As I see it, the folks at Telltale were sitting around the office, slapping each other on the back for the success they were having that July with their brand spanking new Monkey Island series when one spoilsport way in the back finally got up the courage to peep, “You know, it’s the last week of July and we still have to finish that fourth installment of Wallace and Gromit . . . don’t we?” “What?” some company bigshot shouts, sloshing himself another glass of champagne. “Wallace and Gromit? Is that that PR firm we hired for Tales of Monkey Island?”
November 4, 2009
Anyway, the company at last came to its senses and immediately sprang into action placing a couple of college interns and a cleaning lady or two in charge of getting out that last darn episode of that darn “Wallace and Gromit” series that only so short a time ago had seemed so promising. On July 29th (although I didn’t get my email notice until the following day), a mere two days before the deadline, the fourth episode of “Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures: The Bogey Man” was released to its subscribers, and, should they care, the world. Whew!
Grand Adventures was the first time I ever “subscribed” to a game series. I followed the first couple of seasons of Sam and Max with interest and downloaded a demo or two, but it wasn’t until W&G that I got excited by the prospect of downloading a new installment every month. Frankly, it turned out to be a drag. It felt more like waiting for the cable repairman to turn up rather than Santa Claus. After all, big Nick may not bring you what you want but at least he always shows up on the appointed day. Telltale was quite prompt the first couple of months, getting the games out in the first week. Then episode three slipped to mid-month and finally, for the finale, the eleventh hour. My thinking now is, next time I’ll just wait until the entire series is available, then get it. If the game is any good, it’ll keep.
So was episode four, “The Bogey Man” worth my wait and yours? The short answer is that it is just as charming, just as well made, just as inventive, and just as easy as the first three episodes. Actually, it felt a little shorter than the others, and, if possible, a little easier. But that may just be because I’ve grown familiar with the game’s modus operandi. It also has pretty much all the pluses and minuses of the previous three episodes, as catalogued in my three earlier reviews, including controls designed for the Xbox. Just what is Xbox Live Arcade, anyway? Does that mean there’s network play of W&G? I checked the Xbox W&G site and I still can’t quite figure that out.
The Bogey Man of “Bogey Man” is – actually, I’m not sure. It’s either Duncan McBisquit or Wallace himself. No matter. Unlike the previous episode, this one is a light romp with no real villain. Wallace awakens the day after the excitement with Monty Muzzle and realizes to his horror that his neighbor Felicity Flitt thinks he’s proposed to her. In fact, he was just politely returning a lug nut. It’s up to Gromit once again to extricate his master from his foibles and he does so by – getting Wallace invited to join the local country club. Why? Because Felicity’s aunt Prudence will allow her niece to wed anyone except one of those durn Prickly Thicketeers! Why? Because six hundred years ago when the Prickly Thicket club was first founded, there was a contretemps between the Flitts and the club and . . . are you paying attention? All this matters, you know. Anyway, there’s a scene where Wallace shows up at the club and ferrets out its long lost secret, then there’s a big golf showdown between Wallace and Duncan for leadership of the club (though it’s Gromit who does the actual “golfing”), and finally there’s the big Gromit action scene back at Prickly Thicket, where all is blissfully resolved, including the hand of Ms. Flitt. Hooray. End of series.
So was I sad when it was all over? Yes, I was. But it was more the wistfulness one feels at the end of a wonderful children’s story, like “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s the characters you’re going to miss, and the clever, marvelous situations. Telltale kept the actual gameplay in the series down to its absolute minimum. Case in point: The second “act” of “Bogey” takes place in a brand new locale, the Prickly Thicket golf club. It’s a charming medieval room that was “designed” by a great ancestor of Wallace’s. All kinds of crazy contraptions and secret doors. When I first walked in, I was thrilled. A half hour later, after the game led me by the hand, step by step, through what I had to do, like a preschooler, it was over. On to the next scene! Did you have fun? There was one point when I tried to move Wallace across the room to test one of those enticing contraptions – but no, Wallace was doing this now. Wait until the game is over, then you can explore. So I had to return and let Wallace go through his preordained steps.
One more example may suffice to make my point: In the first scene of “Bogey Man” the game designers don’t want you wandering too far afield to solve the first series of obstacles, so the front gate that takes you to town and elsewhere is not accessible, nor is the backyard, nor the stairs, nor the door to the living room, nor the basement, not even the kitchen. About the only things available to you are the handful of items and areas you need to complete the first steps of the game. I mean, come on. It’s not like the world of W&G is so vast that one is going to get lost for long. Some of the subtle manipulation that games now do routinely does make sense, like dispensing with superfluous inventory items, but when the controlling hand gets too strong the gameplay suffers and the sense of exploration evaporates.
The really sad thing is that there are in “Bogey Man” as there are in the three previous episodes, the makings of some great adventure puzzles. But the whole thing is so tightly scripted and your actions and choices so limited, that it’s like walking into a room with a great big Lionel train setup, only to be allowed to send the train round and round a simple oval. Telltale was so scared than non-adventure game W&G fans would be so petrified of having to solve a puzzle or two that they did what pretty much every other adventure game company does now – give you a guided tour whether you want one or not. What I don’t understand is why these companies don’t just include a written walkthrough with the game. That way newbies or adventure-phobes can just read their way through the obstacles.
The artwork of “Bogey Man” is, as previously, gorgeous, the writing is top-notch, the acting is superb, the small ensemble original score is toe-tappingly wonderful. It’s Disney quality cartoon making, no mistake. But, as I have noted before, it’s only just barely a “game.” I suppose Telltale is trying to interest non-gamers in its games. They’ve shelled out big bucks for these big name franchises – Sam, Max, Guybrush, Wallace, Gromit – and they don’t want to limit their sales to the feeble, dwindling numbers of adventure gamers. Adventure games are dead, didn’t you hear? We’re trying to transform the adventure game into something that everyone can enjoy, which is to say, not an adventure game. Here, by the by, is a direct quote from a recent press release from Telltale: “Telltale's Wallace & Gromit games are designed for the same all-ages audience as the duo's other endeavors and will be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike.”
There is an abundance of talent at Telltale. The stuff they put out is swell. I know they could make great traditional adventure games if they really wanted to, which is what leads me to believe that they don’t really want to. I have read in the forums that people are saying the new Monkey Island games, while wonderfully faithful to the Monkey Island ethos, are even easier than Telltale’s other games. Look, Telltale is free to do whatever they like, and if this path is making them money, then of course they’re going to follow it. I’m only saying that as an adventure gamer, I’m bitterly disappointed in the direction they’re going.
The one thing in these games that does keep you on your toes is the ever changing prices and platform availabilities. Here’s another bulletin from that same press release: “Individual Wallace & Gromit episodes can be purchased for $8.95. Telltale is also introducing an upgrade offer today, which allows customers who own one of the individual episodes to get the remainder of the series for only $19.95.” And, of course, no waiting! As of this writing, only the first episode of W&G is available on Xbox – the platform the game was designed for! Telltale usually releases its games for Wii, too, but so far no word on W&G on the Wii. Though I suppose that would be Wii&G?
“The Bogey Man” is fun, funny and again beautifully made. I can indeed easily see how a W&G fan who has no discernible interest in adventure games might love it. Episode four was of a piece with its three previous installments, although a bit less surprising, a bit less engrossing. One could almost hear the game designers yawning. I give it an overall grade of B.
This would also be the likely time to award a grade to the entirety of “Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures,” all four episodes together – B plus. Almost everything about the game was A material, except, alas, the most important part, the gameplay.
Final Grade: BEntire Series: B+