Slap Village review
Slap Village is just the simple, everyday story of a girl and her pet mouse, off to visit grandma in the big city. Or at least it would be if it weren't for the time travel. And aliens. And the fact that it turns out her granny's been missing for weeks. The game’s unpublicised subtitle is Chapter 1 - Reality Slap, which is doubly appropriate: it's like the Old West got picked up and shaken, mixing old and new, real and sci-fi. It's also full of hints that this is just the start of a longer journey. For now, though, what we have here is a dose of good-hearted fun, coated in delightful graphics and a peppy score, let down only by its rough translation work and short runtime.
Lurditas, the heroine of the tale, just wants to take a break from life in the one-horse town of Golden Onion and go spend the summer with her grandma Juanita in the eponymous big city. Now, Slap Village is a curious place, and not just because it's really a city: imagine Back to the Future's Hill Valley, but with all the time periods mashed together. Old Western storefronts are festooned with satellite dishes, steam train passengers tap away on their laptops, and Formula 1 cars are horse-drawn wagons. And somehow Juanita managed to call her granddaughter last night on a phone covered in weeks' worth of dust.
Something's clearly gone very wrong with time, and yet for all that Lurditas and everyone else seem to be blissfully unaware. You might be inclined to point the finger at the aliens who've stopped by in their flying saucer, but it's probably not that simple. Whatever's going on, Juanita's involved somehow; Lurditas has to track her down, and not just to get another bowl of her delicious vegetable stew.
The world of Slap Village is quirky with a capital Q. Even setting aside the bizarre mishmash of old and new, the characters you meet are often wildly eccentric. Such as the local priest, who tours the world with a group of nuns as the holy rock band Hallelujazz and preaches in a church with windows depicting the saints – saints like Superman, Obi Wan Kenobi and... is that a Mexican wrestler? Then there's the local Native American Chief, who runs his own movie company putting out hits such as Pocadumbass. Or the cigar-chewing promoter of foot-wrestling matches. Then there’s the one-eyed green alien in the ten-gallon hat who just wants to fit in and make fine musical instruments. Even the more conventional characters, like a conniving businessman or two society ladies, are drawn with a heavy dose of caricature.
Lurditas herself, by contrast, seems to be largely defined by her social conscience. She loves animals (especially her pet mouse, Rasta), hates the machinations of big business, tries to save the environment (one memorable incident of bean-induced methane pollution notwithstanding) and is a friend to Native Americans and aliens alike. On the one hand, her desire to help anyone and everyone she sees makes her the perfect adventure game heroine, but on the other it also makes her one of the blander characters here, especially when you consider how larger-than-life the others are. Occasionally we see a hint of a mischievous streak, and she's inherited some of the same competitive urge that turned her brother into a famous wagon-racing driver, but for the most part she's driven by the desire to do good and find her grandmother.
One aspect of Slap Village that can't be called bland is the graphics, which are in the style of a classic Saturday morning cartoon. Presented in full HD, the backgrounds are kept simple, obviously hand-drawn but clean and sharp. The characters are… well, characterful, smoothly animated and brimming with personality. Even before they open their mouths, you have a good idea what they're going to be like, and that's a real victory for the cartoonist's art. (You can tell that this developer started out as an animation studio.) If I had a criticism, it would be that everything's quite static, with relatively few background animations and many characters standing stock still when you're not talking to them. It makes up for this in grand style, though, with the set-piece cutscenes that reward you for solving puzzles: where other games might fade to black and settle for sound effects to get the point across, here you are treated to playful mini-cartoons that never failed to raise a smile.
Over the course of your time with Lurditas, you'll visit a reasonable variety of locations, too, from the dusty streets of Golden Onion to lush countryside and high desert, not to mention a train, a landlocked surfer shack, a zeppelin and the mysterious Time Mine. Add in the anachronisms great and small, from a rustic saloon with a trendy coffee shop interior to a space-age hoverbus, and the mixed-up West is definitely an interesting place to visit.
The music, too, is jaunty and fun. It varies from a take on traditional banjo-pluckin' Western music to mystical pan pipes, surfer cool and even a dash of Mission: Impossible, doing a great job of setting the mood and keeping the tone light without becoming obtrusive or grating. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the voice acting, which is okay at best and downright bad at worst. It also doesn't help that the translation from the original Spanish is shaky: good enough to be comprehensible, but full of the odd grammar and weirdly-mangled expressions that betray a non-native translator. The lead actress (playing Lurditas) has done a decent job regardless, but it's evident some of the other actors were struggling to do more than read out the words as written. It's not enough to bring down the overall experience, as the jovial, good-hearted vibe carries it through, but I can't help but feel a lot of the jokes were probably funnier in Spanish. As it was, they kept me smiling but rarely laughing out loud.
The controls are largely traditional, but with a slight twist. When you mouse over an object or character, up to two icons appear by the cursor, selected from the usual look, take/interact and speak. The twist is that rather than mapping, say, look to the left mouse button and interact to the right, you have to go by the order in which the icons appear: the leftmost is what you'll get by left-clicking and the rightmost (if present) by right-clicking. Just to keep you on your toes, the look icon generally appears on the left and the interact icon on the right, but things are reversed when you're in your inventory! It's a typically quirky approach from a quirky game, and in practice it works fine, but a more standard scheme would probably have been better.
