Review for Dropsy
The word “dropsy” is a colloquial name for edema, a medical condition characterized by abnormal fluid retention in body cavities. As such, it’s pretty much the perfect title for Dropsy the clown’s journey of self-discovery, and not just because its costumed protagonist is hugely rotund. This is a bold, unapologetically old-school point-and-click adventure that’s bursting at the seams with vibrant settings, bizarre characters, and promising ideas. Unfortunately, even in the absence of any actual dialogue, Dropsy is so bloated with unwieldy filler that it often stops being enjoyable and starts to feel painful until the swelling subsides and you begin to feel better again. It’s an admirable attempt to do something different that certainly succeeds in spurts, but just as players will discover along the way, not every ill can be cured with just a hug.
It’s a shame the game’s impairments undermine its healthy ambition, because Dropsy is quite literally a feel-good adventure at heart, though you probably won’t think so at first. The titular clown is a bulbous, ugly fellow with the requisite makeup and only three yellow teeth. What’s worse, he’s plagued by hellish nightmares from the memory of his circus burning down with his mother trapped in it, a fire that many townsfolk suspect him of causing. Dropsy is not a horror-inducing monster, except maybe to coulrophobes, but rather a tragic figure simply looking to find his place in an uncaring world. He’s also a big galoot, a simple but loving buffoon who just wants to make people happy, completely undeterred by their distrust and even outright hostility towards him.
Dropsy’s desire to greet everyone he meets with a hug surprisingly represents the bulk of the gameplay. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part should be obvious, in that the very premise is a heartwarming endeavour to bring some kindness to a hurting world even when that love seems hopelessly unrequited. Heck, Dropsy doesn’t even discriminate: he’ll hug critters, trees (not like that) and statues he thinks could use cheering up too. If you can’t feel at least a bit of joy in bringing a smile to the faces of those around you, then you’re probably a little dead inside and the life of a clown definitely isn’t for you, even in videogame form.
The curse part of the equation comes from the execution. For one thing, befriending people is so prevalent that it overwhelms the main storyline, shunting it aside as a secondary consideration for vast portions of the game. In fact, there’s so little actual plot that the sum total of effort required to push the story forward likely wouldn’t fill more than two of Dropsy’s six-plus hours of play time on its own. Then again, there’s so little to the story that it isn’t really much of a loss, at least until the end when it rushes off in a cockamamie direction that would make even the most radical sci-fi fanatic cringe. Until that point, the only mandatory objectives feel like extensions of the core conceit, as you create a memorial for Dropsy’s deceased mother and find medicine for his sick father. Along the way, you’ll first acquire and later rescue some little animal companions when they inevitably get in trouble.
The bigger issue with being the resident cheer-giver relates to the game’s open-world map. Right from the moment you step out of your leftover circus tent, you have instant access to much of the world around you. Such freedom can be a good thing, but to be effective it needs to service the gameplay, and here it’s more of a hindrance. In conjunction with the lack of any substantial story motivations, you’re left wandering aimlessly through the sprawling, maze-like web of streets and forests, deserts and caves looking for something you can actually do. You can try hugging everyone you encounter, of course, but after a few confidence-inspiring successes, you’ll find most of your further advances rebuffed.
In order to make people receptive to your enthusiastic embrace, you must first help them overcome whatever is making their lives miserable. This is conveyed with no talking (unless you count some Charlie Brown-like wah-wah-wahs as speech) or text of any kind, but rather strictly through pictograms that appear as thought bubbles over their heads. Again, this is a great idea in theory that has been cleverly used before, but here it’s clumsily implemented with images and objectives that can be very difficult to decipher. Even if you do interpret the visually represented need correctly, it could take ages and miles of trudging back and forth before you find anything that remotely resembles a clue. It slows the pacing not quite to a crawl, but at least to the perpetually lazy amble of Dropsy the clown.
