Review for Lair of the Clockwork God
Adventure games by Size Five Games
Lair of the Clockwork God is both an adventure game and a platformer, a concept that initially seems puzzling – both genres are excellent on their own, but I couldn’t imagine them blending together successfully. Nor can protagonists Ben and Dan, fictionalised versions of real-life developers Ben Ward and Dan Marshall. While Ben is happy living in the past, pointing, clicking and talking his way to victory, his buddy Dan wants to become the latest indie run-and-jump darling. Trouble is, they’re stuck in the same game and they need to work together to help a computer discover what it means to be human. While the mash-up of genres isn’t a full-blown triumph, proving more accomplished as an adventure game than a platformer, overall it’s a fun hybrid experience that will amaze you with its ingenuity and keep you smiling thanks to its consistently witty dialogue.
You may already know Ben and Dan from their excellent LucasArts-inspired predecessors Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please!, though familiarity with the series isn’t necessary. Those games launched over a decade ago and times have moved on, for them as well as for us. As Dan tells Ben in the opening moments with the setting sun of Peru in the background, “it’s those trendy platformer kids who are in now, and we need to stay relevant.” Their first task is to find a flower that cures cancer, a “poignant quest” of the type that Dan prefers, unlike the silly adventures that Ben likes to solve. The two have opposing sensibilities that manifest in their respective abilities, which you can switch between at any time. With Dan you can run and jump like a platforming hero, whilst Ben can examine the environment, talk to people, and manage an inventory – all the usual stuff you would expect in an adventure game, although Ben does reluctantly succumb to Dan’s request to call inventory combining “crafting.”
After finishing their jaunt in South America, the pair return home to London to find that the apocalypse has come. Buildings are burning, aliens are roaming, and the weather is terrible – though that last one might just be standard. They eventually make it to safety underground, where they discover a sentient computer called The Mechanic, designed to protect humanity. Unfortunately, there was a system crash and it no longer has any empathy to understand humans. As such, Ben and Dan must go through a series of artificial realities in a set order, designed by The Mechanic to elicit specific emotions. To enter a reality, you need to collect memory chips scattered throughout the surrounding tunnels; think of this hub as your base and the emotional constructs as the levels.
We humans are complicated beings, but there are only eleven core emotions The Mechanic needs to rebuild itself: feelings like Regret, Fear, and Suffering (most are negative!). Part of the game’s enjoyment comes from seeing how these emotions play out, so I won’t reveal too much, but they’re all different and often take surprising turns. One of my favourites was Feeling Old, in which you need to make Ben and Dan look and talk trendy in order to enter a club, and you judge your progress based on how the youngsters react to you on social media. Another great one is Grief, which successfully mocks the heart-tugging drama of other games, complete with melancholy music and the terrain symbolically falling apart. Other levels like Confusion and Disappointment are hilariously played out unexpectedly, poking fun at the player to genuinely make you feel that emotion. The only genuine dud is the final level, which uninterestingly repeats a previous experience and probably worked better on paper than it does in practice.
Regardless of the emotion you’re pursuing, Lair of the Clockwork God is packed with wonderful, inventive moments that I absolutely loved. The entire thing is simultaneously a love letter to and takedown of the gaming industry, doing things like mocking microtransactions and exploring what happens to video game characters before they respawn. Two segments in particular – one involving a high school, the other a space mission – are utterly fantastic and unexpected, taking me aback with their extraordinary detail. The former is especially noteworthy because it completely disregards everything established previously to commit to something entirely different for half an hour. Everything is meta in the best possible way – far better than something like Deadpool’s predictable “I talk to the camera” shtick – as Ben and Dan constantly bicker back and forth about gameplay mechanics (though towards the end this does get a bit tiring) or comment on the ridiculousness of a situation. Only once does this fourth-wall-breaking become annoying when trying to get a certain memory chip; the brazenness of it did impress me and take me aback, I just wish the payoff came earlier.
Broadly speaking, Dan is the straight man to Ben’s wackiness, which works well. Their dialogue feels incredibly natural, like how two friends would actually talk to each other, including affectionate name-calling and exasperation, and is full of sarcasm and cheekiness. Since Ben is the adventurer, lots of the good lines get assigned to him, like when he meets someone and claims his power is “an ambivalent disregard for the safety of others.” The characters aren’t afraid to mock their real-life counterparts either. When hiding out in a shed in London, Ben wonders what’s behind a door. “Probably a pan-dimensional liquid beast,” he muses. “It’s doubtless something hard to draw.” The humour is often delightfully crude, especially one scene involving a sticky booth that fully leans into it.
For a game that brands itself as an adventure and platformer in one, it doesn’t do so particularly seamlessly. Despite Ben and Dan ultimately working to achieve the same thing, oftentimes the pair are forcibly split up or need to take different routes, which seems like a bit of a cop out. They’ll need each other sometimes – Dan moving around a crate so Ben can cross a gap, for example – but you soon unlock abilities like piggybacking and teleports, so these situations are few and far between. It’s probably for the best, since the times when you do need to constantly switch between characters never totally click and end up feeling a bit mundane. The best instances of it are where you use Ben’s adventure skills to alter the environment in order to unlock a platforming section that was previously out of bounds.
