The Ballads of Reemus chronicle the adventures of Reemus the Exterminator, a man living in a fantasy realm accompanied by his best friend Liam, who happens to be a small purple bear. Reemus spends his days hunting the kingdom’s worst bugs, which are often quite a bit bigger than our real-world equivalents but hardly the stuff of legend. Brother to Raymus, Dragon Slayer and all-round hero, Reemus longs for the day when he will gain recognition for his own deeds and step out of his brother’s overly large shadow. But Reemus is anything but your usual hero, and When the Bed Bites is far from your usual adventure game. His story proves to be a charming but very surreal experience, so if you’re looking for something completely different and are up for some unique puzzles with plenty of challenge and delightful cartoon visuals, you’ve come to the right place.
This isn’t the first game in ClickShake Games’ indie Reemus series, as a set of five free browser-based mini-adventures are also available online. The Several Journeys of Reemus are short but challenging games set in the same kingdom, each consisting of a few screens per episode. They’re certainly worth your time, though you can jump right into Ballads without any prior knowledge. Like its freeware counterparts, it’s possible to play the new game directly in your browser on any platform that utilizes a Flash plugin (which excludes iPhone users for now), but this game can also be downloaded directly to your desktop should you wish to play offline. The three other biggest improvements in Ballads over Several Journeys are a full screen mode, voiceovers for every character, and of course a much longer, richer adventure.
In his first full commercial quest, after performing one of his usual exterminations Reemus retires to the local tavern to perform a ballad recounting his tales of exterminating heroism (a ballad being the best way to boost one’s reputation when most of the population is illiterate). Unfortunately for Reemus, instead of reveling in his career-crowning achievement, the bar patrons find that Reemus’s recklessness has left them unable to buy their usual pints. Appeasing the angry mob should be a simple task, but this is Reemus we’re talking about here. What transpires instead is a series of misadventures in which Reemus attempts to do something heroic, only to find that his solution (often conjured up in haste) causes more problems than it solves, forcing yet another quest even more extreme than the last to undo the foibles of his previous solution.
Their travels lead Reemus and his purple pal through diverse locations such as the cursed swamp of Apnea, Fire Ant Hill, a giant termite nest, and finally back to his own bug-infested town of Fredricus. These environments have a distinctive visual style that merges a Salvador Dali-like surrealism with a cartoon fantasy theme. The artwork is wonderful, and the vivid visuals are smoothly presented, with minimal slowdowns even when playing online. Whilst there’s nothing here that reaches the heights of Disney or Pixar, the design is vibrant, colourful and fun to look at, hand-drawn in a style you’d expect from a highly polished comic book or graphic novel.
Perhaps the game’s greatest visual asset is its bizarre and colourful wildlife, including a monstrous snout creature, breakfast trees and ice cream cacti, short-tempered hyper wasps, and lazy man-sized bed bugs. Each insect and character is not only beautifully crafted but perfectly suited to its own natural environment, all of which are equally warped with creative flair. The cinematics scattered throughout are also well done, presenting a fully animated array of creatures such as the menacing Fire Ant Queen and her minions, plus two bird convicts who offer you a lift to a faraway swamp in exchange for something they need. But even the regular in-game animations are generously supplied by the likes of the local townsfolk, who are filled to the brim with personality and continually lust for beer.
The audio in Ballads of Reemus is perhaps its weakest point. Whilst certainly not terrible, much of the soundtrack consists of repetitive loops which are a little (intentionally) offbeat, evoking a slightly esoteric sound that offers very little variety. Fortunately, the acting is excellent, with each character’s voice matching the drawn character perfectly. Oswald the Baker and Ludzo the Butcher are my personal favorites, with Oswald sounding like a medieval version of Chef from South Park and Ludzo growling like he should be a barbarian rather than a butcher (though from the look of his bloody shop, there may not be much difference). The only downside is the occasional scratchiness of some of the recordings, which may be due to the compression needed to play over the internet, but otherwise the voiceovers are brilliant. There is less emphasis on sound effects, but those present are solid as well, offering a variety of chimes, rings, chirps and squishes for the many unusual objects and characters.
Controls are very straightforward and intuitive, using just the left mouse button to handle everything. To interact with a hotspot you simply click on it, either for a description or to pick it up and add it to inventory. Stored objects appear as icons at the top of the screen, where they can be clicked to make active for use in the environment. To get around you simply click the ground or any available directional arrows, which allow you to instantly move to the next screen rather than the scene ever scrolling. There’s also a button that allows you to switch between Reemus and Liam whenever you need to solve problems a different way or act cooperatively in some manner. Liam is the more intelligent of the two and approaches most puzzles in a calmer manner, whilst Reemus is a lot more likely to risk his neck over a puzzle, being the more impulsive. The main difference between the two is their preferences, as Liam will interact with certain things that Reemus won’t and vice versa, and there are certain puzzles and scenarios solely dedicated to each character.
Puzzles are well designed and range from remarkably easy to incredibly difficult, though in most cases they are much easier and more reasonable than those in Several Journeys. Obstacles vary from the abstract to the physical, whether matching patterns to mix potions for a diet-cheating crab queen, manipulating light-giving plants in the correct sequence or simply collecting gravel from a pie shop to make cement (added to the mud pies to give them that authentic crunch!). Sometimes solutions are so unusual that nothing seems to make any real sense at first, but at the same time everything follows a strange kind of logic that allows you to make rational conclusions if you allow yourself to think outside the box. It’s occasionally difficult to distinguish interactive objects from their backgrounds, with no hotspot highlighter to help out, and the game’s logic does march to the beat of a different drum, which may throw people used to solving puzzles in a more real-world manner, but on the whole the puzzles are nicely executed and well-paced with a welcome difficulty balance.
Perhaps the best part of Ballads of Reemus is the tremendous humour throughout, delivered both through visual gags and a host of cheeky dialogue and sarcastic wit, much of which comes from the badly balding, beer-bellied Reemus himself. Despite his less-than-glowing reputation, the well-meaning but rather dimwitted Reemus has a remarkably high opinion of his own abilities, usually to his detriment, and has no qualms about breaking a few rules to further his own ends, regardless of the consequences. His talking bear companion (and travelling mistrel), on the other hand, is the voice of reason and usually acts as the counterbalance to many of the jokes. Liam is a bit of a wet blanket about most things, in stark contrast to Reemus’s gung-ho approach to life, but he’s also responsible for saving Reemus’s bacon along the way.
My expectations for The Ballads of Reemus were fairly modest going in, anticipating not much more than a longer version of the freeware adventures, but how wrong I was. In fact, When the Bed Bites is one of the best adventure games I’ve played in a long time. It’s set in an offbeat fantasy world drawn in a wonderful cartoon style, features a hilarious storyline loaded with humour at every turn, and it’s sprinkled with fun puzzles, excellent voice acting, and even hidden secrets and Easter eggs. Play time is roughly six hours in total, but finding all the extra hidden symbols and standalone minigames that reward you with trophies could add significantly more time on top of that. For a very reasonable budget price exclusively at the developer’s website, this game is not just a very good game but an excellent value as well. It may have some odd puzzles that throw you for a loop, but it does so much well that even the occasional head-scratcher won’t bug you for long.