At this point, it may be somewhat foolish for me to indicate that adventure games are rare, considering the fact we’ve been reviewing them almost exclusively lately. Let me instead, then, point out that adventure games, by virtue of their fundamental nature and simple mechanics, are popular for first games and shovelware. Obviously one could hardly describe any of those we’ve looked at thus far as amateurish or poorly made, but one need only take one look at today’s game, The Next Big Thing, to see that some real work went into it. Let’s see how this game from Focus Home Interactive and Pendulo Studios came together into a finished product.
This game takes an interesting approach to its visuals. Rather than the fully 3D games we’ve seen, like the Back to the Future series, or the entirely 2D games like Hector, The Next Big Thing takes a hybrid approach. The characters and items in your inventory are polygonal, while the environments are (mostly) static 2D images. Regardless of whether they are polygons or plain pixels, everything is gorgeous. The settings run the gamut from a party that is winding down at a mansion to an ancient Egyptian tomb to the twisted subconscious of one of the characters. Each is represented with vivid color and undeniable personality. This is particularly so of the NPCs. Thanks to a highly unique plot that we shall discuss later, you’ll encounter homages to most of the great movie monsters of the past. The purple, Quasimodo-esque Poet of Pain hangs out with a bearded human fly. Frankenstein’s monster shows his face as the buff yet brilliant “Big Albert” who makes the ultimately regrettable decision to keep is brain in with a zipper. Ironically the least interesting characters, in terms of appearance, are the player characters themselves. Liz Allaire and Dan Murray, while they look fine, are vanilla human beings, after all. It would have been nearly impossible to make them stand out. Even here, though, attempts are made to keep it interesting. Through the various settings and events of the game they shift through a variety of costumes.
If I have one problem with the graphics in this game, it would probably be the animation. In the prerendered cutscenes, things are animated quite well, but in game, they are much more limited, and the animation and dialog are almost entirely separate. Gestures and postures are thrown in, but anything beyond mouth movement takes place between lines, breaking up the flow and killing the timing. Sometimes it works fine, such as the frequent self-interviews conducted by the staff nutcase Liz, in which she shifts to different postures to play each part of the conversation. Most of the time it just felt wooden. The mouth movements, though matched to the dialog, weren’t terribly impressive either, basically just flapping open and shut like a puppet while the rest of the body remains mostly inert. If the rest of the game wasn’t such a visual feast, the animation wouldn’t have stood out so much, but this was a case where overall strength made a minor weakness almost glaring.
This game plays precisely the way you expect it to. It is primarily a point and click adventure game, with your time spent hunting down hotspots and finding out how to operate them, combine them, talk to them, or pick them up. Almost everything is done with the mouse, with a left click looking at an object and a right click toggling the pointer to the context appropriate interaction. Conversations are included in the gameplay as well, giving you branching topics to choose from. Sometimes these topics are simply there to add flavor to the characters. Often, though, they are used to learn possible solutions, uncover new problems that need solving, or unlock new conversation topics with other characters. I’ll be honest; virtually every time I got stuck in this game, it was due to not realizing that a conversation with a new character had revealed something new with an old one.
While the mechanics are anything but new, I am truly impressed with how well refined they are. For instance. Your inventory screen showcases slick 3D versions of the items you’ve found, and allows you to look at or combine each one. Special snips of dialog are thrown in for many of them giving hints in their phrasing as to the proper use of of the object. (“I don’t want to paint that.”) For the rest, you’ll just get a gag or a disappointing sound of denial.
The interface adds a huge amount to the playability. A “checkpoints” page gives each pending goal for the chapter as a single frame. Lines connect related ones, and sub-tasks are smaller than primary ones. It is an excellent way to keep track of what needs doing, that’s for sure. Saves files are accompanied with a screenshot and an optional name, and individual players have password protected profiles. Another excellent feature is the help system. Get this. This is an adventure game that has difficulty levels, based upon the availability of each help type. Aside from the standard hint system, which is only available on easy, both easy and medium offer you the “hotspot” option. This is a single click that shows you an overlay featuring every interactive object in your field of view. That’s right, if you get sick of pixel hunting, you can find out in one action where that last item in the room was hiding. Since this game is like Hector in that interactive objects are often perfectly blended with their surroundings, I found this useful more than once.
There are other neat little aspects. Rooms you have not visited yet will show up as simply “corridor” or “door.” Once you’ve visited them they update to “sitting room” or “coat room” nifty. This is played for laughs, too. For example, one character cannot seem to remember the first name of one of the NPCs, so every time you interact with him, it shows a different name for the hotspot. Likewise, you will at one point, for lack of a better description, get into arguments with the hotspot names. It was pretty hilarious.
