Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes, from any walk of life. This notion is what lies at the heart of machineboy’s retro-styled point-and-click adventure, Milkmaid of the Milky Way. A dairy farm in the beautiful Scandinavian mountains hardly seems like a place where one would find the next intergalactic hero, but that’s exactly what this game is centered around.
Stuck in a dreary, ho-hum life, Ruth is trapped by unfortunate circumstances in a dead-end existence she desperately wants to break out of. She gets her chance when her herd is cownapped by an alien spacecraft, and she makes a daring spur-of-the-moment decision to leap to their rescue. The result is a light, charming story with a likeable protagonist that evokes a simple and carefree feeling. Though it tries too hard to tell it with an awkward rhyming structure, it makes for a pleasant little romp that can be completed in one lazy-day sitting.
Ruth is a young woman who’s had the pressure of the family business thrust upon her in the wake of personal tragedy; watching her father slowly sink into depression and pass away after the disappearance of her mother, our milkmaid has been more or less forced into taking over the operations of the small dairy farm. Despite Ruth’s love for her parents and her attachment to Lykke, her favorite member of the herd whom she’s nursed and raised from birth, she dreams of giving it all up and leaving the mountain, escaping to a different life far away from nature’s solitude.
There isn’t a whole lot of time to get to know the characters, few as they are (the game only lasting three hours or so). But what’s here is effective: misfortune has already struck when the game begins, and the archetype of the lonely girl dreaming of a better life is easy to identify with. To its credit, the game flows smoothly and quickly without needlessly bogging itself down with overly complicated narrative twists, making for a story that’s easy to jump right into. Intuitive, comfortable mechanics further reinforce the breezy design ethic, such as an unobtrusive bottom-screen inventory bar, fast walking speeds, a one-click smart gameplay cursor, and a hotspot indicator.
The first third of the game takes place on the family’s mountaintop homestead, Calf Ledge, functioning as a sort of extended tutorial. You must visit a number of locations on the mountain, collecting items to make butter and cheese by following the recipes in Ruth’s diary. Though it’s a mundane start, this first act includes a handful of poignant moments that strengthen the characters’ bonds, such as Ruth visiting her parents’ memorial cairn, saving Lykke from danger, and dealing with her fear of heights. Soon enough, the story takes a dramatic turn when she boldly leaps aboard the alien spaceship that has abducted her herd, intent on coming to their rescue.
The remainder of the game takes place aboard the spaceship. Though there are only a handful more scenes to visit here, the cast of characters expands a little to include some of the ship’s blue-skinned but otherwise humanoid inhabitants, many of whom simply go about their daily jobs as chefs, scientists, and mechanics. Some take a more prominent role in the narrative and provide some much-appreciated character moments, like a son who is concerned for his elderly mother, or a pair of lascivious gossiping old crones. All of them feel terribly intimidated by their ruthless queen, Amrita.
The inventory obstacles in this latter part of the game become a fair bit more challenging, requiring much of the lateral thinking that graphic adventures are notorious for. The lion’s share of the puzzles remain soundly logical and can be quickly solved provided the correct item has been acquired, but with an alien environment come alien inventory items that aren’t as easy to assign a use to – where, for example, is the best place to use an alien frog you’ve just acquired? The limited number of locations and items keep the trial-and-error possibilities to a minimum, but there are a few puzzles in the later stages that aren’t clued as well as they could have been.
Despite the radical shift in focus, there remains something elegant in the simplicity of the story. It turns out the aliens face a desperate situation, which led them to abduct Ruth’s cows. They also live in fear of their menacing queen’s wrath, so simply leaving isn’t an option for Ruth; to help herself, she must find a way to save them first. Before all is said and done, sacrifices must be made, and Milkmaid turns out to have more emotional staying power than its short duration would suggest.
The one area where the game didn’t quite work for me, which also happens to be something that sets it uniquely apart, is the designer’s choice to present all dialog, narration, journal entries – every bit of text – in rhyme. While this is certainly a distinctive selling point and an effort worthy of praise, the feature doesn’t offer much payoff, and really doesn’t add anything to the experience. It’s different, but some lines were obviously stretched or altered to fit the rhyme, and the actual word choice comes across as clumsy and forced more than once in order to maintain a rhythmic pattern. I have no doubt the storytelling would have been smoother on a few occasions had it not been tethered to these self-imposed constraints. The rhyming doesn’t fit thematically with a story about a milkmaid embarking on an interstellar adventure, and could have really used a voiced narrator to lend it either some comedic timing or dramatic weight.
The game’s visuals and music may be another divisive issue; I can imagine quite a few gamers will immediately dismiss Milkmaid due to its simple, jagged pixel art graphics and perfunctory music. Even compared to other recent titles that have taken a similar retro approach, the artwork features stripped-down character models and basic environments. Yet although this sounds like a criticism, the presentation somehow never feels lacking because of it. With skillful use of lighting, a bright color palette and easy-to-decipher animation, the graphics soon feel natural and, if anything, work in the game’s favor. There’s a comforting feel to its look, a quality that extends to its soundtrack, which now comes included with purchase.
The musical accompaniment is just as rustic as the visual display, and perhaps for this very reason it really works. The score is inherently listenable, with a good number of themes that are well-composed, simple home-studio keyboard pieces that they are. The terrestrial game sections feature more down-to-earth tunes, while a number of the spaceship scenes are backed by synthesized riffs and melodies. The emotional cues scattered throughout manage to hit the mark and add to the dramatic impact. On the whole, it’s nicely implemented and helps build the world up into a comfortable home away from home for a few short hours.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started Milkmaid of the Milky Way. With a title like that, how could I? But even several days after finishing, I still find myself thinking back fondly to certain moments I spent with the game. The rhyming delivery style really didn’t work for me, and a few of the later puzzles had me running back and forth a bit to sniff out the solutions. But the graphics and music are charming, if deliberately low-fi, and surprisingly for such a short and simple game, it even demands a bit of emotional buy-in. All in all, indie developer Mattis Folkestad has succeeded in creating a memorable little game, perfect for adventure fans to pick up and get lost in for a few hours of risk- and commitment-free escapism that will linger long after it’s over.