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The most surprising thing about Telltale Games’ latest episodic adventure is that you quickly forget it’s from an American developer. That’s no small feat when dealing with something as quintessentially British as Wallace and Gromit, nor is that – for the most part – it feels right. It doesn’t simply resemble the original stop-motion cartoons. It absolutely nails the look and feel, right down to the fake fingerprints embedded in the characters’ 3D modeled plasticine. There’s no Peter Sallis (the voice of Wallace in the animations), but everything else is exactly what you’d hope for in a W&G conversion.
This series is four episodes long – Telltale’s shortest yet – with installments due on a monthly basis. This first one, Fright of the Bumblebees, is relatively simple. Wallace and his long-suffering dog Gromit have just set up their latest home business, making honey for their sleepy northern town. They need 50 gallons of the stuff by nightfall to pay off a debt from their last wacky business, only Wallace has forgotten to plant any flowers for his bees. The solution is obvious: whip up some quick grow formula for the daisies, and if you can’t guess what happens next, you may in fact be legally dead. Sorry to break it to you. Can we have your stuff?
That’s the only real problem with this episode’s story. It’s a fine premise, but not one that lends itself to many twists and turns. Much of the fun in the original shorts comes from the tight mix of down-to-earth northern-UK style and outlandish escapades, and while you may not know exactly what’s coming up in the next puzzle or scene, you can have a pretty good stab at predicting the general sweep of this story before the introduction is over. In a similar vein, if you’ve played any of Telltale’s previous games, you know how the adventure part works already. Lots of Three Trials-style puzzles so that you always have multiple objectives on the go, relatively simple one-step solutions, and a couple of more dynamic set-pieces thrown in for good measure.
This familiarity is somewhat disappointing, if not a killer. Like Sam & Max and Strong Bad, W&G is a fun, casual adventure. It’s simply that the focus is clearly on getting several episodes out, relying on a handful of inoffensive techniques to build puzzles and structure the adventure, rather than necessarily looking for innovative ways to handle each new license.
There’s a great example of this right at the start, where you have to repair a Rube Goldberg machine by finding the missing parts. It sounds like a perfect puzzle, and the idea is solid. It’s just that it begs to be replaced with some kind of basic Incredible Machine type sequence where you actually get to make your own crazy contraption out of household parts. Likewise, the sequences where you play as Gromit quickly fall prey to one obvious problem – he’s mute, and only gets specific animations for the cutscenes and success animations, leaving him with just head-shaking where quips normally go.
Most of the puzzles are decent enough though, with some great individual sequences. A shooting bit is particularly fun, as you defend Wallace’s house using the porridge gun and a number of impromptu garden traps, and there’s plenty of using and abusing of other inventions scattered around too. The writing keeps it all very amiable and playful, especially the stereotypical bickering couple, and one puzzle that could be solved in five seconds if Wallace wasn’t too embarrassed to draw his female neighbour’s attention to an important inventory object nestled out of sight in her prim cardigan.
That said, none of the sequences have much in the way of drama, with Telltale still seemingly terrified of giving their villains any clout. Compared to the likes of Feathers McGraw, Preston, or even Piella, a handful of apathetic, if admittedly giant, bees really doesn’t cut it as a threat. It’s just a little too laid-back for its own good, even when everything kicks off.
This is easily fixable though, and the signs are good. Fright may not be the most exciting adventure ever made, but it’s a more than solid starting point. Telltale handled the aesthetics with aplomb, and three episodes remain in which to polish off the rough edges and hopefully squeeze a few more dynamic stories and characters out of its virtual plasticine factories.
Available for download from Telltales' website.
Apr 6, 2009