Adventure Gamers Awards
Who can save the world with little more than a Swiss Army knife and a radio? MacGyver? Nope. John McClane? Uh-uh. It’s Harper Pendrell, the playable protagonist of Backwoods Entertainment’s stylish 2D point-and-click adventure Unforeseen Incidents. Harper is a nobody / college dropout / slacker / handyman who is destined to thwart a sinister cult intent on a kind of Darwinian genocide. And he’s not too gung ho about it. Fortunately, there’s good reason for players to feel more excited about the prospect, as the game takes you on a rather clichéd but lengthy journey filled with strong production values and puzzles.
Harper just wants to live a quiet life tooling around with old electrical equipment in his apartment and occasionally troubleshooting the computer of his friend, mentor, and surrogate father figure, Professor MacBride. So when he encounters a woman in the street stricken by the highly infectious and extremely lethal Yelltown Fever, he’s more than a little put off by the whole affair. The woman insists that Harper take a mysterious envelope and deliver it to a person named Helliwell, who is staying in the hotel of Harper’s hometown, which is ground zero for the virus. Being a generally decent if somewhat hesitant guy, Harper accepts.
Harper and Helliwell, a struggling reporter looking to land a big scoop, soon find themselves first on the tail of and then in direct opposition to a mysterious cult that brainwashes its members into believing that the weak members of society should die. Throw in a scientist more interested in research than its moral and ethical implications and the cult’s civil-but-psychopathic hitman, among others, and you have some fairly common story tropes. Still, clichéd it may be but bland it is not. The journey is a good deal of fun even if it’s not the most original on the shelf, and it certainly does look nice along the way.
Unforeseen Incidents has a great visual aesthetic. Characters and backgrounds are drawn with an appealing pen-and-ink style that provides a high level of detail while also being more caricatured and interesting than a realistic look. During cinematics, the game takes advantage of its hi-res graphics through the use of various camera tricks such as panning, zooming, and cutting to close-ups. This helps provide some life to the otherwise mostly static scenes throughout the game. With such a nice style, it’s a shame that character animations are fairly limited, consisting of simple but fluid walk cycles and a few single-frame gestures such as Harper reaching for an item in his general vicinity.
Much more attention has clearly been paid to the diversity of locations you visit. Harper’s investigation takes him from his rundown home of Yelltown, where buildings seem to loom precariously over the street, to the mountainous forest of Greywoods National park, the sunny and clean seaside city of Port Nicola, and the snow-covered wasteland surrounding the abandoned town of Old Kahona. Harper’s travels eventually lead him to a hidden underground bunker, with its concrete walls and metal furnishings. Each area is quite unique, as befits their different terrains and climates, but drawn in the same style they all fit together to make a stronger, cohesive visual whole.
The different areas are great to explore and it feels very rewarding to encounter new regions as you proceed. The level of detail in the backgrounds does work against you in a handful of places, however, as it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between what’s an important item or interactive area and what’s just part of the background. Fortunately, mousing over an active point of interest will display a small caption of what that hotspot represents. If that’s not enough, you can also hit the spacebar to temporarily activate a hotspot highlighter, which shows small white dots over all the interactive areas of the current scene.
Most of the game operates in typical point-and-click fashion while walking Harper through the various locations you encounter. You amass a fair number of inventory items and use them in interesting ways to progress. The inventory is usually hidden but displays when you move the mouse to the top of the screen. From there you can drag one item onto another to combine them or onto an active part of the environment to have Harper try to use it there. Harper also has his multitool with assorted attachments such as a screwdriver, scissors, and bottle opener. This is kept at the front of the inventory and when the mouse is positioned over it, a sub-inventory displays with each of the functions the multitool contains, allowing them to be used separately. The item combinations throughout the game all make sense and there aren’t any solutions that will leave you baffled by their logic.
While your tasks follow from the context of the story, there are a few chains that stray off the point. In one instance you need to discover the source of a particular symbol that has some relation to the Yelltown Fever. While you can find the symbol itself at a location in Greywoods National park, you need to uncover what it means as well. An eccentric artist in the region knows but refuses to tell until you understand his “tryptic”, three paintings sporting the symbol in question. That’s only the first step, so in short order you’ll have to build a fire with flint and kindling and brew a pot of tea using local herbs scattered through the forest. These actions all flow naturally one from another, but you’d be forgiven for forgetting what your initial goal was in cases such as this.
Unforeseen Incidents also has a few specialty puzzles that switch into close-ups of particular areas and equipment. One such challenge displays a map of the countryside, which, together with a portable radio, you must use to triangulate signals to discover new locations. Another unique challenge has you using a computer with a map of Port Nicola to review the city’s history and see where various businesses set up shop in order to track down one specific location. Activities such as these are a nice change of pace from the inventory-based puzzles.