If ever a game needed at least a double-click-to-exit option, the scrolling Dropsy is it. Instead, this game’s mechanics seem determined to maximize player inconvenience. The basic point-and-click controls are easy enough to grasp, with just a single-click moving the protagonist about and performing the default actions prescribed by the smart cursor on hotspots. At least, it will if Dropsy feels like it. Often he’ll simply shrug unhelpfully, offering no hint at all as to whether you’re on the right track or what you’re doing wrong. At times, for example, he’ll only carry out an action if you possess the proper inventory item (with no indication it’s needed), at which point he’ll do it automatically. One time I needed to hug a character a second time to overcome their reluctance, even though every other instance of hug failure means that other actions are required first. As sad as Dropsy feels whenever he’s rejected, discovering this arbitrary break in the game’s own rules well after the fact made me feel far more miserable.
Extra complexity is tucked away at the top of the screen, where a drop-down bar contains additional icons for hugging, inventory, and three initially blacked-out options. You’ll have no idea what the latter signify at first, but eventually they’ll be filled with Dropsy’s dog, mouse, and bird companions. By clicking their respective icons, you can switch control to them whenever you like so long as they remain in your party. Once more, teaming up different abilities is a terrific concept: the dog is able to dig (as well as sniff out the odd useful area of interest and relieve himself on suitable targets), the mouse can fit into small holes, and the bird can fly higher than Dropsy can stretch. I had no idea these options would eventually become available, of course, leaving me totally flummoxed over how to obtain out-of-reach objects for the longest time. But even after they did, there is often no cursor indication of newly-accessible passages, making their limited usage far less intuitive than they had any business being.
The menu bar also contains a link to a mini-map, which inexplicably refuses to allow quick travel until quite late in the game, forcing an inordinate amount of backtracking and probably a fair bit of getting lost until you find your bearings, particularly given how obscure some of the exits can be. Honestly, with all the hiking to and fro, it’s a wonder Dropsy isn’t significantly skinnier by the end of his travels. Even once the travel ability is acquired it’s more nuisance than necessary, as it’s linked to Dropsy’s car and doesn’t take you everywhere you want to go directly. You’ll often need to get out and roam some more, then hoof it back to your wheels (correction: to one of the pre-determined travel spots, as not all locations allow it) to go somewhere else.
Then there’s the matter of finding beds to advance time. In yet another feature that works great on paper but is bothersome in practice, time continually advances through day/night cycles, including dawn and dusk. This adds wonderful visual variety to the already-impressive array of settings, but it comes with a catch to make your life difficult. You see, various people are available only in certain places at certain times. While this is a commendable nod to realism (in an otherwise utterly unrealistic world), because the game map is so huge and you can’t control time directly, you have to do even more aimless wandering in order to see every possibility at different times of day. To speed things along you can find scattered beds to sleep in, only one (of two) that is relatively convenient at the start. Unfortunately, even when you unlock more they are few and far between, and occasionally so much time passed just hauling my fat clown arse to a bed that snoozing away a few hours took me beyond my desired window of opportunity. (Update: A newer version of the game has wisely added a time-of-day option for waking, removing one annoying hurdle since time of writing.)
Add all this up, and solving puzzles for no particular story reason with the vaguest of clues is often a matter of slogging your way to the right place at the right time with the right item and right companion to perform the desired action, assuming the less-than-polished interface cooperates. Other than that, they’re pretty straightforward! I’m being facetious, obviously, but all obstacles are inventory-based, so the general process of exploring and collecting will be very familiar to any experienced adventure gamer, just with a whole lot of cumbersome complications piled on top.
The actual tasks required can range from fairly intuitive to utterly abstract. A grieving widower will cherish a memento of his wife, though getting it into his hands involves jumping through figurative hoops. Elsewhere, a record store owner is looking for a hot new band, an obnoxiously loud preacher is being tuned out by her dwindling congregation, and the homeless are in need of food and money. Sounds pretty normal, if eclectic, but you’ll also need to placate a jealous mama bird with kleptomaniac hatchlings, a massive-headed junkyard “king” with an unusually picky palate for soup, and a delicacy-pooping alien. (Yes, you read that right. Try not to think about it.)
