The Mystery of Woolley Mountain review
The Mystery of Woolley Mountain is a heaping helping of quirky farce, whose occasional foibles are easily atoned for by the eccentric puzzles and general good humour.
Excitement! Adventure! Luxurious moustaches! The Mystery of Woolley Mountain has it all, and a time-travelling rock band to boot. Feeling like a cross between Saturday morning kids' TV and a sci-fi adventure serial as filtered through a vintage lens, it's a lighthearted throwback, both to the point-and-click adventures of old and a time of impeccable manners, afternoon tea, and cucumber sandwiches. If you like your upper lips stiff, your beans old, and your puzzles plentiful, this could be just the thing to brighten your day. It may have a few glitches and head-scratchers here and there, but it tells a ripping yarn and its heart is in the right place.
The witch of Woolley Mountain has kidnapped a group of children, seemingly just because she's evil. So evil that she has a necklace of nightmares. And two henchmen named Colin and Dave who look after her big scary monster, Bertie. Clearly someone's going to have to Do Something™, and that someone is Van Damme Laudenkleer. Adventurer, multi-instrumentalist with the Helmholtz Resonators, and part-time square-jawed hero, he's the sort of chap who could never pass up a cry for help, especially from a stranger who asked so nicely. There's only one teensy problem with his rescue mission: he may be frightfully brave, not to mention one of the few fellows who can still look good in a safari suit, but he's not terribly good at spotting traps. In fact, he gets captured almost immediately by our old friends Colin and Dave, meaning it's up to the rest of the Resonators to come rescue both him and the children, and generally save the day.
The Helmholtz Resonators aren't just any band, though. When they're not rocking out or travelling the world in their Crystal Submarine, they're scientists. Time-travelling scientists, no less, guarding the secret passed down to them by Grandpappy (who stumbled upon it back in 1865). They're an agreeably eclectic, not to say rum, bunch. You mostly play as lead singer (sorry, head chorister) Garland, who's channelling Bertie Wooster in his top hat, waistcoat and heartfelt moustache. Then there's artist and guitarist Carlton, a lover of liquor and lifetime sufferer from "cannotbearseditis". Drummer Professor Frithel couldn't be more different: he not only lives and breathes science, but caresses, high fives and smooches it. Woe betide anyone who tries to interrupt him in the middle of an experiment! Rounding out the crew we have the baby of the bunch, Chladni, low-frequency guitarist and lover extraordinaire; and Auto the automaton, the group's aid and protector.
As the story opens, however, the Resonators are anything but united. Carlton's watching a Western and working himself into a moonshine-induced coma, Frithel's mixing up a coulourful sciencey potion, Chladni's distraught at losing his love's latest letter, and Auto... well, Auto is too disgusted at humans' lack of respect for robots to leave his treehouse. If you're ever to rescue Van Damme, you'll first have to get the band back together. And that's to say nothing of confronting the horrors that await you on Woolley Island. Is the cackling witch just being wicked, or does she have an ulterior motive? Could the Resonators also be walking into a trap, and if so, why?
The Lightfoot brothers, developers of The Mystery of Woolley Mountain, are clearly fans of classic adventures, moustache twirling, and (I suspect) Buckaroo Banzai. There are also liberal nods to their roots playing with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the ‘80s, to the extent that an actual shipboard (subboard?) Spectrum plays a prominent role in a couple of puzzles. Here even the very idea of 3D is, as Garland says, "an overpriced novelty, I tell you!"
That description may have you picturing retro chunky pixels and beeping chiptune music, but instead we get bright and breezy, high-res graphics and a gently upbeat backing track. Especially given the small development team, the visuals are a delight: simply drawn, bold and fun, they would look right at home in a children's cartoon. There's also plenty of life to the backgrounds, largely due to the abundance of both main and incidental characters that crowd many of the scenes. One neat trick that helps here is that most of them appear to breathe by bouncing gently up and down; it's a small thing, but really helps them feel alive. There's no slow plodding around here either: Garland zips about the place with great energy. That is just as well, as there are no fast travel options and there's quite a bit of traipsing back and forth in the middle act.
After starting out on board the Crystal Submarine, you go on to explore your mooring spot on Oompah Island, as well as Woolley Island's port town, the mountains around it and, naturally, the evil witch's hideout itself. None of the areas are huge, but there's a fair bit of variety, from leafy forest to arid caves, the comfort of the Moonlight Tavern to the pain of Bertie's lair. For good measure, there's also an extended dream sequence that gives you some trippy insight into Garland's mind.
The sound design is more understated but does a solid job of keeping the vibe going. The background score varies from slow, ambient guitars to peppy synth riffs, with everything from lapping waves to wolf howls mixed in as needed, setting the scene without being especially memorable. You can play a few more catchy tracks on the sub's record deck, but given that this is a game about musicians, it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. Sprinkling in some of the Resonators' greatest hits would have done a lot to make them feel like a real group; as it is, they never actually get together to rock out. Heck, they don't even join in a battle of the bands you stumble across, being more interested in hitting the bar!
