Review for The Night of the Rabbit
It all starts with a strange glade, a legendary tree, a figure dressed in black, and a traveler's case. As a tall rabbit in a tailcoat seeks his way through misty forest paths, a grim voiceover laments the imminent crisis. The ominous prologue then cuts to young Jeremiah Hazelnut's cozy bedroom as he's tucked in for the night by his mother. Neither notices the shadow outside his window, watching them surreptitiously. The morning after is bright and sunny, just the way our hero prefers his summer vacation, and he gets right on with making the most of it. On the agenda: a jaunt into the nearby woods, a place of local legend that sets his considerable imagination afire. It's Jerry's dream to be a famous magician, so when he finds a note with instructions for a magic trick, his interest is easily piqued. Gathering items for the trick is the first major quest of The Night of the Rabbit, and soon Jerry is the proud inheritor of a trunk of junk of the magician Zaroff. A bunny does pop out of the top hat here, but it's a visibly unsettling, red-eyed specimen named the Marquis De Hoto, who promises to teach Jerry the art of the arts if only he will step through the magical portal to Mousewood. Jerry is quick to don the hat and wield the wand, and agrees to follow the Marquis, on one condition – that he's back home in time for dinner.
Thus begins Jerry's expedition through the miniature town of Mousewood, home to little people like mice, squirrels, frogs, moles, hares, hedgehogs, and even a suslik. Daedalic Entertainment's latest über-attractive point-and-click opus unfurls on a stunning two-dimensional canvas as if a storybook has come alive, and features superbly-voiced, well-etched characters who strive valiantly to match the laidback charisma and irrepressible joie-de-vivre of its young protagonist as he traipses through a wonderland of anthropomorphic citizens and super-sized household objects. Practical and engaging inventory quests keep the action chugging along for the most part despite the less-than-efficient, and sometimes inconsistent, gameplay mechanisms, and the 8-10 hour journey is lightened by some crisp banter and a moody soundtrack led by a soulful main theme. But though the vibrant colours and dressed-up critters make the game look like child's play, it's not. Some objectives are obscure to the point of frustrating, set in the old-school logic that it's not an adventure if you aren't tearing your hair out, while the overarching themes – and even Jerry himself – are anything but childish.
The longer you play, unfortunately, the more the game becomes insecure in its own charm and tries to ramp up the stakes by progressively – and unnecessarily – complicating the story. Characters start spewing esoteric mumbo-jumbo as the plot bounces around disparate topics like the power of dreams and hope, environmental missteps, unfettered personal corruption, the traumatic social failures of its villains, and a Hazelnut family secret that even Jerry didn't know about. What starts as a straightforward crisis – someone is wreaking havoc on Mousewood, presumably to evict its denizens and take it over – devolves into sub-plots about pseudo-intellectual existential issues. It saps the exuberance of Jerry and his crew, pitches the player into bewilderment, and even waters down the gameplay by foisting token new locations with a couple of quests each. Then it all ends with a whimper: the climactic confrontation involves a shockingly puerile colour-matching minigame, and a visually dramatic but essentially blah cutscene explains why of it all. The last quarter of the game also appears hastily produced, with buggy animation, dialogues tripping over each other, and even some plain black screens with text.
Though the game eventually spirals out of control somewhat, that doesn't undo all the good established to that point. While never specified, the setting appears to be mid-twentieth century: Jerry's trousers are held up by suspenders, his mother wears a red polka-dotted bell skirt as she bakes pies and hangs laundry outside, and the rural landscape is being devoured by a fast-expanding modern city. Twelve-year-old Jerry possesses the innocence of boys his age of that time; he is smart and inquisitive, but respectful and obedient, with a strong sense of right and wrong. That's not to say that he's a goody-goody. The thought of going back to school in a couple of days wilts even his indomitable spirit, and mischief sparks often in his eyes, sometimes even accompanied by diabolical laughter. But at the core, he's a good boy, averse to lies and littering, and ever-ready to challenge any claims that he feels are unrealistic or unwarranted. In fact, his boyish mix of nonchalance and bravado makes him a great foil for the theatrical Marquis, and it's amusing to see smug adults stumble when confronted with Jerry's matter-of-fact observations.
