I’m probably in the minority here, but does anyone else remember the brilliant Neverhood and its funky platforming semi-sequel Skull Monkeys from waaay back in the mid-nineties? Well if you do, well done! You’ve got impeccable taste. For everyone else, listen up, because this is going to get weird. But in a good way.
Anyway, the guys that made the aforementioned beauties have managed to secure the rights to the series and are returning with a new Claymation point-and-click in the spirit of The Neverhood. This time, they’ve brought Earthworm Jim creator Doug Tenapel, as well as Mike Nelson (of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fame) along for the ride, taking players to the perilous fortress of Armikrog!
Sounds like an exciting prospect, right? Eh, not quite. After giving an early beta build of Armikrog a spin, my reactions thus far are mixed.
This is the kind of game that I usually get evangelical about, metaphorically taking to the streets in a sandwich board and brandishing a megaphone so that I can extol its virtues to any bugger that will listen. Its quirky, it’s beautiful, and if the opening cinematic is anything to go by, (even though it wasn’t finished; which shows how rough the beta is thus far), it’ll have brilliant performances and a ton of weird and wonderful creatures to interact with. Kind of what we’ve come to expect from the cracked genius behind The Neverhood.
The problem is that the beta is not in a state that should have really been shown to anyone. It felt somewhat like a proof of concept. So much so that I couldn’t help but wonder why they are bothering. We know the concept works, it’s a spiritual successor to a game that’s almost twenty years old. I wanted to dive right into the world, to explore the weird and wonderful, but in the end I only played through the first few screens, courtesy of several glitches that eventually rendered it unplayable.
However, despite an incredibly rough exterior (the introductory cinematic was half fully-animated cut scene, half story boards), the beta does show a great deal of promise.
Players take on the role of Tommynaut and his pet dog, Beak Beak. Together, the pair crash land on a mysterious alien planet. After a brief altercation with a large fuzzy monster with pointy teeth and a retractable lure for a tongue, the pair find themselves trapped inside the titular fortress of Armikrog.
Control then transfers to the player, and if you’re able to point the mouse cursor and click on things you’ll get the hang of Armikrog pretty quickly. Instantly apparent though is the fact that the traditional point and click interface has been stripped right back. For a start, there’s no inventory. Any items that Tommynaut collects, he’ll shove in his pockets. Selecting the right tool for the job is as easy as clicking on an interactive part of the environment and he’ll instantly use whatever he has in his pockets that will work with it.
In the beta, this was illustrated with Tommynaut picking up a stick that had been retrieved from a tunnel by Beak-Beak and then instantly using it as a switch when I clicked on a hole that needed a makeshift lever.
Though I understand why this could annoy some point-and-click purists, I didn’t mind the change. It simplified what would otherwise have been a rudimentary puzzle. However, the bulk of the brainteasers in the beta were anything but straight forward. They were tough, irritatingly-obtuse affairs that require close attention to the environment and plenty of deduction and lateral thinking. In particular there was a puzzle that requires the player to open a door by figuring out the correct combination on a nine-panel sliding puzzle, with no obvious clues and little in the environment that related to the brain teaser. I don’t mind admitting that it had me utterly stumped. Then again, maybe there’s something later on in the game to bring me back to the area.
The beta also suffered from a case of old-fashioned pixel hunting as finding the lever used in the puzzle was a complete pain in the arse. In order to find the stick, Beak Beak is sent into a tunnel. When you have control of Beak Beak, the screens become black and white to highlight his inability to see in a traditional manner. Though it looks rather nice, everything basically becomes black-on-black, and the lever is placed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to find unless you know exactly where it is beforehand or meticulously scan the environment.
In the end, it was the glitches, rather than the puzzles, that got the best of me. On entering a beautiful room with a massive bell jar preventing Tommynaut from getting to some (rather important-looking) controls, he got stuck on some nearby rocks and refused to leave the plinth he found himself entangled upon, impotently hopping in place. With no save function present in the build, this is where I decided to leave things for the time being. I’m hopeful that these technical issues can be ironed out before launch.
Despite being incredibly rough around the edges, I can’t help but feel optimistic about Armikrog. Tenpal and Nelson’s involvement alone are enough to get me excited and its pedigree as a sequel to one of the best adventure games of the mid-nineties at least makes me want to give Armikrog and Pencil Test Studios the benefit of the doubt, as it’s clear even at this early stage that Armikrog is a labour of love. Even though I’ve only had a brief glimpse of it, the world they’re creating is rich, vibrant and beautiful and demands to be explored. Armikrog is a game I’m certainly looking forward to returning to when it launches on 18th August for PS4, WiiU and PC.