Review for Chaos on Deponia
Adventure Gamers Awards
Welcome back to Deponia, the junk-filled planet that self-important tinkerer Rufus is determined to save from imminent destruction—not so much because he cares about Deponia’s survival, but to impress a pretty girl. Chaos on Deponia is the second game of a planned trilogy from German developer Daedalic, and it’s extremely similar to the first, so if you’re new around these parts you might want to start at the beginning.
If you didn’t play the first game, you’ll be able to jump right in thanks to a brief video that recaps the story, a tutorial that teaches the controls, and a simple opening sequence that establishes Rufus as an accident-prone loudmouth. Deponia ended on a somber note, with Rufus crashing back to the landfill he begrudgingly calls home while Goal (the object of his affection) and Cletus (her arrogant fiancé) head back to the floating utopia of Elysium. Chaos on Deponia picks up soon after with another of Rufus’s crazy escape attempts. Predictably, the escape quickly goes south and he and Goal end up plummeting back to Deponia, with Goal’s brain implant damaged once again.
Though the early story set-up is startlingly similar to the first installment, the scenery has thankfully changed: Chaos on Deponia is mostly set in the sprawling Floating Black Market. This dockside city has 15 or so discreet locations, which can be easily navigated via quick travel maps located all over the city. And this time Rufus has reinforcements, with returning characters Doc (a mad scientist type) and Bozo (captain of a fishing trawler) on hand to help him deal with Goal’s damaged implant and navigate the Rust Red Sea.
Early on, Rufus’s recklessness causes Goal’s personality to fracture into three separate pieces: the snooty Lady Goal, sassy Spunky Goal, and simplistic Baby Goal. (Talk about high maintenance!) Because of this, much of Chaos on Deponia is spent switching between the three versions of Goal using a handy pocket remote control, negotiating with each of them and playing them off one another to regain the trust of the increasingly uncooperative princess and make her whole again.
Rufus’s objective is nobler in this game—before, he was simply trying to leave Deponia, while now he’s trying to prevent the planet from being blown up—and this broader scope makes Chaos on Deponia’s story feel more epic and important. Before it’s over, he’ll get mixed up with the mob, confront his estranged father, and join a group of freedom fighters who talk of revolution in the leader’s mom’s basement. Revelations about Elysium’s true nature and the motives behind Deponia’s planned annihilation help to develop the overarching story and set up questions that will presumably be addressed in the third installment.
Structurally, the game is identical to its predecessor. It has a long first chapter, set in one big location with lots of multi-step puzzles to solve, followed by two shorter, snappier chapters in new settings. The game is also about equal in length, again taking me eleven hours to complete. In spite of the similarities, Chaos on Deponia doesn’t suffer from the same uneven pacing that bothered me in the first game. Deponia’s early obstacles felt like a series of false starts, but the sequel's first chapter held my attention thanks to the large area to be explored and the nonlinearity of Rufus’s quest to make nice with all three of Goal’s personas. The first half hour is a bit passive, with little more to do than click the one or two available options, but once Rufus and Goal reunite the game rolls along nicely. And Chaos on Deponia’s puzzles flow steadily—there were always just enough hotspots for me to poke at, items to try, and people to talk to that I neither felt stymied nor overwhelmed.
On the downside, at times the puzzles flow a bit too steadily, almost as if they’re solving themselves. I often used or combined objects without being quite sure why I was doing so. Sometimes I didn’t truly understand the objective until a puzzle was complete and I could work backward through the logic. Solving puzzles with relative ease to keep the story moving along is definitely better than wasting lots of time stuck (which thankfully never happened to me here), but I would have preferred to be more of an active participant.
Here’s an example of what I mean: at one point Rufus trades another character for an umbrella (for no obvious reason other than that acquiring items is what you do in an adventure game). Immediately after doing this, I chose to talk to the umbrella’s former owner, and Rufus started going on about how the umbrella didn’t work the way he wanted it to, as a lightning rod for his girlfriend. It wasn’t until several scenes later—after I’d visited a new location, talked to a few other characters, and experimented with using different objects on Goal—that I even understood why I’d want to use her as a lightning rod, let alone what they were getting at in that conversation. Once I figured that out, I knew that the umbrella would be involved in the puzzle solution, but not because I’d figured it out myself; Rufus had essentially spoiled it for me. In Chaos on Deponia, it’s common for characters to tip their hands like this before the player has had a chance to piece together the subtext, and such moments make the puzzles harder to appreciate. It’s not an issue I remember cropping up in Deponia, at least not to this extent.
