- Amazing audiovisuals;
- Laid back, absurd atmosphere;
- Deeply-rooted associations with The Neverhood.
- A little bit too short;
- Lack of hints can be extremely frustrating;
- Numerous technical errors.
Once upon a time, when sound cards were not a standard part of the computer, and elegantly blurred textures appeared only before the eyes of Voodoo accelerator owners, a unique production appeared. It was an extremely funny and original "point and click" adventure game featuring a world built of clay. The Neverhood wasn't a commercial success, but became a cult title, and to this day many players remember fondly the trials and tribulations of Klaymen. Today, almost exactly 19 years later, we get to play Armikrog – the spiritual successor to that game, which combines high resolution with the mechanics and atmosphere of old school.
The creators of Armikrog are the cream of the crop. Doug TenNapel, father of The Neverhood and Earthworm Jim, is behind the world and characters in the new game; the founders of Pencil Test Studios, Ed Schofield and Mike Dietz, had already collaborated with Doug on these productions, and the music was once again made by the devillishly talented Terry S. Taylor. Capable, willing people with money collected thanks to the fans on Kickstarter promised a return of something good. Have they kept their word? Is Armikrog a worthy heir to The Neverhood?
The Neverhood appeared on October 31, 1996 and enchanted the gamers with its unique universe built of clay. Hand-made world and stop-motion animated characters combined with a large dose of absurd humor and interesting puzzles resulted in a production that is remembered by many to this day. It was therefore a shame that the market performance of the game was far from impressive: around 50,000 copies dissappeared from the shelves, and a wider fan base was built thanks to the default installation on hundreds of thousands of Gateway computers’ hard drives and... piracy in Russia and Iran.
Armikrog makes a great first impression. The game launches swiftly and the menu welcomes us with clay buttons and distinctive music playing in the background. Starting a new adventure activates a simple, hand-drawn animation that tells us everything we need to know. A planet drifting somewhere in the universe is dying, and a substance called P-Tonium is required to save it. Two brave astronauts had embarked on a mission to find it but have not yet returned. Now it's Tommynaut's turn to save the day. This inexperienced albeit enthusiastic individual, accompanied by his dog-like, blind friend, Beaky, eagerly sets out on his quest, but something goes wrong and our heroes crash on the surface of a mysterious world.
When a stop-motion clay animation appears on screen, everything takes a turn for the better. Great-looking characters, wonderfully palpable set design, and very laid back approach to the game’s atmosphere – this all makes us grin happily in front of our computers. Tommy – unlike Klaymen – is quite the chatterbox, and his faithful companion eagerly takes part in conversations. Their confrontation with a big, hairy, scary-looking representative of the local fauna brings back memories of the "duel" between Klaymen and Weasel, and is just as fun. When the animation ends and we can finally control the characters, everything appears to be great. Why, if it isn't the truest Neverhood, only having undergone a facelift!
Tommy moves the same way Klaymen did, the environment has the same distinct style, and items we pick up disappear automatically in the cavernous belly of our hero... It is simply impossible not to remember the famous predecessor in the course of the game, unless the player is a young person for whom Armikrog is the first encounter with the creators’ imagination. Either way, the impression it makes is excellent. Style, lightness, humor, very well-matched character voices, extremely simple mechanics that only require clicking on items, and an additional companion are all quite encouraging.
As for the story itself, in the case of this game it is basically irrelevant, which doesn't, however, prevent us from following it with curiosity. The titular fortress is inhabited by strange critters; talking octopuses hang from the ceiling, and three specific characters – mother, father and child – have important roles to play. Of course, there is also a villain we will have to stop, but truth be told, all of this only serves as an excuse for showing us more pretty locations, introducing puzzles and having us enjoy the animation. The entire story is really lovely and keeps the player involved, but it is not engaging in any exceptional way. However, this matters not! After all, ‘tis but a comedy.
Throughout the game we'll meet three ant presidents
... versus the bad
One glance at the above headline and you probably already know that there's a "but" coming our way. Despite all the charm, the game can upset us very easily. I've already mentioned that one of the objectives of Armikrog was to bring back the memories of The Neverhood. And this was executed perfectly – with all the consequences. Mechanics known from 1996 basically haven't changed – we have to click, click and then click some more to proceed. It seems perfectly normal, as we are dealing with the point-and-click genre, but the game doesn’t make this task easy. In order to advance, we are always required to solve a puzzle – turn the power on, find a lever to open a door or solve a jigsaw puzzle. Some of them are not very difficult – a few moments of thinking are usually all we need to find a solution. Remember that it's a good idea to keep a pen, some paper, and a mobile phone nearby, as we can make our lives a whole lot easier by sketching sets of symbols or taking pictures of things for future reference. This is as old school as it gets!
