9 Elefants review
9 Elefants effortlessly copies what should have been a successful formula on paper, but a lack of puzzle variety and story relevance causes most redeeming qualities to get lost in translation.
The debate between those who defend the adventure genre’s balance between narrative and puzzles is in full swing these days. Coming in at the opposite end of the spectrum from games that choose interactive storytelling over puzzle-solving is 9 Elefants, Infernal Brothers’ answer to the Professor Layton series. Casting aside traditional adventuring gameplay and dishing out brainteasers and riddles like they’re going out of style, this mystery about Laura, a sleuth on the trail of her kidnapped inventor father, and her talking feline sidekick Eustache hopes to ensnare gamers looking to flex their gray matter. But ultimately it delivers only a limited range of repetitive brain benders that turn what should have been an entertaining romp of enigmas into a dull chore of “been there, done that”.
The plot – to the extent that it exists, though it’s perfunctory and offers really no impetus to move matters along – centers around Laura, who has arrived in an early, classically-styled alternate version of Paris (though this setting has little bearing on events and steers clear of leaning too much into any definable time period) just in time to find out her father is missing and his home has been ransacked. The local authorities, a pair of Parisian inspectors by the name of Lequais and Lequais, refuse to let her assist in the investigation, so, along with Eustache the cat, Laura sets out to gather information on her own.
Split into nine chapters (to match the nine titular elephants), each chapter features an individual who holds a clue that will point Laura and Eustache to a secret underground location deep within the Parisian catacombs, where she hopes to find the kidnappers and learn the whereabouts of her father. To get the clue that leads to each chapter’s subterranean showdown, Laura has to first perform a service for the person holding onto it. Invariably, this means she has to collect a certain number of cogs, pages, invitations, coins, and any number of other mundane objects the person has lost, then trade them in to unlock the chapter’s secret location for a “boss fight”.
By pure happenstance, the citizens of Paris have precisely the items you need. Naturally, though, the only way they’ll part with them is if Laura will solve their puzzles first. Spread out across four sections of a Paris map, locations can be entered by tapping on them. Each area features a mostly static background with one, or sometimes two, characters in the foreground, whom Laura can then interact with. As the game progresses, a few new locations and characters are added to the map to increase the total puzzles for her to solve. Succeed at every challenge they set for you, and you’ll be rewarded with a number of whatever item you’re currently collecting, at the rate of ten per solved puzzle. Each subsequent chapter requires a larger number of items to be found before they can be exchanged for the info Laura needs, so as the game goes on, the number of mandatory puzzles for each chapter gets bigger and bigger.
As it turns out, Laura’s father has been abducted by a cult whose members only appear wearing elephant masks. At first, their motives behind the abduction were purposefully unclear, but by the time I finally learned the extent of their plan, I really didn’t care anymore. The story lacks any air of actual mystery; instead, it has all the visceral impact of running through the motions (nine times in a row), only to show up at the final location to be told that the professor/princess is in another castle (nine times in a row). Side characters to flesh out the narrative are practically nonexistent. Most of the dozen or so characters Laura has to interact with (which include a dog, a rat, and a talking treasure chest, for no real reason) will briefly talk about their hobbies or professions with her – the baker enjoys talking about baguettes and croissants, the bird lady talks about her birds…you get the picture – and then get straight to the puzzling. Only one or two characters have anything interesting to say, and even then it has literally no bearing on the story whatsoever.
Having said that, the flimsy story wasn’t my primary concern with this game, though it certainly won’t hold anybody’s attention for long. The main draw of 9 Elefants should be its puzzles. At first, things go well and nothing seems to be amiss. But after the first few chapters, I noticed that I was solving the same few puzzles again and again, just dressed a little differently.
In a nutshell, the game has seven categories of puzzles it recycles and throws at you over and over. The first five are infinitely pervasive, and you’ll surely solve several of these in every single citizen encounter: Sliding Block, Memorize the Pattern, Untangle the Lines, Tangrams, and what I like to call Right-Colors-Wrong-Sequence (a derivative of the old Mastermind board game where you must deduce the correct random sequence of colors and objects). Let me be clear: I have nothing against puzzles like this, but they are so highly overused here that they easily make up the bulk of the game’s 230-plus puzzles.