Chaos on Deponia is a comedy that borrows heavily from the Monkey Island tradition. Much like in the previous game, the German-to-English translation seems decent, but the writing didn’t wow me. Sure, I chuckled here and there, but I quickly tired of the long-winded exchanges whose only purpose seemed to be to deliver jokes. The voice acting is strong overall and the direction seems better than in Deponia, with far fewer instances where an actor’s reading doesn’t match up with the line’s intended context. Even so, much of the game’s humor simply doesn’t carry over—or maybe it just doesn’t do it for me.
A lot of the comedy has to do with Rufus’s overconfidence, his rudeness, and his mistreatment of Goal. There are several fart jokes and an entire puzzle that throws logic out the window merely to set up a urination gag. Fun is made of a blind man, an apparently brain-damaged woman, and a guy with a speech impediment. I’m not one who thinks content needs to be politically correct and inoffensive in order to be funny—after all, The Simpsons, South Park, and The Family Guy are some of my favorite shows—but Chaos on Deponia’s self-conscious stabs at similarly edgy humor are too transparent, resulting in a game that's supposed to be funny rather than one that actually is. At least lengthy conversations can be right-clicked through if you get tired of the jokey-jokes (albeit at the risk of missing something important), but at its worst the humor encroaches on the gameplay with puzzles that are convoluted for the sake of comedic effect, and there’s no avoiding those.
Whether or not the writing tickles your funny bone, Chaos on Deponia is a very dialogue-heavy game, and navigating conversations might start to feel like a chore. Dialogue options are often redundant, with the same question and answer given in multiple ways. Plus, some options remain active after they’ve been exhausted so you keep hearing the same lines over and over. Having three versions of Goal also means three versions of her dialogue, and sometimes in order to move forward you have to have a conversation with one of them that you've already had with another. Of course, quippy dialogue is one of the hallmarks of a comedy adventure, but I think a tighter script would have made for a better game. And with fewer words, the humor may have packed more punch.
Rufus is meant to be a comedic anti-hero, presumably one who will experience at least some change and personal growth over the course of the full story arc. But his development seems to be regressing, as I found him less likeable this time around. I originally saw him as a bumbling but good-hearted guy trying his best, who by the end of Deponia was realizing the importance of doing things for others rather than focusing only on himself. In Chaos on Deponia, however, he’s more abrasive, and unnecessarily mean to people he’s only just met. He makes reckless decisions at the expense of Goal’s safety (contrary to the player’s will) and generally treats her more like an object to win than a person he cares about. While his character traits are clearly hooked into the story Daedalic is telling, all of this makes Rufus tough to sympathize with at the climactic moments when we’re supposed to be sharing his pain.
In another apparent inconsistency, some wacky situations and nuances crop up in the sequel that don’t entirely jive with the world established in the first game. In Deponia, the planet was built out of trash and its quirky inhabitants were prone to slapstick situations, but their society and rules of nature were somewhat grounded in reality. Chaos on Deponia, on the other hand, employs some weird science—including a population of supernatural platypuses, time travel, inter-dimensional portals, and the ability to swap personalities between different bodies via remote control—that take the game more into Sam & Max territory than the Monkey Island vibe that’s pervasive otherwise. These oddities contribute to Deponia’s charm and I didn’t necessarily mind them, but some of the weirder moments felt out of place in a world I thought I’d already gotten to know.
After the hefty first chapter, Rufus’s adventure takes him beyond the Floating Black Market to a handful of smaller locations around the Rust Red Sea, including a research facility where dolphins are being trained to help the resistance, the North Pole, and the abode of a mystic who has expanded his fortune-telling practice to include couples counseling. Though there’s much less to explore here, these new scenes provide welcome visual variety—including different times of day and changing weather conditions—that give a more complete perspective of the trashed planet he’s trying to save.
