With the issues created by over-crowding the last time I was at gamescom, and the increased security measures due to recent events, I dared at one point to hope this year would be a bit calmer. No dice. It was a bit easier to get from A to B after puzzling out the layout changes and press-only shortcuts, but the halls were no less packed and the lines no less long.
All the better for us though, as there was also no less material to cover. One developer told me he couldn't believe how people were still going on about the genre being in trouble with the amount of games coming out these days, and I'd have to agree. This was another good gamescom for adventure games. While my colleague Ingmar Böke was busy covering many other titles, I had my own full schedule of promising new games to see.
While I appreciate the classics as much as anyone, I must admit to a certain skepticism if not jadedness towards retro-style indie games. I mention this here because despite my reservations, Thimbleweed Park impressed me as a game I'm very happy I got to try for myself and not miss out on later. The developers – most notably Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick – take the view that the key to a great retro experience is not just to create a game that could actually have been made back then, but rather one that conforms to a modern nostalgia-goggled notion of what could have been. To put it bluntly, the game “cheats”, and the results couldn't be better.
The color gradients in the backgrounds are old-school, but the palette itself is not, picking from full 24-bit color in whatever way best fits the situation. The character models are pixelated but significantly larger and more detailed than would have been feasible in the old days. There are also more little background animations than could have been done long ago, as well as dynamic lighting, parallax scrolling and advanced environmental manipulations that would have been unthinkable, such as rotating the whole background slightly when you move from one end to the other in a rickety caravan. Together with some great artwork, it all adds up to make a main resolution of 480×320 look absurdly good on a big modern screen. (As a final “cheat” of sorts, while the backgrounds stick to 480×320, some other things do not, most notably the character speech text.)
Of course, there's more to achieving a classic feel than graphics. But in the time I had with the demo I could find nothing whatsoever to worry about. The game started with playable FBI agent pair Ray and Reyes investigating a murder, with the task of photographing the crime scene serving as a tutorial in using the interface to exchange items, switch characters and interact with the environment. The interface is essentially Monkey Island 2's, plus the ability to switch between playable characters and surprisingly comfortable gamepad controls.
Thimbleweed Park's large wall display at gamescom
With the photography done, asking around at the local bar quickly brought up Ransome the clown as a potential suspect, leading to a flashback segment played as him. The puzzles in this part as he gets ready for his show were as traditional as they come, and the difficulty would have been decent if I hadn't seen someone else play through the same section already. The music was also great here, even coming with local variations that transition into each other nicely enough that I had to ask if it used an iMuse-like system. (It turned out to be simple cross-fade, but it works great regardless.)
Ransome himself is a delightfully written, politically incorrect clown along the lines of The Simpsons' Krusty, with an act that turns out to consist of insulting the most vulnerable-looking members of the audience. He then makes the life-altering mistake of picking on local gypsy lady Madame Morena, whose all-too-real curses promptly cause him all kinds of subsequent misfortune. The flashback ended there, and the demo itself ended on a cliffhanger soon after involving agent Ray in a dark alley.
Trying to capture the feeling of a classic is always a challenge, but everything I've seen makes me feel that when it comes out in early 2017, Thimbleweed Park could be a piece of nostalgia-bait that actually delivers.
The Sexy Brutale
Cavalier Studios and Tequila Works' The Sexy Brutale was the game I knew the least about going in, and perhaps the most fascinatingly unusual one coming out. The title refers not to any particular character but to the building in which the story takes place, a casino built in a stately English manor and run by a mysterious Marquis. During an all-day masquerade ball there is a string of murders, leaving elderly priest Lafcadio Boone as one of the few survivors. Then time seems to reset and Boone is back in the morning, stuck in what looks to be an endless loop of horror.
While I always appreciate a nice, twisted time-travel plot, what I found more fascinating than the story itself is its effect on the gameplay. In this game you investigate murders not after the fact but while the preparations are still being made, leading to a kind of survival horror in reverse: skulking around peering through doorways and hiding in closets, you must stalk the (suspected) murderers to figure out their activity schedule. Then when you feel you've learned enough, it's time to make your plans and strike.
You do still have to be subtle about your interventions. Boone is not exactly a combatant, and even if he were, there is a strange power to the masks being worn that forces you out if you so much as occupy the same room as another character (while also making that person forget you were there). This is where more traditional adventure gameplay comes in. There are items lying around that can be picked up and objects that can be interacted with; manipulate the circumstances the right way without being seen and you can throw a wrench into the murder plots. In the tutorial level I saw, this was as simple as switching out a bullet for a blank in the murder weapon, but the difficulty will ramp up with far more convoluted schemes as you advance.
All of this plays out in an isometric perspective, using slightly-cartoonish graphics with some great lighting effects. Besides working well visually, the perspective gives you a good overview of each room and lets you move from room to room efficiently when you're after someone. Other conveniences include a zoomed-out view that lets you track people in nearby rooms by their sound, and a reconstruction screen that automatically records what you have noticed of each character's whereabouts at different points in time.
When you successfully prevent a murder, the victim has a moment of clarity and takes their mask off. This lets you talk to them to get a bit closer to unraveling the larger mysteries and receive something for your trouble, like a special ability or an item that stays with you when time resets. (Ordinary inventory items just go back to where you found them.) These in turn help you resolve other murders until you've fixed all of them, at which point the game will head towards the finale.
The original gameplay angle may make The Sexy Brutale feel like a bit of an odd duck genre-wise, but to me it's all the more reason to pay close attention when it arrives in the first quarter of 2017.
“Dream-like” is the best way to describe what I saw of PaperSeven's Blackwood Crossing, a first-person game exploring the relationship between orphaned siblings Scarlett and Finn. Skipping past two prologues that should be more grounded in reality, the demo dropped me into what seemed like a dream sequence of sorts right at the start. Scarlett was chasing Finn through a train while passing various side characters that have played some role in their lives, including their dead parents. To hammer down the surrealness, these characters had their heads replaced with papercraft masks and were mostly frozen in time. Disjointed dialog lines and brief puzzles revealed glimpses of their significance and what it all meant, but for the most part things were left to the imagination.
If there was any doubt about how fantastical this section was, the transition into the next got rid of that promptly. What turned out to be the last train wagon was filled with plants and grass surrounding a tree trunk going up through the ceiling, and trying to get to the area beyond instead led to a greenhouse. Here the game started to come into its own graphics-wise, leaving behind the muted palette and understandably repetitive interiors of the train to burst alive with vibrant colors and imaginative environments, with a treehouse setting containing a very nicely improvised planetarium that PaperSeven co-founder Alice Guy described as one of her favorite places in the game.
As they met up in the treehouse, Scarlett relived part of her past with Finn, helping him make papercraft butterflies as they discussed life. Things got more cohesive in this last scene of the demo than in the train, but only to a point. Like in a dream, the story in Blackwood Crossing seems to be something to be explored and put together, not something that's handed to you straightforwardly. If you don't mind a little narrative ambiguity, this game looks set to be a very nice journey when it arrives in early 2017.Continued on the next page...