In a strange underwater lab, feted sports journo Dan Murray anxiously watches a Frankenstein-like experiment while his buddy Dr. Fly – part man, part fly, all buzz – hovers noisily above him, ready to zap the monster to life... But wait, what's that, Mr. Narrator? False start, you say? Alright, let's try again: this time at the Horror Movie Awards in Hollywood, where the night is young, the stars are out and Dan's in attendance, ensconced in the best seat in the house – a swanky car in the parking lot. He isn't alone; with him are his trusty hip flask and his motormouth colleague from The Quill, celeb reporter/aspiring investigative journalist/eccentric blonde vixen, Liz Allaire. It’s a match made a little short of heaven if their rapidfire bickering is any indication ("Jerk!" she snaps; "Lunatic!" he retorts), but soon they spy Big Albert – a monstrous mash-up of a bodybuilder's body and a scientist's brain – sneaking into movie mogul William FitzRandolph's mansion through an open window. And thus, the game is afoot.
Pendulo Studios certainly isn’t a stranger to weirdness, as the Spanish developer has been honing its craft since the “runaway” success of their first major release a decade ago. Two sequels and over a million sales later, Pendulo decided to give Brian and Gina some much-deserved rest, and started brainstorming on the next big step for the genre. Ironically, they looked to the past for inspiration and found it in their own Hollywood Monsters. Rather than create a sequel or simply remake their never-localised 1997 adventure, Pendulo decided to rework the original concept into an all-new storyline instead. The end result is The Next BIG Thing... or is it? Let's find out!
The first thing that jumps out is the sheer American-ness of the production, from the stars-and-stripes logo to its setting in the heart of 1940s Hollywood to the lavish script that's an unabashed tribute to American pop culture. The second is Pendulo's trademark comic-style art of mildly exaggerated cartoons, displaying a vibrant, visually engaging world with a personality of its own. By all appearances, Tinseltown has never had it better, riding the crest of the horror movie business in which real monsters are the stars. But it's a world that thrives on make-believe after all, so it's no surprise that all's not really well underneath the glitz in LaLa Land. The winds of change are blowing in, with rumours of family movies, musicals and romcoms on the way. MKO Pictures, the big-daddy of horror movie studios, is spearheading this change towards greener pastures, and the myriad monsters – genuine and fake, alien and mutant, friendly and mean – are suitably distraught by the looming loss of their livelihoods.
With whispers of a monster rebellion buzzing around the grapevine, Liz is driven by her indefatigable fervor to bag a scoop in discovering what covert operation Big Albert is carrying out in FitzRandolph's office. This isn't an easy task, as it involves giving a despondent alien a flashy new future, scamming a weather-beaten robotic sentry, and most problematically, finding a way to motivate her apathetic cohort to cooperate. But that's just the start of an increasingly bizarre adventure. When Liz’s initial investigation collides with an unexpected twist of fate, it's up to a hungover Dan to make sense out of nothing at all. The plot soon thickens into a mish-mash of mind-blowing (sometimes literally) revelations, and as Dan chases the story's real villains with the help of his monster pals, an endeavour that includes getting creative with pain-inducing novelties and playing dress-up as a fictitious Pharaoh, Liz must fight her own demons in a couple of lengthy sequences spent inside her head.
In contrast to its wide-reaching storyline, the gameplay in The Next BIG Thing is fairly streamlined. There are three difficulty modes to choose from at the start of the game: easy has in-game hints and hotspot highlights, medium only the latter, and difficult offers neither. Most screens have no more than four or five (and often fewer) hotspots, including red herrings, and the desired look and use/talk actions can be cycled by right-clicking. Some yield items that are added to the inventory while others are usable with items you’ve collected. Objects are usually described with lengthy anecdotes, and inventory items sometimes reveal further details concealed within them. Clicking the hotspot highlight icon from the rollout menu at the top of the screen reveals all interactive areas, but like every good thing in life, this privilege – and the hints system if you're taking it easy – aren't unlimited: the control panel has gauges for both, which deplete as the features are used, though you’d have a tough time using them up completely. Conversations have multiple options, but it doesn't matter how you proceed. Usually all topics appear during the first chat with a character in a chapter, then sentences within topics are added based on subsequent events, making it necessary to rehash the points repeatedly in a unique, but nevertheless confounding, form of backtracking.
The game is separated into six distinct chapters defined by location and/or the active character. Each chapter has five or six interactive screens, and a similar number of “checkpoints” based on its key objective, explained briefly by the narrator. These checkpoints keep you on track in the absence of a journal or quest list, but given the game's simplistic goals and overall linearity, they’re more a fun feature than a real requirement. There are two types of puzzles: the crazy easy and the plain crazy, and the game relies on the wackiness of the puzzles to throw players off rather than volume of activity. But wackiness for its own sake can be (and in several cases here is) counterproductive. Outside-the-box thinking? Yes, please! But try-everything-with-everything-else-because-it's-nowhere-in-the-zipcode-of-the-box thinking? Fun occasionally, not so much when it reduces a significant portion of the game to playing hotspot mix-and-match. Even Dan admits apologetically after one such exercise, "I know it made no sense, but I really wanted to (solve the task that way)." as does Liz, before creating something called “foolishness” out of two ridiculously random items, exclaiming, "I don't know why, I have a feeling this will turn out to be nonsense..."
The puzzles are almost entirely inventory-based, sometimes combining collected items together before using them elsewhere. The 21 inventory slots are rarely even one-third full despite carrying useless things like Liz's ID and Dan's hat, along with items that have already served their purpose, which are cleared only when the chapter changes. The objects are suitably bizarre and include a soul extractor, a fake chupacabra claw and a tom-tom, though the usual suspects – rope, spray paint and voodoo doll – also play their parts. Objects sometimes appear unannounced when screens are revisited after certain events, so paying attention while retracing your steps is important. There are only a handful of standalone puzzles, several of which involve dialogue choices. None are excessively challenging, but one involving hieroglyph syntax deduction is delightfully tricky, while another featuring musical tunes is painfully so. The logic of most puzzles, including some inventory challenges, are explained after they are solved, perhaps for the benefit of those who succeeded by trial-and-error.
Like the Runaway series, The Next BIG Thing is led by a beautiful babe and a dashing dude – in this case frenemies Liz and Dan. Liz spent her childhood in a gilded household with numerous nannies and constant reminders from her mother to maintain decorum since she's an Allaire, and mentions several times with pride that her good manners are the result of her stint at a finishing school. She's smug about her slim frame and sense of sartorial elegance, and takes herself and her work very seriously. She's also totally neurotic, and her irrational fear of crocodiles, inability to count to four, and disturbing tendency to carry out lengthy conversations with herself merge with a loud clang that can keep your ears ringing for a while till you get used to her hyperactivity. But she's also compassionate and sincere, intelligent and helpful, and has a clear value system of right and wrong. Over the course of the game she conquers not only her own fears, but also your heart with her joie de vivre.Continued on the next page...