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Adventure Gamers Awards
The opening premise of any adventure is important, as it tends to set the tone for the whole game to follow. Whether the protagonist wants to become a mighty pirate, solve a murder, or find the three long-lost treasures of the kingdom, these goals become the driving force, pushing the hero or heroine into the journey and often into unexpected conflicts. For Alicia Van Volish, the heroine of Gato Salvaje’s episodic AR-K series, the initial goal is to figure out exactly who she had sex with the night before. The opening scene of the debut episode, Sex, Lies and Class Work, features Alicia wrapped in an orange blanket in her trashed apartment wondering just what happened last night, with only scattered memories of a nightclub and a missing bracelet to guide her through her hangover. The plot thickens eventually, sort of, but it’s somewhat challenging to solve even the most basic of Alicia’s problems with an interface that’s often in another language and logic that’s either been poorly translated to the point of obscurity or simply thrown out the window.
Alicia introduces herself early in the game as a journalism student who was destined to be a police officer until an illegal artifact of unknown origin mysteriously found itself in her bag. Despite never having seen this object before, Alicia’s career as an aspiring detective was over before it began, and she’s spent much of her life since then wondering what this object was and where it came from. Alicia lives in a seemingly utopian society on what appears to be a space station, but the game is very vague about the setting, at least in this initial episode. After getting dressed and collecting her dog, Ambar, Alicia goes to class only to discover that her professor, a comically vindictive jerk named Reitherman, has used her tardiness as an excuse to withhold any usable journalism assignments from her and gleefully plans to fail her. Alicia must find another way to get an assignment for her class, as well as mix up a concoction to waken her goth roommate Nuno so he can shed some light on her indiscretions the night before.
The interface of AR-K is pretty standard fare for the experienced adventurer. Every scene has hotspots which can be clicked on with the left mouse button to interact with or examine. There’s no hotspot finder and some of the items you need to find are small, which leads to moments of frustration. Right-clicking brings up a translucent backpack that contains your inventory, from which items can be combined or selected for use directly in the environment. Even Alicia’s dog can be used as an inventory item to get past certain obstacles.
Conversations are where things start to get a little confusing. While basic dialogues are simple (click on what you want Alicia to say), asking characters about topics you’ve uncovered is a little trickier. The game opens up a little box with handwritten topics, which is a nice touch. Or it would be if they weren’t written in Spanish instead of English. This isn’t a game breaker, as it’s easy to figure out what the topic was by clicking on it and listening to the dialogue, but it does make for a more confusing time. It’s hard to remember if you’ve asked a character about a particular topic if you can’t see a clear list of the topics themselves in a language you can read.
If you play the game, consider this review your instructions on how the interface works. You may need them: the game’s “how to play” interface instructions are also in Spanish. It’s baffling even for a small indie studio to spend the time to completely translate the script and even get English voiceovers for every line but then not fix something as basic as the instructions for the game or the dialogue window. It almost feels like they ran out of time and rushed the translation out the door. Again, none of this will stop you from playing, but it gives the whole presentation a sloppy feel. This is exacerbated by numerous typos throughout the game. Words often lack spaces between them and you’ll run into terms like “paeper” and “wathever” with alarming frequency. The voice actors often use the wrong intonation for words as well, revealing that English is likely not their first language or that they were poorly directed.
(Edit: Since time of writing, the game has been updated with a newer version that includes full translation.)
When it comes to the puzzles, there are such leaps of logic that one has to wonder if this is also due to poor translation rather than bad puzzle design. In order to wake Nuno from his slumber, Alicia needs to find four ingredients for a “corpse reviver” cocktail, one of which is described as “something to clean him out”. At one point she finds an energy drink that describes itself as something that “cleans your arteries, cleans germs”. This seems a clear hint that it is just the ingredient Alicia is looking for, which makes it more than a little frustrating when it turns out that it isn’t. The same energy drink is described as being able to “unblock pipes”. Would you assume from this description that it’s capable of causing a loud explosion? Because that’s exactly what it does, and the game is unsolvable without deducing this. Elsewhere, breaking a cleaning robot requires mixing two items together and making the robot attempt to clean them up. There is nothing in the description of either item that even hints that they may cause damage to a machine that is specifically designed to clean various substances.
And then some of the solutions themselves seem a little… off, as Alicia’s morality is somewhat questionable at times. One puzzle requires vandalizing a coffee machine in order to get coffee rather than, y’know, paying for it. Another puzzle requires feeding a disgusting item to her dog in order to make poor Ambar throw up (don’t ask why this is necessary). And, in the most disturbing incident of all, one puzzle has you using Ambar to startle a suicidal person considering jumping off a ledge, which very plainly has potentially disastrous consequences. This is not a joke. Through her dialogue, Alicia actually seems like a caring and friendly individual, but some of the actions the game requires her to perform make her seem sociopathic and opportunistic.
The rest of the characters in general are fun, but fall a little flat in terms of depth. The local diner owner, Frankie, is an easygoing talking bull who rationalizes his burger-flipping profession by explaining that he was an executioner on his home planet. And William Wallruce (a walrus, naturally) has some good moments as the dry receptionist at the university. But Reitherman is so single-mindedly villainous that it’s hard to see where his hatred of Alicia really stems from. The handful of other characters introduced seem to have almost no personality at all, most notably Nuno, who is so bland when you finally rouse him that it’s hard to remember why you went through all that trouble in order to do so. The nature of Alicia’s relationship with these people is also ambiguous. She loves her dog and seems to have camaraderie with Frankie, but doesn’t seem particularly close to anyone else in the story.
Where the characters seem to come alive a little more is in the visuals. AR-K is a very pretty game. The animal and human characters all have a cartoony quality about them that’s really quite charming. It’s simple computer animation and some environments look a little too clean and uniform, but this works right into the setting of a space age utopia. The cinematics use the same visual style to great effect, and characters like Alicia and Reitherman have a handful of expressive facial animations, though Alicia tends to walk a bit stiffly when moving around the game world itself.
The voice acting is serviceable, but the lack of character depth and the occasional incorrect emphasis caused me to read ahead through the subtitles and skip a fair amount of spoken dialogue after a while. Alicia herself has a very proper English accent, which lends her an air of sophistication that clashes somewhat with her extremely tight pants and shirt with no bra and a DD bust that jiggles maybe a little more than it should. I guess in an episode called Sex, Lies and Class Work there’s an obligation to deliver a little eye candy, but it seems gratuitous at times, especially in a character we’re supposed to identify with.
By the end of the episode we’re left with more questions than answers, which makes a certain amount of sense as there are four more episodes planned in the series. Even so, the whole game feels more like a prologue than a first chapter. Other than Alicia’s past encounter with the mysterious artifact, her character isn’t really fleshed out any, and this is covered almost entirely during the introduction in the first few minutes of the game. Even the mysterious man she slept with isn’t revealed until the end of the episode, and then we only see him for a line or two of dialogue.
The amount of actual plot that occurs in the two hours or so the game takes to complete can be summed up easily in one or two paragraphs, and that isn’t a very firm basis for an exciting episodic story that aims to be filled with danger and intrigue. The music of the game seems to drive this banality home, as it only plays in a handful of locations and always sounds like the same one or two tracks of elevator music. Perhaps this AR-K debut simply reflects the growing pains of a new episodic series, but hopefully Gato Salvaje will significantly up the ante in the next episode, or at least fully translate it this time.