Gold Rush! 2 review
It’s one thing to make a sequel to a game, and quite another to make a sequel to a revered classic by one of the adventure genre’s giants almost three decades after the fact. That brings a whole new set of expectations, even for a developer who undertook a trial run by remaking the original game a few years earlier. Unfortunately, Gold Rush! 2 doesn’t manage to live up to the nearly 30-year wait since its predecessor from Sierra, with a story that has some interesting hooks but suffers greatly from a mediocre presentation and boring puzzle-solving.
The tale picks up in 1869, twenty years after Jerrod and Jake Wilson built a successful mining company together in California. They’ve recently received a letter from an old friend in Brooklyn explaining that the gang boss, William Tweed – an old adversary who originally framed Jake for a crime he didn’t commit – has succeeded in joining the State Legislature and now has great influence, with even the authorities in his pocket. Jerrod and Jake have evidence that could bring down Tweed and save their hometown, so they must now rush east across the country on the newly-built Transcontinental Railroad if they have any hope of getting home before Tweed does more harm.
The story is the most interesting part of the adventure – really the only aspect that didn’t make me want to fall asleep in my chair. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the narrative is touted as being written by the developers from the first game.) A cross-country locomotive adventure allows for some nice edutainment moments as Jerrod visits historic American landmarks (before they were historic), like stopping near the Humboldt River to couple the cars to another train, and trying to lose Tweed’s gang in hot pursuit through Donner Pass. Returning players will also get to revisit places from Jerrod's first adventure, such as saying your goodbyes in Coloma before leaving California, which became wine country after the gold rush ended, and stopping at Fort Laramie, which was Fort John when Jerrod traveled west and is now where the evidence against Tweed is hidden. The series of little moments that offer tidbits about American history while also making them relevant to the plot works fairly well in the end.
The same can’t be said for characterization, as it’s mostly non-existent. Jerrod’s brother Jake is barely more than a cardboard cut-out there to assist on two whole puzzles while you do all the heavy-lifting. He actually disappears for the entirety of the last act until he walks back on-screen in the ending cutscene, although it’s explained that Jake can’t walk around Brooklyn publicly until he’s sure Tweed is in custody. Tweed isn’t much of a character either, and his men are so easily dispatched that he doesn’t really come across as much of a threat. Towards the end you’ll see both new and familiar faces in Brooklyn, but they too mostly serve as devices to help Jerrod solve puzzles, rather than being fleshed-out characters on their own.
Jerrod himself is a by-the-numbers protagonist. He’s got enough sass to mock the bandits while they have him at knifepoint, or casually mention to the train engineer that he’s carrying dynamite with him (to which said engineer gives a realistic but hilariously panicked response). But outside of certain occasions he’s just a nice person that helps people in need. Those aren’t bad qualities by any means, but his lack of any specific quirks or unique character traits don’t do much to make him memorable. Unlike other adventure game heroes, Jerrod doesn’t have a remark for most things when you use the look function, as a narrator steps in instead. Having Jerrod offer his own commentary would’ve made him more relatable instead of leaving it to the all-knowing, unseen voice.
The point-and-click controls are standard, with the left mouse button used to move Jerrod around. The inventory is accessed by moving the cursor to the top of the screen. Clicking and holding down over a hotspot brings up a verb coin to either look at something for context or flavour text from the narrator, interact with an environmental object, or talk to an NPC. Double-clicking on a path to go to an adjacent area automatically transports you there, which is quite useful as Jerrod walks rather slowly with no option to run.
The gameplay is as straightforward as the interface. Puzzles are very basic, almost all of them consisting of using the correct item at the right time or interacting with an object in the environment directly. Some tasks are simply fetch quests requiring you to merely give a specific item to a particular person, like finding someone’s glasses or delivering a check to a building owner, which is far from exciting. There aren’t even any instances of creative item combination to make brand new objects that would require at least a little thought and effort. The mundane objectives and easy solutions make the whole experience a bore, as besides one over-the-top but short-lived scenario involving the aforementioned dynamite, none of the puzzles end up being memorable for the right reasons.
I say ‘for the right reasons’ because there are a few times when a puzzle presents more than one similar object to interact with but only one is correct, which means wasting time experimenting until you pick the right one. The first example of this is when Jerrod must unscrew a railroad bolt. About four or five bolts are interactive but only one of them loosens, the rest yielding only the same narrator clip going on about the bolt not moving. Wasting even more time, each failed attempt means going back to your inventory to select the wrench to try it again on another bolt. The same kind of thing happens again soon after, only this time instead of five possible objects with one right answer, there are ten or more red herrings. That isn’t gameplay, it’s boring, repetitive insanity.
