Damn Virgins review
Damn Virgins is more of an uneven frat house comedy than apocalyptic blockbuster, but its heart is in the right place and its puzzle foundations are sound.
December 21st, 2012: The last day of the Mayan calendar and the end of the world. Or so they thought. Seeing as how we're all still here and haven't been so much as singed by a doomsday fireball, they must have been wrong, right? Well, one man – the Dean of a small provincial university and a specialist in all things Mayan – doesn't think so. He's seen the signs: hurricanes, earthquakes, solar flares. We may not be dead yet, but the ancient gods clearly aren't happy with us and he's on a mission to put things right. In the goofy world of Damn Virgins, the maiden effort from indie developer Luis Ruiz, Dean Alex sets out to save the world for the low, low price of only seven virgin sacrifices. It’s all endearingly eccentric rather than laugh-out-loud funny, but scratch the surface and you'll find a solid point-and-click adventure underneath. It's just a pity that the actual plot is so detached from the premise with one set-up after another, and that it doesn't so much end as simply stop (although there is a sequel planned).
Before we delve any further into the story, it's worth pointing out something pretty important: for all that talk about Mayans and crazy professors, what this game is actually about is the antics of seven of the worst students in the university's history in their quest to bag a free trip to Mexico and finally get laid. That's all part of the Dean's devious plan, you see: he's been struggling to find seven virgins to sacrifice (modern moral standards not being what they used to be) and he desperately needs to entice the not-so-magnificent seven to come with him to their doom. He's even gone so far as to reduce their exams to kindergarten level (with questions such as, "How many were the twelve apostles?") that they're still struggling to pass. Fortunately, they've got some cunning plans of their own to overcome that hurdle, and that's where you come in.
You play Xavi, possibly the most normal of the seven in that his biggest problem is that he's keener about lying on the couch playing video games than studying. His compadres, by contrast, are a motley bunch. There's Bernardo, the brains of the crew, who's forever dreaming up new inventions that don't quite work (like a teddy bear robot with homicidal tendencies and a hyperintelligent but lovesick fish). "Buff" Toni's a gym rat obsessed with his muscles and protein intake, while Chispita's a big kid with a withered hand and Bruno spends all his time chasing girls (badly) and keeping his hair perfectly coiffed. Just imagine a Spanish version of The Young Ones with a bit less random violence and you'll get the picture.
In fact, Damn Virgins could be considered a sitcom with an embedded game (or a game with an embedded sitcom), since it's a mix of live-action video cutscenes and 3D point-and-click adventure. That may seem like an odd mixture, but it actually works surprisingly well. If you can get past the often-crass humour – not one but two scenes centre on a professor’s luminous green snot, for example – the videos give proceedings an energy that carries through into the gameplay proper. They also help to compensate for the fact that the 3D world you get to run around in is pretty empty: aside from a couple of conversations with Bernardo, the only character you really interact with is Igor, his talking fish. Igor's an entertaining character, haughty, self-centred and quite happy to lie shamelessly to get what he wants, but that would get old fast without Dean Alex and the rest of the crew dropping in every ten minutes or so with an update on their endeavours. The videos are also quite professionally shot, albeit on a shoestring budget, and the actors are evidently having a great time hamming it up.
Full 3D adventures, like FMV, have tended to get a bit of a bad reputation, and while this game certainly isn't going to change that, it does work reasonably well here. Considering the small team involved, the graphics aren't too bad. They won't set any records for polygon count and the quality of the textures is a bit variable, but everything's clear and reasonably realistic-looking. Some later scenes set on a tropical island in particular, full of lush foliage, towering rock formations and (for some reason) car tyres, wouldn't have looked out of place in a bigger-budget game from a few years ago. The use of the Unreal engine also enables some nice-looking water and shadow effects. Variety-wise, things aren't quite so rosy: prior to the island, you spend most of the game in and around the boys' frat house. It's just as well, then, that it's an interesting house, equipped with a pool out back and a giant aquarium (both for Igor's benefit), and a helicopter on the roof. (No, I don't know where the university found the money to loan its students a helicopter either, but the money evidently ran out before they could get any gasoline.)
This is all set to a variety of upbeat tunes, from laid-back jazz to steel band music, that give the game a bouncy vibe in keeping with its comic premise. Like the video segments, they do a great job of injecting energy into events that (especially at the beginning of the game) could have felt a little dull otherwise. The voice acting is harder to judge, as it's in Spanish with English subtitles, but as far as I could tell it seemed pretty good. The subtitles are fine for the most part, but they can be a bit stilted in places and occasionally translate idioms a little too literally. (Looking at a portrait of Igor's father, Xavi says, "What a fetus!" Maybe that's a common insult in Spanish, but it's a head-scratcher in English.)
