Tim Schafer would be proud – the point & click adventure has been making a sterling comeback, but so far not too many of the major releases of the past few years have come close to reaching the heights flown by Lucasarts’ finest. As with so many things these days, it’s down to the indies to recapture that old magic, and The Journey Down: Chapter One (the first part in an episodic series by small indie outfit Skygoblin) comes closer than most.
The Journey Down is set in a refreshingly creative world which blends near-future dystopia with a dash of Discworld (a flat-topped world with a mysterious ‘underside’), plenty of African and Jamaican influences and a mostly black cast. It’s a heady mix, and not like anything I’ve seen before. The gameplay, however, is pure old-school Lucasarts; in the style of Monkey Island or Day of The Tentacle. TJD tells the story of Bwana (the player character) and his buddy Kito, two flat-broke goof-offs who run a portside gas station and charter plane service. Neither side of the business seems to be going anywhere, least of all the flying side, on account of their old sea-plane missing a propeller, both engines and a yoke.
If that sounds like the makings of a multi-stage puzzle to you, then you’ve probably played adventures before. When Lina – a researcher at the local university – comes to charter a flight in a hurry, Bwana sets off to do the impossible; scrounge up the missing plane parts so that they can get off the ground and back into profits – a fairly important goal, given that they owe the local power company (which also seems to own half the city) a heaping pile of cash. The first chapter of TJD is focused entirely around this one predicament, repairing the plane and meeting the people around Kingsport Bay, just outside of the sprawling metropolis of St. Armando.
The puzzles are clearly inspired by Lucasarts’ greatest. Mostly revolving around using unusual items in silly ways to achieve otherwise mundane goals. They mostly hit that rare balance of being ridiculous enough to make you stop, think and question your own sanity for a moment, but intuitive enough to not require a walkthrough or too much pixel-hunting. Only an early puzzle involving a buoy floating in the harbour (which looked very much part of the background) had me stuck, and only then because the buoy in question didn’t really seem to be part of the interactive foreground layer. The game even subtly drops some hints if you seem stuck for a while on a particular puzzle, and repeatedly examining inventory items can spark these gems of advice sooner.
Now, the eagle-eyed among you might notice that The Journey Down has been available as freeware for quite some time. Well, this is true! What we’re talking about here is the HD, fully-voiced remake, switching pixellated sprites for smooth (and oddly claymation-ish) 3D models, and adding a few more layers of puzzles to bulk out the experience and make it worth the new asking price. The backdrops in particular are very pleasant to look at, blending hand-drawn pieces with 3D rendered elements. It’s still a fairly short experience even with the new content – only a couple of hours long – but it isn’t asking anywhere near full price, so it balances out fairly well, and leaves plenty of room for growth in the next chapter.
The move from freeware experiment to commercial product has gone surprisingly smoothly here. Sprites have made the move to 3D without losing much of their charm, and aside from some slightly stiff movement during cutscenes and bizarrely Lego-like hands, animate well, too. The voicework is probably the biggest strength of this update though, with the lead duo of Bwana & Kito being pitch-perfect performances, Jamaican-tinged voices matching up with the characters perfectly. The supporting cast are a bit more of a mixed bag, with some slight overacting in places, and a little bit of under-acting coming from Lina during stressed moments, but it’s a very impressive show on the whole.
All in all, The Journey Down is a fine bit of point and clickery, with a good script, solid puzzles and a fantastic sense of style. Great for old-school fans and newcomers alike, as the puzzles aren’t too wildly challenging (or unfair) but not a cakewalk either, and there’s no potential for death or time-pressure failure to worry about, so you can enjoy the comical dialogue and vividly designed world at your own pace. The Journey Down HD will be available to buy on PC and Mac from May 18th from Desura, Mac Game Store, Gamersgate and more.[review pros="Solid puzzle design, great setting, fun characters, funny dialogue, good voicework for the most part" cons="Some occasionally ropey performances, even with some new puzzles it's still on the short side" score=87]