Ah, Paris. Mysterious artifacts, source of globe-trotting adventure, romantic bickering and... fart jokes? Move over George and Nico – Demetrios: The BIG Cynical Adventure is coming through, with a foul mouth and a serious case of Broken Sword envy. That's not to say the debut release from indie developer Cowcat is just lazy pastiche, though: underneath it all there's an unexpectedly well-constructed story. The characters may not be that likable, and the humour definitely won't be to everyone's taste, but there's ample meat to get your puzzling teeth into and twists and turns aplenty in this lengthy tale.
Bjorn Thonen is (despite the name) a Paris native and occasional antique dealer. "Occasional" both in the sense that business is slow and that his wares are rarely the antiques he claims they are. Bjorn is (let's be honest) a happy-go-lucky slacker who's perfectly content to snap up an ancient bird statue of unknown provenance for 20 euros, no questions asked. Even a strange phone call warning him of grave danger ahead doesn't faze him. At least, not until burglars break into his apartment, knock him out, and steal a tablet the bird was holding. (Not to mention his wallet, but there's rarely much in there other than moths.)
When the police don't bat an eyelash, despite the discovery that a similar tablet has just been stolen in Belgium, the usually shiftless Bjorn is spurred into action. Naturally, there's more going on here than a couple of simple robberies, and he soon finds himself drawn deeper into a plot revolving around Demetrios, ancient king of the tiny forgotten nation of Nogo. Along the way, he stumbles across alien artifacts, clones, and a temple that has been lost to the desert for centuries. He winds up impersonating a police officer, playing pinball on a tombstone, brewing potions and (briefly) moonlighting as a hired assassin, all in the name of saving the world. Or maybe it has more to do with the prospect of an unimaginably vast treasure hoard.
Tagging along through all of this are Bjorn's neighbour Sandra and her sarcastic eight-year-old daughter Caroline. Frequently frustrating but occasionally helpful, they take way too much on holiday, mislay crucial items at just the wrong moment, and cook the world's worst soup. Even if Bjorn would like to think romance is budding between them, Caroline is always there to put a spanner in the works, if Bjorn's own clumsiness and social ineptitude hasn't done that already. They're an odd couple, to be sure, but they're also too self-absorbed and cynical to do much more than get on each other's nerves.
Demetrios belies its "cynical" label by looking and sounding bright and sunny. For the most part the cartoon graphics are nicely-drawn, colourful and detailed. The work of a talented amateur rather than a professional, there are some rough spots – a little dodgy shading here, a crude-looking mountain in the background there – but overall the visuals are a great success. There are around 40 locations to explore, from Bjorn's apartment and shop to a funfair, a bazaar and even a graveyard.
Unusually for this art style, you explore in first-person rather than third. However, Bjorn's not hiding: every comment he makes is accompanied by his expressive portrait popping up. After a while, I grew to appreciate this approach more and more; without the need to walk from place to place, interactions moved along at a brisk clip. This is especially helpful as every screen is absolutely packed with things to look at. Pretty much everything you can see merits a remark, and often more than one. Each of the books on Bjorn's bookshelf gets its own sidenote, for example. It's a great way for him to convey his personality, and being able to hop from item to item instantly made me much more inclined to hang around and investigate them all.
Cutscenes are handled in a comic book style, each page revealed panel by panel to the accompaniment of appropriate sound effects. Along with helping to cement the less-than-serious tone, this technique feels like a pragmatic but stylish way to handle storytelling on a budget.
The music likewise provides a jaunty background to events, with a selection of loosely themed scores for each area. There's a bit more accordion and cafe band in Paris, a little Arabian flavour in Nogo, and tense scenes get a more stripped-back, cautious feel. The relatively small repertoire of tunes gets a little repetitive at times, but fortunately they are so bouncy and good-natured it is easy to forgive.
There's no voice acting, the dialogue instead spooling into speech bubbles with a teletype-like clacking. As with the first-person view, this turned out to have definite upsides. For one thing, it further quickens the pace (reading being faster than speaking), and it also enabled a rather significant reworking of the script that we'll get to in a moment. (It must also have made translation easier; the text is also available in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian.)
This is as good a time as any to talk about Demetrios’s most controversial aspect: the toilet humour. It's full to overflowing with it, at least by default. Though it only occasionally peeks through into the main plot line, Bjorn's observations are peppered with jokes about bodily functions, sex and all things crude and disgusting. For some, this will undoubtedly be hilarious – in a very South Park kind of way – but it wasn't to my taste. Fortunately, a recent update has added the option to reduce or eliminate it from the game. Given how much of it there is, that must have been a pretty sizable undertaking, but after playing through with the option enabled, it does make a big difference. The crude observations are gone, sometimes replaced by more innocuous remarks and sometimes just cut out entirely. Not just that, but some objects have been replaced or renamed, and Bjorn is even more polite towards Sandra and Caroline at times. He's also just a bit tidier: rather than leave a knocked-over garbage bag to fester, for example, he's now willing to clean it up.Continued on the next page...