The graphics haven’t changed from the first game. The vibrant 2D cartoon artwork, unique character designs, and creative trash-filled environments provide plenty to look at, and lively animated cinematics are peppered throughout the game. I especially liked the movie of the trawler moving through the water at sunset (very pretty), as well as one set underwater as a trio of torpedo-equipped dolphins converge upon their mark. The locations have more NPCs hanging around, which makes the Floating Black Market feel less barren than Deponia’s Kuvaq (even though you can’t talk to most of them), but the in-game scenes are still sparsely animated. During most of the lengthy dialogues, two characters stand still and talk back and forth with little movement between them. A few dialogues take place with extreme close-ups on the characters’ faces; it’s a nice change of pace, but even an extreme close-up starts to feel old in a game with this much dialogue. I brought this up with Deponia and it’s worth repeating: more animation, gestures, and facial expressions during conversations would go a long way toward making the long dialogues more interesting, and maybe even funnier. No matter how good a job the voice actors do, jokes simply aren’t as funny when they’re delivered by a character who’s just standing there with his back to you.
Most of the puzzles involve inventory manipulation and character interaction, many with a "chain reaction" structure that requires several small steps to be solved before a larger objective can be satisfied. Of these multi-step puzzles, I particularly liked a series related to platypus nesting and breeding habits (because of the logic involved, not necessarily the subject matter!) and another where an annoying gondolier must be thwarted so Bozo and his burly girlfriend can share a tender moment. Figuring out how to outsmart a robotic gadget shop clerk using various merchandise samples is another fun sequence. Like in the first game, I thought most puzzles were fair, with solutions easy enough to figure out—no small feat in a setting as eccentric as this one.
There are also a handful of minigames, which are generally self-contained puzzles with their own unique interface. These tie into the story, but they can be skipped without penalty if you choose to. My favorite, a unique spin on the Tower of Hanoi logic puzzle, involves adding and subtracting items from a restaurant’s value menu to end up with just one item at a certain price. I groaned when I encountered a scaled-down repeat of the mine maze that I hated in Deponia, but it’s thankfully better executed this time.
A couple of Chaos on Deponia’s minigames did befuddle me, although in neither case was the problem due to the gameplay itself. At one point, as I entered into what seemed like a straightforward dialogue puzzle (e.g. choose a particular sequence of dialogue lines to lead a character into a certain response), a “Do you want to skip the minigame?” box popped up on screen. This might have been a quick fix for a puzzle deemed too difficult, but it made me second-guess my objective and caused unnecessary confusion about what I was trying to achieve. Another minigame that’s supposed to play like a Simon-style matching game was buggy and completely unplayable (a somewhat common issue, according to posts on Steam’s forums). In this case I was grateful for the skip button, but would have preferred the chance to play it myself.
Although I didn’t buy all of the events leading up to the ending, I found it more optimistic and satisfying than in the first game. By the end, Rufus has learned exactly what's going on in the Deponia / Elysium struggle and he has Goal by his side—two elements that were sorely missing last time. From a story perspective, I'm not convinced that so much play time was necessary for what would ultimately translate into so little progression, but at least by the end I felt like my efforts had helped Rufus uncover new information about Deponia's situation that will carry the story forward in the final installment. It’s hard to say a trilogy was really warranted for this series; both installments have covered similar ground and not a ton has changed in the 20+ hours of gameplay so far. But Deponia is still a fun world to visit, and in this middle installment the stakes are raised and the story finally seems to be headed somewhere.
Chaos on Deponia makes multiple tongue-in-cheek references to classic adventures, but even without these, it’s clear that the Deponia team loves and cherishes the genre. While this sequel doesn’t have enough improvement over the first game to earn it a higher score, it is nonetheless a charming and at times clever “old school” adventure that fans of LucasArts-style comedies will enjoy. Personally, I liked Chaos on Deponia better than the first thanks to its improved pacing and ever-thickening plot, and am looking forward to the trilogy’s big finish to see if Rufus can finally get his act together well enough to get the girl... and, more importantly, save the world.