Edna & Harvey: The Breakout review
Those Germans sure love their adventure games, but we don’t always get the chance to love them too. It’s a sad reality that many German adventures never even get an English release. Daedalic’s Edna & Harvey: The Breakout started out that way. Released in 2008 to near-unanimous acclaim, it’s one of those titles English-speaking adventure gamers were left eyeing longingly, wondering if we’d ever get to experience the madness ourselves. Now we can, thanks to English releases in North America and Europe almost three years later. And while it’s not quite the masterpiece the enthusiastic German reviews had me hoping for, Edna & Harvey is a solid, entertaining adventure, especially if you enjoy quirky humor, bizarre characters, and old-school nostalgia.
Edna & Harvey: The Breakout started as a student project for Daedalic cofounder Jan Müller-Michaelis (also known as “Poki”). It’s the absurd and sometimes morbid tale of Edna, a “loony” locked up in an asylum, and her talking stuffed rabbit, Harvey. As the game opens, Edna is in a small padded cell with no apparent means of escape. Except this is an adventure game—of course there’s a way out! As the title suggests, first Edna must break out of the locked room, then out of the asylum to make her way back to her childhood home and piece together the events that led to this sad state of affairs. Edna’s memory has been wiped by electroshock treatments, so she and the player are starting at square one. Harvey, however, has some distant memories of the past, and he does his best to help the flustered patient figure out how they got into this mess. Though he admits he’s a projection of Edna’s subconscious, the terrycloth rabbit acts more as her foil, speculating with her on the situations they find themselves in, bantering with her as they cope with life in the asylum, and sometimes acting as the devil on her shoulder, goading her into bad behavior.
Though Harvey’s main role is that of faithful sidekick (he spends most of the game dangling from Edna’s hand by his ears), he does have a handy ability to “tempomorph” the two of them to the past. During these scenes, Edna can relive key childhood events and pick up some useful skills. Some of the most interesting story revelations emerge during these few flashbacks, and my biggest regret is that Edna & Harvey didn’t include more opportunities to peek into Edna’s past. These scenes, which take place ten years earlier, show a very different Edna: an innocent, hyperactive child with a propensity for getting herself into hot water with authority figures (no thanks to the tattling Alfred, the obnoxious boy next door). Nostalgic music and Edna’s own eager curiosity help set the tone for these scenes, providing a sharp contrast to her bleak existence in the asylum. I enjoyed these sequences the most and wish the game had many more of them; with only three spread far apart across ten or so hours of play, tempomorphing felt more like a tease than a fully realized element of Edna & Harvey’s gameplay.
Control is purely point-and-click, using a very retro-styled verb-based interface reminiscent of LucasArts’ early games. Clicking anywhere without first selecting a verb from the bottom of the screen simply causes Edna to walk to that spot. The other options are “look at,” “pick up,” “talk to,” and “use,” and you’ll make ample use of all four during play. That’s because Edna & Harvey has a ridiculous amount of interaction crammed in, with a unique response for almost every possible action you can think of (most of which are purely optional). It’s a long-lost concept in a day and age when most adventure games have been streamlined with smart cursors and a bare minimum of hotspots, but its execution is entirely old-school as well. To make use of the verbs, you must move the cursor down to the one you want and click to “equip” it, then click on the hotspot you want to interact with. It’s a cumbersome process that makes the game far more clunky than necessary, and while I’m all for added interactivity, I wish Edna & Harvey had some shortcuts (such as the ability to scroll through verbs by right-clicking) to make the verb system more friendly. To make matters worse, the verb buttons don’t always respond; maybe a quarter of the time you have repeat the whole sequence.
There is also a large inventory with 35 blank slots. While I never filled up all of them, at times I was pretty close, as the asylum yields a surprising selection of useful and potentially dangerous items that Edna can pocket. In a nice touch, some of these can be used as destructive instruments around the asylum. Use the ballpoint pen on furniture and Edna will scribble all over it; snip the potted plants in the hallways with pinking shears and you’ll give the leaves serrated edges. These minute acts of vandalism are perfectly in line with Edna’s mischievous attitude and though they don’t advance the story one iota, they seem like the right thing to do in a place where the protagonist is locked up against her will.
The interface is slightly different during flashbacks, with a much smaller inventory and the added ability to switch between Edna and Harvey as playable characters. While Harvey is unable to manipulate the environment, he can walk around and gather topics to discuss with Edna, and he can go places she can’t, like out a small window in a basement they’ve been locked inside. The same verbs are available to Edna as in the present, but her inventory and the areas accessible to her are very limited. The main purpose of these scenes is to glean information about how a tragedy years ago relates to Edna’s current predicament, and to learn a few helpful tricks such as unscrewing screws without any tools. Such skills are retained when Edna returns to the present and further her goal of escaping from the asylum.
Most puzzles use inventory, dialogue, or a combination of the two. The very first one involves getting Edna out of her padded cell. The door is locked from the outside, of course, but you can converse with the guard who’s posted there. Selecting certain dialogue options leads to slight changes in Edna’s surroundings. Once these changes are made, an item inside the cell can be modified, then used, to find a means of escape. This is a fairly typical puzzle set-up, though the gameplay gets more complicated, sometimes requiring you to pay close attention to multiple environmental details as you go along.
The pace drags a bit at the beginning, when Edna has only a few rooms at her disposal, but as she collects more items, encounters more people, and gains access to more of the asylum, it all starts to come into focus—especially once she happens upon a particular inmate locked in solitary confinement. He lays out a plan for their escape: Edna must make a copy of the master key that’s carried by one of the guards, get them a functioning vehicle, and find a way through the main gate. Several steps are required to achieve each of these objectives, and with each step the puzzles get trickier. For the most part, puzzles are somewhat logical (at least, they adhere to the logic of a world populated by unstable people) but especially near the end, the game doesn’t always give adequate context for the player to figure out the puzzles without outside assistance. Apparently the game’s North American publisher, Viva Media, saw this coming, because a walkthrough is included on the disc. Those playing the UK version from Lace Mamba are on your own, because the only in-game assistance of any sort is a hotspot highlighter to reveal the numerous interactive items on any given screen.