The controls are an odd mix of standard 3D camera mechanics (using the mouse to look around) and point-and-click style controls (clicking on the floor to move around rather than using WASD to walk). However, your movement is often quite restricted: you can only rarely walk around within a room, and are generally left to look around and interact with everything from the one spot, only starting to walk when you click on an exit. Clicking on an object brings up a group of interaction icons (take, look at, talk to and use), while clicking elsewhere acts as a hotspot highlighter, giving all visible hotspots a yellowish glow. (This is why you can't walk around much: most of the time, clicking on the floor activates the hotspot highlighter rather than letting you move.)
Conversation is handled via a row of large topic icons across the bottom of the screen, most of which make their meaning pretty clear. The one exception is a question mark icon, which elicits a question without giving you any idea what that question will be. Fortunately, there's only one conversation "puzzle" – which we'll get to in a bit – so it's safe to just try everything. Interestingly, you can click through conversations, but only ones you've heard before: the first time, you have to hear them in full. On the upside, this prevents you from accidentally clicking past something you wanted to read, but given that it's usually quicker to read subtitles than listen to the spoken version it did get a little frustrating at times.
Xavi wears a cute bunny backpack that acts as your inventory. Clicking the icon brings up a tabbed overlay, with one tab for your inventory, a second displaying your current objectives and a third with a list of the video cutscenes you've unlocked in case you want to see them again. Clicking on inventory objects brings up the same collection of icons as for other items, and using or combining them is a matter of dragging them onto other objects or hotspots. One unusual feature is that you can also drag objects you see in the immediate environment onto other ones without putting either object into your inventory. This is explained during a brief introductory tutorial, but is only actually necessary a couple of times during the game, meaning that when the time finally came I struggled with "You can't pick that up!" prompts for a bit before realising I didn't actually need to because I could use the item directly.
The puzzles are mostly standard inventory fare, interspersed with the odd mechanism to manipulate. Despite the often wacky objectives, such as hooking Igor up with a hot Russian bride or evading the troll Alex hired to guard his secret island cave headquarters, the solutions generally have an internal logic to them that makes them feel fair and satisfying. The developers are also clearly devotees of classic adventures: at one point, for example, you can try getting past a guard dog with a drugged steak. When it doesn't work, Xavi is puzzled since "it worked for that pirate." There are references like this throughout, and the puzzles as a whole have a very LucasArts feel to them.
However, the game does hit a bit of a speed bump during a brief rhythm game segment where you have to hit the arrow keys as prompted in order to dodge a toy clown's punches. It's not that hard as these things go (I got the hang of it after a few tries), but it's required in order to progress and may be off-putting for some. I'd definitely have liked to see an option to either skip it or reduce the difficulty, as it feels really out of place in an otherwise purely point-and-click game. And while we're on the subject of things I could have done without, there's also a small maze near the end. It's no maze of twisty little passages, and as it turns out it's small enough that you can get through it just by blundering around, but I did groan a little as I wandered in.
I also had an odd issue with practically the first puzzle in the game. You're tasked with taking a shower and having some breakfast before you leave for your exam, but you're initially blocked from doing either. (I did say things got off to a bit of a pedestrian start.) After several minutes of being stumped, in desperation I tried opening the front door and got chided for trying to leave unkempt and hungry. Only after this admonishment was the game happy to let me take that shower. It's an odd lapse in an otherwise quite satisfying puzzling experience.
There's no save facility, the game instead autosaving on exit. That's largely fine, given that everything's pretty linear and there's no way to get stuck. However, at one point about three-quarters of the way through, you're presented with a moral choice of sorts. This is the conversation "puzzle" and the only time in the whole game that your conversation choices actually matter. You're told in no uncertain terms that it's an important choice that will have consequences, and indeed it does: as well as different endings, the two paths open up different locations and different puzzles. It's well worth trying both, but without a manual save system the only way to do that is to play through the whole game again from the beginning. It's just as well the adventure goes a lot quicker the second time around.
Unfortunately, both endings have a pretty significant problem: they're abrupt and unexpected, coming just when it feels like events are finally starting to get going. Essentially the story stops in the middle, and although the developer has plans for a sequel, for now I was left sitting there thinking, "Is that it?" as the credits rolled. The two endings also create a few issues with the puzzles, with essential objects and puzzles for one branch becoming odd red herrings for the other. One branch in particular leaves a whole puzzle sequence hanging, one step short of completion, making its ending particularly startling.
The plot as a whole feels more like a framework for the puzzles to sit in and a source of comedy set-ups for the videos than a coherent whole; it meanders amiably through with no great sense of purpose. Some discoveries you make towards the end give it a little dramatic tension, but otherwise it just expects you to go with the flow and try to enjoy the ride.
Provided you're willing to do that, and so long as you can find a way to get along with the slapstick (but good-hearted) humour, Damn Virgins definitely grows on you. There's around 4-5 hours of surprisingly old-school puzzling here, so if you can live without a tight plot and prefer instant gratification instead of saving yourself for part two, it could be worth checking out.