Adventure Gamers Awards
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.