Saturday, July 2, 2016

Adventure: Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder in the Hotel Lisbon (2014)

Ed.: As many have noticed, I'm finding it difficult to keep up with my adventuring and blogging of late.  So I'm changing up my approach a little bit -- feedback is welcome!

For several years now I've been doing comprehensive playthroughs and avoiding more recent games -- unnecessarily, as it turns out, since walkthroughs are actually easier to find for modern adventures than the vintage text games I often choose to battle through.  So I'm going to try a lighter approach and see how that works -- I'm going to play a game for fun's sake, capture a few screenshots, and then write about it from recent memory, rather than trying to take detailed notes along the way.  I won't be doing reviews, exactly, and there will still be some spoilers here where I want to comment on or illustrate something notable.  But I'm going to try to focus more on what a particular game brings to the adventure gaming genre, and how it uses or changes its conventions, and break my old habit of narrating every step of the game, at least where more recent titles are concerned.

So, with that said, I've recently been playing Portuguese developer Nerd Monkeys' 2014 point-and-click animated adventure, Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon.

The adventure game genre never quite died off commercially outside the United States, though I was surprised to see this effort is not implemented using the near-ubiquitous Adventure Game Studio, but Game Maker Studio.  The game is designed by Filipe Duarte Pina and produced by Diogo Vasconcelos, with backgrounds by Luis Bacharel, character design by Nuno Saraiva, a great jazz combo score by Rafael Pina, recorded with live instruments but yet somehow seamlessly looped when necessary.

The story is straightforward -- our hero and avatar, the amoral Detective Case, must solve a murder as well as several supplementary cases with the occasionally helpful assistance of an inherited robot sidekick who wants to be a stand-up comedian.  (Straightforward as adventure games go, anyway.)  The game mechanics are kept simple, and there aren't really any inventory puzzles of the traditional sort -- we do collect items and evidence, but they are used primarily within the victim and suspect interview sequences that provide the bulk of the gameplay.

It's not hard to work one's way through the game using exploration and a little experimentation, and there are walkthroughs available elsewhere, so I'm going to skip the details of the plot other than to say there's a murder afoot and an array of suspects with possible motives.  But I'm going to talk about details of the game's style here, so as always, I'll warn you that beyond this point there are likely to be...

****** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******

Detective Case/Lisbon (for short) has an appealing 2-D low-res European comic-strip look about it, with dialogue popped up in word balloons.  There's not a lot of character or event animation -- mostly walking, idle animations and some funny close-ups during the interrogations.  But the combination of backgrounds and characters (by different artists, no less) works nicely, and there are nice little visual touches like passing traffic and silhouettes used to indicate people who exist in the game's world but aren't available for interaction.  The engine smartly allows itself to cleanly adjust to a variety of vertical resolutions by employing a wider canvas (visible in windowed mode):

The writing is funny, unabashedly bawdy and politically less-than-correct at times, but it's not self-conscious or smarmy.  The translation to English is sometimes grammatically awkward, and there are a few jokes I never was able to grasp, but the characters come through well enough.  The game is not voiced, probably to reduce costs and localization challenges, which I appreciated when trying to click past repetitive dialogue exchanges.

(Speaking of repetition, while the game is generally pretty polished, I did run into one repeatable crash early in the game -- if one clicks on the police station door after entering from the left side without walking farther into the scene, the engine's text positioning calculation fails and causes the game to halt.  But I didn't run into any other showstoppers or gameplay dead-ends.)

The game's visual design is very consistent -- the camera angle never changes, so the same sprites are used everywhere; there's not even any scaling, as all entrances are left, right, or through a doorway that transitions to another location.  This is used creatively to accommodate a raucous foreground audience that treats the early going as a sitcom, and as a happy byproduct, the game's fast-travel taxi can be summoned anywhere, even inside a hotel room, to speed up gameplay.  There aren't many locations in the game, but the excellent score and well-chosen colors and background details keep the visuals interesting.

There's not a lot to actually do in this adventure, beyond pursuing the case at hand by exploring the world, finding connections and interviewing the parties involved to elicit information or confessions.  There are quite a few funny little details to check out and conversations to trigger, but many are optional and unvarying, and there are only a few cases where pixel-hunting becomes necessary to find an important item.  The interface is helpful -- Detective Case can ask Clown Bot for a reminder about the current objective, and we can review the items in inventory to learn additional details that might trigger an investigative path.

The core of the gameplay is the interviewing mechanic, a graphical reinterpretation of the classic ASK [SOMEONE] ABOUT [SOMETHING] text adventure approach, enhanced and/or limited by multiple choices for both questions and objects.  This has always been a problematic approach for me going all the way back to Infocom's The Witness -- each puzzle succumbs to trial and error, of course, but one never feels like much a detective when resorting to that.  Here, we're not allowed to initiate an interview unless we have all the necessary evidence to complete it successfully -- a reasonable design choice that saves us from too many dead ends, but it still doesn't help when we just happened to miss an important item somewhere and wish we could talk to someone to pick up an idea about where to look.  There's an additional layer of complexity here -- we can conduct a given interview as Detective Case or as Clown Bot, and some suspects react very differently to the two characters, leading to different outcomes based on the same evidence.  And the game's finale requires us to interview two different suspects at the same time, switching back and forth through six rounds of questioning instead of the normal three.

Unfortunately, the whole approach is sometimes a little opaque -- two questions may make basically the same point in slightly different ways, with one being successful and the other failing miserably.  Essentially we read the three possible questions, review our current inventory, and select the most productive question paired with supporting evidence.  But sometimes two pieces of evidence that should support the same line of questioning produce very different results, and sometimes a piece of evidence that seems tenuous at best ends up being the one the game wants us to pick.  So there's still some guesswork involved in these interviews, and the finale is especially vexing -- we have to replay the question/answer pairs we know multiple times as we try different combinations for the one we're currently stuck on, and there's no way to save the game mid-interview, leading to a lot of repetition that becomes frustrating the closer we get to finishing the main story.

Still, the game is entertaining, and Detective Case's, um, cases are developed in a light-hearted but logical manner.  And there's some charming retro humor on offer, including a vintage arcade stocked with parody coin-op titles in the Space Quest tradition:

Along the same lines, a thorough tour of the Hotel Lisbon allows us to access the mysterious room 401, which leads... right out of the game and into a vintage operating system:

This last joke is handled particularly nicely -- the game autosaves before we enter this area, as there's no way back in once we've exited, hinting at the frustration of 1980s game crashes and adventuring dead ends without forcing a replay.

There's also a nice nod to the development team, appearing as alley dwellers in an optional area of the game, and the band in a restaurant can be induced to play an entire song complete with vocals.  The music really makes up for a lot of the gameplay's limitations -- there's always a jaunty, promising feel in the air even when the hunt for evidence, suspects and the right combination of interview questions bogs down.

And that's what I have to say about Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon!  It's not a must-play adventure, but I look forward to seeing what this developer comes up with in the future -- the intentionally limited style seems to be working for Nerd Monkeys, and I appreciate that they aren't biting off more than they can chew like some other indie adventure game devs.  Sometimes a simpler style benefits more from modern technology than an envelope-pushing style the budget can't support.