Adventure gamers are used to being sent on journeys to exotic locations, whether real or imagined, from pirate-infested Caribbean islands to fantastical medieval kingdoms to the Orient Express bound from Paris to Constantinople. The first whiff (almost literally) that Daedalic’s Deponia is going to be much different from other adventures is that the whole thing is set in a dump. Of course, the entire planet’s surface is a dump, an escape from which to the idyllic world in the sky provides the essential premise behind the game. But the differences don’t end there, as Deponia’s characters and puzzles prove to be just as off-kilter as its setting. I recently played through most of a near-final version of this bizarre comic adventure, and can already state with 100% certainty that you’re in for something completely different.
Okay, maybe not completely different. The gameplay and interface are all entirely traditional as you point-and-click your way through hotspot-littered (everything is litter here!) environments, talk to fellow residents, and pick up everything that isn’t nailed down (or too heavy to carry), most of which don’t belong to you. There is a welcome option to simplify the “look at” option to a right-click if you have a mouse wheel, though the default radial action menu is straightforward enough. But that’s about where the similarities end and Deponia begins developing a distinctive flavour – odour? – all of its own. For those familiar with Daedalic’s other games, this is more a kindred spirit to the madcap Edna & Harvey: The Breakout than serious fare like The Whispered World and A New Beginning. Which isn’t really a surprise, since this game is also written and designed by Jan Müller-Michaelis, who clearly revels in absurd oddities and off-the-wall humour.
The one exception to that comparison is visually, where Deponia forsakes the more rudimentary cartoon graphics of Edna & Harvey in favour of the studio’s more detailed hand-drawn landscapes. This game may be covered in junk, but it’s beautiful junk. It’s also organized junk; civilized junk. There aren’t food scraps and soiled diapers scattered everywhere. Instead, you’ll find a quaint, piecemeal land cobbled together by old discarded appliances and equipment. Townsfolk in the village of Kuvaq make do with what they’ve got, when what they’ve got isn’t all that much. The end result is a somewhat steampunk-ish mishmash of elements, from a bucking mechanical bull to a carrier pigeon mail service; from guillotine home-security systems to an organ-driven espresso maker with a nuclear reactor. Did I mention Deponia was weird? You’d have to be a little loopy to live there.
Not surprisingly, everyone is. The star of the game is Rufus, a young man with only one ambition: to escape the surface garbage for the clean sky world above. His other major characteristics aren’t ambitions, merely natural abilities – namely, wreaking havoc on everything he touches and annoying everyone to no end. Definitely not your average do-gooder adventure hero, our Rufus. With an aversion to any menial labour whatsoever (a fact he resentfully reminds you of every time you try instructing him to clean something) and a lengthy history of wanton destruction, there’s a definite love-hate attitude towards Rufus in his hometown. He loves himself, and everyone else hates him. Indeed, Rufus has an inordinately high opinion of himself, and somehow believes that everybody else does too, despite their repeatedly telling him the exact opposite.
The supporting cast includes Toni, his beleaguered chain-smoking ex-girlfriend who just can’t get rid of him; Wenzel, a dweebie little “friend” who really just wants Rufus’s stuff if he ever succeeds in escaping, and a raft of town officials who have all had run-ins with Rufus, from the mayor who sleeps in a drawer to the buck-toothed three-in-one doctor/fireman/policeman to the brutish town hall secretary who wears a dress and pretends to be a woman. It’s a distinctly eccentric cast and the barbed banter with Rufus is often quite funny. He speaks to others with disdain (a feeling that’s always mutual), but it’s lighthearted repartee that never feels truly hostile. For a blatantly unlikeable fellow, it’s actually quite easy to like Rufus as an anti-hero protagonist. His reputation is largely just implied as well, as he doesn’t cause trouble just for the sake of it during the game. He does cause trouble, of course, but it’s all for a good cause.
