Heeeey, mon! Dis heeah's da preview for d'upcoming point-and-click adventcha The Journey Down: Chapter One!
Cough... hack... ahem...
Whoops, sorry about that. Still had my inner Rasta going strong after playing this game. And believe me, the same will be true for you, as SkyGoblin Games' episodic debut is a delightfully quirky adventure steeped in black African culture. (What else would you expect from a bunch of white guys in Sweden?) And yet the game is so much more than that, quickly establishing a unique personality all its own with a combination of comedy, conspiracy, and even a dash of cyberpunk. It's like Grim Fandango-meets-Blade Runner-meets Bob Marley. In other words, it's a little bit like other games, and a whole lot like nothing you've ever seen before. It's The Journey Down.
Actually, saying you've never seen anything like this before isn't just a fib, it's a bold-faced lie. In fact, you may well have already played the game (and still can if you haven't). The Journey Down was originally released in 2010 as a freeware adventure, but has now been given a serious facelift with HD graphics, full voiceovers, plus some additional locations and puzzles. And what a job the team has done. While the pixel art in the original version was already impressive, now the graphics are eye-popping in their gorgeously stylized cartoon presentation. With much of the action taking place at night, the colour palette is fairly muted; the hero's orange jumpsuit often brightly standing out against the deep purple backdrop. The cinematic cutscenes are superb, and in-game animations are so fluid you'll practically want to dive into the rippling water on Kingsport Bay, while a ceiling fan spins smoothly, its shadow trailing ever-faithfully behind it.
Speaking of facelifts, faces are perhaps the most distinctive visual feature of this game, as they've been heavily inspired by ancient African masks and carvings. The main character, Bwana, has a clover image stamped on his massive forehead that recedes into tightly curled dreadlocks. His diminutive buddy Kito has lightning-shaped tattoos across his forehead and cheeks, and the eclectic supporting cast is similarly marked or defined by oddly distorted, caricatured features. It's a small thing that ultimately has no bearing on the story, but it's so wonderfully unusual that it makes the game boldly stand out from the masses.
And if visuals alone aren't enough, you'll know you're in for something different as soon as you hear Bwana's thick Jamaican-like accent (or at least, a close enough approximation to fool me), making the inclusion of voiceovers crucial to the success of this remake. A few of the smaller supporting vocal roles are fairly weak, but most are nicely acted, and none more so than the protagonist, who does an outstanding job of delivering a kind of playful innocence with a mischievous side; laid-back about life, but determined to fulfill his tasks, regardless of the number of hoops needed to jump through to achieve them.
The story begins rather ominously, with a pair of mobster thugs storming the office of a university professor only to find the occupant missing. The trail eventually leads to the waterfront Gas 'n' Charter, which has been run by Bwana and Kito ever since they were mysteriously abandoned by their adoptive father. Seriously behind in their electric bills, the pair jump at the chance to help a young woman named Lina, who arrives seeking a lost book that may hold the (illegal) secret to reaching "the Underland". Unfortunately, their airplane hasn't been flown in years (apparently the "charter" part of the business has been lagging), and will need a variety of parts and repairs in order to take off.
This task represents the bulk of the action in the opening episode, though of course it involves a host of smaller objectives along the way. Bwana will need to secure entrance into the docked cargo ship, outsmart a watchful dog and hungry pelican, collect ingredients to Mama Makena's famous stew spice, and help a beleaguered chef prepare for a ritzy dinner party on a yacht, preferably without getting himself locked in a walk-in freezer in the process. And while Bwana may protest his aversion to puzzles at times (a fact that results in one particularly amusing "solution"), there are actually plenty to overcome here, with no hint system or hotspot highlighter to help you in a jam.
Almost all of the puzzles are inventory-based, including some multi-item combinations. Some demand a definite stretch of logic (requiring, in Bwana's own words, some "stupid ideas"), but all make sense with a degree of lateral thinking, and a few of the more clever ones include moving parts in the environment. It's absolutely imperative that you try interacting with items more than once throughout the game. Certain hotspots become important only after subsequent story triggers, so never assume that an object you've looked at earlier is irrelevant, even if Bwana gives no indication it might be useful later. This means a bit of repeated dialogue, especially as there are quite a few non-essential hotspots to begin with (more charitably described by the hero himself as "pointless... but satisfying."). Fortunately, the single-click interactions generally elicit a lighthearted comment from the protagonist the first time, and repeats can be clicked through immediately.
It's not clear where and when exactly The Journey Down takes place. While the accents and serene atmosphere might suggest a mellow Caribbean locale, the peaceful shoreline overlooks a major metropolis across the bay, rather unscrupulously run by the Armando power company. And while the era seems to be largely contemporary, there's a rather quirky mix of retro equipment and futuristic technology like a high-speed overhead tram system. Of course, perhaps the former has more to do with Bwana and Kito themselves, whose easygoing, unambitious lifestyle has resulted in a home now lit exclusively by candles. The music offers no real indication either, but it's a delightful element nonetheless, seamlessly weaving between a mix of light reggae and jazz.
As just the first of four planned episodes, I still have very little idea where the story is heading. This entire installment takes place in and around the Gas 'n' Charter, but ends with our heroes leaving their home behind for destinations unknown under decidedly cliffhanger-ish circumstances. There are hints throughout to suggest that a confrontation is coming with the powers-that-be, particularly in relation to their cover-up of the infamous Underland. The mobster boss foiled at the beginning wants all interfering parties dead, and it seems clear that Bwana's and Kito's missing father will yet play an important part in the upcoming tale.
If not for the episodic nature of The Journey Down (and the fact that its unique style might have been a tough sell in any creativity-squashing publisher pitch), there's really nothing about this game that says "indie" at all. The production values of the enhanced remake stand with the genre's best cartoony offerings, elevating the game from its initial Secret of Monkey Island-level graphics to Curse quality in one fell swoop, all while injecting some wonderful African flavour. The humour rarely attains side-splitting guffaws, but nor does it really reach that far and miss, opting instead for fun-loving whimsy more than outright gags. So if ya' want sumtin' different, mon, keep ya' eyes peeled for da' game's downloadable release lata' dis month. In the meantime, let's go a little further behind the scenes for a one-on-one with The Journey Down's creator, Theodor Waern.Continued on the next page...