Saturday 13 April 2019

Switch Review - The Mystery of Woolley Mountain

With its touch screen and pointer interfaces, the Switch has become a home console well suited to cater for the resurgence of Point-and-click games. But is good humour and heart enough to make a budget title stand out? 

Developed by Lightfoot Bros.
Release in 2019

At a time when AAA games strive for realism and Indies attempt to make social and political points, we can sometimes forget that games can also amuse. Indeed, point-and-click is typically the go to genre when people cite funny games; be it Telltale’s recent cinematic adventures or the golden age when LucasArts and Sierra created the classics. As the players of the nineties grow and develop games themselves there’s often a desire to replicate the games they once loved and pass on the feelings they gave. For James Lightfoot an ambition to create games was coupled with a desire to make people laugh, which In turn lead to the creation of ‘The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’. “I decided about a year and a half ago that I wanted to make a game, but had never made a game before. I always loved point-and-click games and it occurred to me that it would be the best thing to create and as such, decided to teach myself Unity.”

Predominantly playing as Garland Vanderbilt you and several other “audio scientists” are attempting to save children from the clutches of a wicked ‘Grotbags’-alike witch. To do this the group must travel to Woolley Mountain pointing and clicking their way through a number of puzzles. True to the genre, these situational conundrums are typically solved by using the right object on the right bit of scenery in the right way. 

With a green cross onscreen cursor, control of Garland will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a LucasArts or Sierra game during the late eighties and early nineties. As the cursor moves over the screen it changes in appearance to reflect the interaction possible; pick up, talk to, use or examine. Items collected go into an inventory and these can then be combined or manipulated to fit the need of the situation. Most of the time though, you’ll find the immediate goal is to convince your submarine crew to actually do their job. The rag-tag work shy group seem to find any flimsy reason to shirk responsibility. Despite the pleas of your protagonist everyone else seems more concerned with watching western movies, drinking or dabbling in their own scientific endeavours than actually saving children in peril. The characters you meet throughout the sizeable ten hour adventure are all unique however, with a melancholic human hating robot and a man made of rope two most memorable. The strength of any point-and-click game comes down to the quality of its story and the appeal of its puzzles. Narratively ‘Woolley Mountain’ is intriguing, if slightly predictable. It’s a yarn aimed at all, and I was happy to play in front of my eight year old daughter. It’s A Daddy daughter interaction that’ll greatly please Designer James Lightfoot. “It hadn’t occurred to me that young kids would love the storytelling, the puzzles and the interface of a point-and-click game. It was lovely to see that all ages can enjoy it.” 
While we laughed at different things we both enjoyed the tale told, and the tag line of “an other worldly comedy adventure” is a fair way to describe it.  Be warned though, while the humour is family friendly it’s also very British, to the extent that many may have to  reach for an Urban Dictionary to understand. Words like “burk”, “crap” and “bounders”, phrases like “blow the bloody doors off”, objects like a ZX Spectrum and references to ‘Basil Brush’, ‘The Eurovision Song Contest’ and ‘Blackadder’ may well confuse international players, while also baffling anyone under the age of 30. The game isn’t adverse to occasionally puerile jokes though, which, while not to my taste, made my daughter giggle an awful lot.  Characters will also offer audience only asides in a manner very similar to that seen in ‘Simon the Sorcerer’. Indeed there’s a beautiful self-aware, post-modern nature to the game; with one character even remarking “Who are you talking to?” during one such monologue. James Lightfoot doesn’t hide the fact that he was influenced by the ‘Monkey Island’ games in fact Ron Gilbert was even a backer when the developer sought funding on Kickstarter.  Described by the designer as “a combination of all the adventure games I used to play growing up", There are echoes of the genre classics scattered throughout ’The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’. At one point you’re challenged to a game of rope-knots which calls to mind the insult sword fighting of ‘Monkey Island’. Similarly, Returning to the same location in the past is almost certainly inspired by ‘Day of the Tentacle’. “Point and clicks have always been my favourite genre and have had the most lasting effect on me” notes Lightfoot. “From LucasArts to Revolution to Sierra, they have always offered well written, cinematic, engrossing, character-led stories, miles away from the frantic-in-your-face-run-and-gun, punch-a-prostitute in the face kind of games.” ‘Woolley Mountain’ doesn’t measure up to its inspiration, but considering the LucasArts games are often called the funniest games ever made this shouldn’t be a big surprise. The majority of jokes hit the target and ‘Woolley Mountain’ is earnest and charming throughout. 

Like the comedic storyline, the game’s puzzles are very similar to the works of Gilbert, Steve Purcell and Tim Schafer.  There isn't anything so absurd that a rubber chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle is required but ‘Woolley Mountain’ isn’t always logical. For example, I doubt anyone would think to solve a scientific experiment by mixing coloured liquids while a drunken sea Urchin sings eighties pop songs. The only way you’ll likely realise this is to either be using a guide or succumbing to the traditional point-and-click practice of trying everything in a location with everything in your inventory. True to LucasArts games it’s impossible to die or be completely stuck in ‘The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’. The items needed to solve puzzles are always accessible and to make things even clearer, a single press of the right shoulder button highlights which environmental objects can be interacted with. But on many occasions the items in your inventory must be used in a way that differs from their obvious purpose and the game expects you to just somehow know this. There is no leeway for experimentation; situations have a single solution and even if it isn’t the most sensible it’s what you must do. For example, why would you chase wolves away with a rock when you can scare them by popping a balloon with a badge? But the required logic-leap isn’t a trait unique to ‘Woolley Mountain’ and it seems unfair to be too critical of something that’s always been part of the point-and-click genre. Anyone who’s  come across a Goat in a ‘Broken Sword’ game , used an octopus in a toilet in ‘Discworld’ or defeated a Yeti with a custard pie while playing ‘Kings Quest V’ will know absurdity andpoint-and-clicks often go hand-in-hand. Obviously the length of ‘Woolley Mountain’ will depend on how quickly you stumble across the solutions to the most obtuse of the puzzles, but I never found myself confused for too long. Infact often I would end up kicking myself for failing to see an obvious solution. This was exactly what Lightfoot intended all along. “I want this game to have one of those middle of the night Eureka moments, where you go ‘of course’, you use the thingamabob with the wotsit’.”