One element that some players may find less welcome is a stealth/action segment towards the end of the story’s first act. Here hazmat-suited health workers moving through Yelltown need to be avoided. You must time your movements appropriately to sneak through the paths the workers follow. Getting caught causes the sequence to restart from the beginning after a short cinematic. Fortunately, this section isn’t very long and the game gives you a fair amount of leeway in making it past the patrollers.
An odd minigame comes between each of the game’s five acts. For some reason, at these points you must complete a kind of hacking puzzle in which several file folders are shown on a computer display. A beam of light enters from one side of the display and can be routed around using little symbols such as corners and T intersections that are scattered about the screen. You must rotate these symbols so that the beam of light travels and splits around the playing field in order to connect to all of the folders. These puzzles get progressively more challenging as the game goes on, although they have no connection to the events of the overall story as far as I can tell. While Harper’s a handyman he isn’t a hacker, so it’s unclear even as to whom you’re playing at these times. They’re fun and challenging diversions in their own right, but their inclusion seems to be to a substitute for loading screens rather than as an integrated part of the narrative.
There’s a good variety of activities in Unforeseen Incidents and – weird hacking bits aside – most of the time you will have multiple puzzles ongoing. Given the depth and complexity of some of the objectives, this is a really welcome feature as it provides you the opportunity to switch what you’re working on if you get stuck. I never found myself getting completely bogged down in my 12 hours of play time, but it was useful to clear my thoughts on one puzzle by switching to another from time to time. An exception to this occurs when you reach the hidden cult headquarters. Here the game becomes very linear and although there are a fair number of rooms in the secret base, there isn’t much to do in them. This particular stretch occurs near the end of the game and feels especially empty given how much there is to do in the earlier acts.
I found the ending itself was also a little disappointing after how well the rest of the experience had been executed. Here the many clichés begin piling up as the villains reveal the details of their plot. It’s not quite accurate to say that the ending is rushed, as it does wrap up all of the major story threads in a reasonable fashion. However, exposition comes thick and fast, with a few moments that go for genuine emotion and some scenes that are meant to ratchet up the tension, all capped off with a touch of light comedy. It’s a lot of stuff all at once that causes the tone to swing far too rapidly. The result is that most of the climactic moments don’t land with the impact that they really should. It’s not a bad ending, but it’s not a great one either.
What is great is the voice acting. Unforeseen Incidents has a wide array of characters and even the bit parts have been appropriately looked after. The voices have all been matched well to the character designs, and whether it’s the serious Ranger Jervis, the sarcastic Helliwell, a sweet roadside restaurant owner or an insecure cultist, they all leave an impression that lasts longer than their time on screen. Of particular note is Harper himself. Listening to his comments is a lot of fun as his voice gets shriller when he panics and deepens when he’s trying to sound manly. This isn’t a comedic game but Harper has a nice sense of humour about things, even when he’s frightened or angry.
The rest of the audio is quite good as well. Musically the game provides different instrumental pieces as you move between locations. Just as the visuals vary by locale, so too does the score, complementing the atmosphere of each area. Sound effects suitable to what you are doing abound throughout. While repairing a beat-up car, various clunks, clanks, and rattles echo around you as you pull out and replace damaged and missing parts. Or you may hear the whine of a hover drone as it’s used to move parcels about on a shipping dock. Even the little details have been accounted for, with Harper’s footsteps crunching across gravel, clicking on pavement, or sighing through grass.
It’s not possible to get stuck in a dead end or die in your travels. Even so, the game boasts a full save system, allowing you to save almost anywhere except during conversation. Ironically, it is a bit of a pity that you can’t save in these situations as there are a few dialog options you can choose that make minor differences later on. For example, when you run into the infected woman early on, you can choose to call in the medical authorities over her protests or not. If you obey her wishes then one of Harper’s neighbours calls the medics instead, so the story continues on its preset course. However, some characters you talk to may be impressed if you called for help or less so if you did not. Or they may approve of you obeying her wishes and are angered if you went against what she wanted.
While a reluctant hero who gets swept into events propelling him towards saving the world is just the tip of the cliché iceberg, Unforeseen Incidents’ excellent visual, audio, and puzzle presentation elevates it above a been-there-done-that experience. The memorable characters are well voiced, and I would welcome the opportunity to spend more time with Harper Pendrell. Overall, I found this to be a fun and entertaining journey and would recommend it to anyone looking for a meaty adventure with puzzles that are just the right level of challenging.