Looking back on the two hours I spent with Tick’s Tales: Up All Knight, it’s fair to say that there are a number of shortcomings worth mentioning. The game is neither particularly long nor challenging, has a very simple story, and a throwback art style that gives a whole new meaning to the word “retro”. And yet, despite that sounding mainly negative, there’s something charming about the overall experience. Between its catchy music and ability to evoke fond memories of my earliest adventure games, Tick’s Tales somehow finds a way to offset its weaknesses with things that work.
The medieval fantasy setup is pretty vanilla: Tick is a boy whose dream is to become a renowned knight and win the heart of his one true love, Georgia McGorgeous. As it so happens, there is a readily available way for him to realize his dream. All he has to do is pull the Sword of Blergh out of a stone in his hometown of Remington. But first he must prove himself worthy to be the one. So Tick sets out to win contests of courage, wisdom, and might in order to make his wish come true.
While all of this sounds suitably epic, it soon becomes apparent that the story purposely confines itself to a smaller, friendlier scale. It’s essentially split up into two acts: day and evening/night (even though the menu insists on delineating five chapters). Geographically, the entire game takes place on maybe half a dozen screens in and around Remington, with a small handful of interiors as well. The town commons, fields just outside village limits, and a nearby forest clearing are some of the locations available, as well as the general store, the knight garrison’s mess hall, and a wizard’s cottage. Both day and night sections primarily use the same screens.
Finding a limited scope in such a brief game shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. More noteworthy, however, are the trite objectives marking Tick’s way through the tale. In a magical fantasy world, many legendary feats could be performed to prove one’s courage, wisdom, and might. Instead, Tick accomplishes these tasks in the most pedestrian ways possible: solving a series of children’s riddles, rescuing a cat from a tree, and winning an arm-wrestling contest. To the game’s credit, the second act does exhibit more creative and exciting ideas, as Tick has to deal with being confronted by the town’s gang of adolescent bullies, his wizard pal Gandarf is abducted, and Bloodclot the vile goblin threatens to put an end to our hero’s life.
It’s sensible to assume that Tick’s Tales was made with a slightly younger audience in mind; hence the friendlier narrative content. Even in terms of challenge, hardened genre veterans won’t find much here to feast on. That’s not to say everything is transparent, mind you. A few instances of pixel hunting are required, and an occasional think-outside-the-box moment pops up here and there. When puzzles are presented, they uniformly require the player to find and use the right inventory item in the correct location. Even the riddles work this way – once the riddle has been deciphered, the object it refers to still needs to be physically collected in order for the solution to be official.
The gameplay interface is clutter-free, with only a backpack symbol in the bottom right corner of the screen for accessing the inventory. If an object is interactive, the cursor will light up, and clicking on it will cause Tick to move toward it and perform its action automatically; there’s no need to fiddle with various action icons. Likewise, navigation is simple by virtue of the small space Tick is confined to. No fast-travel map is needed, and Tick moves with a quick pace. However, he can only move to certain spots, typically anywhere on the dirt path, and clicking in an out-of-bounds area does nothing at all. For such a short game, there are a fair number of items to collect along the way, though their use is generally self-evident.
I hesitate to call the game truly funny, though it sometimes seems that is what the dialog is aimed at. Rather, it has a lighthearted feel that is, at its best, endearing. Other times, especially with no voice-overs aside from a few rude retching noises and such, it feels like just clicking through inconsequential dialog that isn’t interesting enough to pay close attention to. A recurring joke that is worth the occasional snicker – slightly annoying at first but becoming funnier by virtue of repetition – is the way Tick immediately slips into a lovelorn daydream at the merest mention of his love, Georgia McGorgeous. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but cute.
The presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. The aesthetic goes beyond what most consider retro these days, instead resembling the very early days of graphic adventures. The first word that crossed my mind as the game started wasn’t “pixelated” but “primitive”. The game is certainly colorful, with objects and characters instantly recognizable, but the rather crude pixel art is noticeably basic: environments resemble washed-together swaths of color, while the animation is in turns serviceable and awkward. Nothing really displays much grace, although this does lead to comic effect at least a couple of times, like when Tick performs a goofy leap of triumph, fist held in the air and mouth screwed up in an exaggerated way.
The game’s soundtrack, while catchy to the ear, evokes a similar response, sounding like an assortment of MIDI chiptunes. The funny thing is that both the graphics and music eventually grew on me. They might take the concept of “old school” to the extreme, but in the end both served their purpose of hitting the nostalgia switch in my brain. I often felt like I was playing a take on Sierra’s classic King’s Quest I, prior to its SVGA remake.
Tick’s Tales: Up All Knight leaves me feeling largely ambivalent. It’s simple and short, and maybe a bit more juvenile than some will like. But it doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong, either. It features a gentle difficulty, and a presentation that is admittedly archaic but manages to hit some of the sweet notes it’s aiming for, at least for those with fond recollections of the genre’s early days. In the end, it won’t leave much of an impression either way, but it serves nicely as a brief distraction before you’ve seen everything it has to offer.