Of the remaining two puzzle types, one is the Choose the Correct Order puzzle, which tasks you with ordering things by height or age or length, which would be entirely acceptable if they were based around pop culture or some other commonly known topic. But in what I suppose to be an effort to inject some historically relevant questions into the game, these puzzles often revolve around very specific civic or cultural knowledge, like ordering various national streets by length or sorting specific historic art periods by age – the kind of info most of us will need to look up online to get specifics on. One particular question had me order structures like the Eiffel Tower and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue by height, several of which differed only by a few meters!
Finally, there are the actual bits of riddling and word play. These puzzles run the gamut from trick questions that rely on perspective or paying attention to the inclusion and omission of specific words and phrases, to actual puzzles that need to be mathematically or logically worked out. While enjoyable in their own right, this last category of puzzle simply doesn’t outweigh the amount of fluff that’s packaged all around it.
When a particular puzzle proves too difficult to solve, additional attempts to answer again can be purchased by trading in three rolls of film from the professor’s Time Camera (an invention supposedly playing a role within the story, but mostly just used to offer puzzle retries). Three rolls of film will usually buy another chance to answer a puzzle (six during boss showdowns), and you can fork over eight to skip the puzzle entirely. These can be found in any location on the map whenever a camera film icon indicates their random appearance. Entering a location where a piece of time film is waiting triggers a sort of Whack-A-Mole game, with the time film popping out of the background for a brief moment, then disappearing again if you don’t tap on it in time. This mechanic proves to be entirely extraneous, and it forced me to quit what I was doing whenever I ran out of time film and go on a long hunt for more rolls so I could continue the puzzling. To make matters worse, the fact that it only shows up at random intervals means I was literally tied to the map screen for quite some time, waiting for a film icon to light up somewhere. A hint system to provide assistance on tough puzzles would have been highly preferable to being forced to collect more items to purchase puzzle attempts.
The game controls via a simple point-and-click interface, easily adapted to the handheld and tablet screens. Since individual areas only encompass a single screen, and your character is never on-screen other than during dialog exchanges, there’s no need to move around. The only exception to this is the overhead map of Paris, which is split into four quadrants and is navigated by pressing arrows at the edge of the screen to move from one quadrant to another. Nor is there any need to interact with the environments, or even keep a sharp eye peeled for items hidden within them. The only interactions possible are initiating conversations with a character (or two) in each location, and catching a roll of time film if one happens to pop up. Outside of that, puzzles are the only events offering actual gameplay, and you’ll either slide items around the screen, click on a multiple choice answer, or use an on-screen keyboard to enter numerical value for a mathematically oriented puzzles.
I certainly cannot fault the game in its presentation. 9 Elefants doesn’t raise the bar graphically or musically, but it looks clean and on par with other games using Flash-style graphics. Environments sport a quasi-watercolor, almost abstract look, which fits the light-hearted feel of the game. By contrast, the overhead Parisian map that lets you navigate between locations displays an overwhelmingly brown look, with only outlines to suggest the topography of a bustling metropolis. Movement and animation is at a bare minimum, with characters occasionally bobbing, swaying, or lifting an arm (or paw), but the entire cast does have their own close-up portraits used during conversations. The soundtrack is limited to only half a dozen short song selections (a menu song, a map screen song, a location song, a puzzle song, and one or two others), though they do the job of being snappy and memorable, one or two of them giving off a bit of a sidewalk café vibe. In fact, I’ve found myself humming a few of them in my head as I go about my daily business, a testament to their catchy – but repetitive – nature.
While the game is at times an exercise in task repetition, I very nearly found myself unable to complete it. Near the end, during the game’s final chapter or two, I unfortunately encountered several broken puzzles. Not only did the game, in its final moments, resort to reusing several puzzles from earlier on, but a few of them included bugs, like a multiple choice question with the wrong answer registering a correct response, and another puzzle failing to provide any feedback as to whether the answer was right or wrong. Ultimately, the workaround here was to bite the bullet and pay the eight-film fee to skip these puzzles and proceed on without solving them.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but even emulating the style of Level-5’s undisputed king of gentleperson’s puzzle-solving isn’t enough to secure 9 Elefants a favorable spot in the annals of adventure gaming. While it looks and sounds nice enough, its utterly dull narrative and repetitive puzzle selection are the cruxes that keep it from ever ascending past the chore level. And at around 5-6 hours of playtime (more if you account for some necessary time-film grinding), that’s simply too much of a time investment for very little payoff.