Jerry enjoys the hyperactive virtual world in his head, a domain rife with fantastic events and infiltrated by the terrible gremlinwolf. His peers view his overactive imagination as weird, but he is undaunted by their criticism, and this very quality allows him to wholly embrace the nonhuman world of Mousewood. His acceptance of the simplistic desires and worries of the critters feels natural; there are no smart-assy jibes and judgments about any creature, which is truly refreshing for an adventure game hero. But Jerry's biggest asset is that he's aware of his own fears and limitations, be it venturing into the woods after dark or missing his mother after many arduous days in Mousewood. It's at these moments, when he pulls himself together and returns to his demanding tasks, that his spirit really shines through, and multiplies your investment in his success.
So when Jerry walks into the town built amidst the roots of an ancient tree, complete with a babbling brook and a café, and is shrunk to the size of the local critters, he keeps calm and carries on with his to-do list. His main objective is to prepare for a festival to be held at the end of his training by arranging for cakes and drinks, and sending out invitations to the townsfolk. Naturally, this is almost impossibly more complicated a quest than it sounds, because everyone is preoccupied with their own worries. Strange events have besieged the town: crows are abducting locals; it's snowing in some areas in mid-summer while other places are flooded; suspicious humanoids are lurking in corners muttering gibberish about change, and blue juice, the crowd favourite, is out of stock. Besides helping the locals, Jerry has to find four portals, beyond which lie the sources of the four spells he has to learn to complete his training.
Mousewood has its own town hall, radio station and infantry. Pint-sized mice guard its walls with peashooter cannons, and it has an extensive mail delivery system that later serves as a means for Jerry to move around town. It's also one of those rare places where dwarves are the tallest residents. Most of Mousewood is available to explore right from the start, with characters and quests spread all across it. For the most part, backtracking must be done screen-by-screen, which slows things down even with one-click exits. But the supposedly convenient postal service alternative involves many clicks and isn't very practical unless the destination is on the other side of town. Inactive areas are cordoned off by Jerry refusing to visit them without reason, or by mechanical barriers which must be removed by completing other tasks. The first half of the game takes place during the day; later quests are divided between day and night based on (sort of) rational considerations. Jerry can shift between the two by either reading an incredibly exciting book that makes him lose track of time, or by taking naps at pre-ordained locations.
Gameplay instructions are provided by a chatty radio host who introduces Jerry to the joys of morning calisthenics. Brightened by spontaneous verbal sparring between the duo, this optional tutorial segment tells us that there is only one button to rule it all. And indeed, the leaf-shaped cursor lets you either look at or use an object, or talk to someone with just a single click. Most screens have only a few usable hotspots, and despite the intricately detailed backgrounds, the interactive items are usually easy to pick out. Once activated, Jerry's trick coin can point out hotspots too; all you need to do is peek through it (or press the spacebar). Doing so also reveals the presence of invisible characters. Hotspots aren't always deactivated when exhausted, resulting in confusion and extra clicks, which can be doubly annoying as each click brings up the entire – usually lengthy – descriptive dialogue associated with that item.
Jerry's backpack serves as the inventory. Collected objects can be used with each other or onscreen items, and sometimes dismantled into useful parts. Right-clicking inventory objects has Jerry describe them, often with anecdotes of his experiences with similar items. The non-linear quests have him frequently toting about a dozen-plus odds and ends, which can frustrate during the vaguer tasks which demand matching everything with everything else in the hope that something will click. Objects cannot be combined out of order or if the need hasn't arisen. The advice button to 'phone' the Marquis for hints is useless, since the rabbit merely reminds Jerry of his ultimate objectives, totally ignoring his current quandary. A journal lists key milestones and Jerry's agenda, and does help a bit by giving (very cryptic) clues in the wording.
For each of the four levels of training he completes, Jerry earns a spell that grants him a supernatural skill, like the ability to decipher the language of rocks. They occupy special slots in the inventory, and are cast by clicking their icon on the target object. But for a game premised on magic, these spells seem grossly underutilised, being cast just once or twice each, and as such are relegated to being also-haves in the inventory to be considered when all else fails. They are even left out of the final conflict, which might have been redeemed by the actual use of magic.
