Let's talk about Bundle in a Box. It's a new bundle launched by Kyttaro Games, and worked on by the inimitable Gnome of Gnome's Lair, a certifiably awesome site of which I can only aspire to. It runs on a pay what you want model, with a minimum price that drops as sales go up, and a beat the average bonus. It focuses on a single genre, in this case adventure titles. It has some Steam activated games, and others that are DRM free only. It includes a never before released game, and one that's making its digital distribution debut.
It's also really really good. I'm pretty excited about this bundle of games, and you should be too. Skip past the break to find out why I've been raving about it on Twitter.
The Sea Will Claim Everything
Developed by Jonas Kyratzes
I'm going to preface this mini-review by saying that I literally could not pry myself away from this game. I've been at it all morning, and I'm totally engrossed. Seriously, the closest I came to starting this post was when I ran into a bug (which is on its way to being fixed), quit the game, opened a new post, restarted the game, cheered when the bug was gone and then went right back to playing. But at great personal strain I realize I have six other games to take a crack at, so yes. Time for me to elaborate on what exactly the Sea is, and why it's going to Claim Everything.
The Sea Will Claim Everything is a Bundle in a Box exclusive debut from Jonas Kyratzes, as part of his ongoing Lands of Dream world. More specifically, it's an adventure game that focuses on the surreal and sublime Fortunate Isles, a slightly strange and offbeat fantasy world full of druidic magic, anthropomorphic animals and lots of clever and subdued humour. The bold and colourful art style looks beautiful, and the soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous. Even better is the jam packed world; unlike most adventure games where clicking everything is a necessary chore to progress, clicking all around in The Sea Will Claim Everything is an amusing diversion and stuffed full of great writing.
However, my absolute favourite part of the game is the ever expanding scope. Upon first booting up the game, you're greeted by The Mysterious-Druid and told that the Underhome, the abode held by his family for generations, was invaded by "goons" and is now being foreclosed. In essence, the story begins like every other escape the room style adventure game, and it seems like the Underhome is the primary focuses. But the scope is quickly blown up over and over again, so just when you think you've explored everything you realize this adventure is so much grander. Buildings give way to cities and then to expansive islands, making the game go from escape the room to an expansive journey.
It's all put together with an excessive amount of attention paid to small details through the art and writing. Everything down to the smallest mushroom has some kind of wry quip or reference attached to it, but even the grander story is a brilliant commentary on society, filtered through the lens of Kyratzes' perspective on the world. The details themselves are often subject to the same expanding scope as the gameplay itself; for example, The Mysterious-Druid's name, which begins as a silly one off joke yet becomes far more poignant than you could imagine.
1893: A World's Fair Mystery
Developed by The Illuminated Lantern
While at least one other bundle has dabbled in choose your own adventure games, there hasn't been a single bundle yet with a proper interactive fiction game. It's a shame, because there's so many indie IF games out there, and many of them are amazingly good reads. However, Bundle in a Box managed to snag a title that is amongst the best of the best, debuting the digital downloadable version of 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. 1893, previously only available in a physical version, is a seriously huge IF game that travels through the entirety of the Chicago World Fair, with a painstaking eye for details and historical accuracy.
You are a detective, called in after eight diamonds are stolen from one of the many fair displays. You're given an office, a stipend, a dossier full of crime scene notes and then turned loose to solve the crime. With just a scant few clues to work with, and so much ground to cover, it seems like kind of a hopeless endeavour. Indeed, it very well might be, as the grandiose scope of the game makes solving the crimes feel positively overwhelming. In my case, I only came close to finding one diamond by sheer luck. But even as I wandered the fair cluelessly, I was having a ball due to the incredible world built up by the game.
As I mentioned, historical accuracy is the key element here. The Columbian World Fair is recreated almost perfectly, allowing you to wander through the dozens of exhibits and examine the sights and sounds through period photographs and verbose descriptions. The historical accuracy is incredible, but the feeling of actually living in the world is captured perfectly. You need to eat and sleep, but the many restaurants actually turn finding a new place to dine into a fun experience, and the time based world leads to many great moments. Things happen at different times all over the place, and there are plenty of NPCs to interact with. For a perfect example of this living world feeling, be sure to be at the east exit to the administration building at 11:30 sharp to take a fantastic tour.
Sure, there are puzzles to solve, items to use on things and diamonds to find, but reading about the displays of technology and artwork provide a fantastically unmatched historical experience. I went from knowing next to nothing about the world fair to becoming utterly engrossed in the history of it. To heighten the mood, the download comes packaged with "feelies" including a guidebook and tourist map of the area. Essentially, 1893 perfectly captures a blend of solving a mystery, visiting a theme park and learning about the dawn of modern America.
If you're a regular bundle customer you probably already have many of the games in the pack. But I can only say that both this and The Sea Will Claim Everything would each be worth triple the minimum price on their own. If you love adventures you absolutely owe it to yourself to get this bundle.
