Back in the dark days of history – well, okay, 2011 – a comic-fantasy point-and-click adventure called The Book of Unwritten Tales was translated from German into English and released to near-universal acclaim. For some reason, scholars of the day did not consider this a portent of the impending apocalypse, and instead clamoured for more. Fast forward one year and its sibling game – The Critter Chronicles – has followed in its footsteps and made the leap to English.
First things first: The Critter Chronicles is apparently neither sequel nor prequel, but a stand-alone expansion, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever before seen in the point-and-click adventure genre. Secondly: I didn’t play The Book of Unwritten Tales (I was probably playing Psychonauts again, or something) so I’m coming at this completely fresh.
From what I can gather, The Critter Chronicles is set prior to the events that transpire in Book and it details how the wannabe adventurer-sort Nate Bonnett met up with the “Critter” – his small, pink, hairy sidekick. Things open with Nate alone on an airship he stole from a pirate king, while an orc mercenary follows in hot pursuit. What to do? Solve ludicrous puzzles, obviously.
Everything’s set in a sort of comedy-fantasy world, in much the same way as The Secret of Monkey Island is a comedy-pirate world. There’s a thin vein of seriousness running throughout it, but the puzzles, items, dialogue, and a few anachronisms counterbalance this nicely. It’s never as outright ludicrous as Simon the Sorcerer, but it’s certainly not po-faced.
And… well, it’s genuinely funny. Anything involving the penguins (and a number of puzzles make hilariously sadistic use of them, from flinging one through the air on a catapult, to dangling a fish in front of another to make it run endlessly) is brilliant, and I could’ve stood the baby Critter having a lot more screen time. Even the command line gets in on the action: select a weapon and mouse it over the Orcish bounty hunter, and instead of “Use axe on Ma’zaz,” it reads “Do something really stupid.”
For the most part it’s also better-written than I expected. A reasonably common complaint with Book was that its translation got a bit iffy in some areas, and here, there were maybe only three or four lines that made my brain itch. Plenty of games written by native English speakers have a greater number of problematic dialogue lines than that, so credit where it’s due.
As a pair, Nate and the Critter are pretty damn likeable, with the former actually going through a bit of character development throughout. At the beginning, he’s a selfish asshole out for himself; even after meeting up with the Critter (stranded, with its brethren, after their spaceship-thing crashed) he’s mostly just plotting to get their help and then screw them over. By the end… well, he’s still a selfish asshole, but he mostly manages to keep these traits under control.
The Critter, on the other hand, is a pink Muppet. No, really: he and his entire race could pretty much have appeared in a series of skits on The Muppet Show. As probably-aliens, they all speak English with varying degrees of success; the Critter himself doesn’t really speak any, instead communicating his thoughts on objects with body language and Beaker-like verbal articulations. At first, it’s incredibly annoying and makes examining things nearly worthless. It gets a lot less awful and a lot more amusing and adorable once you’re used to it.
So it’s well-written, it’s likeable, and it’s really rather amusing. What could possibly go wrong? Did you just ask about the puzzles, locations, and plot? Oh.
Sadly, these rather important areas are where The Critter Chronicles occasionally falls a bit flat. The puzzles regularly devolve into “use everything on everything” without giving you any reasonable expectations of outcome. Rather than using brainpower, lateral thinking, and the occasional leap of logic to solve problems, you’re generally just trying everything you can in order to see what happens.
As an example, let’s look at the first set of puzzles in the game in which Nate is trying to get Orcish bounty hunter Ma’zaz off his back. She’s flying alongside in her own ship, demanding he land. You’ve got a cannon on deck and you’ve managed to get your hands on some gunpowder, but you’ve got nothing you can use to shoot her down. The solution? Fire random shit at her until she fires back and misses. Her cannonball will land on your deck, and you can use it to shoot her down. How were we meant to anticipate that?
This is actually one of the more sensible ones, too, with Nate vaguely (and amusingly) trying to justify shooting cotton balls and confetti at her by theorising that they might become incredibly hard and lethal due to high speed and air pressure. Later ones… well, there’s a lot of Use Everything on Everything until an obstacle disappears.
On the plus side, this could be a lot more painful than it is. The command line only ever changes if there is some sort of action that can be performed with the items you have selected, so you’ll almost never hear a variation on the lines of “I can’t do that” – if you can try to do something, then you’re probably on the right lines. Holding down the space bar also highlights every hotspot on the screen, so you’re never stuck pixel-hunting for things to use. So hey, you’ll be Using Everything on Everything, but at least it’s not that hard to do.
Then comes the plot and locations. The problem here, I think, is that this is more a smaller, prequel-like side story, so for most of the game there really isn’t much of a feel that you’re working towards solving some problem of earth-shattering importance. It doesn’t help that three of the game’s five chapters are primarily set around the same four locations, either. You’re not exploring dozens of far-flung regions, and it rarely feels like you’re stopping some huge, evil plot; you’re often just pottering around the same (admittedly beautiful) locations, Using Things on Other Things for purposes that are entirely mysterious until the puzzle is solved.
But still, it’s hard to say The Critter Chronicles is outright bad – it’s got the heart of a good game, and it’s actually funny, but it’s regularly let down by a number of disappointing issues. Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about it is this: there’s so much promise shining out of those cracks that, on finishing it, I immediately went and bought Book just so that I could see what the team could do with more locations and a lengthier game that wasn’t tied to anything else.
If you liked Book – if you know the characters and the world, and you want a bit more detail on Nate, the Critter, and their first meeting – then you’ll probably enjoy these 6-10 hours of rather amusing gameplay a fair bit more than I did. For newcomers, though, it might be best to start with the original game (priced pretty much exactly the same) and move onto this if you want more.