After their well-received 2005 debut freeware release of Five Magical Amulets, OFF Studio's first commercial adventure has been a long time coming. Rather than taking us back to the magical land of Nyron, however, Helga Deep in Trouble instead plunges us headlong into the cutthroat world of game development. And let's be clear from the start: this is a very different game. Where Five Magical Amulets was innocent and heartwarming, Helga is sassy and sarcastic. In fact, why not hear from the titular heroine herself? There's bound to be something in the game's FAQ. Helga, how should I review your game?
"Reading internet forums I got the following insights about my previous games: The art looks like it's made by a 6 years old kid. The story is unfunny and sexist. The music sounds like elevator muzak. And it doesn't even have voiceovers – you should mention that. Then add some random number rating. It won't take more than half an hour. Easy money."
Let me stop you right there, Helga. As ever, you're your own harshest critic, but let's consider those points anyway.
First up, the story. Expanding on their earlier parody adventure Five Lethal Demons, Helga runs Kick Off Studio (see what they did there?), a developer of 3D first-person shooter games. She has little time for all this adventuring, puzzle-solving nonsense (even the password puzzle in their last game stumped 90% of their players!) and instead focuses on squeezing in as much violence, blood and gore as she can manage. She's single-minded and ruthless in her approach, with little regard for things like employee welfare or indeed caring about other people at all – in her previous outing she literally carried a whip. Despite her passion and talent for slave-driving, however, KOS's last release was a disaster, development on their current game has stalled and (as we join the actual game) she's been forced to sell the studio and is in the process of hiring a new manager.
If Helga sounds like an amalgamation of every Type A boss you've ever had, that's because she is. Indeed, the game as a whole is stocked with caricatures: her staff are a bunch of socially awkward nerds who, rather than vote for a candidate with the knowledge and experience to take over, instead fall for a rich blonde airhead. And yes, reviewer-Helga has a point: some of those caricatures are pretty sexist. Helga's writer, for example, commands her to make him dinner because she's a woman. But it's all very tongue-in-cheek, and for the most part this is a useful shorthand, preventing the game from getting bogged down in character development and allowing it to get straight on with the pervasive sarcastic humour.
And the cast are definitely caricatures rather than just stereotypes: for example, one local busybody is so keen to make sure she doesn't miss anything that she literally never sleeps or leaves her window. At one point, suspicious of Helga, she tries a word-association ploy she saw on a cop show but has to wait for next week's episode before she knows how to interpret the results. I was particularly amused by the local shopkeeper, obsessed with getting Helga to stop smoking and determined to mount a denial-of-service attack on the megastores by the simple expedient of... not shopping there.
To get back to the events at Kick Off Studio, Helga is promptly demoted to office lackey by Magda (the airhead), then sacked. Furious, she stomps out and promptly sets up her own H-Company, vowing to woo back her former employees and get back at Magda. The rest of the game chronicles her struggle to control her abrasive personality and suck up to people, but (as you can probably imagine) that's never going to end well. The overall tone of the game can best be described as black farce, with Helga getting herself into increasingly ridiculous situations and leaving ever more chaos and destruction in her wake.
I'd like to be able to say that Helga learns her lesson and everything turns out for the best in the end, but I can't, and that's perhaps my biggest issue with the game. Despite occasional moments of insight, she remains unrepentant for the most part. And although a couple of her victims forgive her, there's a persistent feeling that everything is going to hell in a handcart and there's no way out short of an improbable last-minute twist and a sprinkling of fairy dust. But there is no such fairy dust here, and I could never really identify with Helga or get pulled into her story. In the end, I was left feeling flat and frustrated as the credits rolled, though Helga’s fate is nothing if not fair.
Anyone who has played Five Magical Amulets will recognise the developer's distinctive visual style; not exactly the daubings of a 6-year-old, but naive and charming. Here, though, Olga Fábry (the artist on both games) seems to be channelling Day of the Tentacle, with its cartoony style and twisted perspectives. This, combined with the relatively low 800x600 resolution, gives the game a retro feel, which is fitting with its somewhat old-fashioned gameplay. The animations are much smoother here, and background motions such as the programmer typing or clouds scudding across the sky in the park give the scenes some life. At times, though, I felt more could have been done: a lap-dancing bar Helga visits early on is completely empty and static, for example. Admittedly, it was during the day and the bar does come to life later once the sun goes down, but it still could have done with something going on, even if it was only a janitor sweeping the floor.
The uncluttered cartoon look also means there's no need to worry about pixel hunting: everything you'll care about is easy to spot. One curious feature, however, is that many scenes include highlighted objects you can't actually interact with. Hovering over these hotspots shows the object's name, but right-clicking – which would normally bring up an action bar – does nothing. Helga has nothing to say about them, and they never feature in any of the puzzles. They're just... there. It feels as if the developer meant to go back and at least add descriptions, but then ran out of time.Continued on the next page...