Discworld II review
Well, here we go with another review by some tinpot hack who thinks he knows what he’s talking about. And let’s face it: you’re only going to read the pros and cons and then skip to the last paragraph anyway, as that’s what you always do. Might as well cut your losses and just scan the star ratings, really, or why bother even playing it at all?
So begins my review in homage to the humour of Discworld II, a game so in love with the sound of its own voice it puts George Clooney to shame. If you’re a fan of self-deprecating, dry British wit, you’ll get it by the bucketful in this retro 2D classic. That isn’t to its detriment though, as the game plays almost like a swan song to the golden age of adventure gaming, harking back to many of its bygone brethren much like a TV clip show celebrating the series’ best parts whilst acknowledging its shortcomings.
For those too young to remember when you could not only buy adventure games in shops but also see them propping up the tops of video games charts, here’s a little scene setting for you: Discworld II (subtitled Missing Presumed…!? or Mortality Bytes! depending on where you live) landed in 1996 at the tail end of the adventure gaming craze as a follow-up to the popular first Discworld title. At the time, its presentation really pushed the genre forward in terms of style and graphics, which helped set it apart from its contemporaries (preceding The Curse of Monkey Island by a few months). This was a beast of a game to run, as it made use of extremely lavish cartoon backdrops and complex animations.
Once again set on the Discworld of author Terry Pratchett’s imagination, the sequel’s humour and all-star cast definitely garnered it plenty of attention in its day, but the game stuck to the same format as its point-and-click predecessor. You play as Rincewind, the less-than-stellar wizard familiar to players of the original game, who must travel the Disc in search of an absent Death. You may think this sounds like metaphysical claptrap, but you’d only be half-right, as Death is a physical character on the Discworld. Not only that, but he’s decided he’s long overdue for a holiday and subsequently gone missing, leading to all sorts of awkward suicide attempts and zombie misdemeanours. Rincewind’s journey takes him all over the Disc -- a vast place not too dissimilar to our own world except flat and piloted by a giant space turtle -- from the grime of the city of Ankh-Morpork to the continent of Xxxx (aka Fourecks, the Discworld’s answer to Australia) and everywhere in between.
To say the story is shallow would be to do it a disservice, but it is a tad thin and can often feel like you’re moving from one scenario to another with very little narrative driving you through. The game is split up into four acts with an epilogue to round everything off, but each act involves little more than a new shopping list of items to find and is virtually self-contained, so it feels like a series of short mini-adventures cobbled together with a slim overarching plot. In the beginning you’ll be running round the city preparing for a ritual to contact Death, but by the second act you’ll be running round looking for items to make a movie.
The original Discworld was much maligned for its difficulty and obscure puzzling, something that Discworld II mercifully improves on. Though the obscurity is still very much there, all puzzles are inventory-based and despite the solutions sounding like rather odd combinations out of context, they work really rather well in the bizarre logic of the Discworld. Examples include using a rooster to fool a vampire into thinking it's morning, manipulating a flamingo and a hammerhead shark to play croquet and capturing a living smell with a clever trap.
You’ll find plenty of items in your travels, and your inventory will quickly fill up with seemingly random objects. Even so, I’d actually argue that the developers pushed the challenge level a little too far in the other direction, as the game is considerably easier than its predecessor and can be finished in one sitting without very much help. You also won’t find much gameplay variety, as there are no breaks from the inventory style of puzzles – it’s merely shopping list after shopping list, something the humorous dialogue likes to remind you of time and time again.
Discworld II is voiced by some fairly big UK comedy talent consisting of Eric Idle as Rincewind, Rob Brydon, Nigel Planer and Kate Robbins, who for the most part really bring the bizarre cast of characters to life. You'll find all sorts of oddballs in this adventure, with a few from the last game cropping up too: there’s Casanunda the dwarf lothario with a stepladder so he can reach (I'll leave "what?" to your imagination), Gimlet and his penchant for mouse burgers, and my favourite, Uri Djeller and his strenuous spoons. Unfortunately, as all the characters are voiced by the same four people, the game isn't without a sense of déjà vu. The nicest thing about the performances, however, is the reverence the actors seem to hold for the source material. There’s a real glee in the cadence of their voices when talking about A’tuin the space turtle, Ankh-Morpork or the Unseen University.