Lair of the Clockwork God is a bit disappointing when you isolate the platforming, however. These sections chuck in gravity changes, spikes, disappearing floors and so on, but all of it has been done better elsewhere. One of the early levels is Joy, which has Dan running through a Sonic-style landscape, complete with jolly music and bright graphics, but the gameplay is neither original nor satisfying. It’s certainly not bad, just okay. It’s served better in the Anger stage, themed like a fiery hellscape and designed to mimic the sort of challenge Super Meat Boy presents. The rocking music and adrenaline-fuelled visuals are funny, as is Dan’s constant frustrated swearing. Even here the actual platforming itself is middling, but the situation and humour make a welcome difference.
You directly control the protagonists in side-scrolling fashion. Only Ben can interact with things when you get near something to bring up a wheel of context-specific options (like “pick up” or “talk”). You can also direct his gaze to look to the distance and inspect unreachable hotspots, though you’ll rarely need to do this. Ben’s moves remain the same throughout, but you can use him to create upgrades for Dan, such as the ability to double jump and bounce off walls. (He later gets a gun and I took great pleasure in shooting Ben to hear all his responses.) You need to manoeuvre the two separately at first, but happily Dan soon gets the ability to carry Ben (though you still need to switch characters to access their traits). The game does a good job of introducing you to the mechanics so that you don’t feel overwhelmed, slowly layering them up and leaving on-screen reminders for a short while after you’ve learnt them, and if you wish you can remap everything in the settings.
Trouble is, the adventure controls aren’t that intuitive and are more fiddly than they need to be to account for the platforming. I often had to pause a second to consider what I needed to press, probably on account of my brain switching between adventure and platforming modes. The main problem with the platforming handling is that the camera isn’t nimble enough and the controls aren’t tight enough. These segments can sometimes be a bit difficult, so be forewarned if you rarely play those types of games, though frequent checkpoint saves alleviate some of the challenge. I’d strongly recommend using a controller, since the platforming feels more natural with it, though you will still need a keyboard briefly at one specific (and superb!) point.
I was always happy to get back to the adventure elements, which is where the game really shines. This is where you can inspect things around you and fiddle with the inventory, and you’re continually treated to an amusing quip. None of the characters are fully voiced, but everyone has a different mumble noise, be it chirpy or deep, that serves as a representative expression of their personalities. The puzzles can be challenging, and you’ll need to think outside the box, but they are enjoyable to solve. One section set in a reincarnation zone is great, in which Ben needs to trick the system to send him to the end of Dan’s level. Here Ben gets to interact with characters like a bureaucratic dinosaur and a cranky plumber while engaging in dialogue, inventory and environmental puzzles. Another standout sequence is set in a graveyard, where you need to employ various goofy solutions that are totally at odds with the sombre surroundings.
While Ben and Dan’s previous outings were relatively simple pixel art affairs, Lair of the Clockwork God is far more advanced, though it still retains that retro, jaggedy-edge vibe. The two main characters are charming: Ben is lanky, lugging a bindle and wearing Marty McFly clothes, while Dan is short in stature with a nose coloured differently than his face. Both have great sweeps of hair with large, expressive eyebrows that float well above their faces. Other characters are equally well-designed, all vastly different from one another and often comical before they’ve said a word, like the gangly knock-kneed youth or the wide-eyed absorbent blob of water.
The surroundings are equally impressive. The hazy jungles of Peru make for a pleasant, calm opening that contrasts the burning desolation that immediately follows. Each level is uniquely themed and distinct, like a dark, dilapidated spaceship or a jaunty, colourful wooden ship bathed in glowing sun. The backgrounds often have multiple layers, which gives a good sense of depth, whether it’s the rotating cogs behind The Mechanic or the huge bubbling beer bottles in Dan’s Joy. There are nice ambient touches throughout as well, like the sparks of a laser or light beaming through slats, which elevate the aesthetic further. Considering the small size of the development team, I was really pleased with the visual panache achieved.
Of equal note is the audio, both in terms of music and effects. There’s just something really satisfying about the way everything sounds, whether it’s the scuttling noise of Dan running, the rat-a-tat of his gun, or the warping when you enter a new level. The echoes within a hospital and the patter of rain outside all add up to create an excellent ambient atmosphere that complements the visuals nicely. The soundtrack is great too, with The Mechanic’s underground lab set against a blend of traditional and futuristic beats, while quieter scenes are accompanied by heartfelt violins and piano.
Bursting with wit and innovation and well worth experiencing first-hand, Lair of the Clockwork God is certainly good value for its nine-hour runtime. I don’t think I’ve played anything in a long time that elicited multiple ‘wows,’ but this game managed it. It’s also very funny, with real laugh-out-loud moments, and it looks and sounds great. Really it is held back only by the fact that the platforming is basic, and the two genres aren’t as well blended as they perhaps could have been. Nevertheless, this is a cracking attempt at something different, and I urge all adventure fans to check it out. Let’s hope Ben and Dan won’t leave us waiting so long until their next journey.