Clover: A Curious Tale review

The Good:
  • Excellent hand-painted backgrounds
  • Logical puzzles
  • Lovely piano score
  • Nostalgic yet updated reproduction of a retro game style
The Bad:
  • Constant backtracking
  • Cumbersome inventory management
  • A couple of jumping sections can be stupidly precise
  • Long loading times
Our Verdict: This kind of side-scrolling adventure is an acquired taste certainly, and the gameplay can become tedious at times, but Clover is a welcome nostalgic throwback to its retro roots.
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Harking back to when PC gaming was keyboard-controlled and puzzle-based games were all the rage, Clover: a Curious Tale feels like stepping back in time. Upon starting this indie adventure from Binary Tweed, you’ll recognize instantly that the game borrows rather heavily from the old Dizzy series of action/adventures, an influence the developers readily admit. If you played any Dizzy games back in the day, Clover will make you feel nostalgic for its inventory-based puzzles, and reminisce about the now-abandoned side-scrolling presentation and method of control. For those who are new to the format, it will take some getting used to, but you will be drawn in by the beautifully realised art style and the wonderful music right away. Regardless of your previous experience, however, you will still be aggravated at times by some of the old niggles carried over from its classic inspiration.

Released previously as simply Clover, this title actually began life as a downloadable game on Xbox Live. The since-subtitled A Curious Tale not only marks Clover’s transition to PC, it has lovingly received a “special edition” style makeover in the process. Extra puzzles, reworked animations and even multiple endings have been added since the initial release, though I didn’t personally play the original for comparison.

Set in a fictional medieval town, the game follows a young boy named Sam, who awakens one day to find there has been a shipwreck and that his mother is presumed dead. There is little exposition at the start of the tale, but Sam sets out to investigate the rather suspicious details regarding this disaster. Soon you begin to discover a political conspiracy that has gripped two feuding lands, and it is your job to find the truth and discover what really happened to that ship. Along the way, you will meet many characters – some friendly, some not – and through conversations and certain objects you find, you’ll gradually begin to piece together the events. The political undertones to the story are very interesting, and there are several optional items that will expand your knowledge of what is really going on in the Kingdom of Sanha.

As with most side-scrolling games, navigation is handled entirely with the keyboard (or gamepad). Only the arrow or WASD keys and a couple others are required for the majority of the game, which is perfectly suited to the simple style and never feels too awkward or difficult. The bulk of the gameplay consists of managing your minute inventory: you can only hold two items at once at the start of the game, and that total never increases dramatically. Using the correct item in the proper place is the order of the day, but you’ll constantly need to drop one item to replace with another if you want to carry something new. Most of the puzzles are pretty logical, and will not stump players for more than a few minutes. A pickaxe, for example, is used for exactly what you would imagine, as is a crowbar. Usually just finding a particular item is enough to trigger your thoughts about where to go in order to make use of it. There are some less intuitive exceptions, but even they don’t require a huge leap of imagination.

Unfortunately, herein lies the main complaint I have with this game. You will find yourself going back and forth from one location to another a LOT. Backtracking is horribly pervasive in this title, and most puzzles will be at least six or seven expansive screens away from the item needed for its solution – and that is when you are lucky, because the inventory system further exacerbates this issue. You might drop a pair of scissors in a fairly mundane place, thinking you have finished with them, in order to carry something else. Twenty minutes later, over on the other side of the game world, you may suddenly realise you need the scissors again. Worse still, you can’t remember where you left them. Oh no!

This choice was obviously intended to mirror earlier games of this type, and since items can be dropped at any time you can manage where you leave them, but it is still not an ideal system. Along with the unavoidable backtracking, sometimes you may wind up dropping an object in an unfortunate spot, like being obscured behind some long grass where it’s easy to overlook later. When playing, I would advise having a notepad handy to keep track of where you leave things to get the most out of this game and minimise frustration. It sounds simple to remember everything, but as the possibilities add up with more distance between them, it really helps. At least if you have to backtrack for five minutes, you want to be sure you are heading to the right place.

Another problem with this inventory system is that sometimes you can misplace an item in a rather hard-to-reach location. On one such occasion, I pressed the drop button accidentally when falling, and the item landed on an outcrop on my way down. Something similar happened a couple of other times as well, and whilst not game-ending, it did mean I had to spend quite some time climbing back to a point where I could drop back down to reacquire my item. It isn’t a major issue, but one that certainly caused some irritation. The game provides no map screen or quick-travel option to get from one place to another except in one instance between two specific locations. This again stays true to the old-school roots of the title, but perhaps with some of the other user-friendly updates that have been included in this modern-day release, a way to quickly cover larger distances would have made the experience a lot less tedious.

When not solving puzzles, you can talk with the townsfolk, ranging from your next-door neighbour and best friend to the always-present Royal Guards and even the King himself. These conversations are always one-sided – Sam is the classic mute hero – and there are no topical options to choose from. Dialogue is context-driven, so depending on what you have achieved so far or which items you are currently carrying, the responses will differ accordingly. Presenting items to certain characters to elicit the desired response is a common puzzle, and most of these are well-clued and logical.

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Adventure games by Binary Tweed

Clover: A Curious Tale  2009

Set in a medieval world ruled by a monarchy with a welfare state, Clover tells the story of Sam, an adolescent teenager recently orphaned after his single-parent mother died in a surprise attack on the proud nation of Sanha.