There is some variation in play due to the inclusion of a number of small mini games. However, while they may be justified by in-game characters, their inclusion presents an obvious problem: If you can’t complete them, you can’t progress through the game. None of them demand that much skill to finish but not every aficionado of the point-and-click genre possess arcade game playing expertise.  Being flummoxed by a puzzle is to be expected when you pick up this style of game, but being held back by an inability to play ‘Break Out’ proves frustrating. It’s nice that developer Lightfoot Bros felt the need to vary gameplay but every mini game is under-baked and they add nothing to the game. The test of a good mini-game is its strength when played in isolation. ’Gwent’ and ‘Captain Toad Treasure Tracker’ are two obvious recent examples of Mini games that outgrew their host game. No one will ever choose to play the “retro inspired mini games” of ‘Woolley Mountain’ though, and every time you’re forced to you’ll find yourself groaning and eye rolling. 

Considering that this was the first game James Lightfoot ever coded, there is a lingering sense that some things exist as a result of a programmer wondering if he could create them. “I want to be a games designer and it made sense to me that the best way to become an indie developer is to make a game” Lightfoot admits. Inexperience also perhaps explains the technical short comings of the game, specifically the loading pauses that occur between each location. As each lasts only a few seconds it’s hardly noticeable, but when you intend to travel to a specific place and have to pass through three locations just to get there the accumulation is tiresome. It could be argued that this is reflective of a time when point-and-click games were on floppy discs and movement between places required disc swaps. If this is the intention it’s a relic of the past that should be long forgotten. 

There are other frustrating niggles. Flying in the face of established convention, the default click is the B button rather than A. It may not sound like much but it’s is oddly infuriating for anyone who’s used to a diet of visual novels. Similarly, inexplicably annoying is the game’s tendency to load an auto-save rather than a more recent manual save.  Of course none of these will ruin the experience of playing but it does mean ‘Woolley Mountain’ feels rough around the edges, particularly when it comes to audio.  

Throughout the 80’s the protagonist of Point-and-click games existed in a world of conversation that was read but never heard. Sadly, you’ll long for those days again when you play ‘Woolley Mountain’. The voice artists range from perfectly suited to abysmal. Thankfully your main protagonist Garland is an amusing and engaging orator, even if his intonation is occasionally peculiar. The comically surreal individuals you meet however sound undeniably amateurish, to the point of distraction.  Some are almost unintelligible and without the subtitles on I fear Id have missed what was actually said. The games Antagonist and her minions are particularly hard to understand, which isn’t ideal considering they’re often the main focus of cut scenes.  The volume of some characters also seems far quieter than others, which is most notable when they interact with each other. In some ways playing the game reminds me of ‘Flight of the Amazon Queen’ another point-and-click created by a tiny team. Like ‘Woolley Mountain’ this 1995 game offered a few stand out vocal performers that were surrounded by inferior actors, notably though, both games are also blessed with superb music. 

The music of the game was actually the first thing James Lightfoot created. “I’m in a band called the Helmholtz Resonators and we wrote a story called ‘The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’ that we did some music for” he recalls. “Music is not only a huge part of the game, but a huge part of my life”. Together with his brother David, James Lightfoot composed the remainder of the game’s tracks and the majority are superb. The same can’t be said about the visuals though.

Described in the original Kickstarter campaign as “‘Adventure Time’ meets ‘The Simpsons’; a different look and feel to the other [point-and-click] games out there”. It’s a look that doesn’t appeal to all. Despite the polygon based ‘Grim Fandango’ being one of the greatest games in the genre, Point-and-Clicks for many are intrinsically linked to pixelated graphics.   It’s no coincidence that ‘The Darkside Detective’, ‘Thimbleweed Park’, and the Wadjet Eye game’s all favour blocky dots - it’s a look that many still expect. ‘Woolley Mountain’ looks like a tribute to ‘South Park’ created using turn of the millennium Adobe Flash. It’s functional but unappealing and at times crudely animated. It’s sad that the visuals shine a light on the game’s humble origins as the simplistic nature potentially could put people off.  

However, being too critical of the game feels uncomfortable because at its core ‘Woolley Mountain’ exudes so much warmth. Created at a time when James Lightfoot endured unimaginable personal tragedy, his debut game is actually joyful. It’s ambitious for such a small team to attempt to emulate the games made by a studio at the peak of their success but Lightfoot Bros have created something that LucasArts themselves would have appreciated. “It's a passion project” notes James Lightfoot “I hope to put my little flag in the ground amongst the other fantastic and fondly remembered point-and-click adventure games.” It’s a genre that is enjoying a renaissance recently and the Switch seems to be a home for many new titles. ‘The Mystery of Woolley Mountain’ May not have the production values of other bigger budget projects but it has more heart, accessibility and genuinely hilarious moments. Playing it brings a smile to the face and at a time when so many games are obsessed with ponderous realism that in itself is something to cherish. 


A copy of this game was provided for free to review. The content of this post has not been seen or edited by anyone prior to publication. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.