Developed by Joshua Nuernberger and Wadjet Eye Games
Steam, Desura, DRM-free
I think my favourite part of the Bundle in a Box is the focus on covering all forms of adventures. The Sea Will Claim Everything sort of covers the first person Myst style journey of discovery, 1893 is obviously representing the IF field, and the two Size Five games wear their LucasArts influence proudly on their sleeves. Gemini Rue, on the other hand, seems to be working in the tradition of the more cinematic and moody adventure, very much along the lines of Jane Jensen's work or mystery adventures like Broken Sword. Luckily, it also fills that role very well, presenting one of the best indie adventure games in recent years.
Gemini Rue tells the parallel stories of Azriel and Delta Six. Azriel is a rough noir detective looking for signs of his long lost brother in a star system recovering from revolution, all while tussling with the Boryokudan crime syndicate. Delta Six is an inmate in some kind of brainwashing training regime, coming fresh off a memory wipe after an ill fated escape attempt. Both have murky backgrounds and the story jump-cuts between the two, with twists, cliffhangers and brilliant set-pieces. Many would describe Gemini Rue as cyberpunk, and while I can sort of see where they're coming from, I prefer to call it sci-fi noir, a genre mash-up that hasn't seen love since Tex Murphy, and never in such a serious tone for a video game.
Like all games published by Wadjet Eye, the writing is definitely the strongest factor here. It's just an extremely well written story, with great dramatic beats and just enough loose strings of answers to dangle in front of you. The traditionally spotty voice acting of Wadjet Eye is less present here overall; while some minor characters aren't so great, the major characters are all well done and suit their characters perfectly.
If you've followed by blog for some time, you know that the best thing an adventure game can do in my eyes is simply follow a logical path. While I can appreciate the use everything on everything approach to game design, I much prefer it when an adventure puzzle can be sussed out with clever thinking and common sense. The puzzles in Gemini Rue are all investigative in nature, with logical solutions just clever enough to be rewarding. The mystery solving is broken up by action scenes, using a neat combat system based on good reflexes and risk-taking.
Despite the clear retro influences, Gemini Rue is an experience like no other. If you haven't picked it up yet, it's a great cinematic adventure game that avoids many of the common adventure game frustrations. An easy recommendation.
Ben There, Dan That SE and Time Gentlemen, Please!
Developed by Size Five Games
Steam, Desura, DRM-free
Continuing the trend of many different adventure styles, we come to Ben and Dan's loving tribute to the wacky LucasArts adventures of old. Crammed with offbeat humour, hundreds of great lines and amazing music that apes the Sam and Max soundtrack style perfectly, Ben There, Dan That and it's sequel contain some of the best and brightest comedy writing I've seen in an adventure game since, well, LucasArts.
Yes I'm serious. I'm usually slightly tickled by humour in games, but Ben There, Dan That had me consistently laughing out loud at the rapid fire delivery. The banter between Ben and Dan is hilarious, the endless descriptions for items and locations is awesome and the overall plot starts out crazy and only spins out more from there. One particular quirk turned asset is the game's total lack of voice overs. In many games this would be a serious flaw, but in the Ben and Dan series the dialogue is so well timed and amusing that the lack of voices fits right in to the role of Ben and Dan as a throwback. Hell, the text based delivery even managed to make then sound British long before the dialogue spelled it out for the player.
The best part is that it's all quite a bit filthier than Sam and Max ever was, but in a good way (though it's probably not a game for the kids). It's the familiar style of referential humour, insane inventories and item on item action, but all grown up. Think Conker's Bad Fur Day. What Ben and Dan do to adventure games is akin to what Rare did to cute platformers. It's a great idea, because those of us growing up with LucasArts are now old enough to appreciate just how hilarious it is to call someone a wanker, and the cursing and jokes about weeing are kept to a level that makes it funny, not childish. It may not be everyone's style of humour, but it certainly is right up my wheelhouse.
The Ben and Dan games follow the titular heroes, who are also the game designers, through lengthy and bizarre quests that can be solved with copious amounts of collecting junk and combining it. It begins with Ben and Dan trying to catch an episode of the greatest show ever, Magnum P.I., by using an antenna they puzzled out. Cut to an alien ship full of alternate dimensions, followed by an adventure through time in order to erase the first game, and you have a game that starts weird and cranks up the nonsense.
The best example is the opening of the game, which begins with a cold open of Ben attempting to resurrect his old pal with a firework in Peru. It's a completely nonsensical scene that only makes sense through a very skewed reading of adventure logic. Most comedy adventure games build to this point, starting out normal enough before getting to the crazy, but Ben and Dan get right down to tacks. But even amongst the silliness, the developers manage to stick in commentary and satire of nationality, geek culture, religion, adventure games themselves and their own twisted relationship. Brilliant stuff.
