Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Release date: October 6, 2016
Venture Moon Industries took to Kickstarter to drum up funds for a title conceptualized and headed by Bill Tiller, a LucasArts alumnus who worked on the art for adventure titles such as The Dig, Ghost Pirates of Voojo Island and The Curse of Monkey Island . For any point-and-click adventure fan whose roots reach back into the heyday of the nineties, nothing more needs to be known —- the project practically bankrolls itself. And sure enough, the game was funded and made.
The result is Duke Grabowski, Mighty Swashbuckler. It’s a fun and compact little point-and-click story that has flavors of the Monkey Island series in its visuals and humor, but lacks the same zany logic and madcap puzzle design. Genre fans will find this game a tasty morsel with a clever swashbuckler-sword edge.
The game’s reluctant hero is Duke Grabowski, a sentient slab of meat with a head perched on top whose strength and size have an inverse relationship to his intelligence. He’s a pirate among a squad of other scallywags until the ship’s captain, a widely respected scoundrel and leader, dies. The crew inevitably begins squabbling over the open position and Duke hopefully throws his hat -- or, in this case, oversize scabbard —- into the ring. It’s clear early-on that he’s the butt of his crewmates’ jokes, so the gawky Duke is sent on a fool’s errand: prove he’s a true swashbuckler by romancing three women, and he’ll be made captain.
It’s a simple enough setup, and Duke wanders off to explore the island in search of ladies to “sea-duce,” but in true adventure game style, nobody gets something for nothing. Before long. Duke has collected a list of situations to resolve before any female will vouch for his credentials.
At the beginning of the game, I was a bit incredulous of the depths of Duke’s dimwittedness. Would I be able to make it through an entire story told from the perspective of someone who could barely construct a grammatical sentence? But after a few minutes of the meathead act, Duke’s unsophisticated patois begins to wash over you and even, inexplicably, to charm you. He’s clueless about women but bighearted deep down, so it’s endearing to watch him navigate his own weaknesses in pursuit of the captainship. It also helps that he’s surrounded by more clever characters who can handle the teasing and cracking wise.
The game’s visuals will seem familiar to the seasoned adventure fan, but this does nothing to decrease how delightful and eye-catching they are. The influences of the Monkey Island series play out here in the whimsical architecture and inventive character designs that lend the game its sense of playfulness. The slightly misogynistic premise -— which, to be clear, is fully subverted by the end of the game — would feel stifling without a colorful, unserious backdrop. I especially enjoyed the town’s tavern, which serves an array of festively named drinks, and the local firefighters’ uniforms that combine the sex appeal of a fireman-of-the-month calendar with the finery of a pirate.
The humor is thickly spread — conversations are stuffed to the brim with pirate jokes and puns — but Duke encounters plenty of witty and sarcastic quips, especially from the women he’s trying to impress.
There are some of the exposed seams that are often the side-effect of crowdfunded games, such as a large and conspicuous number of named characters and a side gallery for portraits of funders. These trappings may be a necessary distraction in many adventure games seeking out their niche audience through crowdfunding, but overall Duke Grabowski has a cohesive aesthetic.
Probably the game’s most lackluster element is its puzzles. I will freely admit that complex or outside-the-box puzzles aren’t my forte, especially if the game’s story and world are compelling enough that I’m impatient to find out what happens next. But there wasn’t a moment in Duke Grabowski when I was ever stumped. The puzzles are deeply logical and usually require using the materials immediately at hand. Need to clear the route of a squad of zombie pirates? The nearby crane will probably come in handy. Being attacked by cannon fire? The only other item in the frame might be your best weapon. Ultimately, this self-evident gameplay serves the story — anything more complex and it would be hard to believe a knucklehead like our protagonist could figure it out. But if you’re looking to be baffled, the only one scratching his head will be Duke.
The gameplay uses standard point-and-click mechanics, with Duke having three options in interacting with anything of interest: talk to it, look at it, and move/push/punch it. It’s an honest delight at times to bring the character’s raw strength into problem-solving situations; rarely are the characters we play in adventure games able to uproot trees or fling jaguars great distances. I also enjoyed that Duke could acquire the “skills” of other characters, such as mathematics or espionage, and apply them to the game world the same way he would an inventory item. This mechanic could be used in a lot of creative ways in the future, but it's also a nice way to make up for Duke’s general lack of finesse and lend the story an air of female competency.
The puzzles are made even easier by the fact that there’s the handy feature of identifying all interactive elements on a page by hitting the tab key. I find this feature useful in the densely-detailed environments of many adventure games, but at times I longed for more distracting inventory items or the meandering, sputtery kinds of puzzles that come up early and toy with your frustrations for awhile before revealing their full scope much later on.
Duke is a different kind of pirate than those we already know. He’s not witty like Guybrush Threepwood or clever like Captain Jack Sparrow or frightening like Bluebeard. But there’s room for all kinds of pirates on the high seas, and Duke might be the man whose story we need. Beneath the vast layers of muscle is a guy who just wants to be liked and respected. Duke is the rare pirate who’s willing to let his experiences change him —- he starts out a buffoon and by the end makes a real connection with one of the women he meets just by being himself. It’s sweet and heartwarming and surprising, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Duke as the captain of a ship in a future game. Sure, he’d need a lot of help to keep things running smoothly. But what’s a great story without an unlikely hero?
+ Unusual protagonist who grows on you over time
+ Beautiful and inventive visuals
+ Funny characters and story+ Shirtless firemen
- Easy puzzles (though this could be considered a positive for younger players)
- A few technical blips like misaligned text and jittery cutscenes (these aren’t detrimental enough to drastically worsen the gameplay experience)