If you have kids or are English, Wallace & Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees is probably on your radar. After all, aren't you curious about how a beloved clay animation franchise will be destroyed by a conversion to the demon skull of media, the video game?
$10 (800 MS points)
It turns out that Telltale and Nick Aardman's people did a pretty amazing job translating the visuals of a clay cartoon into an electronic game while retaining the charm of the original shorts. It's a feast for the eyes, with puzzles that range from simple to an exercise in additional frustration. And as expected, cheese plays a large role. This is the first episode in an ongoing series.
While Telltale's games often involve point-and-click, this game mixes it up a bit. This time around you can control Wallace and/or Gromit, depending on the scene, directly with your analog stick. You can manipulate objects in a variety of ways, and Telltale makes it simple because it will darken the entire screen-- except the parts you can touch-- when you push a specified button. You can cycle through your inventory and use those items on the specific locations, or you can just interact with the specific locations (people, objects, whatever) directly. It's simple and easy to get the hang of, with pretty much no learning curve once you try the demo.
If you played the NES port of King's Quest V, you get the basic idea.
Explore, and Be British
If you've seen any of the Wallace & Gromit shorts or feature, you pretty much know the score here. Gromit is a dog which tends to pull Wallace's butt out of the fire because he invents things which tend not to work out. In this game, he wants to sell honey to a grocery store and accidentally creates swarms of giant, mutant bees-- hence the name of the episode. Wallace's voice is provided by a soundalike who does a reasonable job replicating his somewhat whiny requests for cheese or help, while Gromit remains silent.
Like a lot of English television, there's a lot of quaint-ness. The game is completely family friendly, and there are a lot of people being mostly polite with the exception of Wallace's neighbor, Miss Felicity Flitt. The black-and-white nature of children's TV comes up here, because while playing this game all I could think was "man, what a shrew." Actually I was thinking a fouler word, but that one seemed a bit better here. It's rare that I play a game where it makes me hate a character, particularly someone who isn't the chief antagonist. So that's some skillful storytelling right there.
Being a Wallace & Gromit title, your tasks unsurprisingly require you to make breakfast via a Rube Goldberg device and fetch cheese for Wallace. Actually, a fair amount of the game is obsessed with cheese and the means by which to obtain more cheese, which falls somewhere between being charming and a retread of every cartoon mouse since 1941. Ultimately, it's up to the two title characters to fix up a bad situation while meeting the neighbors, lying to the cops, and messing with an immigrant grocer. Actually, it sounds a lot more fun when I put it that way-- it's really just good clean family-friendly adventure fun.
Graphics & Sound
The audio and video of this game are spectacular for a downloadable game. It looks a lot nicer than $10, but since it's short, it doesn't feel like quite the bargain.
Because Aardman's characters are best remembered for being clay creations, the Telltale programmers wisely made the digital characters with clay "skins." The animations are a little choppy, which is intentional in some places like the mouth animations, and general hardware slowdown in other places when too much is going on at once. But back to the skins, if you have a high definition television set you'll be able to see all the little pock marks and clay imperfections rendered in each character model, which shows that someone was concerned that these characters hung on to the charms of their tangible ancestors. That's no small feat, and these guys did a way better job than the people who brought us Clay Fighter in the 16-bit console era.
The music sounds nicely orchestrated, and there's just enough variety to keep you from tearing your hair out. It's not particularly memorable, but it suits the source material and is totally appropriate for the game. The same can be said about the voice actors and sound effects, but the actors do a great job of sounding exactly like they were meant to work on cartoons from the UK. And there's good reason for that.
As licensed games go, it's rare that you will find one that tries as hard to recapture the look and feel of its inspiration as much as this one. Unfortunately, the soundalike for Wallace may upset purists to the point where they may overlook the rest of the game for this one little (big) reason.
Achievements & Puzzles
Like all Xbox Live Arcade titles, there are 12 achievements to unlock. Of them, 4 (80 points) are given just for playing through the game, and the rest are mostly easy to unlock accidentally. If you're an achievement junkie, I suggest you read the list over before playing the game so as to avoid grabbing certain items too early.
The puzzles range from simple to huge pains in the neck. Telltale seems to enjoy word puzzles which are basically "correctly assemble this Mad Lib," which is more an exercise in trial-and-error-based frustration than a reasonable adventure plot point. Aside from making breakfasts and fetching objects, you're also thrust into an action sequence where you have to do a little bit of shooting and quick thinking to clean up Wallace's front yard. While clever, this deviation from the puzzle format threw me for a loop and it took me a while to pick the game up again.
Is it worth buying?
If you're a fan of adventure games, or of these characters, you owe it to yourself to grab a demo and try it. The game is clearly more charming than funny, thanks mostly to the source material, with the puzzles feeling just a little more random and difficult to guess right on the first try than, say, the Strong Bad games.
If a game is worth buying for its visuals, Fright of the Bumblebees is absolutely worth the ten bucks. As a game to forge through with your kids, or as a neat example of how you can merge cartoon sensibilities with a video game, it's well worth a look. If what you want is a snarky, snappy, or fast-paced game, this isn't it. However, it's a fine way to burn off a few hours on a summer afternoon, and "few hours" is key. The game is quite short, although you're likely to get as much or more out of it as you would a ticket to a movie, so it's arguably good entertainment for your dollar.
...but it is pretty slow in spots, and some of the puzzles are nail-bitingly difficult to figure out. Particularly if you play in the middle of the night after being up all day.
June 17, 2009