From chapter three onwards, you play with both Nate and Critter, alternating between them as the situation demands using one-click selection. The two naturally have very dissimilar capabilities: Critter can slink in and out of spaces and easily camouflage himself, while tall and strong Nate is the choice to collect objects placed high up or to be wrenched out. They can also swap objects between each other, which adds to puzzle complexity because both the protagonist and the items need to be correct to solve each quest. Like in BOUT, in one area both are required to perform together, and though the activity is simple, the ensuing cinematic is exciting to watch. Alternating between the two takes time, however, as the idle one shuffles over to stand at a fixed spot on the screen each time he is deselected, and does not automatically follow the active character to other screens and must be manually guided there. These minor cribs aside, this cooperative style of solving problems flows smoothly between the two complementary characters, and is one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the game, especially since there are several hours devoted to it instead of merely token inserts here and there.
As expected from this series, there are gags galore, both visual and dialogue-based. References to movies, video games, comics and popular topics, real and fictitious, continue unabated, and many jokes are made at the expense of absent series members like the paladin who liked to play dress up. Sci-fi series like Star Wars and Star Trek get the most frequent nods, with the Mary ostensibly making the Kessel run in two days (believable, given the list of previous owners), Layla's Princess Leia hairdo, and Critter's Vulcan-style goodbye, but you also encounter the infamous Borat outfit and there's a veritable treat in store for fans of Day of the Tentacle. The humour extends to the commands when you combine objects and the chapter load screens, which list activities like 'polish penguins' and 'pay lawyers', and continues even after the credits roll. But though the penguins put in serious overtime to keep the comedy flowing, there are no truly memorable sequences like the Mummy or the Daemon Monkey of BOUT, especially since the two new characters, Cornelius and Petra, never really bring on the laughs.
Similarly, despite being modeled as a cheeky blend of adventuring icons Han Solo and Guybrush Threepwood and having the best lines, Nate is still not charismatic enough to win your heart as the reluctant hero. His constant, strident whining about his misfortunes mires down his golden-hearted bad boy role, and he loses the personality battle in most of his interactions, be it with Critter or Munkus or his ship's talking figurehead, whether overrun by logic, derision, or good old sass. Critter has a more robust value system and consistent persona, and carries a good chunk of the game on his non-existent shoulders, though the charm of his over-repeated gobbledygook phrases wanes after a while.
Like the landscape, the list of supporting characters is a little barren, but most try hard to pick up the slack. Despite their evil agendas, Munkus and Ma'Zaz both entertain – the former's psychopathic pleasantness and sniggering is hilarious, while ultra-professional Ma'Zaz provides some understated humour. Middle-aged wall fixture Mary is delightfully dignified and takes no lip from her 'captain' Nate, and her maiden encounter with Critter is subtle but funny. Crazy Cornelius fluctuates alarmingly between paranoid scientist and a culinarily-inclined mythical creature, while Petra haranguing all and sundry with her save-the-animals spiel is just the right amount of aggravating. Superb cameos by a baby critter and the Arch Mage's portrait offset the unfortunately dull, whispery Layla, and the speechless penguins never fail to make you laugh with their bizarre background antics.
The Critter Chronicles boasts similar art and animation as BOUT, with attractively detailed, artistically off-kilter backgrounds. Though the icy landscape restricts the colour palette to pale blues and white for most of the game, inviting warmth is generated by the critters' vibrant hideout, the homey yeti cave, and the overheated interiors of the submarine. The simple but visually striking screen transition between the ice shelf and the submarine deserves extra credit, as do the extremely odd wall-and-floor arrangements of the Mage's Tower, which induce spectacular disorientation. Many subtle touches add realism to the scenes, like the smudge left behind when a long-pinned object is removed from a wall, reflections on polished surfaces, and background animation like rising smoke and wind-whipped flags. There are a couple of glitches, though, including a notable one during a quest which makes a pair of essential earmuffs appear and disappear without reason.
The extensive character animation is smooth and realistic, barring some jagged edges and a few missteps here and there, like Nate's over-the-top swagger-walk, which from the side makes him look like he's skating. Characters interact visibly with each object they collect and use (it's a bit worrying to witness Critter stowing kitchen knives and conveyor belts in his gullet), and whether it is a minor action like Nate blowing a Mardi Gras whistle or a detailed one like Critter force-feeding a penguin, every activity is eye-catching and often contributes to great physical comedy. Considerable non-essential animation adds to the visual drama, such as when Ma'Zaz is startled by Nate suddenly rattling his cage, the yeti lightly dusting Nate with salt as he preps for dinner, and Critter's arms whipping up impromptu sessions of Dumb Charades as he tries to get his point across. Though a few activities occur offscreen, the fully-animated cinematics are seamlessly integrated with the gameplay instead of being distinct interludes. Lip sync and eye movement match the spoken dialogues efficiently to create credible expressions. Upping the edge smoothness setting for characters to 'very high' makes a significant improvement to the quality of animation.
The musical score has a host of almost-familiar tunes derived from popular games and movies, and carries over quite a few from BOUT. Situation-specific orchestral compositions play almost continuously in the background, though there are distinct pauses between tracks. Background sound includes rushing wind when out on the ice shelf and the crackle of fires indoors, providing the base for an impressive collection of sound effects that accompany each onscreen activity, like a skeleton arm skittering across a wooden floor, Critter scratching his butt, and the all-too-painfully-correct grinding of a rusted tabletop.
The sole annoying aspect of the production for me was the loudness and artificiality of Nate's voiceover. The same actor reprises his role from BOUT and continues to be inconsistent to the point of distraction: he shouts out the latter half of sentences as if he's talking to someone hard of hearing, and the lack of nuance wastes some clever one-liners. Dialogues are often incorrectly inflected, and stand out sorely against the finesse with which the supporting cast is voiced, particularly Munkus, Mary and the Arch Mage's portrait. Nate also sounds too old for his incessant whining to be endearing. Layla's childlike diction is a bit hammy and irritating as well. Critter can phonetically speak some English words like 'pliizz' and 'bok-ss' but usually jabbers in Critterspeak. Fortunately, the rest of his tribe speaks normally. The baby critter, in fact, is the pièce de résistance of the mostly-stellar guest cast, and definitely warranted some more screen-time.
Following in the wake of the exceptional The Book of Unwritten Tales, The Critter Chronicles was inevitably destined for an uphill trek to achieve the same player satisfaction. Using only two of the four protagonists from the original, the prequel smartly decides to play for smaller stakes, and keeps its story and scope simple and limited, and thereby manageable, while regaling you with the same top-of-the-line scriptwriting and production quality. Most of it works: the sacrifices Critter makes for his tribe and friends; Nate's redemption in the face of tantalising temptation; the cooperative gameplay with Nate and Critter; some terrific one-liners; and of course, the bad guys getting beaten back for another day. But an overly-limited, often visually bleak game world warranting hours of backtracking around the same few screens, a host of random quests that force arbitrary object-matching, and irritating voice acting for Nate reduce the potentially-exhilarating experience to a bit of a slog at times. It's still an entertaining ride overall, however, and easily recommended for any traditional adventure fan who appreciates a sleek production peppered with pop culture references.