When a hopping mad, vengeful axe-wielding orc mercenary zooms into the rearview mirror on a fearsome flying interceptor, anyone who has played the acclaimed 2011 KING Art adventure The Book of Unwritten Tales is sure to get the warm fuzzies. After bounty hunter Ma'Zaz rides up beside Nate Bonnett's recently acquired airship to hijack him back to the Red Pirate's den for cheating him at cards, a flurry of tasks – some rational, some involving confetti and cotton balls – hurl you right into cannon fire as The Critter Chronicles takes off on an action-packed note. The craft soon crashes onto an ice shelf in the Northlands, however, and Nate finds himself in the soup du jour, his survival hinging on the shenanigans of the candy pink, lovelorn alien Critter. Add to the fray another not-so-friendly familiar face – the sniggering megalomaniac Munkus, a schizophrenic scientist and a rabid animal activist, and the stage is set just right for another clash of wonderfully dysfunctional personalities.
As a prequel to BOUT, The Critter Chronicles can be wholly enjoyed on its own merit by players new to the series, though given the numerous in-jokes based on the first game, this edition will definitely be funnier if the recognisable reference points pre-exist. The story recaps how Nate, an unabashedly selfish, narcissistic wannabe-adventurer met his furry sidekick and became (sort of) less selfish and narcissistic in his trusting, endearing company. There is also the issue of a stolen energy source that can give its owner unlimited power, which naturally attracts the wrong crowd. As an expansion of one of the most memorable adventures in recent years, this game carried great expectations, and it does try earnestly to fill its predecessor's oversized shoes, overcoming a few stumbles to succeed as an entertaining romp through an icy wasteland, but this time true greatness remains just out of reach.
Though the game takes ten to twelve hours to complete on the tougher of two difficulty modes, the dearth of diversity in locations and characters makes the experience feel repetitive in the second half. And along the way, quite a few of the inventory-based tasks are not logically set up and force you to randomly match objects to hotspots, which erodes both your patience and the charm of the game. On the plus side, The Critter Chronicles successfully incorporates many of BOUT's special qualities, like the steady flow of lighthearted quests; tandem play between Nate and Critter; pop culture-infested, irreverent humour; expert art and animation; cheekily familiar music; some excellent voice acting, and the feel-good little victories of the nice guys against near-insurmountable evil, to lure you into its borderline-insane world.
The story here is scaled down and kept more personal to Nate and Critter instead of segueing into a grand save-the-world saga. Nate wants a break from his mercenary life of fighting in the assorted factional wars plaguing their world, and now that he has his dream airship, the Mary, all he wants to do is retire to the balmy Southlands. Critter, meanwhile, is deemed too silly and inept to seek the hand of his beloved Layla by her father, the leader of the critters, and must find a way to improve his standing in their community. Even arch villain Munkus has a touching reason for coveting the machinery of the critters that will take him closer to world domination – his mother's approval, which he has been crushingly deprived of since childhood. Nate and Critter are circumstantially allied in a quid pro quo deal, which squares them off against Munkus and his Black Guards, as well as the lesser menaces of the indefatigable Ma'Zaz, Petra the judgmental activist, and an unhinged scientist named Cornelius who is hunting the elusive yeti.
The plot isn't particularly novel, but its threads are woven tightly to make a cohesive whole of the events that transpire to bring this group together, and will inevitably take them into the story of BOUT. Besides the pasts of Nate, Critter and Munkus, we learn about the provenance of the Mary, and how – and why – Critter becomes Nate's co-passenger. Initially, it's all about vested interests – Nate wants the critters to fix his crashed airship, and the critters want him to steal their energy source back from Munkus. The critters are shrewd enough to distrust the shifty Nate, however, and enlist Critter to shadow him to ensure he delivers his part of the bargain. Critter's innate innocence and loyalty eventually melts Nate's ice-cold heart, and they develop a quasi-brotherly bond as they plot the downfall of their mutual nemesis by infiltrating Munkus's fortified submarine and acquiring a magical weapon to beat him with. All short-term loops are neatly tied up by the time the party wraps up, and each character's arc gets a proper closure as the game draws to a satisfactory conclusion.
Most of the five chapters are set on the ice shelf in the Northlands. The short-ish first chapter is spent aboard the aging Mary while attempting to fend off Ma'Zaz's assaults, while the fourth covers a quick detour to Seastone to consult with the Arch Mage at his tower, though the actual village remains off-limits. The rest of the action is concentrated around four locations: the critters' state-of-the-art hideout, their junkyard of a workshop, a yeti cave and the submarine. This limitation is, in a strange paradox, both interesting and boring. The way the limited locations and the handful of items contained within are used and reused by Nate and Critter, jointly and separately, is fascinating in both imagination and execution. But at the same time, backtracking for hours around the dismal bluish-white landscape lugging ultra-ordinary objects with less than half a dozen characters to interact with – none of whom are truly coherent, literally or otherwise – will eventually have you straining for a reprieve.
The lower difficulty level is for those who found The Book of Unwritten Tales to be reasonably challenging, while the harder level is for players who want 'all the puzzles, all the pain'. The difference lies in the degree of complication in some of the tasks: in the easier mode, you'll be handed a required item, but if you play tough, you have to assemble it from its parts. In my quest for glory I chose the harder path, and I was stumped time and again – not by difficult quests, but by poorly-designed ones that I could solve only by indiscriminately combining objects and hotspots. Sometimes you have to repeat an activity till you get a result, but there is nothing to indicate this. At other times, you have to do things for no evident reason except that you have exhausted all other options. While a surprise visit from a famous fabled visitor solves a far-fetched problem, things take a turn for the worse at the Mage's Tower in Seastone, where the quests are as inexplicably twisted as the distorted perspectives of its interiors, especially the way Nate procures a painting from an animated gallery and his strategy for distracting a snappish plant.
Controlling the game, however, is easy and intuitive. Each screen has three or four items to be collected and a similar number of additional hotspots. Sweeping the mouse over a scene reveals hotspots whose labels appear at the lower edge of the screen. Left-clicking an object gets you either a detailed description from Nate or a garbled one from Critter, after which it can be collected or used. Right-clicking also describes an object, which is particularly relevant once objects have been acquired. The inventory, revealed by rolling the cursor over the bottom edge of the screen, stocks about half a dozen objects at a time. These are placed really close to each other, which requires you to take extra care when selecting an item to avoid picking up its neighbours. Logical item combinations turn the cursor red, which minimises guesswork and negative feedback and is a great help when you are forced to arbitrarily match objects. You get quite a bit of leeway in object combinations, and if some are not immediately useful, they can be detached back into their components. The space bar reveals all onscreen hotspots, and provides a reminder of your current objective. All exhausted hotspots are deactivated and inventory is cleared of used items immediately.
There are only three or four standalone puzzles, and unlike its predecessor, none in The Critter Chronicles require physical skill. The pedestrian fare offered here includes a paint-by-numbers exercise which has you conjure up fine art using a rather fat brush, a circular grid to be aligned correctly by rotating its rings, and picking a lock using the cross-section view. Puzzles can be exited while in progress, resetting them in the process, but they cannot be skipped (at least on the harder difficulty level).Continued on the next page...