All this should help illustrate just how bizarre the world of Dropsy can be. One minute you’ll be confronting an angry street greeter dressed like a chicken, and the next you’ll be hobnobbing with martini-swilling lab robots, while at night you can even shake your oversized booty at the local disco (surely one of the game’s most hilarious yet disturbing sights of all). And if Dropsy’s reality sounds weird, his unreality is even weirder, as his naps frequently stimulate grotesque dream sequences filled with toy soldiers, giant hands, and hungry floor monsters. (For all his genuine compassion, our hero is clearly a troubled soul.) It often doesn’t make a lick of sense, but you can’t help but press on to see what you’ll encounter next.
Speaking of illustrations, everything is displayed in vivid pixel art that is at times both beautiful and garish – in fact, often at the same time. Each screen is like a burst of pastel colour, the wide variety of locations ensuring the entire palette is represented somewhere. And depending on the time of day, you’ll see them all under the cover of clear blue, bright pink, or deep purple skies. I appreciate good pixel art, but I actually found it to be a bit too much, so I chose to play the game in windowed mode, which made it easier to visibly absorb. That didn’t help me identify a number of odd inventory items, however, which really need labels. You won’t find much in the way of ambient animation, but there are plenty of character actions to keep the game feeling lively. My only real complaint is that Dropsy’s own walking animation is slightly jerky throughout.
Music is perhaps the game’s strongest suit but – stop me if you’ve heard this before – this too suffers from overkill long before the end. There are quite a few distinct tracks to fit the diverse environments: twangy guitars strum in the desert, light sax jazz plays in town, and discordant tones or wailing rock tunes haunt Dropsy’s nightmares, to name just a few of the many different styles. You can even collect over a dozen cassettes to play in select locations. Unfortunately, each song has a fairly short loop, and even with some of them changing keys to suit the evolving circumstances, the constant backtracking means you’ll soon start to hear the same notes played over and over again. A more judicious use of soundtrack and increased background effects would have helped alleviate this inevitable repetition – or ideally, a more focused gameplay experience to reduce the need entirely.
And it’s here that we come full circle: excessive bloating. Dropsy could have a been a great game. It stars a unique protagonist with an almost single-minded goal that makes it stand out from the crowd. The artistic effort and care put into creating a welcome range of characters and environments is clearly evident. And of course, its themes of love and redemption are truly admirable qualities to make the centrepiece of a game. Alas, it just doesn’t know what to do with these strengths. The combination of labyrinthine open-world map, ambitious but user-unfriendly gameplay features, and lack of almost any story focus results in a game that doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and takes far too long to get there. The aimlessness and repetition do little more than pad out game time, while continually eroding much of the goodwill built up in the process. I’m certainly not suggesting the hand-holding opposite is the answer, but a leaner, tighter Dropsy would have made for a much better adventure.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Dropsy’s central premise is largely wasted. You can hug more than 50 people or things over the course of the game, but other than adding their pictures to the wall of Dropsy’s room like trophies, it really doesn’t seem to make any difference except for the few who stand in the way of your progress. With each hug earned, you’ll get a warm fuzzy and flashy success message, and then it’s back to business as usual, only this time with a happy smile balloon hovering over your newfound friend’s head. There’s no sense of character development or actual relationship established. Sometimes you’ll get an item in exchange, making those friendships just another form of currency. For the others, perhaps it’s only fitting that a show of affection is its own reward, but it’s a lost opportunity to make the achievement more narratively meaningful.
Despite its padding, or maybe because of it, hardcore adventure gamers pining for the days of huge worlds, extensive exploring, and lots of random puzzles may just find Dropsy a dream come true. At the very least, it is a one-of-a-kind adventure, and that alone makes it worthy of recommendation for some. But “different” does not mean “good”, so for everyone else a degree of caution is advised. I feel bad criticizing a game that’s all about making people feel good, but unlike the people in Dropsy’s world, I wasn’t fully won over by its unique approach to old-school sensibilities. I couldn’t help but love its intentions, but with all its excess bulk and awkward coordination, the game often ends up tripping over its own clown shoes. Still, while Dropsy didn’t leave me happy, I’m not sorry I made his tender-hearted acquaintance. I just wish he hadn’t overstayed his welcome.