In a more successful innovation, you bring your inventory down from the top of the screen by mouse-scrolling up, and your map (when you have one) up from the bottom by scrolling down. Both appear quickly and smoothly, and were a joy to use. Early on, you're carrying your belongings around in a suitcase, while later you gain the use of Juanita's Drone Simone(TM), a very steampunk contraption consisting of a trunk held aloft by many small propellers. While you visibly carry the suitcase around, Simone discreetly hovers out of sight. It's a small thing, but it does help answer the age-old adventuring question of just how you're managing to carry around umpteen miscellaneous items without spoiling the line of your outfit.
The save game system is (perhaps appropriately) old-fashioned, relying on you to manually record your progress. There's no autosave-on-exit here, and even the "continue" button on the title screen just brings up a list of saved games. That's fine so far as it goes (though a warning about losing progress unless you save wouldn't have gone amiss), but on a couple of occasions saving outright didn't work – clicking the "save" button did nothing. Actually, less than nothing: highlighting an existing save file and clicking "save" not only didn't save the game, it deleted the file as well. Moving Lurditas to another area got things working again, but it's a worrying bug.
Technically there's a hint system, but in practice it's of little use. That's a shame, because the idea's quite neat: early on, one of the aliens provides you with a sheet of hints in their own incomprehensible language. As you develop as a person, more and more of it starts making sense (i.e. gets translated into English), so that you get help for the puzzles you're currently working on. There are two problems with that, though. First, you're shown hints for all active puzzles, not just the one you need help with; and secondly, the hints are just too vague to be useful. Even after solving some of the puzzles, I still couldn't make sense of them!
With a couple of exceptions, the puzzles are inventory-based and thankfully pretty fair and reasonable. Given the emphasis on broad comedy, I initially worried it would be full of the more outrageous LucasArts-style wacky item usage, but not this time. The things you wind up doing may seem random, like persuading a dog to part with his bone, repurposing a bird cage or reinvigorating an ageing surfer, but it all makes sense in context. The only fly in the ointment is that there is a certain amount of pixel hunting required. See that ordinary-looking stick poking out from behind a rock, in an area full of wooden debris? That's not actually a stick, it's a pick whose head is hidden from view. A hotspot highlighter would really have been useful there, as that one had me tearing my hair out before I finally found it.
To shake things up a bit, there are also a couple of minigames that see you racing to catch a train and competing as a foot-wrestler. Neither is very hard, but I did need to have a few goes at the wrestling game before getting the hang of it, progressing through it in the end more by button-mashing and luck than skill. The racing game is easier (and has an "easy" mode for the less-coordinated) and both will be fun for many, but they could also be a turn-off for some. An option to either skip them or solve a puzzle instead would have been welcome.
There's also one "dialogue" puzzle that stands out, though more for being fiddly than difficult. It seems simple enough – just repeat back a series of phrases – but the phrases are nonsense words, full of very similar syllables, and you're left scratching your head, thinking, "Did he say blah riki blah, or blah tiki blah?" Then, just when you think you're done, you're suddenly asked to repeat all the phrases again, with no prompts. I got there in the end, but it nearly deflated the air of easygoing fun the rest of the game exudes.
Despite only being about 3-4 hours long, this feels like a very rewarding game. As well as the usual achievements, it also tracks the objects you find (with a card for each) and the characters you meet (filling up a trophy cabinet of mini-figures, each with a bit more of the character's backstory). The title screen also includes a TV for replaying cutscene cartoons and an arcade cabinet for the minigames. Finally, every time you solve a major puzzle you make the front page of the local newspaper and there's an area to display these too. These aren't just headlines and pictures, either: there's a story with each, as well as extra side stories and adverts. Add in the way the game is divided into acts, with a silent movie-style black-and-white title card for each, and you really feel the developers have gone the extra mile here.
Plotwise, Slap Village hangs together reasonably well, though at times it was only after completing a puzzle that I realised what the goal was. It also has a bit of a penchant for introducing story strands only to drop them when they're no longer needed. The second act in particular is bad for this: you learn information that will be useful later, but none of the things you actually do lead anywhere. The whole act could have been cut without changing the storyline at all, and would only have required a little more explanation from some of the other characters to close the gaps. Perhaps, though, to think that way is to miss the point: it's about the journey, not the destination.
Maybe the strangest thing about Slap Village is that despite cameo appearances from Marty McFly's hoverboard and the DeLorean, there's very little actual time travel involved. This is the story of Lurditas's quest to track down her missing granny, and of all the people she helps along the way, not an intricately-plotted time travel fantasy. In fact, it leaves pretty much all the time-related threads dangling, even the source of the anachronisms that give the setting its unique character. There are clearly aliens involved, and a grand battle between good and evil that Lurditas and Juanita are now caught up in, but the rest will have to wait. This chapter ends with Lurditas riding into the sunset, setting the stage for the next.
That's a tale I would like to see, which is possibly all the recommendation that's needed. The eclectic characters and outlandish story left me smiling, while the glorious cartoon graphics and bouncy soundtrack only added to the sunny mood. The Spanglish, occasional frustrating puzzle and technical glitches are minor issues by comparison. I just wish it had been a bit longer and revealed more of the overall story, but maybe – hopefully – they're saving that for next time. For now, you could definitely do worse than to pour yourself a cactus slushie and ride the train to Slap Village.