Why am I complaining then? Armikrog, apart from having a charmingly archaic side, also has one that can really get on our nerves. The game uses a standard window cursor (even The Neverhood had a nice, clay pointer) and, what's more, in no way does it inform the player which items are interactive. Sometimes activating something is quite obvious, but at least twice I got blocked because I didn't know which element would help me advance in the story. Would it be the drawing on the wall? Or maybe this previously inactive button? Unfortunately, this forces the player to angrily click through all locations to find out what the creators had in mind. I’ll give you an example. The game allows us to switch from Tommy to Beaky at any time. The blind pup is able to enter holes and thus acquire objects inaccessible to Tommy (by the way, the world looks really interesting seen through the “eyes" of the creature). At one point we appear in a previously visited place where a journey on a giant space octopus's tentacle took us. The dog notices a hint to a puzzle involving blocks, and along the way collects a lever required for the mechanism. Well then, is that all? Far from it! Only after about twenty minutes of wandering and searching for answers, I discovered that in order to push the story further, it is necessary to click on the aforementioned octopus (while in dog form), which then starts a new animation.
Another sin of the game comes in the form of technical bugs, the gravity of which is completely random. Starting with things like subtitles that fail to show or sound disappearing when switching between screens (this doesn't make the best impression, but is somehow acceptable), the game once allowed Tommy to walk through a closed door, and at other times, for unknown reasons, refused to cooperate when the player clicked on something that should be clickable. Roughly in the middle of the game we find a symbol standing for a puzzle on a blue corridor wall (and let’s not even get into the stupidity of forcing us to click on this symbol rather than a button located right next to it). I walked, I searched, I repeatedly clicked on everything, including the symbol itself, and nothing happened. After loading a saved game, the mechanics suddenly clicked, and what had been previously impossible suddenly worked perfectly. Things shouldn’t be like that.
Fortunately, these mishaps didn’t occur all that frequently and most of the time everything was OK, which allowed me to learn the whole story of the world. It turned out that there was only enough of good ideas for half of the game, and the rest is simply recycling old stuff. Once you’re familiar with the rules governing Armikrog and solve the first batch of puzzles, new challenges are mostly based on the same scheme: go somewhere in a cart borrowed from The Neverhood, find a lever opening the door, help your dog get to the octopus, restore power, and go further. On the one hand, we don’t mind, because the adventure doesn’t last long (including my wandering and getting blocked, I completed it in less than 5 hours) and won’t manage to bore anyone, but on the other hand, you can see that its potential wasn’t fully exploited. Many of the beautiful locations are empty and are only used to make us advance in the story. Beaky gains a unique skill during gameplay, but it's a shame there's only one. While the finale of the adventure is nice, it doesn't allow us to make a meaningful choice like we did in The Neverhood, but promises a sequel instead.
Does it hold together?
So what’s the deal with all this clay – does it hold together? Not so much. First and foremost, Armikrog is a game that could be something far better. The artistic design is exquisite; there is no doubt about that. Audio is not far behind, but its role is too small (dialogues and music are great, but they are far too rare). The game mechanics, while pleasantly archaic at times (we have to pay attention to everything and make notes if we don’t want to traverse the same locations repeatedly searching for clues), can quickly become frustrating due to the fact that they provide absolutely no hints. As for the technical aspect, there are two sides of the coin: the game requires little and runs smoothly even on very old hardware, but subsequent delays of the release date did not eliminate all the errors.
Final reception of Armikrog depends largely on our attitude. Veterans of adventure games – or games in general – tolerant to the abovementioned shortcoming could add a point or two to the final rating. In turn, players with a typically modern approach, accustomed to some contemporary solutions, can end up very disappointed. My verdict reflects the above duality. Armikrog is lovely, funny and relaxing, but at the same time annoying and upsetting – mostly due to the fact that we can see all its wasted potential. In other words, this Neverhood of our times still needs some polishing.
Filip „fsm” Grabski | Gamepressure.com