Adventure Gamers Awards
Although the focus on storytelling is stronger than ever in the adventure genre these days, we are clearly in an era of cynicism, where bleak characters choose between bleaker and bleakest choices. It’s certainly led to some rewarding experiences, but if you’re like me, it also makes you long for a more carefree time, like the one where cynicism gave way to sock hops and poodle skirts. 1950s Americana is an area of pop culture that has been underserved by adventure games (and by gaming as a whole). If you’ve been dying to have that particular itch scratched, you’ll be very happy to know that Jerry McPartlin: Rebel with a Cause is here. Unfortunately, it happens to be made by a German developer with only one significant game on their resume—a shipyard simulator, at that. Perhaps not surprisingly, the end result is anything but neato, but a rather half-hearted and underwhelming effort. And that’s a drag, baby.
You play as slick-haired Jerry, an aspiring rock star in the quiet town of Barnett Springs. You’re just a normal guy trying to be cool in a lame world, until your love interest’s father alerts you to mysterious and devious things happening in town, primarily centering around a suspicious government agent who might actually be a supernatural villain. Stopping this bad guy, the focal point of the game, turns out to be a giant recipe fetch quest that borrows heavily in tone and content from The Secret of Monkey Island, though definitely not in cleverness or creativity. Retrieving these ingredients often requires you to deal with sub-layers, and sometimes sub-sub-layers, of still more fetch quests to the point of near frustration. I wondered at times if Jerry McPartlin is meant to deliberately satirize the common nature of such fetch quests, but it seems to be an actual design choice.
Fetch quests, of course, are generally designed in a way to promote a great deal of laborious backtracking, and this game is no exception. Exploring the world of Barnett Springs to find the ingredients and win the day is not a very compelling experience, however, because this city is total deadsville, man. For some reason, the entire game appears to take place in the middle of the night, and as a result the town square is pitch dark (to the point of being almost unable to see your character while walking) with absolutely no people. Don’t worry though, as the high school hallway and the local post office are apparently open 24 hours in this world. Even so, you will only encounter seven other humans in the entire game, which is a ridiculous dearth of interaction for a game ostensibly built on dialogue.
The locations you visit are almost totally bereft of possible interactions as well, a fact driven home each time you hit the Space bar to show all available hotspots. There’s a scene where you visit the house of your childhood, and while I’m hardly expecting Gone Home, surely the developer could have bothered to add at least a few hotspots with some commentary from the protagonist. Much more could also have been done with the town pawnshop and the various items present. But providing that type of internal context is not a focus here—this is a game that was clearly intended to be about dialogue with the few other cats around town.
I was a bit nervous about the writing, this being a German-developed game about an era of American culture that was all about the slang. But while those fears were allayed, the script is poor in ways I didn’t anticipate. Jerry McPartlin does in fact appear to be well-localized, avoiding some of the odd vocabulary glitches that foreign games often struggle with. The problem is that this is a comedy game written by someone with a very dull sense of humor. See, your love interest’s father is a Hopi shaman named Wikvaya. Bizarrely out of place in a 1950s Americana adventure, this creates a lot of really funny possibilities—except there’s nothing actually funny written. The fact that he’s a shaman seems to be the entirety of the joke, and this is a recurring theme throughout: unusual, potentially very amusing, non sequitur concepts and some strange late-game settings are delivered with no edge or bite at all.
At the other end of the spectrum, some jokes get re-used to the point of aggravation. It is supposed to be hilarious that there is a set of triplet brothers in town whose names rhyme and Jerry can never keep them straight—an idea with modest comedic promise but absolutely no good writing to drive it home. I had the same reaction to almost all of the attempts at humor in this game that I do at some of the Disney shows my children watch (which they seem to find very funny)—it’s just head-shakingly silly.
It’s an even bigger shame that the writing is such a letdown, because the voice acting is a real strength of the game. I can fill volumes with complaints about voice-overs in comic adventures, especially the hero characters, but the performance for Jerry nails the likeable, aspiringly-hip-but-not-obnoxious tone of some great characters from the era of Happy Days. His is the only voice that really matters, but none of the supporting voices are anything to complain about either. The actors seem invested in their lines and understand the context of what they’re saying, which is half the battle in many lower-budget games.Continued on the next page...