It will take you about 10 minutes to read this review.
It’s a simple job. Pick up a shipment on the planet Acturus-1 and deliver it to a military installation on Proboscis Major. It’s nothing that hasn’t done many times before. Even Captain Disaster couldn’t mess this up, could he?
The comedic space adventure Captain Disaster in Death Has a Million Stomping Boots is the first commercial game by indie developer Team Disaster. Although technically a sequel to their 2013 freeware release Captain Disaster in Dark Side of the Moon, no knowledge of that earlier game is needed to fully enjoy or understand this one, and this production is significantly improved over its modest predecessor. Although the vibrant but rather basic and inconsistent retro graphics sometimes let the game down, it still conveys a humorous and fun story which sci-fi and comedy fans should enjoy.
The Captain, our hero in this adventure, is the proud owner of a freighter but he’s also flat broke and in need of work. His ship, aptly named “Disaster Area,” needs some repairs and the Captain needs to eat, but soon the stakes become much higher. The story is a farce in the spirit of classic adventure games like Space Quest. In that vein, the Captain isn’t a hero who’s going around looking for adventure. Instead, he simply stumbles into one and must then attempt to overcome using only his wits and the occasional piece of help from his on-board computer, Zero-Bit (ZB).
The opening scene lays the amusing narrative groundwork. An evil General and his two shadowy lackeys are planning to take over the galaxy, a plot that we later learn involves arming a Megapede (it’s a giant millipede) with a million boots. Following a brief tutorial-like prologue, the game is divided into three acts, the first being the longest and most challenging. The initial goal is clearly outlined to you as you begin: transport to Acturus-1 and pick up a package for delivery. It isn’t an easy task to get the package, of course. You don’t know who your contact is, what they look like, or where they are, problems compounded by the fact you can’t speak their language because of a half-failed translation procedure. (Don’t worry, you can understand the local inhabitants, they just can’t understand you!)
Using a simple two-click interface – left-click to walk or interact with a hotspot, right-click to examine something – your first goal on the planet’s surface is to regain contact with your ship, which can only be done at the nearby dump. Naturally, you can’t access the dump straight away, so there’s a series of quests to undertake before you get in. There are five locations to explore on Acturus-1, and each is visited several times. The marketplace is the main hub, with a number of shops that you can enter, along with the Speeder Showroom, the Robobar, and the Customs office where you first arrived.
The pixel art draws inspiration from early ‘90s adventures and gives Captain Disaster a distinctly retro feel. It doesn’t attempt to mimic a particular style or game, but in attempting a style of its own, I have to say that it treads the line between being reasonable yet rudimentary and being quite amateurish. Hard lines and vivid colours work well in areas like the exterior planet scenes on Proboscis Major, the alien sky showing different shades of teal, contrasting well against the beige ground and purple hues of the Starducks Coffee Shop. In other places, however, those hard lines are replaced by uneven ones and jagged edges. Nowhere is this more obvious than the transporter room of your spaceship, where the transport pad is very crudely drawn and not realistic, even in comparison to the rest of the game. While this style may be what the developer was aiming to achieve, it can come across as a bit jarring.
Character design and animation is one of the stronger visual elements. The Captain is nicely designed, with most actions animated: transporting to and from planets, or touching the electric sign in the Energy Emporium add a layer of depth to the world. There’s a wide variety of aliens (even the evil General and his minions are essentially giant noses with legs) and they’re all animated in a believable way. Ralph the Blob, owner of Ralph’s Rocks, is a translucent alien who’s unwittingly swallowed a number of items, one of which you need to progress in your mission. None of the aliens in the marketplace stand still, their continued motion bringing a real sense of life to the location.
All characters are voiced and the acting is good, with the recording quality quite acceptable. Many have a British accent, which fits with the style and humour of the game. While most characters are simple and obviously there to serve a purpose – the General is a moustache-twirling, monocle-wearing, one-dimensional villain complete with evil laugh, for example – the Captain himself is shown to be a sympathetic character with the ability to see himself for who he is, and to use that knowledge to his advantage.
The music is well-composed and each area has its own particular theme, with a variety that shows a lot of attention was paid to this aspect of the game. The Starducks Coffee Shop music has a cool, trendy vibe to it, while the marketplace on Acturus-1 has an almost Middle Eastern feel yet still manages to sound contemporary, showcasing a wide range that nevertheless feels like part of a coherent soundtrack. Sound effects are most prominent on board the Disaster Area: the beeps and boops of computer banks working or the sound of doors opening are exactly what you would expect from a sci-fi game.
The majority of obstacles are the traditional “find an item, use that item to get another item” type, but there are a number of different puzzles that break the mold. As well as the objects you collect, you also have access to a Quadcorder, a play on the Tricorder used in Star Trek, but instead of just scanning, your Quadcorder records sounds, measures radiation, works as a super magnet, and serves as a handy bottle opener. Throughout the first two acts you’ll use this Swiss army knife of inventory tools, but the most unique and interesting application of the device is to record three sounds from the environment and present them to the DJ in the Robobar to mix into a techno track the robotic lifeforms would love.
