Tales review

Tales review
Tales review
The Good:
  • Charming (retro) graphics and varied music
  • Intricate, world-spanning puzzles
  • Believable characters
  • Full of tales you probably haven’t heard before
The Bad:
  • Can get bogged down in exposition
  • Some object-juggling required due to limited inventory
  • Puzzles can take guesswork
Our Verdict:

A little mechanical clunkiness can’t hide the heart beneath Tales, which shines with a love of stories, puzzles and humanity.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: there are these magical books describing worlds that are not merely imaginary but real places you can visit just by reading them. The premise may sound familiar, but rather than another Myst game, here it’s from Tales, by Italian indie developer Ape Marina. As the title suggests, the stories here are a little closer to home: myths, legends and literary classics, some famous and others more obscure. In this traditional point-and-click adventure, the fate of storytelling itself is at stake. That sounds ominous, but in fact Tales treats its subjects with a light touch, educating and entertaining in equal parts. It may be a little ponderous in places, but the puzzles are satisfying and (if you're anything like me) you'll come away with the sudden urge to read a good book.

Alfred Walsh knows a cushy job when he sees one. So when he's invited to be the "guardian" of a strange library, he jumps at the chance. Getting paid to look after some old books, maybe dust them once in a while? Yes, please! Except there's this old chest in the corner of the room, and Alfred is curious… how was he to know it contained the eldritch horror, Oblivion? Someone should really have warned him there was a story-devouring monster in there.

For this is a very special library, the tales told in its books not mere words on a page but living worlds, as real to their inhabitants as ours is to us. Just reading one of the volumes is enough to suck you in, body and soul. Of course, not all stories are good, not all characters benevolent. Oblivion is the worst of them all, which is why he and his black book were locked away in a trunk that was never to be opened. All this the previous librarian explained in a note to his successor, a note that Oblivion was able to blow out of the window at just the wrong moment. Fortunately, the forces of fate are able to guide it back in again, but too late to prevent catastrophe.

Oblivion, you see, is the devourer of tales. Unless he's stopped, all of mankind's stories will be eaten away, and with them the touchstones our culture is built upon. All is not lost, though: Oblivion has been defeated once before, by the demigod Gilgamesh. (There's a reason the tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest one we still know.) All Alfred has to do is find the right book, seek out Gilgamesh and beg for his help before Oblivion's disease spreads throughout the library, wiping out the books within. Should be easy, right? Naturally, this seemingly simple errand quickly spirals out of control, leading the plucky librarian on an epic journey across literary works, meeting such figures as the wizard Merlin, the Greek hero Bellerophon, the giant Pantagruel and adventurer Phileas Fogg along the way. He'll be sacrificed to the Mayan gods, cook for a queen and trick an ice giant, all in the name of saving their stories.

Perhaps appropriately for a game obsessed with the classics, the graphics are unapologetically retro-styled. Every pixel has been crafted with care, making for lush, detailed backgrounds and nicely animated characters. It's a cartoonish look, but a very classy one, in the vein of the original Broken Sword or Wadjet Eye's output. You visit a nice variety of environments in your travels too, from a quaint half-timbered inn amid verdant English countryside to an arid Greek mountaintop and a giant's house in the sky. Each area may be small, accounting for a handful of screens at most, but they're all distinctive and full of character.

This is backed up by a soundtrack that's similarly atmospheric and varied. Each story gets its own feel, from Merlin's jolly medieval minstrels to Gilgamesh's spritely Arabic dances and Pantagruel's stately Renaissance fare. Admittedly, most stories only feature a couple of distinct tunes, but you rarely stay in one place long enough for this to get old. Instead, as you jump from book to book, the music instantly envelops you in your new surroundings.

The voice work is decent on the whole, but not up to the same standard. Alfred, for example, is amiable but a bit deadpan, taking in all the mythical locations with barely a raised eyebrow. Granted, having him constantly gushing with excitement or shrieking in fear would have been annoying, but I could have done with a bit more engagement. The supporting cast, meanwhile, vary from good to slightly flat in their deliveries, and there are some minor issues with volume levels. The Queen of Uruk, in particular, was hard to hear over the background music. This is a small point, but it would also have been good if the cast had at least agreed on how to pronounce the many unusual names and places that crop up: I heard "Pantagruel" at least three different ways, and I'm pretty sure the proud and ancient city of Quiché isn't also the inspiration for the filled pastry dish.

The interface is mostly standard, with left-click to interact, right-click to examine, and an inventory that drops down when you mouse up to the top of the screen. One quirk, though, is that sometimes interacting with an object brings up a close-up view of it in a smallish window. While this maintains context (as you can still see the rest of the room), moving the mouse out of the window dismisses it instantly. They are used either to show you important information or give you a puzzle to solve, and it's all too easy to move the pointer just a little too far and have to click on the object again to get the window back. I'd definitely have preferred it to stay in place until you clicked elsewhere.

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Adventure games by Ape Marina

Tales  2016

Alfred Walsh thought a job in the library would be a cushy number.