Of all the surprises Simon the Sorcerer has pulled out of his hat over the years, perhaps the biggest is simply his ability to stick around. As a cheeky British apprentice in the early ‘90s, Simon gained worldwide acclaim for this first two adventures, but the teen’s awkward adolescence was then stunted by ill-fated dabbling in the spells of early 3D, which abused eyeballs everywhere and threatened to kill the series for good. Like many a child actor, for years it seemed that Simon might disappear forever, until suddenly he re-emerged on the scene in Chaos Happens. He hadn’t grown up much after all that time, but he did mellow a bit, return to 2D, and magically morph into an American during his absence. The transition produced some uneven results, but there were signs of promise that the franchise still had a few more tricks in store.
And that’s exactly where his fifth adventure begins in Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who’d Even Want Contact? Simon has settled down for a peaceful life running Calypso’s Magic Shoppe with his girlfriend Alix, still making mischief but finally free of evil wizards and abhorrently civilized doppelgängers. Unluckily for him, that list doesn’t include aliens, and sure enough, little green men toting big, honking laser guns soon invade, intent on taking him prisoner. With a little player ingenuity, not to mention an extendable finger, a lucky bag, and some powder of peacefulness, the crafty Simon manages to escape. But Alix is abducted, the town is besieged, and it’s up to Simon to save both the day and his own butt once again, though not necessarily in that order.
The first thing you’ll notice as you guide Simon around the town square is how gorgeous the game is, complete with scrolling screens and full widescreen support. The same whimsical style remains, but gone is the slick CGI-looking technical presentation of the last game, cleverly replaced here by cel-shaded cartoons, making it feel more like a true series descendent. The background detail is impressive, from the tightly-cobbled stone walkway to slatted rooftops to roaming ivy climbing the walls, and the character models are equally attractive. They’re perhaps a bit angular and heavy on shadows during close-ups, but they appear perfectly natural in the environments and are fluidly animated.
In fact, animation is perhaps the high point of Simon 5. There is no skimping in this oft-shortchanged area, as every little action results in a polished onscreen enactment, and each location has ambient effects that nicely bring the environments to life. If Simon can’t reach something, you’ll see him valiantly leap several times until he grabs it, before smoothly stuffing it into his hat even as an alien spacecraft patrolling overhead casts its shadowy spectre over the smoking wreckage it’s caused. To round out the visual treat, a generous helping of cinematics are also layered in using the same game engine for seamless integration. Whether it’s Simon diving into a disgusting mound of garbage with pursuers hot on his tail, a teleport beam that would do the Enterprise proud, or our hero getting hoofed in the nether regions (hey, I said it looks good, not that it wasn’t painful to watch), there’s always some new cutscene ready to spice things up graphically. There are even a few “thought bubble” animations added just for laughs.
Unfortunately, that may be just about the only time you will laugh. Apart from the odd laudable sight gag, Simon 5 just isn’t very funny. It’s not anti-funny in that “groan at a bad punch line” sort of way, but the dialogue just never really hits any high comedic notes. Instead, it generally settles for lighthearted silliness, producing goofy grins rather than thigh-slapping hilarity. The game pokes occasional fun at itself, and it includes nods to many pop culture references, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Men in Black, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Shrek, though these are more for background colour than actual yuks. There’s an inherent playful charm in this approach, but you’ll need to lower your expectations accordingly. As Simon himself acknowledges at one point, “Okay, okay, I’ve been funnier before." He’s right.
Unlike some of the earlier games, Simon is pretty mild-mannered here. He’s quick with the quip, but usually not insulting towards others. Optional dialogue choices do let you ramp up the smart-alec quotient if you want, but even the most barbed repartee still comes across as fairly harmless banter. The same can’t be said of Red Riding Hood, an absolutely atrocious returnee from the last game. The “fanatic feministic snotty brat” is back in full venom, still spouting unprovoked women’s lib hostilities at length for no apparent reason. The concept is fine, but here it’s beaten into the ground, entirely gratuitous, and isn’t ever amusing. The fact that it comes from what looks like a ten year old girl with the voice of a raspy-throated adult, even dropping in an F-bomb that somehow escaped the censors (which isn’t true of the bleeped-out subtitles), isn’t endearing, it’s obnoxious. The developers seem to think she’s humourous. They’re wrong.
None of the other characters are nearly as annoying as Red Riding Hood, thank goodness, although few are very memorable. Still absent from the glory days are the likes of Sordid, Runt, and the woodworms, but back once again is the sultry Goldilocks, still up to her thieving ways but drastically underused, the Swampling, still making barf-inducing (literally) soup and desperate for friends, and the hard-drinking Wolf, who gets off the sauce long enough to expand his role here as a playable character for a short time. Also back (for those who can remember that long ago) from Simon 2 is a genie now acting as a Freudian psychoanalyst, though his role here is fairly understated. New additions include the likes of a flamboyantly gay ship captain, a race of secret agent mole people, and of course the alien Nihonians, who are more than simple tourists in this particular adventure.
Much to the chagrin of original Simon fans, he’s still American here and played by the same voice actor as the last game. It’s not the dealbreaker for me that it is for some, though it’s a curious choice since Chaos Happens never even got a North American release. Catering to an audience who may not even play the games seems to defy logic, though this isn’t the only time logic is abandoned in Simon 5. In any case, the lead voiceover is acceptable, if clearly performed by non-native speaker, sounding rather stilted and formal with odd intonation at times. Other performances exhibit the same general quality and the same minor problems, along with some poor direction resulting in unnatural inflections or emphases. The whiny, pre-pubescent Swampling is as irritating as ever, but I think by now that’s understood to be intentional. A mechanical parrot is almost as annoying, however, so perhaps it’s time to rethink the “so bad it’s supposed to be good” theory. I was about to slam one particular voice for being the biggest offender of all, but I can’t bring myself to come down too hard on a sock puppet. The best roles are a computerized voice, a depressed battle robot, and the aliens themselves, perhaps not surprisingly, as any vocal peculiarities are integral to the delivery.Continued on the next page...