Release Date: August 2003
Note: Originally published 05 September 2003
For a few brief years, starting around 1988, the computer game world seemed to be ruled by cartoony third-person graphic adventures. Sierra Online and LucasGames (later LucasArts) were particularly dominant with a string of popular titles like the King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Space Quest series; the Laura Bow and Zak McCracken games; theIndiana Jones series, Maniac Mansion, Revenge of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, The Dig, and the Monkey Island series. And lets not forget AdventureSoft’s Simon the Sorcerer games and the insane first two Discworld games. Perhaps the pinnacle of this tradition are the two superb Broken Sword games.
Then in 1992 everything began to change with the release of Myst. Suddenly cartoony third person was out, and photorealistic first person was in. Out with character interaction, in with obtuse mechanical puzzles set in lovely, lonely environments.
Many adventure game players have never stopped missing those halcyon days of the cartoon adventures, and for those stalwart fans I have very good news. Runaway: A Road Adventure is a complete throwback to that venerated tradition. It’s a great-looking, mostly 2D, third person graphic adventure that may make you dizzy with nostalgia.
The game is narrated by Brian, a young man who’s just graduated from college and is on his way on a cross-country trip to accept a prestigious position at Berkeley in California. Before hitting the road in earnest, he stops in New York to run an errand, and his life is changed forever. He nearly runs over a beautiful, scantily-clad woman named Gina, who claims that bad people are after her.
The first interactive scene takes place in Gina’s hospital room, where Brian tries to figure out a way to get Gina away from the murderous thugs who seem to want her dead. From there, the story is a roller coaster series of locations in the Southwestern United States.
The best thing about Runaway is the sheer delight at sinking into the type of adventure game that you really might have thought no one made anymore. The environments are bright and colorful, the inventory-based puzzles are diverse and challenging, and the story pretty solid.
The game also has a lovely technique used for the general game introduction and the introduction to the individual six chapters. It consists of the narrator sitting on a deck chair and just telling you part of the story. It’s such a nice device I can’t believe I haven’t seen it before. In fact, I’d call the chapter intros the most elegant I’ve seen in an adventure game since Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon.
In addition, the game includes two things you just don’t see very much in graphic adventures: drugs and drag queens.
Unfortunately, the game is not all roses.
Like its predecessors from a decade ago, the game suffers significantly from Pixel Hunt Disease. You’d better get your mouse hand limbered up, because you are going to be painting screen after screen with that cursor looking for that elusive item that the graphics don’t quite make clear is there.
Many of the puzzles are logical (if you look and listen very carefully, that is), but several key puzzles suffer from one of two fun-busting problems: Opaque non-intuitiveness and downright silliness.
There’s one important puzzle in which you’ll do the right thing, but might not realize that you have to do that same (multi-step) thing SIX TIMES before the puzzle will be solved. There’s nothing in the character’s dialog or clues to let you know this needs to happen.
Even worse, some puzzle solutions are simply insane. I don’t know how they make peanut butter in Spain, but I’m pretty sure it’s not by throwing peanuts and butter into a bucket and MELTING them. Uh, peanuts don’t melt. And peanut butter doesn’t contain butter. My favorite has to be when the game requires you to add water to gasoline to “dilute it.” Right.
Also bringing down the overall delight factor in the game is the dopey dialog spoken poorly by a rack of very unfunny characters. I know this game was translated and localized, but I’m pretty sure this script wasn’t funny in Spanish, either. The “straight” characters aren’t bad, and aren’t performed badly. But every single “colorful” character is almost aggressively unfunny, poorly acted, and just kind of dumb. The drag queens are a particular disappointment. Stolen from the hilarious, witty and touching movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” these ladies are fun to look at, but don’t have a good joke (or a well-performed line) between the three of them.
In fact, none of the characters comes close to the sharp satirical humor of a Monkey Island game, the offbeat and intriguing characters in The Longest Journey, or the melancholy pathos of Syberia. In fact, every single character in the recent game Ratchet & Clank is funnier than the funniest character in Runaway, and, uh, Ratchet & Clank is a platform game.
HOWEVER. As Woody Allen said, a huge percentage of success is showing up, and you’ve got to give Runaway credit for showing up with bells on. Despite its problems, it’s lots of fun to play. Maybe those crazy Spaniards will do better next time.
Be sure to watch the ending movies. Chuckle at the game’s dopey grasp of California geography (Berkeley is shown as being across the Golden Gate Bridge). You keep thinking the game’s over, and it’s not . . . there’s even a scene after the credits.
As an adventure fan, I wouldn’t have missed Runaway, and neither should you.
Final Grade: B-