Review for Nelson and the Magic Cauldron: The Journey
Indie developer Manuel Schenk has returned to the off-kilter 2D point-and-click world of Nelson and the Magic Cauldron with the second installment, The Journey. Picking up shortly after the first game left off, Nelson and a crew of familiar faces are off to a magic competition for Nelson to prove his wizarding bona fides. It’s a more modest adventure, with an abbreviated late-game story and puzzles leading up to it decreasing in difficulty, making it feel like an expansion to the first game rather than a full entry in its own right. But it’s another fun outing nonetheless, whose limitations are balanced by a few improvements that make this a slightly more entertaining affair that its predecessor while it lasts.
In the original game, the titular hero’s quest began with his arrival in the home town of his uncle Sid. Here the formula is reversed, with Nelson departing in an airship – the Seagull’s Shit – on his way to the magic contest on a distant island. Our hero is accompanied by a few familiar faces, including the witch Ludmilla and the nameless Undertaker, who is still waiting for some horrible fate to befall Nelson so he can be buried, among others best left to discover for yourself. On the way to the contest, they first stop at Sky City, a combination of village and health spa atop a mountain peak, where Nelson must meet with the ghost Lord Sausage in his castle to get a magical recipe to use as a competition entry.
Securing the recipe comprises the whole first chapter, which actually accounts for two-thirds of the game’s ninety-minute play time (down from the three hours of the first installment). During this part of the tale, Nelson visits a variety of locations connected by a fast travel map. In addition to Lord Sausage’s castle, there’s the walled town where the airship docks, a mine to investigate in which all the dwarves are on a strike, and a creepy cemetery with a secret. Puzzles are standard inventory collect-and-use affairs, but the number of locations they cover does require a bit of thought on how to put the pieces together.
The obstacles are well-thought-out for the most part, leaning towards easy to moderate in difficulty. These include such tasks as finding the appropriate grave in the cemetery to dig up, getting into a party at Lord Sausage’s place when only the undead are admitted, and figuring out how to open a hidden safe. There’s also one unfortunate puzzle that requires chopping up a special herb for some soup, wherein the environment provides multiple objects for such a purpose including a cutting board that is only a couple of steps away from the soup pot, but only one specific item is acceptable for the job. Although it’s mentioned in the title, the cauldron in which Nelson can brew his potion does not feature until the final chapter, and even then he only really needs it once as opposed to the multiple uses the first time around.
Having finally secured the recipe, Nelson returns to the airship and a speedy run through the game’s remaining three chapters over the course of the last half-hour of play. At this point the more open world approach closes off and the journey becomes highly linear and even easier as a result. This is compensated for, somewhat, by changing up the locales. Nelson visits an ancient temple with an archeologist who despairs over the lack of proper artifacts and so is leaving some of his own for future generations of archeologists. Later, our hero finds himself stranded on a creepy swampy island. There’s even a return to the 8-bit dimension from the end of the first game. Despite these different locations, or perhaps because of them, I came away with the impression that the game as a whole was intended to be much bigger but that a change in scope must have occurred to result in such a pared-down experience.
For the most part, The Journey stands largely on its own two feet without any prior familiarity required. However, one particular twist brings back key elements from the first game with no explanation or backstory given. This last stretch of the game will only make sense to those who played the earlier one, which contributes to this feeling more like an extension of that title than a standalone adventure.
Visually the game shares a nice continuity with its earlier counterpart. Many of the same character sprites are brought back, and the same simple cartoon style is maintained for the new characters and locations. With rich colours and clean lines, the hand-drawn artwork is delightful to look at, if a bit static, with only the occasional flag fluttering in the breeze or fire crackling under a cauldron. Items that can be picked up are drawn slightly differently, lacking the comic book outlines of the sprites and backgrounds, but I appreciated the way it made those objects easier to spot. In case that differentiation isn’t enough, the game sports a hotspot highlighter that temporarily draws small jack-o'-lanterns over everything interactive when triggered. Another nice bit of a polish is that a proper save system is provided with multiple save game slots.
Audio-wise the sequel has improved a notch from the previous game. The odd echoing quality in the original’s recorded voice-overs is no longer present, and the voices sound clearer now with just a few breath pops slipping through. The vocals are provided by spirited amateurs who bring a fun quaintness to their delivery, further adding to the sense that this is once again a small-indie passion project. It’s especially fun to hear several characters talk about the comic book Captain Coleslaw versus Doctor Sausage with such relish in their German accents. This time around, fortunately, closer attention has been provided to the English translation so that the stilted grammatical structures and sometimes downright oddly phrased lines of the first game are now mostly gone.
The music has also received an upgrade. The first game had a single short synth loop that drove me crazy within the first few minutes of playing. This time around, there are a couple of different loops but the gentle strings slip much more comfortably into the background so that I didn’t need to go hunting for the audio controls to turn them off. Sound effects are sparse, to say the least. In fact, there are only a handful of them in the entire game.
The series debut set out to be a comedy adventure. However, its weaker localization and an over-reliance on self-referential gags caused much of the comedy to fall flat. With a better translation this time around and less dependence on meta humour, the jokes work better now. There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments, but I was kept entertained throughout the course of the game. There’s a general absurdity that pervades the characters and situations, including such things as a customs knight dedicated to his job until his mom calls him for fish sticks for dinner, a shopkeeper who’s set up on a deserted island so he can sell supplies to anyone who runs aground there, and a pair of poker-playing skeletons who can’t see their cards not because they lack eyes but because they lack candles.
While only about half the length, Nelson and the Magic Cauldron: The Journey improves on the first game in a number of small ways. This is no radical redesign or departure from the approach of its predecessor, so if you’ve played that one already you should have a good idea what to expect from this installment. If you haven’t played the first, then you’ll definitely want to start there before tackling this new adventure due to the late introduction of certain elements that will leave those unfamiliar with the story baffled by their inclusion. It may feel rushed, but this follow-up has a stronger humorous vibe and takes returning players through some new and nicely varied locations. With generally easy puzzles and a short play time, this is a decent filler adventure between heavier genre fare for those already knowledgeable about the Nelson-verse.