Like many adventure games, you are occasionally given items that have no use, but this game also gives you placeholder items, like “the absence of a press pass” or “the complete alien kit.” Some of them are there as a framework to combine with other objects. Others seem to be there just for an excuse for more flavor text. As the game progresses, you start to see puzzles that offer a genuine test of your logic and observation skills. Some will take trial and error. Others will rely on a combination of visuals and the interface. Some, frankly, I still don’t understand. There was a puzzle that involved teaching a flowerpot, that was also an orchestra, to play the tango. (I’d love to say that it makes sense in context, but really, nonsensical was the goal, and they achieved it gloriously.) I eventually solved it, but your guess is as good as mine as to what I did.
The sound in this game is sort of a toss up. On one hand, the voice actors played their characters very well. A reasonably large voice cast gave each character a voice that was appropriate, and sold their lines. The creature from the black lagoon facsimile that runs the studio seemed like a really swell guy, the fly buzzed as he spoke, and the hunchback was simultaneously eloquent and lummox-like. The lines they spoke, however, didn’t always fit the tone of what they were saying. Here and there, the inflection didn’t really suit the intended meaning, and in many cases two characters having an exchange didn’t respond with the appropriate attitude. It felt, to me, like the actors weren’t given much direction. They were simply handed their lines and left to read them without the benefit of context.
There was also a peculiar quality to some of the dialog. Characters repeat themselves precisely. That’s not to say that they reuse the same sound file. I mean the same line is worked into dialog repeatedly. Dan Murray would always bet half of his salary when he’s talking about something he is certain of, unless it is his whole salary or half of his paycheck, and when he insults another character, they reply with “Hahaha, What a guy!” Every time. It is even plot relevant, not once but twice, that no one takes his insults to heart. Liz asks if you think you are better than a refrigerator, and whenever she says something off kilter, others describe her as “Dis… concerting.” The precise repetition of wording must be intended to be a running gag, but for some reason it just didn’t work for me. Oh, and when people say hello, they say Ayo. When they say goodbye, they say Aya. Always. Every character. The only times it differs is if the character has an accent, in which case it is just the same word pronounced differently, or is given to more flowery speech patterns, which is rare. Before long, the consistent usage of a salutation I had never heard before had me feeling like this was “Pirates of Dark Water” or “Beyond Good and Evil.” One of those settings that has its own slang and vocabulary to establish that it is implicitly different from our world. And then they make an Avatar reference or a combination Bladerunner/Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference and I’m back to wondering if I’m just a hermit who has never heard an otherwise common greeting.
The music, it should be mentioned, frequently sounds like it was created by a full orchestra, and suits the setting extremely well.
Where do I start? You play as, alternately, Liz Allaire and Dan Murray. Both work for a newspaper called the Quill. Liz covers the society stories, and Dan, until recently, covered sports. The story as we witness it is presented as a tale being told by a white-haired narrator. He starts it off with a tantalizing chunk from the near the middle, then brings you back to see how it started. Our two reporters are covering an awards ceremony, with the action picking up during the after party. This is a world where the monsters we have all seen in the movies are real people, and thanks to those movies, they have become a tolerated (if not accepted) part of society. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of conflict until you witness one of the more notable monsters, Big Albert, seemingly robbing the studio head’s office.
Liz, the slightly insane but dedicated reporter that she is, decides to investigate, and so the plot begins. It weaves a fairly intriguing path, with some points being obvious to the point of being forgone conclusions. The two main characters aren’t just hinted to be attracted to each other, the narrator outright states it, to the point that Dan Murray hears him and objects. Other twists manage to be a surprise. The ending in particular was almost jarringly heartwarming. (That’s a phrase I’ve never had to say before.)
Another thing worthy of mentioning with regard to the story is the astounding abundance of depth given to even the most minor plot points. There is so much back story, I feel like I must have missed five or six prior installments. Siblings have names and jobs. We know the names of the bars that Dan goes to, the reasons that they are currently closed, and the names of people who work there. The local sports team gets a name, the ancestries of characters are discussed, and every other possible avenue of detail seems to have been laid out. The plot bible of this game must be three inches thick. Either they are planning to do quite a number of these – which is hinted at with unresolved plot threads and fourth wall breaking comments – or the writers spent the entire time the game was under development fleshing out every nuance of the world. I was amazed.
It has a great art style, clever puzzles, a fantastic interface, and a good story. Really, what’s not to like?
8.9 / 10: Sometimes quirky dialog is more than offset by an excellent interface and enjoyable gameplay.