The game has a striking, if rudimentary, cartoon art style you’re more apt to find in a daily comic strip. While it comes across as very simplistic, it supports the overall premise, reinforcing Edna’s childlike view of the world and suggesting that her development has been arrested in the ten years since the events that led her to this point. I especially liked the outdoor scenes: in the past, Edna’s backyard is sunny and brightly colored, while in the present, an orange, sunset glow is cast over the asylum’s yard. Later on, desolate nighttime scenes help ramp up the tension as Edna finally approaches the truth. Indoors, along with the requisite padded cells, common rooms, and lavatories, the asylum has a number of rooms you wouldn’t necessarily expect, including a bar (or maybe the loonies are just pretending it’s a bar) and a creepy shrine that’s kept under lock and key. Animations are sparse, with sound effects often used instead to convey that an action has occurred. For example, when Edna cuts something with her scissors, she stands still while a snipping noise plays in the background. Looping jazz music accentuates the scenes, bolstering the asylum’s overall madcap feel while also enhancing the storyline’s emotional undercurrent. The developers deserve special props for the atmosphere in the game’s suspenseful final scenes—the artwork and music combined to flood me with sadness, dread, and even fear that I didn’t expect from a cartoon like Edna & Harvey.
As you might expect in an institution where eccentric people are locked up without much to keep them occupied, Edna & Harvey has a lot of talking. Though there are some gems buried within its massive script, much of the dialogue is inconsequential and not particularly funny. This is an area where the game suffers from its insane amount of interactivity; because it’s not consistently funny and there are so many different things you can try, many players will never stumble upon the best lines. I definitely laughed out loud while playing, but when I think back to the points I enjoyed most, certain wacky and unexpected situations come to mind more clearly than any specific jokes. Some lines are clearly absurd for absurdity’s sake (these are asylum patients, after all), but they often left me scratching my head. That being said, it is a good translation that generally sounds natural, though I did notice a few issues of subtitles not matching up with spoken lines and characters referred to by different names at different points. There are also some instances where a hotspot refers to an item by the wrong name, which is particularly annoying when you’re on the lookout for a very specific item (such as the clay needed to make a mold, which is erroneously labeled as a “pile of dirt”).
Fortunately the voice acting is very good, particularly Edna and Harvey themselves, so the extensive commentary is at least a pleasure to listen to. Edna’s voice is dreamy with a good balance of innocence and deviance. She reminds me of Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies, minus the British accent. When she’s doing something crafty, like tucking herself inside a cabinet to hide from a guard, she lets out a gleeful giggle that conveys so much about her personality—in spite of her current circumstances, she’s still a mischievous little girl at heart. At first I didn’t expect to like her. The character model is not very flattering, what with her bulging, unfocused eyes, unkempt hair, and white robe that’s open in the back to reveal her underwear. But as I learned about Edna’s past and got to know her personality I grew fond of her, which is as much a testament to the voice acting as it is to the writing.
As Edna explores the asylum, she encounters a number of oddball characters including a man in a giant bee costume whose ears produce an unseemly amount of wax, a man in a tinfoil hat who yearns to channel electricity, and a pair of “Siamese twins”—one black, one white—sharing an oversized sweater. Some of the inmates have bit parts, while others become key players in Edna’s daring escape. Even the game’s creator Poki plays a role as a participant in group therapy for game developers, where he’s bemoaning his own design choices. This sort of fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness is often too clever for its own good in games, but in the asylum, somehow it works.
In general, the supporting characters feel more like generic crazy people than individuals with life stories and souls, and as such they didn’t resonate with me to the same extent as Edna and Harvey. Anything beyond the main storyline of Edna trying to uncover her past is pretty superficial, which is disappointing in a game of this scope, and the long conversations Edna can initiate with her fellow inmates often seem pointless. I undoubtedly missed opportunities for interaction my first time through, but without feeling connected to the asylum’s inhabitants, I’m not all that motivated to go back and keep poking around. It doesn’t help that traveling around the asylum is a bit of a chore. You often have to pass through several rooms to get where you want to go, and must endure certain drawn-out conversations and transitions over and over. A quick travel map would have vastly improved the experience.
While Edna & Harvey is stable overall, a few technical quirks detracted from my enjoyment. I like to play without subtitles, but the game didn’t remember this setting upon restart, so at the beginning of each playing session I had to go into the options menu to turn subtitles off again. Saving and loading are sluggish and the game crashed on me a few times. Only nine save slots are supplied, and although each saved game is identified by a thumbnail of the current location, there’s no date/time stamp or opportunity to type in a title. In such a long game, overwriting earlier saves with later ones is inevitable, and since so much of the game takes place in the same areas of the asylum, I quickly lost track of which save was the most current.
Edna & Harvey: The Breakout is very much a mixed bag. Its distinctive art style is marred by a problematic interface. Its massive wealth of interactivity is hindered by a handful of vastly unfair puzzles. Its imaginative setting is dragged down by long, often tedious dialogues. Still, it’s a game I’m glad I played, and that’s mainly because the underlying story about a girl who’s lost her way is so touching. You might think from the premise that Edna & Harvey is a comedy. I’d counter that it’s a tragedy, because no matter what Edna does, either in the past or the present, she can’t escape the circumstances that have made her a prisoner. This isn’t the story I expected Edna & Harvey to tell, and I do love when a game surprises me.