The presentation is also underwhelming for a modern release, using a mix of pre-rendered graphics and 3D character models. While the backgrounds have some nice detail, the people stick out like sore thumbs, as they're often improperly lit with a general low poly look. The stark contrast between the somewhat realistic looking backdrops and the ugly character models and certain foreground elements makes the whole art style seem amateurishly low-budget. It looks very much like the developer’s Gold Rush! Anniversary remake, without any noticeable improvements in the three-year gap between games. Jerrod is always distinctive thanks to his nice black coat and goatee, and important NPCs look different enough from each other, usually because of changes to hair colour and clothing to keep them varied. There are a few instances of copy-and-pasted models, such as the police officers in Brooklyn, but that’s easily overlooked.
There are three main areas throughout the course of the game, with a couple of small locations used briefly between the second and third. In California, within walking distance of Coloma and Sutter’s Fort the now-established Wilson Mines are vibrantly green and peaceful. Coloma itself is a small one-horse town while Sutter’s Fort is being overtaken by tall grass. The train Jerrod and Jake ride east can be considered its own distinct setting, with different train cars ranging from a secure armored car for carrying your gold, to regular passenger cars carrying unwitting travelers. You'll even get to walk atop the train in classic film style as it speeds past the mountainous Midwest in the background.
Finally there is Brooklyn itself, which is the most fleshed-out of the three settings. Although seemingly reused from the first game, this time around it's in a more obvious state of disrepair. There are plenty of buildings to explore here, such as the bank, post office, and local newspaper to name a few. This is the only area with roaming NPCs that’ll either fill you in on what’s happened since you’ve been gone, or occasionally drop a hint about where you should go next. Even with the weird looking character models, having people walk past if you wait long enough does give the feeling that it’s still populated by local inhabitants.
The character animations are on par with the model quality, as people rarely gesture beyond moving their hands occasionally. Jerrod himself has a larger range of animations, of course, such as steadying himself on top of the train cars or crawling underneath the floorspace of a small building. Unfortunately all these animations are very slow, adding to the monotony of it all. The worst offender is Jerrod’s ladder climbing, in which the protagonist moves at what feels like a snail’s pace. Even an option to double-click and have Jerrod speed up would’ve helped significantly since you’ll be going back and forth doing these things a lot.
All the cutscenes are done in-game, so don’t expect anything too cinematic or exciting. The one that suffers the most is early on when bandits attempt to ambush Jerrod before getting on the train. They casually walk on-screen, wait for Jerrod to saunter onto the train, then say 'get back on the horses' to catch the train. The pace is so lifeless and slow that it doesn’t match the writing or voice acting at all, coming off more like a parody than an urgent situation where time is of the essence.
The sound design is a bit better than the visuals, but not by much. There’s very little music throughout the journey, other than the bombastic title theme and some gentler brass used for flashback sequences to explain what happened in the first game (or between the two games), or when there’s a time-lapse over the map of America showing where Jerrod currently is while the narrator updates you on his progress. There are usually some ambient noises like birds chirping in the more serene areas, the engine chugging along the tracks of the railroad, and the clomping of hooves as a carriage is pulled through the streets of Brooklyn. Strangely, however, there are some screens with no sound at all, which is extra obvious in the absence of music.
There is quite a lot of voiced dialogue here, mostly from the narrator, but none of it can be considered very good. It’s clear that many of the male characters shares the same voice actor – even Jake doesn’t sound distinct. There are only about five women with speaking parts, which all sound similar as well but don’t have a lot of lines so it’s not as apparent. The only ones who do sound unique are Jerrod and the narrator, but that doesn’t mean much given how stilted their performances are. Even scenes with high emotional stakes all get a similar delivery, removing the impact of any anger, sorrow or joy the dialogue is trying to convey. Unfortunately there aren’t any volume settings to turn down the voice-overs while playing.
As for technical requirements, the game won’t require much to run, and during my four-hour playthrough I didn’t run into any glitches or bugs, so at least it’s polished to a certain degree.
Ultimately, Gold Rush! 2 is disappointing both as a sequel to the Sierra classic and as a standalone adventure. It presents an interesting enough premise to continue Jerrod’s story, but its best narrative qualities are lost amidst a weak visual design, awful voice work and bland gameplay.