The Jolly Gang’s Misadventures in Africa review
The Jolly Gang is a misnamed triumvirate of three odd-looking cartoon characters who inhabit a lopsided, garish world populated with some rather unpleasant folks. Moxxie, the leader, is a fledgling tabloid journalist and carries the bulk of the trio’s two games - Spooky Adventure and its sequel, Misadventures in Africa, on her non-existent shoulders, while her friends, computer nerd Shaggy and big guy Boar, pitch in with inconsequential cameos. Developed by Alawar Games, these lite point-and-click adventures use straightforward inventory-based quests and simple standalone puzzles to prop up a flimsy story that spans both games. The excursions are short, taking about two hours each, and revolve largely around opening doors and containers, causing Moxxie to eventually whine, "the word ‘key’ has been driving me crazy lately, please don't say it again!"
For a supposedly “jolly gang”, the script is rarely humorous, and the proceedings aren’t particularly funny – or even spooky. The series starts with Moxxie's first few days on the job at a cheesy tabloid, during which she investigates a ghost haunting a psychic, a vampire at a cemetery, and crop circles in a nearby village. In actuality, though, these encounters of the weird kind are relegated to comic-book-style, single-screen cutscenes as Moxxie caustically slogs through menial tasks for her pushy boss, his saucy secretary, noisy co-passengers on a train, and opportunistic villagers. The mysterious events are then summarily dismissed with a ridiculous explanation, but during her final assignment in an abandoned mansion, Moxxie stumbles onto clues that indicate hidden treasure... in Africa. This leads directly into the sequel, starting off from the same scene as the end of Spooky Adventure in a demonstration of fantastic (and much-needed) continuity.
Misadventures in Africa has a meatier story and involves not only an intercontinental treasure hunt, but also some unknown assailants hot on the trail of the Jolly Gang. It starts with a lengthy sequence of investigating the mansion in greater detail and then extracting plane fare out of an inebriated uncle, but the action picks up once Moxxie and Boar land in Namibia and are inexplicably arrested by the local cops. Escaping the police station flings them out of the frying pan into the fire as the thugs capture them instead. From that point on it's a bona-fide adventure till the secret of the treasure is revealed, though this episode too hangs up short of closing the case, setting the base for a third installment.
The strictly linear gameplay is almost identical in both cases, and differs from the majority of casual adventures in excluding random hidden object searches. The bulk of Moxxie's tasks, always listed onscreen, are mundane inventory quests like collecting her belongings before an outing, searching for ordinary items strangely kept locked in safes and such, preparing snacks for her pals, and trying to get past uncooperative people. Each chapter represents a distinct location comprising 2-4 slideshow-style screens that you can navigate between. The scenes are generously cluttered with stuff, most of which serve as window-dressing, though some can be added to inventory and used with hotspots. Moxxie rarely carries more than three or four objects at a time, and items are restricted to their chapters. A journal is sorely missed, however, as you have to manually jot down several codes, and any important content revealed in conversation is lost forever if skipped over. This is particularly exasperating during cutscenes, where pressing the forward button skips the entire segment instead of the slow-moving dialogues.
Each game has about twenty standalone puzzles like jigsaws, rotators, sliders, image- and pattern-matching games, and easy mouse-control challenges like navigating mazes and swatting cockroaches. The minigames in Spooky Adventure are facile to the point of being juvenile, but the sequel, along with adding a skip puzzle option, upgrades the lot with clever little twists and slightly greater difficulty. For example, image-matching uses related objects instead of two identical ones, while redirecting a light beam using crystals adds the condition of getting their colours correct as well. That said, Spooky Adventure gets credit for having the more intuitive inventory quests and better quality feedback from Moxxie, who stays perched at the bottom left corner of the screen and lets you know if you're on the right track. Misadventures in Africa is littered with irrational and poorly clued tasks, especially during the Namibian section, where Moxxie's activities border on senseless as you try to guess the absurd solutions, the strain of which is eased somewhat by the extremely limited scope of the game in terms of playable area and collectable objects.