Barring the final minigame, quests are all inventory-based, requiring either objects Jerry has collected or the four magic spells at his disposal. Most are interesting, their solutions kept within the limits of the tween protagonist's mental and physical capabilities. But though the game insists that "there are no problems, only challenges", it was a little tough for me to stay Zen during the handful of challenges that seriously tripped me up, like the matter with a vending machine, which demands a sneaky move by the usually-conscientious Jerry, who otherwise steadfastly refuses to do underhanded things, or another with the seller of luck, which uses a seriously convoluted process to mess up his fortune-telling ability. On occasion, screens scroll to expose new areas, and you may feel stuck if you don't realise that, while one quest involving a talking rock abruptly breaks all previously established norms to solve.
Quite a few bonus activities proceed alongside the main game, like collecting dewdrops, stickers, stories, and cards for a custom game called Quartets, where you have to make sets of four cards by taking your opponent's. Even if you don't get all of these during the game (there is a checkpoint after which there are no bonus items), you can replay saved games after finishing to add to the counts. Some awards are for set achievements like learning all the spells or discovering how to use a star-map, while others are for the exceedingly-devoted, such as spending a month in Mousewood or clicking on a beetle who-knows-how-many-times. But failing at some of the achievements does deprive you of certain rewards; not collecting all the dewdrops, for example, keeps you from discovering who was expelled from the Hall of Apprentices, the training centre of magicians.
Conversations are wonderfully in sync with the personalities of the characters, and range from crisp and entertaining to over-dramatic and sometimes downright delusional. Jerry's remarks as he goes about his chores, often play-acting his way through them, are always on the mark, and his interactions with the townsfolk are purposeful but amusing. Jonathan the flannel-coated squirrel and Conrad the stiff-upper-lipped owl, the town in-charges, squabble incessantly but respectfully, while Mr. Churchmouse, the parsimonious, aging shopkeeper, is hopelessly, even tragically, invested in his inept offspring. Bratty child Humbert almost induces super-tolerant Jerry to violence, while his friendship with fox-girl Kitsune brings forth the softer side of our young hero. But it is o'Donnell the cranky leprechaun who steals the show – and most of its baubles – with his martyr syndrome, shrewd negotiation skills, and flurries of outrageous Irish abuses directed at his frenemy Jerry.
The script is at its subtle best when it makes you smile with cutesy puns, like an anarchistic notice signed 'Anonymouse', and references to cult classics like Harry Otter and the Chamber of Egrets. Yet it also succeeds at creating an all-pervading sense of doom in Mousewood: after all, for mice, the presence of ravens hovering overhead is sinister enough, and missing locals and creepy lurkers have set everyone on edge. Jerry's quests feel urgent and important, and at no time too-kiddy-to-be-cool, because he is out to save a world. So then, the attempt to add even more depth to the story by having the 'serious' characters like the Marquis and the Jesus-like magician Aro Molena jabber abstrusely about dreams, destinies, finding what you don't even know is lost, etc., derails the natural momentum of the adventure. And even as you're trying to keep from drowning in the increasing gravitas of the game, the script jumps the whale (literally) in a bizarre segment about a lady activist camped out alone at a polar expedition worrying that she's passing her child-bearing age, which is so far removed from everything else that you feel certain the portal has shunted you into some other game.
Dialogue options are fixed for each conversation, and rarely are new comments added – though you have to keep checking to see if status quo is being maintained, because missing one of the few random additions might halt your progress without warning. Characters are unhelpful beyond whatever brief instructions they give the first time Jerry talks to them, which leaves him to analyse the quests on his own. Also fixed are Jerry's refusals to use any wrong items, and it grates on the nerves to hear the same sentences again and again over so many hours of gameplay, even more so since some of these are said at a much higher volume than usual. Dialogues can be skipped line by line, but there is no way to wholly skip a chat once it's initiated.
One thing you cannot get enough of is the gorgeous artwork. The Night of the Rabbit ranks among the most visually arresting games I've ever played, its art aimed more at setting moods and creating immersive ambience than trying to impress with fancy bells and whistles. Both the hand-drawn backgrounds and characters are two-dimensional, outlined in black ink like toons and styled like artsy old-fashioned storybooks. Painstakingly detailed, thoughtfully shaded, and lush with colours, the scenes draw you in with almost hypnotic attractiveness. The quaintness of Jerry's cottage makes you yearn for the countryside and the halcyon days of summer vacations, and walking into the homely café, you can almost smell the coffee and the pastries. Jerry's portal-hopping takes him briefly to rain-soaked Ireland and dusk-reddened Japan, besides the trip to the polar icecap to witness the always-wondrous aurora borealis. Added attractions include the play on perspectives once Jerry is mini-sized, with ordinary objects like cups of milk and retro radios towering over him, and the startling audiovisual impact of a train passing a room over a station. As night falls, Mousewood takes on another complexion, its palette of blues and greys warmed strategically by the amber glow of fires and glownuts, with fireflies flitting about. Towards the end, some key locations are cleverly recreated on a magician's stage using props and set-pieces, thus bringing the game, visually, full circle.
