Clover: A Curious Tale review
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.
One concession the game-makers have thankfully made since the days of the Yolkfolk is to do away with lives and health bars entirely, which makes the game far more relaxing and accessible. There is still a punishment system in place for times when Dizzy may have died in the past, as almost all forbidden actions result in a trip to “Gaol” (ye olde English jail). When that happens, however, you don’t even suffer the setback of having your inventory taken away. Sam is just sent to prison, whereupon he is immediately released. This can still cause frustration at times, as some forbidden actions result in being whisked away before you’ve even realised you were doing something wrong, leaving you cursing the fact you have to traipse back to where you were. But it’s still a fair compromise and far better than having three lives before reaching game over. There are a few animals that cause damage to Sam, but the only result is that you drop the items you are currently carrying, which are easily picked right back up. A small waste of time, but nothing more than an inconvenience.
But now to the issue that could put off some adventure game purists, and the point that can easily lead to Clover being mis-classified. The game does feature several platforming sections. Some of these are basic and simple, requiring so little timing they can hardly be called platform gaming. But on a couple of rare occasions, the jumps you have to make are so precise, and the platforms to land on so narrow, it can become very annoying. I found myself getting angry at one section where it was incredibly easy to over-shoot a first jump, while the next jump required a full run-up or it would fail. Had these platforms been a little wider, the game would have been no less enjoyable yet resulted in a little less frustration. Don’t let this put you off too much, though. It is really only two occasions where the jumps become truly challenging, and failure never results in death or any other ill side-effects; you just have to start at the bottom again. Whilst clearly an irritation on these rare occasions, it’s a marked improvement over the game’s forerunners.
Graphically, Clover is most impressive, done in an art style that could really only be offered by an independent developer. The cast of characters are well drawn, so you can easily pick out the Sea Captain from the farmer, and they all look a little like taller inhabitants of South Park. Character animations are kept simple but smooth, and while inventory items aren’t always instantly recognisable – unusually appearing in little black boxes prominently floating in the upper part of the screen – one tap of the inventory button will provide labels for everything you are currently holding. The visual aspect that really stands out, however, are the watercolour hand-painted backgrounds, based on real locations from rural England. Among the locales you’ll visit are the King’s castle, woodland areas, beaches and (admittedly not a location in England) a tropical island. The beautiful paintings of rolling hills and valleys really create a nice soft background for the sprites and buildings. Another trick Binary Tweed has employed is creating a real depth of field. There are four or five backdrop planes, meaning some items or scenery will appear in front of the characters as you walk behind them. The foreground items and backgrounds scroll at slightly different speeds as well, creating a 3D-like effect.
The sound work is also superb for such a small project. An original piano score was composed and recorded for the game, and this relaxing music really complements the soothing art style and tranquil pace of the game. Full voice work was absent from the original release of Clover, but has been added to the upgraded edition of the game. Overall the voices are quite good, suitable to the characters they are depicting. Sound effects are solid, too, like the realistic twang of string when firing a bow or the squawk of a pesky seagull. These ambient sounds never really stand out or become obtrusive in any way, just capably support the action as they should.
The only other issue of note is that for such a small and technically undemanding downloadable title, loading times when saving and transitioning between different sections of the game are sometimes horribly tedious. In a game that runs so smoothly for the most part, these delays really slow down progress abruptly. The switching of scenes is infrequent, but auto-saving happens after most major puzzles are completed. In fact, this is the only way to save the game apart from getting yourself thrown in jail. Short of deliberately breaking the law, this means that you cannot take a break mid-puzzle, as you’ll lose all progress since the last auto-save. This isn’t something that makes a huge impact on the game, but at least one manual save slot would have been helpful.
Clover: A Curious Tale boldly attempts to modernise a bygone game style, and for the most part it achieves what it sets out to do. The storyline makes you think about real-world conflicts and the devious workings behind them, whilst leaving enough room for you to decide what the real truth is. The strong sound and art design are impressive, whilst some of the more old-school machinations of its older inspirations have been removed or improved to appeal to the modern player. Add in an unlockable art gallery and the purported possibility of several alternative endings (although I could only attain one, as the triggers are far from obvious) there is a lot to discover in the four or five hours it will take to play through this title. The constant backtracking, inventory limitations and other less user-friendly design issues are exasperating at times, but can be worked around with patience and some well-kept notes, and a few design improvements help to drag this aged format into the 21st century. Longtime fans of the style will enjoy the nostalgia trip, but even others may now want to take a look at what has historically been an intriguing but infuriating type of game, as this game clearly emphasises puzzles over platforming and removes much of the frustration. A Curious Tale indeed.