Both episodes start with brief in-game tutorials and have two modes of difficulty which can be toggled at any time. The easy mode lists all objects to be collected from a particular scene, which makes the game a cakewalk, while the expert level in Spooky Adventure removes not only the object list, but also the labels of all interactive objects, forcing you to stab at just about everything with your cursor in the hope of hitting something useful. This frustration is fixed in the sequel, which introduces another improvement as well – the needless scoring mechanism of the first game, which awarded points for objects collected based on the economy of clicks, is replaced with a more rewarding system of earning titles by performing various additional tasks throughout the game, such as collecting all the keys, petting a certain number of animals, or eating all the fruit in Africa, which extends the player's involvement beyond the essential quests. Both games cause an annoying delay after adding an item to inventory before allowing you to click on another, and Misadventures in Africa also demands considerable gratuitous clicking, be it hammering in nails or wiping dirt off surfaces.
The Jolly Gang series bends over backwards to merit its 'quirky' tag, and there surely exists an audience which will find its intentionally 'poorly-sketched' graphics, unattractive cartoon characters, green cats, purple cupboards and lurid blue wallpapers appealing, maybe even endearing. The screens of Misadventures in Africa are better drawn with greater detailing, but there's no excuse for the constant repetition of particular objects (books, paintings, containers, tools, decorations) between scenes, and even the two episodes! While a portrait of a Japanese girl features prominently in both Shaggy's study and a witch's homestead, the psychic's parrot from the first game also appears in a bird-based minigame and is seen napping in a dollhouse in the sequel, besides peeking out of many cartons and drawers. Several items are mislabelled, like a beer can as a cigarette, and speech bubbles persist onscreen until they are clicked away. Neither game scales to fullscreen at higher resolutions, and are bordered by black strips on the left and right sides.
Animation is sparse and restricted to incessantly repeated minor transitions like tapping feet and fingers, swinging pendulums and light fittings, and roaches scurrying about. Some events are impressive, like water coming out of taps and mixing chemicals to yield cheerfully drastic side effects, and a few are realistic, such as a vacuum cleaner being plugged in before use and taps having to be shut after use, but these are exceptions rather than the norm. Speech animation for the characters is a nightmare: each mechanically repeats a three-step mouth motion that has nothing to do with what's actually being said.
The production shortcuts continue with the background music, as each game alternately loops two tunes – one frantically upbeat guitar-led track and a second more circumspect, tense piece that plays during the supposedly creepy scenes. Ambient sound effects like clanging bells, creaking chains, trilling alarm clocks and screeching monkeys are harsh and jarring, and together with the music create a cacophony which makes the volume control an unusually valuable feature. Spooky Adventure is fully voiced, though that's not necessarily an asset considering Moxxie's robotic chipmunk chatter, which emphasises all the wrong parts of sentences and is punctuated by a crazed little laugh when she snickers at her own one-liners. The supporting cast fares better, especially Moxxie's boss and his insufferable secretary, but it's overall a stressful experience when taken in conjunction with their incongruous mouth movements. Misadventures in Africa offloads part of the problem by disposing with the voice acting, though it's still saddled with the awkward speech animation.
The over-the-top, chaotic design of the Jolly Gang series so far is definitely not for everyone – you'll either love it for its quirkiness or hate it for the same reason. The disappointment, even in the former case, arises from the lack of depth in almost every area, as the superficial focus is on menial tasks instead of the mysteries, and the “gang” is strictly limited to one playable character. Neither game ever explores the group dynamics beyond establishing Moxxie as the super-competent superstar. The quests are individually trivial and run-of-the-mill, with difficulty posed artificially through poor explanation or improbable solutions, while the production quality is woefully subpar versus its casual adventure contemporaries. Zany is fine; shabby is not. Though the series excludes hidden object searches and is thus a 'true' adventure rather than a much-maligned 'hybrid', the over-abbreviated game world, one-track linearity, short playing time (particularly in the easy mode) and simplistic story arc that remains unnecessarily unresolved even after two episodes, combine to squander its unconventional potential, ending up as nothing more than an eccentric little distraction instead.
Note: Score and summary for The Jolly Gang's Spooky Adventure available separately.
The Jolly Gang's Misadventures in Africa fixes some of its predecessor's design flaws and considerably improves the puzzles, but still disappoints with its often-ambiguous gameplay and subpar production quality.