We're back on firmer ground with the voice acting, at least. Although the cast isn't exactly huge (largely consisting of the Lightfoots themselves), the delivery is agreeably hammy and there's just enough diversity to the characterisation to make it work. It's a little unfortunate that the game begins with Van Damme, as his is notably the flattest and least convincing performance, but Garland's overgrown public schoolboy charm more than makes up for it, and the actors clearly had a lot of fun with the henchmen and minions.
The interface is about as standard as you can get: you click to interact with a person or object, or drag an item onto them from your inventory to use it. Selecting a bag icon in the bottom left of the screen brings up a scrolling column of acquired items, while another icon in the bottom right allows you to change options and save the game. The inventory itself is unusual in a couple of ways. First, along with being able to drag objects over each other to combine them, you can also click on combined objects to separate them back into their components. Second, objects don't bunch up into a group: use an item and as often as not it'll leave a blank space behind that you can move other objects into. For the most part this is merely an odd curiosity, but it did come back to bite me at the beginning of the second act when it managed to push all my character's objects so far down that I thought he wasn't carrying anything at all. It took a fair amount of head scratching and random clicking to finally stumble upon them and be able to continue!
Unfortunately, this kind of bugginess is a bit of a feature of Woolley Mountain. It's never anything catastrophic or deal-breaking, but I kept running into situations where the game would stop responding for a moment, and it would sometimes read out lines in the wrong voice. Once, I got stuck in a room for a while because clicking on the exit described it rather than letting me out. After talking to some people and interacting with a few objects, the exit did eventually become available, but it was disconcerting, especially as I'd been relying on the autosave feature and didn't have a recent manual save point to go back to. That said, the developers appear to be working hard to get the kinks ironed out with updates, so hopefully these issues will soon be fixed.
It’s worth bearing with the quirks, as there's a lot of fun to be had here. For a start, the puzzles form a nicely intricate web of interconnected tasks, usually without the solutions being too obscure or out of left field: this may be a comic adventure, but it tends to stick to real-world logic. It happens to feature characters like Ronald the Ropeman (literally an animated rope), Springhead Jones (who's got a spring for a neck), and Sampson (the talking sea urchin), but it only occasionally extends this whimsy to the gameplay, so thinking things through and talking to everyone you see will usually do the trick. That said, the occasional detours into “adventure game logic” do lead to a few tricky solutions.
The tasks themselves are another matter: you'll find yourself making your own buckshot, distracting thespians, and rigging that battle of the bands I mentioned. Not to mention time travelling, teleporting, and fishing for red herrings. It even has a (Spectrum-based) mini text adventure built in. Be prepared, too, for a couple of more twitch-oriented tasks, such as an early Breakout-style arcade game where you use a bat to bounce a ball around the screen and clear away threatening clouds. Thankfully these tasks simply reset if you fail, and the sequences aren't too taxing (taking me a handful of tries at most), but it would still have been nice to have the option to skip them, for those who really aren't into that sort of reflex action.
All this is wrapped up in a plot that reads like an adventure serial but never misses an opportunity to undercut the danger with a very British brand of humour. Yes, the witch has scary-looking minions, but they bicker and banter and they're too dim to remember not to blurt out her plans. One's just lonely and would rather make friends than nightmarish creatures. And a belligerent oversized seagull you meet early on is really a wannabe actor who misunderstood the idea behind hen parties.
If that last sentence was a little confusing, you should probably be prepared to miss a fair few of the references. (For the uninitiated, a "hen party" is what those in the US would call a bachelorette party.) This game has definitely grown out of childhood in the ‘80s, and is packed with nods to both British TV shows (such as Trap Door and The Adventure Game) and early computer games (everything from Jet Set Willy to Donkey Kong). You don't need to be familiar with any of that to follow along, but (as someone else who grew up around that time) it definitely adds to the nostalgia factor if you are.
As so often happens, the focus on comedy and flamboyant villainy tends to get in the way of any real narrative depth, but the twisting plot does wrap up with a surprising amount of pathos. You might think the whole “time-travelling scientists” bit would be an important factor throughout the game. And it is, sort of. As in, it’s central to the story (for reasons I won’t spoil), but until the finale the time machine is essentially a MacGuffin, playing only a small role in the actual gameplay. Aside from one brief interlude, you won’t find yourself jumping back and forth to find clever ways to manipulate history and causality; instead you simply have to plod your way through the present as usual.
Despite its rather superficial exploration of ideas ripe for more, there’s still plenty of imagination and heart here, peeking out from between the jokes and Garland's immaculately coiffed moustache, and the game has clearly been made with love. There's also a reasonable amount to do, offering around six hours of playtime. The characters often come across as one-dimensional caricatures, and the Resonators rarely show much of a sense of camaraderie (spending much of the time getting distracted and going their separate ways), but they populate an interesting, creative world with more than a slight twinkle in its eye.
Ultimately, The Mystery of Woolley Mountain aims primarily to amuse, with its cast of eclectic, bumbling characters, over-the-top villains, and sprightly vintage charm. It can be a little technically flaky at times, but the clean, nicely-drawn cartoon graphics, abundance of puzzles and general air of goodwill make it easy to like. If you fancy time travelling in a top hat or thwarting evildoers with style, wit and only the occasional pratfall, you would do well to board the Crystal Submarine and set sail for Woolley Mountain.