Wednesday, April 1, 2020

We Rank 'Em: New (Retro) Adventure Games!

Since the first time I played King's Quest at a friend's house, I've been in love with adventure games - or "point and click" games as they'd come to be known once every computer came with a mouse. Adventure games are puzzle based, in most cases featuring little to no twitch action. They also emphasize character and story - hence their appeal to this here book nerd.

The best iterations of the style feature challenging but intuitive puzzles, immersive and atmospheric worlds, relatable characters and gripping narrative arcs. Unfortunately, many of the '80s and '90s classics used cheap and unforgiving puzzle design to paper over the fact that they were very short and simple games. Plus if you wanted to know how to proceed, you'd need to call the handy - and expensive - hint line provided in the manual.

The style fell by the wayside with the emergence of 3D rendering and the more immediate thrills provided by FPS and RTS games in the late 1990s. But now, thanks to Steam, GOG, mobile gaming platforms and our seemingly unquenchable thirst for all things retro, adventure games are back!

Here are a few of the best new adventure games on the market:

6. Thimbleweek Park by Terrible Toybox (2017)

Do you like weird what is even real anymore mysteries like Twin Peaks or Wayward Pines? How about the LucasArts model for point-and-click games? If the answer is yes to both, then I'm guessing you'll dig this Twin Peaks-inspired entry by the creators of Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. It also happens to be very good. Oh, and play it on Hard - it's not an authentic retro experience if the puzzles don't feel cheap at times. Steam | GOG.

5. Stasis by The Brotherhood (2015)

Unlike most of the entries on this list, Stasis is not an homage to the glory days of Sierra and LucasArts. It's more like a puzzle-based take on Dead Space, where you wander around a spaceship trying to make sense of what happened and not get killed by scary-ass shit. Atmospheric and gripping, Stasis features absolutely gorgeous environments, solid gameplay and intuitive puzzles. Steam | GOG.

4. Oxenfree by Night School Studio (2016)

Oxenfree is arguably the most stylish and high concept adventure game ever made. It centers on a group of teens in a weird Pacific Northwest town notable for its supernatural and just plain weird activity. Sound familiar? That's because this one also falls into the what is even real anymore category of game fiction. But it's not a retro game the way Thimbleweed Park is. Rather, like Stasis, Oxenfree represents a wholly modern take on this retro genre. Featuring gorgeous graphics, memorable characters and inventive gameplay mechanisms, Oxenfree stands apart from the pack. But it does fall short in a few areas - the dialogue can be quite tedious at times, and the game feels too short for another. It's still great, though, and well worth your time. Steam | GOG.

3. Whispers of a Machine by Clifftop Games (2019)

My two favorite literary genres are science fiction and crime noir. Whispers of a Machine has the honor of being both (full review here). The game takes place in a future Sweden, where anything remotely close to AI (including computers) has been banned. You don't know exactly what happened, only that it was bad - this serving as metaphor for a fairly sophisticated meditation on our relationship to machines. The game also features smart, Sierra-esque graphics and some cool gameplay innovations, courtesy of protagonist Vera's cybernetic augmentations. Oh, and there are multiple endings - each of which you'll want to experience. The downside? There are other games that do all this better, like...  Steam | GOG.

2. Primordia by Wadjet Eye Games

It's no understatement to say that Wadjet Eye Games rule the roost of new (retro) adventure gaming, and Primordia encapsulates exactly why that is. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic junkyard; its protagonist, Horatio Nullbuilt, lives peacefully with his robot Crispin until his power core is stolen. Their quest to get it back serves as a vehicle for exploring what happened to the humans who once populated the dead world. Primordia features a deeply compelling narrative, great characters, beautifully rendered retro graphics and a haunting atmosphere. And the puzzles are highly intuitive - no cheapness here. All in all it's an extraordinary adventure game, one highly recommended for fans of the genre. It's melancholic tone will give you the feels for sure. Steam | GOG.

1. Gemeni Rue by Wadjet Eye Games

Like Whispers of a Machine, Gemini Rue is also a cross between science fiction and noir, but in this case, features alternating hard SF and SF-tinged neo-noir narratives. These come together brilliantly at the end, but not before presenting gamers with one of the most seamless, artful and pleasing puzzle-based adventures ever made. Gemini Rue is a near-perfect example of what the genre has to offer, simultaneously paying homage to and surpassing the Sierra and LucasArts classics. I can't recommend this one enough - it may be the most gratifying adventure game I've ever played. Steam | GOG.