Adventure Gamers Awards
In the Lands of Dream, the Fortunate Isles may need a change of name. Whilst this group of land masses has enjoyed peace and prosperity in the past, all that has recently changed. Now the island economies are in collapse. The forces of Lord Urizen have swept in to seek payback of loans the locals never even knew they had, and he seems to have the local civic leaders turning a blind eye to his depredations. One household badly affected by this financial plague is the ancient, living druidic residence of Underhome, which is threatened with foreclosure. Urizen’s ham-fisted goons have driven the house into a state of panic, sealing the residents inside and throwing internal conditions into disarray. However, the head of the household, The Mysterious-Druid, has grown a portal to seek aid from a person in our world. Players answering this call will find the resulting adventure in The Sea Will Claim Everything to be a wordy but entertaining journey across a world of wonder.
In his first commercial venture, indie developer Jonas Kyratzes has returned to the setting of three earlier freeware titles. The Lands of Dream is a fantasy realm that is home to many creatures of myth and legend, including a dragon and various anthropomorphic animal races. The technology of this world is organic in nature, with computer systems carefully cultivated, and some growths such as Underhome have minds of their own. Magic is a reality, mainly through the application of alchemical potions, and cultural history includes many stories right out of a fairy tale book. These fantastical elements are mixed with locales we would find in our own world, such as a brewery and a doctor’s surgery, though here they are run by a boarman and a sentient piece of toast, respectively. The resulting blend is a wild and exciting place to adventure, with enough touches of our reality to make players feel at home.
Whilst retaining the same hand-drawn children’s storybook feel used throughout the previous games, the graphics have undergone a significant upgrade since Kyratzes's initial foray into this world. Whilst still not filling the screen, the display size is significantly larger than in prior games, taking up roughly half the viewable area. The drawings themselves are also much improved, with proper use of proportion and colouring without the overlapping felt tip line effect sometimes evident before. The look is further enhanced by shadows with graduated shading on some objects, giving them a real sense of depth. The artwork brings locations as diverse as the gloomy, root-filled cellar of Underhome and the brightly-lit desert on the Isle of the Sun to life. The picture book style also suits the story well, making the game feel like a fairy tale come to life. The only thing missing is animation, the display being limited strictly to a static slideshow presentation.
First-person navigation through this world is primarily handled by means of arrows showing available exits in the top-right corner of the screen. Clicking any of these immediately takes you to the nearest scene in that direction. You also have a magic map which allows you to instantly travel between major locations. The map includes not only places you have already visited, but also places that the various characters you encounter tell you about. Whilst this system works well enough, there are two oddities that may cause problems. When moving around via arrows, the new view is sometimes displayed in the same direction you travelled, and sometimes in the direction you were previously facing. Without any consistency between these two options, it is all too easy to get disoriented, forcing inadvertent backtracking or losing track of which paths you have used. The other issue is that many major locations are only accessible through the map, even though they are near other locations with clear ground between.
The world created by the pictures is further enhanced by a variety of well-crafted music. Every major area of the game has its own tune, each fitting the locale in question. Underhome, where you start your adventure, has an echoing tubular bell anthem that goes well with the cave-like interior. Meanwhile, the Isle of the Sun has a more Eastern tune, matching the sandy locale and the look of the buildings there. The soundtrack also adopts a folk feel from time to time, which works nicely with the overall fantasy setting. None of these pieces are overly complex, instead providing a soothing backdrop to the adventure. Though the world itself provides no ambient sounds, there are a number of simple sound effects arising from actions taken. Operating the living machines of Underhome results in beeping noises, and entering dialogue or accessing the map produces a sound like a page being turned. You will also hear a scribbling sound every time you accomplish a task, as your Scroll of Quests is updated.
The scroll sound is one you will be hearing a lot, as there are many things you need to do before you reach the end. At the beginning you simply need to contend with the problems of Underhome itself, as you try to fix systems and get outside. Initial challenges include persuading a Suspicious Flower to let you use the lift, and finding the password needed to restart the literal “root” system. Once outside Underhome, you will slowly find out how widespread the problems are, and must help the island denizens with problems ranging from finding a lost recipe to unearthing an ancient treasure. Inventory is used automatically, whether through dialogue or clicking on an appropriate hotspot.