I decided to squish Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentleman, Please! into just one section. In truth, Time Gentleman, Please! is so closely linked to the first game that they can't really be separated; it's like one big, long, very weird day. However, Time Gentleman, Please! makes several improvements to the graphics and UI, and also features more user-friendly options to give clues and hints through Dan. They're both hilarious though, and definitely worth playing. The adventure game logic gets a bit fuzzy at times in this game, but luckily with enough clicking you can almost always get on the right track. Absolutely worthwhile for a loving poke at the classics it so reveres.
The next two games are for the generous souls who beat the average. While the base package is well worth it alone, surely you can spend more than the six dollars or so that the average is floating around and pick up two more fun adventures.
Developed by Wadjet Eye Games
I wrote about The Shivah quite recently due to it's place in the last Indie Royale, but I'm going to break from my usual copy and paste methods and write about it again. My last post is still relevant and helpfully informative, but I want to talk about a few broader concepts to do with adventure games. If you want to read about The Shivah as a game (you're a rabbi and you solve mysteries!) then by all means check out that link. But let me talk a bit about why adventure games are so timeless.
In my original post I sort of compared the conversational and story focused game to certain works of interactive fiction. In hindsight, that's a pretty stupid thought. But while writing about The Shivah I wanted to try to figure out what other genre could possibly come close to the focus on narrative and storytelling. Well duh, the only genre that comes close is the genre that's been used. The Shivah tells a story that simply would not be told in any other medium. It wouldn't work as a big production because the topic is so grounded and niche. It might work as a novella or short story, but that would lose the many faceted ending that makes Rabbi Stone's crisis of faith a high stakes issue. Any other genre of game simply would not work at all. So in the end, The Shivah serves to prove as a perfect example of the storytelling power of adventure games.
Make no mistake, The Shivah is a narratively powerful tale. Leaving aside my nitpicks of not enough puzzles and some poofy mic noises, the underlying narrative of the game proves that video games can indeed produce works worthy of artistic merit and criticism. Obviously it's not the only game that hits this level of narrative richness, but I still appreciate it because it validates my argument that video games can be smart, and just as worthy of close analysis as any other medium. In my opinion, there is no better genre to uphold this idea than adventure games thanks to the endlessly creative uses of tools like Adventure Game Studio to produce works like The Shivah. It truly is a story that could not be told in any other matter, but it's also a story so sublimely focused on one small aspect of world, and treated with more respect and seriousness to actually make you think. Is it realistic? Not even remotely. Is it thought provoking and does it make you consider alternative views of the world? Oh yes.
Developed by Walk Thru Walls Studios
Metaaaaaaal! If Ben and Dan represent Sam and Max in our new adventure pantheon, I could see Metal Dead filling the spot of Full Throttle. Neither have much in common except for protagonists with a fondness for spikes and leather, but both serve as funny yet macabre adventures in the classic LucasArts style.
Metal Dead tells the story of Malcolm and Ronnie, two metalheads leaving their apartment for the first time since the undead rose again. Both aren't too phased by the zombies, as the apocalypse is basically the most metal thing ever. But after a mishap, Malcolm vows to enter a run down genetics research building and find out exactly what happened to cause the apocalypse in the first place.
Of course, Malcolm solves this in the most Lucasian of fashions: by making wry comments about things and combining items. There is a ton of writing involved too, which is generally very good and pretty funny. While it doesn't quite reach the hilarious heights of Ben and Dan, the metal setting and gruesome use of gore gives it a different feeling from the rapid fire banter. In particular, Malcolm's many facial expressions are very amusing, despite the lo-fi graphics, and the excessive use of gore as a punchline never gets old.
On the topic of graphics, the low budget indie art style looks great and fits the mood perfectly, while the soundtrack is fantastic; my favourite pieces are the vaguely chiptune metal songs that Ronnie is so fond of, but the rest of the tunes are fantastic tributes to the typical zombie soundtrack. Like Ben and Dan, Metal Dead forgoes the use of voice overs, but that simply allows the designers to cram in plenty of jokes and reactions to every conceivable way of clicking on the environments.
While Ben and Dan may have shown the world that the LucasArts school of adventure game writing could still be viable, Metal Dead shows that it wasn't just a fluke. Hopefully this is a sign of more clever comedy adventures to come.
I'm going to sign off by talking about my own experience with Bundle in a Box. Obviously I'm a big bundle fan, and I like most of the bundles that come across my desk. But I haven't been caught up in a bundle in some time, where I couldn't pry myself away from each game to move on to the next. In fact, Bundle in a Box is probably the first one ever that glued me to my computer. It's a fantastic selection of games, including two amazing exclusives. It's an extremely low price. The quality of support and game choice is top notch. Yet they haven't had the sales success they deserve. If you ask me, Bundle in a Box deserves to be a smash hit. So spread the word around the social media sphere. I don't care if you have five copies of Time Gentlemen, Please! already. If you like adventures, this is the bundle to pick up right here.
Oh right, my own site. If you like my ramblings, keep up to date with my happenings on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, plus check out the Steam group. There's plenty of goodness coming down the pipe, so keep your rubber chicken pulleys ready.