Zniw Adventure review
Azure Mountain’s Zniw Adventure, which follows the journey of a young dinosaur trying to find her way back home to her family, feels like a blast from the past. The bright animation style screams '90s Saturday morning kids' cartoon, whilst the well-written and huge cast of colourful characters that help you learn about the dinosaur world in your travels is reminiscent of many great “edutainment” games released around that time. Unfortunately, these nostalgic elements aren't the only parts of old-school point-and-click adventure games that appear. The slightly more irritating aspects of older games crop up too, threatening to suck some of the joy and fun out of this beautiful experience. Point-and-click fans will still find plenty to enjoy in a charming game quite clearly made with a lot of love, but those used to more modern conveniences may find making it to the end less of a walk in the (Jurassic) park.
You play Zniw, a sassy and headstrong young dinosaur who's trying to find the perfect gift for her mother's upcoming “hatchday.” What starts out as a simple stroll around the town markets, however, soon turns to peril as Zniw gets lost in the nearby forest. The story follows her attempts to make her way home, as well as the plenty of misadventures she has along the way, from discovering an escape route out of an underground cave she finds herself trapped in, to catching a thief running amok in a sprawling village.
Moving about Zniw's world is done with a simple click of the mouse. There's no indicator to help you highlight hotspots, though this wasn't something that caused me too much trouble as your cursor changes colour when you can interact with something, and a text label pops up alongside it describing what it is. Most puzzles are inventory-based, involving finding items scattered about the area, then combining them or using them in some way. Holding the left mouse button down on an interactive object brings up an action wheel, where you can do all the expected interactions like look, use, and talk, as well as a special context option for certain objects.
Speaking of friends, Zniw Adventure is filled to the brim with chatty dinosaurs small and large for our lost protagonist to meet and become friends (or enemies) with. The developers have gone above and beyond in creating a living, thriving community, whether it’s a grumpy little Albertadromeus who gets annoyed once you spoil the ending of the comic book he’s reading, or an embarrassed fat Euoplocephalus who finds himself stuck on a bridge. There's no voice acting, but the writing itself zips along with funny jokes and one-liners. Sound effects are also put to good use, such as a low drumbeat when a dinosaur is caught off guard or surprised. The background music similarly does a good job of bringing atmosphere to the voiceless scenes and doesn't feel too repetitive, from a chilled-out acoustic guitar used alongside a riverbed, to more suspenseful music as you sneak through a town at night.
Graphically the vibrant hand-drawn scenes, from an underground cave to the busy Mushroom Kingdom, are a joy to explore and visit. Inhabitants are animated somewhat rather than being rooted to the spot, such as a dino refilling a cauldron, though they don’t wander around freely. Parts of the world also move slightly to prevent them from feeling too static, like the same cauldron bubbling even as it’s being replenished. As well as animated cutscenes at key points throughout the game, there are also comic book-style panels that pop up to highlight certain moments in the story, like getting caught by guards. All of this adds to the nostalgic feel of Zniw Adventure and is implemented very well throughout.
I learnt a lot about dinosaurs along the way, mostly due to the very detailed encyclopedia that gets filled with real facts about all the creatures you meet in your travels. Want to know more about a Stegosaurus's diet, or the era in which they were active? The encyclopedia has answers to these and a lot more besides. It also includes sections about the locations you unlock, the plants you discover, and the items you pick up as you progress. It's a nice addition to the main game as something to simply browse through out of interest instead of serving mainly to provide hints at puzzle solutions, though the descriptions of items can help to jog the thought process.
As well as an encyclopedia, the menu also features an extras section. Here you can access things like a pebble-throwing arcade mini-game and concept art by finding a certain number of shiny pebbles scattered throughout the areas Zniw visits. Some are simply lying on the ground, but you'll have to be crafty to find others hidden in unusual places. The main game itself takes at least nine hours to finish, but it's another extra for completionists in an already full adventure, offering something a little different alongside the inventory puzzles to solve.
One of the first tasks you have to complete involves making your inventory, or backpack, yourself. Once you do, you're only able to store a certain number of items in it before having to drop something to pick something new up. This is a trick more often used in old RPG or survival horror games to add tension by making resources scarcer. In an adventure game it just feels like an annoyance, which becomes even more irritating in the middle of the game when you arrive at the enormous Fungilla, the Mushroom Kingdom.
Although you are thankfully given a larger backpack to store more items in whilst visiting Fungilla, the sheer number of places you can go here means there are many things you'll need to pick up, and so inevitably things you'll have to drop along the way. A “dropped item” button will point out where you've left any objects in a certain scene, and the in-game map also highlights where abandoned inventory can be retrieved, though it doesn't describe which items have been dropped where. This, coupled with no run button or way of fast-travelling to different areas you've already unlocked, makes this whole section, which in scale and scope is probably the game's most impressive, actually end up unfortunately feeling like a drag. You will often find yourself slowly walking to a certain location, only to realise you dropped the item you need on the other side of town, then have to slowly walk there and back again to use it. Even in the ’90s there were games that allowed you to access a map and fast-travel between points of interest, so it's frustrating that there isn't an option included for this.
I've no idea why the limited backpack feature exists, apart from perhaps to slow you down or to add realism, which in the latter case is unnecessary in a game about talking dinosaurs. It could also be a way of encouraging younger players to think critically about what they’re picking up and why, but given the open layout of Fungilla, it’s very hard to know which object you’ll be needing for a task until you come upon it. Adding insult to injury is that there are often rooms you can't drop items in because they’re in someone's house, so you may have to slowly travel a distance just to open more inventory space.
There are lots of excellent gameplay variety in Fungilla which makes these problems all the more infuriating. You have to earn money (shells) to buy certain items, which can be done through mini-games such as watering fruit and digging up weeds. Due to the large number of dinos to chat with and tasks to complete in any order you wish, it almost feels open-world-like, even though most of the duties end up helping towards the main story progress. It's a shame this segment gets so bogged down with its needlessly restrictive mechanics, as once you get past it the game goes back to smaller locations with only three or four separate scenes and not as many items, and again it becomes the fun, delightful adventure it was before.
Most of the puzzles are relatively easy to solve after some reflection, though I did find myself scouring a walkthrough once or twice in the last third of the game with one or two trickier solutions, partly because of the lack of clues, and partly because I dreaded having to slowly walk around anymore looking for what I'd missed. This is especially true with a couple puzzles in Fungilla that are easy to miss due to the large number of locations. For example, a path full of rubbish bags that needs clearing is hidden off the main village track, and without any change of cursor as with other main paths, it took me quite a while to realise that I could walk there, too. More fun is when you’re joined later in the game by a taller companion who can help you out by knocking down doors and reaching things you can’t. Whilst you can’t control your friend directly, you can instruct him through a special context button on the action wheel for certain items he can interact with.
Despite its pacing problems, however, there's still plenty to recommend with Zniw Adventure, namely its pretty graphics, enjoyable story, and a detailed cast of dinosaurs brought to life with strong, funny writing. Less patient players may be tempted to throw in the towel before seeing the heart-warming ending and experiencing all Zniw Adventure has to offer, so here's hoping an update for unlimited inventory or at least a quick-travel option can leave the prehistoric parts of the game to the dinosaurs, rather than certain aspects of the gameplay that are best left buried in the past.
With colourful hand-drawn animation and plenty of dino facts to learn for kids and adults alike, Zniw Adventure excels in providing a fun ’90s-tinged trip down memory lane, though it includes certain outdated mechanics that would have been best left extinct.