Adventure gamers always wait in anticipation of a new star developer to come into the industry--a company that, with just its name, assures at least a certain level of quality in an adventure. It's not a distinction that can be earned right away, and it's one that some promising developers have flushed away with just one subpar effort. But with the enjoyable cartoon adventure Jack Keane, Germany's Deck13 Interactive has positioned themselves to become a frontline adventure developer of the new generation.
On the heels of the well-received Ankh games, Jack Keane is the first in a new third-person adventure franchise centered on the quests of the titular hero and his comedic misadventures. Jack (no relation to the notable U.S. Army general of the same name) is a likeable English adventurer in the early colonial period who--after disposing of some unpleasant debt-collecting scoundrels at the top of Big Ben in a fantastic and imaginative opening sequence--accepts a harmless mission to deliver a secret agent to a mysterious island. There's much more going on than Jack can imagine on Tooth Island, of course--namely a crazed scientist with a trained army of monkeys and nefarious intentions.
Jack's adventure is mostly of the exploration variety; the first five chapters all take place in distinct environments, with some unexpected stops on the way to Tooth Island. The plot then begins to expand as the island villain's intentions become a larger part of the story and the end goal becomes more focused. The narrative wisely establishes some depth to Jack's character by fleshing out his backstory as the action ramps up, and from that point forward there is a bit more intensity as Jack's mission to stop the madman becomes more immediate. The game is never particularly dependent on action or swashbuckling combat (as the pirate references might lead you to believe), but does pick up quite a bit of momentum in the second half.
A majority of the game features Jack in the spotlight. However, there is a second main character, a lovely young American gal named Amanda who is along for the ride, but with some interesting motives of her own. It is a pleasant creative surprise when she becomes a second player-character and completes tasks in the same environments you (as Jack) have already occupied, or soon will. One such task is to set bait for Jack, which creates a nice effect of omniscience for the gamer, who now knows more than the two player-characters themselves. It's unfortunate that Amanda is much more bereft of personality than Jack but the very existence of a female lead really adds balance to the game.
The tone of Jack Keane is unabashedly light and family-friendly. This is most evident in the visual style; the graphics are bright and colorful and consistently appealing--just take a look at the screenshot gallery and chances are you'll be hooked. Of course, those with a taste for a more mature style need not apply, as the deliberately cartoonish and cheery nature is never compromised. The music is light, non-intrusive, and never particularly concerned with creating a heightened sense of drama.
The family-friendliness also shines through in the dialogue and humor, which is usually fairly obvious and heavy-handed. The jokes don't necessarily "miss," since they rarely aim for very much, but there are plenty of chuckles and more than a fair share of smiles, though the game probably hoped for more belly laughs than are actually provided. Such a lighthearted, whimsical foundation might give the impression that the game is more of an absurd, Sam & Max-style escapade, but the reality is that even the more fantastic elements--the actions of the monkey henchmen, for example--feel fairly subdued and safe in their execution rather than taking serious risks for the want of a belly laugh. It's exactly the type of humor and theme that parents can enjoy with their pre-teen children, rather than worry about covering their ears and explaining all the jokes.
The puzzles are also designed to appeal to a wide variety of gamers. Most obstacles are traditional inventory puzzles, some involving multiple combinations of items. However, the inventory is always kept very manageable and objects disappear once they are used once, and are usually located close to the puzzle they'll be used for. As long as you're picking up everything not nailed down, there is a finite number of possible actions, and the puzzles are usually intuitive anyway. There are some puzzles with more than one solution, and there are even some puzzles that are completely optional--solving these unlocks bonus content, which is a wonderful concept despite the middling nature of most of the actual content, which consists mostly of a simple gallery of game characters.
Despite the definite cheerfulness of the tone, the game still struggles against some mechanical issues, most notably the 3D camera (which admittedly no game has yet to perfect). The automatic panning and zooming can be unpredictable and sometimes the panning lags behind the character movement notably, forcing a rapid series of clicks on the edge of the screen just to keep Jack from constantly stopping his movement. This problem is even worse when the running (a standard double-click) takes over, because the running is so jerky and fast that the camera can never keep Jack centered. The implementation of full 3D causes a couple glitches too, when an item can be seen from a place where the developer never intended. In one early stage, this accidental discovery causes a game-freezing error.
The game also suffers from serious deficiencies in voice acting--and it is almost all concentrated in the player-characters. The supporting characters all sport a variety of over-the-top accents and committed voice performances. Jack and Amanda, unfortunately, sound like boring nerds who don't believe a word of what they're saying, which is counter-productive at moments when they are desperately searching for solutions to life-threatening puzzles. Normally games are all-or-nothing in the voice department, but Jack Keane gets it right when it's not that important and really, really wrong when it matters most. I'm not even upset about the fact that Jack, who is purportedly British, sounds as American as you can imagine. What bothers me is that a young, adventuresome hero sounds much more like a middle-aged tax professor who is just reading a script about adventure and derring-do.
These flaws aside, Jack Keane is a lengthy game, light on difficulty, but never anything less than fun. The most common comparison is Monkey Island--perhaps because of the nautical nature of the adventure, the pirate elements, or maybe the abundance of monkeys on the island. But the tone of LucasArts' immortal adventures is significantly darker and sharper than that of Jack Keane, and a much better comparison is to the classic Space Quest games, with the aw-shucks hero, the generally obvious but abundant humor, the variety of inventory puzzles, and the constant exploration of new environments. To reach that Sierra-style level of quality, Deck13 will need to make some mechanical improvements and definitely go back to the drawing board with the main voice actors, but the foundation in place here should create a good deal of enthusiasm for not only future Jack Keane sequels, but anything else that comes down the pipe from Deck13.