Background animation, with clotheslines fluttering in the breeze, swaying stalks of wheat, gently falling snow, grease shining in rippling pools, and the busily scurrying, sniffing, itching, muttering townsfolk, enlivens the scenes without encroaching on your concentration. Character movements are fluid, and many small gestures and facial expressions complement the dialogues to create realistic emotions. Lip sync almost matches the spoken dialogues, and Jerry combines objects inside his hat, which he also uses to perform magic tricks if kept idle for too long.
Most of the characters benefit from exceptional voice acting, but the undisputed star is thirteen-year-old Jed Kelly, who voices Jerry with impeccable believability, delivering a flawless performance with his delightful British accent, lucid pronunciations and accurate inflections. He elicits an incredible range of emotions from the script, be it Jerry countering a vaunted claim with boyish disdain, sniggering to himself at a prank, yearning to get back home once the quests start wearing him down, or being devastated to see disaster strike particularly close to home. Conversations, especially with garrulous characters like the radio host and the leprechaun, are perfectly paced, and his Italian mimicry is wickedly hilarious.
The soundtrack changes tempo and instrumentation to suit each location and circumstance. The volume is kept low during conversations, and rises with action sequences to build tension or create euphoria. There is a constant medley of ambient sounds as well, like the chirps of birds, buzz of crickets, ripple of an omnipresent brook, and the tinks and clinks of daily life. A novel sound effect is of the rocks whispering; the slow, eerie grating of drawn-out words makes you believe that the stones are indeed talking to you. The violin-led theme music elicits a palpable sense of melancholy and loss, though it does get an upbeat 'live' rendition during the game.
But the exceptional production quality is marred by avoidable glitches, which get more numerous in the final quarter. One big issue is that conversations overlap each other, with entire dialogue sets carried on to conclusion instead of terminating when another one is initiated. Sometimes old lines are recited in revised circumstances; in one instance, a dewfly animation appears in ghostly duplicate. Spoken dialogues have minor discrepancies with the subtitles, and some object names are erroneous. Also, I could not use the coin-on-a-string to insta-transport myself to Mr. Churchmouse's store as he said I could.
At 8GB to download, The Night of the Rabbit is anything but a light adventure. The lengthy voyage into Jerry's world, where magic blends seamlessly with dreams and realities, is an exhilarating experience for the first three quarters of the game. His easy friendships with pocket-sized animal folk based on the shared values of right and wrong, courage and kindness, feel real and comfortable. The frolicsome world is expertly wrapped in vibrant art and understated music, and when Jerry explores the sun-dappled woods by his cottage, or the busy yet strangely calming Mousewood, you're enticed to bask in the environs rather than rush through the quests.
So it's a shame that the final quarter forsakes building upon the tale of Jerry saving Mousewood from its assailants as an apprentice magician, instead complicating the story by introducing a bunch of haphazardly-linked villains who talk in self-important hushed tones like wannabe-psychiatrists. Messages about cross-cultural friendships, respecting nature, self-esteem, greed, hope, beginnings, endings, and everything in between are condescendingly hammered in via lengthy, esoteric expositions – when in fact Jerry's activities were already doing so subtly and organically. Unrefined gameplay mechanisms, like repetitive negative feedback, unskippable dialogue sets and excessive backtracking also drain your energy and distract from the quests.
At the end of the day, however, when Jerry addresses his newfound friends after the Treetops Festival for the final time, you'll forget your frustrations and irritations, and will surely find yourself wishing for another chance to meet this spirited cast in their picturesque world. A sequel is indicated, with one of the Mousewoodians taking on corporations as a dusty gray cityscape creeps towards the town, and some of the villains are clearly gearing up for round two as well. Of course, the adventure wouldn't be the same without the inimitable Jeremiah Hazelnut, so here's hoping he gets a few days off from school to join the action once more.