A very well-executed, though subtle, hint system is available (at least in the first two acts), as ZB offers assistance in the form of vague but helpful clues on how to progress, with the hints changing as the story progresses. When you’re out of contact with your ship early on, there’s a news feed you can listen to that drops some useful pointers among its one-off gags. One of the best sources of hints is simply listening to the two mobster aliens in the marketplace, Ten-Eyed Tony and Denzel. Their conversation is both humorous and helpful in solving a number of puzzles.
The middle act is easily the weakest point of the entire story. After finally getting the cargo and yourself transported back to your ship, you discover you’ve run out of fuel. The main goal at this point is simply to get your ship working and out of orbit, but it feels forced and isn’t really relevant to the overall plot. While you know you need fuel, you quickly discover you don’t have any. But you do know how to make it. The recipe to make the fuel is in your quarters but you can’t get into your quarters without using the hand scanner. The hand scanner is newly installed and won’t let you in but gives you a list of things you need to do to your hand to make the scanner accept it. You have a device that will make an X on your thumb, but you’re too worried it will hurt to use it. And so on.
The hand scanner puzzle is rather cleverly executed, and having different ways to make your hand match the scanner is a unique idea, but all the barriers to getting the next object seem to be there only to slow you down. What I wanted at this point was to progress with the story, but instead I’m wandering around the ship jumping through contrived hoops while trying to make fuel. There is also one aspect in particular which didn’t make sense to me: requiring a purple firefly for the fuel. The firefly has to be faked so you have to construct it, but there’s no apparent clue in the game that it needs to be faked, and the pieces you put together to make it are illogical. The biggest issue wasn’t the actual creation of the firefly, though, it was that I wasn’t aware that’s what I needed to do, or even given a hint to lead me in that direction.
While the majority of puzzles can be solved without too much trouble, there is a tendency at times to assume information that the player might not have. Even though you gain the recipe to make fuel, the clues assume a certain meta-game knowledge, like realising H2CO3 is found in a carbonated drink, or knowing what turmeric is. There aren’t too many instances of this, but it was certainly an occasional source of aggravation.
Another frustrating aspect is the lack of unique responses when you try different inventory items to solve puzzles. The sentence “I don’t know how to use those things together!” is overused and doesn’t offer any contextual help. Using a flash grenade on a locked gate, for instance, seems to be a logical option for the player to try, but even that only gives the same generic response. There are quite a few non-relevant items to click on in the environment, usually for a quip from the Captain about it, so it’s a shame that a shortcut was taken with the inventory use.
The third act starts with the Captain delivering his cargo on Proboscis Major, only to discover that the General plans to use its contents to further his plot for galactic domination. The Captain decides this isn’t a good idea and the rest of the game is spent trying to break into the military complex and stopping this scheme. There are only a handful of locations in this act – the General’s base, the coffee shop, and a rocky area which eventually leads into a series of caves – and it’s too bad that everything happens so quickly here. Having used or lost all your inventory items by this point and once again being out of contact with your ship (this time because you dropped your communicator in the toilet), you start afresh and achieving your new goal is not a difficult task.
In an exceptionally good puzzle, you have to disable a boot duplication machine by sabotaging the control mechanism. Why this puzzle works so well is it plays to the Captain’s character. He inadvertently causes havoc and disasters around him, so with some self-awareness, he uses that to help stop the General. Unfortunately, this exceptionally good puzzle is followed by the most difficult puzzle in the game. In the final confrontation, the Captain tries to change the settings of the General’s hover-transport. A series of clues is given on where to set the controls, but the puzzle is essentially a maths problem, and if you’re not mathematically inclined (like myself) you’re probably going to struggle here.
The shining light in this game is the comedy. In an era when the most popular adventure games seem to be melodramatic, cyberpunk, or post-apocalyptic dramas, it’s refreshing to have a game that sets out to make you laugh. Captain Disaster is a game loaded with sci-fi references, with particular attention paid to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Some of these allusions are worked into the plot, such as the name of the Captain’s spaceship or the ship’s manufacturer being “Sirius Cybernetics Corp.” Some are throwaway lines that only an avid fan would notice, like a post outside the Roboclub advertising the upcoming band “Marvin and the Paranoid Androids.” There’s also plenty of references to other British comedy such as Red Dwarf and The IT Crowd, with calls to Sirius’ help department always answered with “Have you tried turning it off and on again,” a popular line from the latter show.
While the majority of jokes seem to come from British television, there’s also a lot of fun poked at great American science fiction and comedy like Star Wars and the X-Men. There’s even a cameo by Bender from Futurama, as well as numerous blatant nods to classic adventure games. All these pop-culture references are a welcome addition to the game's comedy.
The first act took me about three hours to play through, although others may speed through some puzzles quicker than I did, with the second and third acts requiring about an hour each to complete. Overall the game is a lighthearted, fun experience, and even with its faults I found it worth playing. The amusing script is the clear highlight here, with its distinctly British flavour, while the puzzles aren’t too difficult and tend to be well-designed, although with a couple of exceptions. The early ‘90s pixel art might not be everybody’s cup of tea, and it can be inconsistent in quality from one scene to the next, but it does lend a retro feel to the adventure and can be quite bright and vibrant, which adds to the atmosphere of the comedic story. If you enjoy old-school point-and-click games and space comedy, go and get Captain Disaster in Death Has a Million Stomping Boots; you won’t regret it.