A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I heard about a computer game published by Spielberg’s now-legendary DreamWorks called The Neverhood. I did some checking around about this game and discovered that it got nearly universal raves, so I set myself to buy a copy. It went on my eBay shopping list. During the first few weeks of my search, I discovered one sad but shocking fact: the damn thing never seemed to sell for less than about $40… for a used copy. I was bound and determined not to pay that much for a used game and decided to bide my time. “Surely,” I told myself, “with my eBay acumen I will eventually manage to seize a copy for a reasonable price.”
Two years passed.
Eventually, I hit upon a stroke of luck. No, it wasn’t a cheap copy of what had become my personal Holy Grail by this time. But I happened to come in contact with a member of the team who worked on the little-known Secrets of the Luxor. Through him, I managed to purchase a copy of that game for about $13. As part of my search for The Neverhood and some other older games, I had joined GameTradingZone and, not expecting much to come of it, I offered to trade a gentleman my copy of Luxor for his Neverhood. To my surprise and relief, he accepted. My quest was finally over. But would the game possibly be able to live up to two years’ worth of anticipation? It hardly seemed likely.
I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.
I have to start by talking about the look of the game, partly because it is one of The Neverhood’s great unique strengths as well as one of my few complaints about it. The game is done entirely in claymation stop-frame animation. Over two tons of clay and hundreds of thousands of man-hours were used in creating the wonderfully wacky world of The Neverhood. The animation is universally excellent and the cartoon theme allows for lots of humor, like when our hero Klayman gets pancake-flattened by the classic spring-loaded boxing glove, or when his eyes bulge to eight times their normal size when he is being chased by a hideous weasel-monster. While there aren’t many belly laughs in this game, there are so many grins and chuckles that you can’t help but enjoy yourself thoroughly.
Another part of the uniqueness of the game’s look is that the perspective switches back and forth from 1st to 3rd person. Whenever you are outside, the view is 1st person, and this is where my complaint with the graphics is. On my computer, the resolution during the first person portions was very grainy and pixilated. This was especially true during the “tracking shots” as you moved from node to node. No amount of messing around with my settings could improve this. Given how wonderful the rest of the game looked, this was a real disappointment, especially when the same problem occurred during some of the few cutscenes in the game. This ceases to be a problem, however, when Klayman enters a building (or his wacky car-cum-minecart-cum-rollercoaster) and the perspective changes to a side-scrolling third person view. These areas were sharp and detailed.
Another unique factor of The Neverhood is that there is no reading or dialogue. Well, actually there is a lot of reading and dialogue. Except there’s not really. It’s hard to explain without getting into what the game is about. And what is The Neverhood about? Life. The Universe. Everything. It seems that the Neverhood was created by one of the “Old Gods,” who now lies comatose in his castle because his first “man” stole some of his magic and tried to usurp his power. The creation legend of the Neverhood was recorded on a series of videotapes by the mysterious Willie Trombone, your will-o’-the-wisp guide through the world. These tapes have been scattered throughout the land. It is your job to find these tapes and reassemble them in the proper order so you can learn the story of the Neverhood’s (and your own) creation and your place and purpose in this strange world. Until the very end of the game, the tapes provide the only dialogue in there is. Televisions are placed at various locations to let you watch the fragments of the tale that you have found and give you a general idea of how much of the game you have completed. The only reading in the game is in the massive Hall of Records. This is an enormous historical museum/library, the walls of which are inscribed with the legends of all of the Old Gods. I think I counted 26 screens of length in the Hall of Records, and each screen has four panels of reading material. Actually reading all of this would take almost as long as playing the game itself. Luckily for the player, while all of this written material is funny, not one word of it has any relevance to playing the game. You can ignore it completely if you choose. Or, since the Hall of Records is accessible at the beginning of the game, you can play through the game and then start a new game to go back and read it all at your leisure.
Given that there is no dialogue (or, indeed, other characters to talk to even if you felt so inclined) you can probably guess that The Neverhood is a puzzle-based game. There is a wealth of puzzles here, ranging from pretty easy to real head-scratchers. They are all fresh, original, and downright FUN! Even the game’s maze is presented with a fresh twist: a bunch of interconnecting grooves on a cliff face along which Klayman must navigate his… errr… personal transport device. While this maze is fairly large, you get to navigate it in a few easy-to-swallow chunks, and even the “dead ends” provide you with clues or necessary inventory items. There are some inventory puzzles, but they are the minority and your inventory is never more than a couple of items. Most of the puzzles are of the logic or environment manipulation type, and I found them to be a blast to tinker with, even when I failed. There are so many light comic touches and details in this game that just attempting a puzzle can be almost as fun as actually solving it.
Overall, The Neverhood stands out as one of the most unique, charming, fun and original adventure games I have ever played. My only complaint (other than the minor graphics problems I already mentioned) is that it is simply too damned short! Of course, I say this partly because the game was so fun I never wanted it to end. But even by objective standards, it is not a long game. Even without a walkthrough, most players will likely be able to complete the game in less than 20 hours, and experienced gamers can finish it in 10-15 hours. Given how expensive the game has become, this becomes a question of value for some consumers. Personally, I found the quality of the game more than made up for the quantity. Were an updated/DVD version of The Neverhood ever released that fixed the resolution problem, I would give it a 5-star rating with no qualms despite the game’s comparatively short length. Instead, I have to give it 4 ½ stars and worry about whether I am cheating it or not.