Fans of Pratchett’s books will find they are more than adequately catered to, with cameos from such favourites as Granny Weatherwax, Albert and the Patrician. However, no knowledge of the Discworld backstory is required to enjoy the game, as any necessary information is explained by the disembodied narrator. It’s here that we stumble full pelt into what makes this game so much fun to play, as the dialogue is what really makes Discworld II shine. Its humour is of the Fawlty Towers/Monty Python school of comedy, the script relying heavily on its leading man genuinely being from the Python troupe, making generous use of various gags from that show throughout. British humour may be an acquired taste and can come across as manic and sarcastic to others, but for fans of such comedy this game is an acerbic delight.
The game is also curiously precognisant of its position in adventure gaming history, often lampooning the formula that it sticks so rigidly to. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a line that isn’t poking fun at or mildly ribbing the genre. In the opening cinematic alone, there are countless sideways nods about graphics budgets being increased, the decline in popularity of the genre and the tried and tested method of inventory puzzles as a plot device. At times it can wear a little thin, but for the most part it’s an enjoyable parody. The humour extends to the music too, with a fantastic rendition of a newly written song entitled “That’s Death” (sung to the tune of “That’s Life”). The rest of the music sets the scene nicely for the different locations, with snake dances for the deserts and bell trees for magical locations, but there’s nothing else that stands out like this track.
Conversations work in a similar way to the previous game, with a set of icons denoting the dialogue choices available; specific topics only becoming available when you’re able to talk about the subject with that particular character. Many are optional, which leaves you free to engage in humorous dialogue should you wish or to simply focus on the icons that will help you proceed. It does, however, leave you stumped at times as to what Rincewind will say when you click on a particular icon. Thankfully, as there are no dead ends or deaths in the game, it makes little difference if you say the wrong thing.
Discworld II’s other crowning glory is of course its graphics. I remember them being compared favourably to Dragon's Lair, and they set the trend for a few more adventures to come. The backgrounds are hand-drawn and heavily stylised, giving the sequel a more vibrant and ‘wonky’ look than that of its predecessor. The streets of Ankh-Morpork have never looked so green, the deserts of Djelibeybi so sandy and Death’s house so existential. As a whole the look works; The Curse of Monkey Island later managed to do it a bit more elegantly, and the garish colours can sometimes jar against each other, but for its time this game was a real stunner.
If I have a complaint about the visuals, it’s that the character animation often seems quite ugly next to the lavish and detailed backdrops. Frequently Rincewind seems like he’s floating across a scene as his feet barely connect with the ground, and the animation often seems jerky or as if it’s missing frames. It doesn’t break the experience, but it does detract from what is otherwise a very pleasant presentation. One can't be too harsh though, as it's important to note how well the game has aged; it is still one of the best looking 2D games even now.
As a curio of a bygone era, Discworld II itself holds up pretty well. Its humour and art design cover a number of flaws, like some run-of-the-mill puzzle design and shallow plotting, though it’s never a particularly 'deep' experience. You also have to appreciate the type of humour the series has to offer, as there's no let up throughout. As a fan myself, there was a lot for me to like and I in no way felt disappointed, but I'd never recommend it over the infinitely more accomplished Discworld Noir. If you’re worried about getting such an old game to run, the good news is that it is fully playable through ScummVM. So if you're looking for an offbeat comic romp, dust off your old disc and give it a whirl, as you could certainly do a lot worse...
... or don't; see if I care.
An enjoyable and visually impressive second romp for Rincewind on the Discworld, but shallow plotting and drab puzzle design hold it back from reaching its full potential.