Adventure Gamers Awards
If you've ever lost yourself in your favourite video game, spare a thought for poor Sandra and Woo, who've managed to get themselves actually lost in one, thanks to nefarious hackers, bad timing and a hastily-assembled swan costume. Sandra and Woo in the Cursed Adventure is the first original title from German indie studio Feline Fueled Games, based on the popular web comic. Starring tweenage Sandra and her talking raccoon Woo, it's a mix of gentle comedy, some surprisingly tricky puzzling, and a few too many minigames. Occasionally obscure puzzle solutions slow its momentum at times, but the interesting concept, lovely artwork and engaging and relatable characters keep you coming back for more.
Sandra's a perfectly normal girl, living a perfectly ordinary suburban life with her single parent dad. She's having nightmares about starring in her school play and failing her math test, but who wouldn't? I'm mean sure, her best friend's a Russian pyromaniac artist, her boyfriend's a Burmese freedom fighter, and did I mention that her pet raccoon has a certain dry wit? But other than that she's just the girl next door. At least, until her laptop starts mysteriously glowing green one night and sucks her and Woo (not to mention half the bedroom furniture) into a medieval fantasy adventure game. As we eventually discover, there's a reason for that, and an explanation for why she got drawn in wearing the swan costume she'd just cobbled together for the play, but in the meantime they're off for an epic quest, not to mention a spot of dragon slaying. Because what kind of fantasy adventure would it be without a dragon?
That's not to say Sandra’s friends take her disappearance lying down. It doesn't take long for her boyfriend Cloud (the aforementioned freedom fighter) and Larisa (the friendly neighbourhood firestarter) to come round and discover she's missing. Getting together with Larisa's long-suffering and oddly geeky boyfriend Landon, they're determined to find out what's going on. The action jumps back and forth between fantasy land and suburbia as we follow both Sandra and Woo's adventures and her friends' attempts to rescue them. At different times, you play Sandra, Woo, Larisa, and Cloud, each with their own unique approach to problem solving.
Dividing the action like this not only makes for a more diverse and interesting experience – one minute you're trying to build a bottle rocket in Sandra's yard, the next you're trying to trick your way past palace guards – it also puts an interesting perspective on tweenage life. In many ways it feels like Cloud and co. are the ones on a heroic mission, fighting their way past parents and awkward neighbours, building improvised weapons, and plucking up courage to rescue Cloud’s true love. Meanwhile, Woo's helping a depressed scarecrow and Sandra's trying to find a court jester's lost bell. The two sides of the story contrast well with each other, and neither's quite what you expect.
The hand-drawn graphics, as you might anticipate from a game based on a comic, are great: clean, crisp and colourful. Given that Feline Fueled Games was founded by the comic's writer, it's also no surprise that they nail the look and feel of the original. The difference between the two worlds works well, too; jumping from suburban interiors to lush green fields and a fairy tale castle never got old. If I have a criticism, it's that the setting never feels that expansive: you visit Sandra's and Landon's houses in the real world, and the castle and the dragon's lair in the game, but that's pretty much it. For such a long adventure (between 12-14 hours), you spend a lot of time knocking around in a fairly small number of locations. They're relatively static, too, with only a few background animations. That said, you do get a couple of perspectives on everything, depending on who you're playing at the time, and there's plenty to look at and interact with. The animations that do exist are nicely done, and a lot of actions get their own unique movements, which adds greatly to the character of the… err, characters.
The music is gentle, laid-back and diverse, keeping the mood positive and playful without really standing out. While it does change somewhat between the two worlds, the gameworld getting some nice Renaissance-style themes while the real world tends towards lounge jazz, it's not exactly strict about the distinction. A number of scenes push the music even further into the background in favour of environmental sounds, like birds singing, a washing machine rumbling, or Landon's mother talking on the phone, further enhancing the atmosphere.
Where the music is pleasant without standing out, the voice acting varies between similarly nondescript and downright stilted. Most of the actors are well-chosen, although Larisa struggles to make her Russian accent sound natural, but their delivery ranges from flat to forced emotionally. It just sounds a bit ponderous overall, like the actors have been asked to take it slowly and make sure everything's clear. The translation from German is pretty good, though; there's the odd slightly awkward phrase (the play's called "Wedding with the Swan", for example), but nothing bothersome, and the humour comes through intact.
The interface is pretty straightforward and streamlined: right-click to look and left-click to interact, with an icon of your bag in the top left corner. Your inventory opens either by hovering over the icon, using the mouse wheel, or pressing "I", so there's something for everybody. The only slightly unusual feature appears when you're trying to assemble something, like the swan costume at the beginning of the game. Then, an outline of the object you're aiming for appears as a pseudo-inventory item so you can drag and drop components onto it and, later, use it (the completed outfit, say) like a regular object. It's a neat solution for keeping track of your progress. Finally, there's a hotspot highlighter available by pressing space, although the clean cartoon graphics make that largely unnecessary.
This may seem like a cutesy, breezy kind of game, but the puzzles are actually quite involved and I got thoroughly stuck more than once. They're a mix of (mostly) standard inventory puzzles and minigames, and manage to be simultaneously satisfying and just a little too tricksy for their own good. (That may be sour grapes due to getting stuck so much, but it's kind of telling that an official walkthrough is available as free DLC on Steam.) Overall, although it's a modern game in other ways, when it comes to gameplay it's pretty old-school.Continued on the next page...