by Dave Grossman, currently with Telltale Games and another LucasArts veteran whose credits include highly acclaimed titles like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island, and here he managed to create clever, at times even sophisticated humour that will work on different levels for both children and adults. Sam is full of childlike remarks, such as asking a grandfather clock if he had cars or cable TV in his time, and dishes out slightly educational tips on various topics. Then there are blatantly hilarious moments such as the “gratuitous educational content" message flashing when Otto drags on in his explanation of a geyser, or "bureaucrats" being a selectable option to a quiz question about the name of the giant lizards who used to roam the earth.
Visually, No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside wouldn’t look out of place as a cartoon on television, with a charming 2D art style where many things are slightly askew and out of proportion. The Land of Darkness is bathed in deep blues and purples, creating an air of mystery and wonder without feeling scary, contrasted beautifully against the fiery reds of the rocky mines. There’s a real sense of scale and discovery, with Darkness’ treehouse looming as the most prominent thing in view, its thick trunk and huts atop of branches only hinting at what’s inside. To its left is a mine going deep into the lava-filled underground, while the right path takes you on a river journey snaking through caves and jungle. The locations are all within close proximity, but these three distinguishable areas feel surprisingly vast, and kids will have an exciting time exploring them all.
Sam himself runs and bounces around the screen, filling it up with his energetic personality, every action cleverly matched with a 'swoosh', 'crash', and any other collection of onomatopoeic sounds you'd come across in a comic book. Even when there's no activity the scene never feels static; if it isn't a star twinkling in the sky or water rippling, Sam will cross his arms and tap his foot impatiently, waiting for you to move. You can also click on countless environmental hotspots to activate the amusing, often unrelated animations that accompany them, such as condiments emerging from a traffic light or a rock opening up to reveal a plane within.
Items that help Sam along can be found lying around and placed into inventory storage, which never grows very big. The game’s puzzles are carefully paced to ensure that players always have a clear goal and know exactly what the next task is, and it’ll be up to them to figure out the solution rather than the problem. Examples include having to find an oil can to remove some rust or proving to Otto the boat that wood can float. There’s no obscurity or frustration, just basic logic, and the challenges never seem too hard or too easy. Some puzzles extend beyond the inventory, with highlights such as partaking in a quiz show and selecting the correct magic formula from a spell book to allow you to sneak around certain places in Darkness’ house.
Amidst all of this praise, the one big setback might be the length of the game. Obviously I’m not the target audience anymore, but I completed one playthrough in less than two hours, making sure to try out everything I could. For younger children, length will vary depending on their age and aptitude for puzzles, but even they may find it too short. Some features have been included to stretch out the longevity, at least, and they do a fair job at it. Sam’s loose socks have been scattered throughout the world to provide an ongoing scavenger hunt, and this will present a nice side challenge, though not a very difficult one. There’s also an oddly addicting top-down minigame reminiscent of Snake, where you control a mine cart, picking up jewels that trail behind you while avoiding crashing into the walls or your ever-extending self. However, it doesn't make much sense that it can only be accessed by taking Sam down a certain path in the mines. It would have been more convenient to allow access through a menu at any time. Finally, there is also a toaster who hosts games of “Cheese and Crackers” (known as noughts and crosses or tic-tac-toe to the rest of us), but apart from varying grid sizes, this task offers nothing unique and won’t hold any player’s attention for very long, especially thanks to the awful artificial intelligence of your opponent.
A hallmark of Humongous games are the varying paths when you begin a new game, and No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside is no exception, rotating between different options for where Sam's items are hidden. You could find his torch in a mine, his lunchbox in a well and his mask on a carrot. Or you might not, instead venturing to a shed or a river to retrieve them. New characters will also make an appearance depending on which path is given. It's completely randomised, and this makes it all the more fun to play through again. Although some key puzzles remain the same each time, another hour of all-new content could probably be squeezed out to truly see everything on offer. Sadly, the system isn't as well integrated as it could have been. Even if a certain location doesn't have any relevance for advancing your particular plot path, it'll still be accessible. Some serve as a neat bonus anyway, such as a room full of instruments that will play songs for you, but others will just confuse as to their purpose (or lack thereof).
If you're looking for an adventure for your younger kids, you should get Pajama Sam in ‘No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside’ without hesitation. Whether you pick up the new Wii version (called Pajama Sam in Don't Fear the Dark) or the older PC original, don’t let its age fool you, as this remains a rather timeless classic. The fantasy world Sam finds himself exploring is beautiful and full of funny characters in an adventure wrapped neatly with clever puzzles and multiple plot paths for repeat visits to the Land of Darkness. And when all is said and done, today's junior adventurers might just find out that Darkness isn’t as unfriendly as he first seems after all.