That cause is love, or at least the closest Rufus is likely to get. When a beautiful resident of the skybound Elysium plummets to the Deponian surface, Rufus is not only instantly smitten but also sees his big opportunity to escape for good by returning the young lady to her home. That won’t be easy in her condition, however, as she’s seriously incapacitated due to her fall. Finding a way to revive her from unconsciousness, then transport her in a babbling, nonsensical state becomes the prime focus for Rufus for a huge section of the game. Such objectives include a myriad of intermediate goals, whether brewing a potent stimulant, overworking the phone operator or escaping jail (this is Rufus we’re talking about). There is a LOT to accomplish along the way, and you won’t be doing so quickly.
Indeed, the slow pace of Deponia may take some getting used to. After an opening sequence spent preparing Rufus’s latest harebrained scheme to blast off the planet (including capturing a living, runaway toothbrush), I arrived in the hub-like Kuvaq village. Five hours later, I was still in Kuvaq village. I visited places like Toni’s shop, the mayor’s office, a tiny bar, and the robot-run, cat-powered post office, but that’s still a long time spent in one place. Later environments allowed for quicker passage, relatively speaking, like the trash tunnel railway and a kind of bizarro carnival, but much of your time will be spent close to home. Hotspots are numerous, including plenty of non-essential objects to investigate, and obstacles are everywhere. Just when you feel you’ve made a breakthrough in one task, you’ll run right smack dab into a new problem. You can be working on several goals at once, but at times you’ll need to succeed at one to advance in another, giving the game a semi-linear feel despite its apparent open-endedness.
Most of the puzzles are inventory-based, and in a world as surreal as this, the logic often strains credibility. Not that the solutions don’t make sense after the fact, but it’s often difficult to predict what effect your efforts will have, especially when many objects are cobbled-together technologies like divining rods, magnetic field disruptors and power inverters. There’s a hotspot highlighter to help you out, but that’s all the hints you’ll get. The amusing script can be counter-productive in this regard, going for laughs instead of relevant feedback, even providing blatantly misleading advice on occasion. You’ll need to experiment quite a bit in Deponia, and even that isn’t as simple as it sounds, as there are plenty of moving parts to contend with. Not that quick reflexes are needed, but mechanical levers and switches and knobs that alter the landscape can drastically increase the possibilities. If you’re looking for a puzzle challenge, you’ll find plenty hidden among the clutter.
There are a number of other puzzles as well, which can be equally difficult in their own right. From routing mine tracks to mapping explosive detonations to disrupting pigeon assignments by rotating rings, you’ll need to don your makeshift engineering hat here and there in order to proceed. But if these prove too complicated, a puzzle skip option allows you to bypass them completely. I found some of them to be frustratingly difficult, but I was at something of a disadvantage, as the preview version is in German with only English subtitles, and at this point the localization is still spotty and even incomplete, so hopefully the clues and instructions will be a little clearer in the finished game. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that you won’t be passing through Deponia without some serious head-scratching.
While it’s too early to comment on voice acting, the game’s music is just as unusual as every other element. There’s a subtle, somewhat funky tune playing during much of the Kuvaq stay, while an industrialized western theme accompanies your visit to the red-skied junk mine station. There’s even a narrator – or should I say “serenader” who bridges the major segments with folk songs. There are some sharp-looking, anime-inspired cartoon cinematics that allow rare close-ups of the warped character models, but the game itself is rather light on animations, which is another carryover from the Edna & Harvey design philosophy.
Given its slower-than-usual pace and unapologetic emphasis on weirdness, Deponia surely won’t appeal to everyone, and may even be an acquired taste for those to whom it will. If you’ve played Edna & Harvey, you have a good idea what to expect (fewer interactive opportunities than that game, but still far more than most adventures), but for those drawn primarily to Daedalic’s trademark beautiful hand-drawn graphics, brace yourself for a game that’s even wackier than it looks. The biting dialogue is frequently amusing without feeling nasty, and there’s plenty to do and solve in this junk-strewn world. Some puzzles are a bit too obtuse for their own good, but there’s no shortage of obstacles to keep you occupied for a good long time. The full game isn’t due for another couple months, but fans of oddball comic adventures should stay on the alert for pick-up day, because for a game that’s all about garbage, Deponia looks like it’s shaping up to be a keeper.