Whilst the game has its share of fetch quests, they almost invariably take you to new and interesting locales, opening up more of the world as you search. Often quests will update as you go along, such as when a vital item has passed through many hands, requiring you to speak with each temporary owner about it. The majority of these puzzles are not especially hard, simply requiring diligent exploration and detailed conversation to resolve. It is probably advisable to take some notes, however, as the isles have a large populace, making it tricky to remember where everyone is. There are a couple of puzzles that break the fourth wall, whilst simultaneously maintaining the illusion of the game screen being a portal to another world. Some simple tinkering with Underhome’s systems is also required.
One major recurring puzzle involves using an alchemical device to brew potions. Sometimes this is done at the request of others and sometimes these potions grant you the necessary skill, such as the agility to cross a precarious bridge, to reach less accessible areas. Once you have found a particular alchemical ingredient, the game acts as if you have an infinite supply, allowing you to experiment to your heart’s content. For one optional puzzle, no recipe is available, so experimentation is necessary to complete this side quest. Random combinations can produce such surreal results as the smell of orf or Nothing, the latter being an object you can then carry around with you, though I was unable to find a use for it.
Whilst such experimentation can be fun, there is a major drawback when it comes to following recipes. Activating the alchemical machine in Underhome displays the ingredients you have collected without labels, up to a total of fifteen. Once you have selected an ingredient, there is no option to change it without completing the current concoction. Unless you make manual notes of all the ingredients, this can make following recipes as much a matter of trial-and-error as the random experimentation. This is compounded by the need to refine some potions in a separate machine with another selection of up to eight other unlabelled ingredients, the wrong choice sometimes forcing you to start over. As a one-off puzzle this would have been a minor niggle, but with several uses required it becomes seriously annoying. Nor is it the only frustrating puzzle, as on two occasions you are made to repeat largely the same action many times in order to advance.
As with all of Kyratzes's games, the puzzles undoubtedly take a back seat to the story and setting. The Fortunate Isles are rich and varied, filled with a large cast. You will meet such characters as a dwarf stallholder, a mouse running an inn within an inn, and a retired octopus minding a lighthouse. All these characters have many stories to tell, with extensive dialogues covering their lives, your quest and the isles themselves. You can even have a brief conversation with the sea monster that appears on the magic instant travel map. The locations provide welcome depth to the fantasy setting, the ruined village of Olwynion a sad reflection of the decline of the Isles and the Petrified Forest a grim reminder of the reign of the Timber Tyrant. The background story of the villainous Urizen serves to drive the narrative, with messages about how to deal with such characters woven into the story in a fairly subtle manner.
The result of this rich backdrop is a world that feels like it has a history that started long before you arrived and will probably continue long after you have left. Whilst the story speaks of dire danger, the overall tone is a humorous one, evoked from the start when you find out Mysterious-Druid is a surname, and the character who summoned you is actually named “The”. The background is further expanded by a huge number of objects eliciting a detailed comment when clicked. Individual books on shelves and various items on stalls all have their own descriptions. These are almost all written with an amusing or philosophical tone, including fungi rehearsing for a performance of The Mushroom of Venice and a bucket that is empty but hopeful. Unfortunately, this wealth of detail serves to obscure inventory items, as objects you can collect are hidden among a slew of fun but irrelevant hotspots.
For those looking for an adventure with a sense of wonder, The Sea Will Claim Everything (available for download exclusively from the official website) is a must-have, clearly illustrating that the latest 3D graphics and full voice-work are not required for a compelling adventure. There are some minor flaws, but the fine art style, extensive cultural background and delightful music come together in an altogether pleasing whole. Whilst it is possible to simply plough through the storyline, the wealth of background in both dialogue and pictures make this a game that rewards players willing to sit back and take their time. As a fast reader it took me four hours to complete, though you could easily spend longer, so mileage may vary widely between players. In taking the leap to a commercial release, this game takes a world born free to new creative levels, and I hope to be able to return to the Lands of Dream again some day.