?Adventure games are not dead, dammit! True, they once were the height of innovation; yes, there have been many ill-conceived entries in the genre. For years, adventure games have been thought of with scorn and incredulity if they were thought of at all. Topless Robot even published its own list laughing at some of the greatest embarrassments ever to profane a PC, all accurate (Willy Beamish still haunts me to this day). And yet, adventure games have managed to survive, sometimes huddled on the fringe of the gaming world and sometimes even in the spotlight. Actually, they may be more relevant now than ever before, and if the success of Telltale Studios is to be considered, we may be in the midst of an exciting new adventure game revival.
Now, this isn’t to say that every adventure game being made by a major studio, an indie studio, or some guy in his dad’s loft is worth your time. But the point is, much more is going on in this field than people are realizing, and some titles that are well-known in adventure circles still haven’t got the mainstream recognition they deserve. At a time when video games are finally being seen as means to successfully realize stories and ideas, adventure games have the potential to gain more exposure and win back a larger audience. You want proof? Here are some quality underrated adventures from 2001 onwards: some big, some small, all worth your time.
9) A Tale of Two Kingdoms
Anyone who misses the glory days of King’s Quest (5 and 6, that is) should seek this little gem out immediately. It tells a complicated, high-fantasy story of a murdered king and a kingdom on the brink of war, and there are so many variables and optional side-quests that you don’t even have to solve the main plot to beat the game. Best of all, there’s no risk of getting screwed over because you forgot to pick up item x through dialogue choice y in scene z four hours ago. You may not get the best ending, but you won’t have to start all the way from the beginning, which is more than I can say for some adventure “classics” out there. Plus, it’s completely free, and available for download here.
8) The Whispered World
Like some sort of mad cross between a Miyazaki tale, Care Bears, and The Last Unicorn, this beautiful fantasy outing casts you as a sad young clown (“sad” is even part of his name) who must challenge his destiny and save the world– or perhaps destroy it. It is guilty of featuring one of the cutest adventure game sidekicks ever, but unfortunately it is also guilty of an unforgivably heinous vocal performance for its lead character, at least in the English version (unless you really like Adam Sandler and can’t believe he isn’t voicing everything ever). So this is one to play with the voices turned off, and a walkthrough in hand at certain parts, but one to play nonetheless, right up to the heartbreaking surprise ending.
Here’s the thing deal with horror as a genre: it shouldn’t be about grossing you out, or making you jump, or even just being creepy. It’s about triggering actual fear. Making you dread whatever’s coming next. Leaving you with that anxious feeling of doom, like there’s nothing you can do to avoid the oncoming evil. A lot has been written about survival horror, and how games like Silent Hill and Eternal Darkness manage to get this right exactly. So does Prodigal.
You play as a young man who’s estranged brother suddenly disappears, leaving behind a mysterious and suspicious trail that tempts you into darkness. Whispers dance on the soundtrack, blood drips from the top of the screen, and obscene monsters lurk in the shadows, but there’s no easy escape here, and the satisfyingly horrific twist ending may leave you unwilling to trust anyone for days. This is another free independent game, and it’s available here.
6) The White Chamber
And speaking of terrifying independent games, there’s this little item, developed by Studio Trophis. More of a gamelette than a full-length epic (it’s finishable in one sitting), this is still an intensely scary, gory anime sci-fi thriller set on a haunted space station. It’s short length is countered by its different endings and gripping, bloody, disturbing story. Did I mention this one’s not for the faint of heart either? Originally a student project, it handles decently enough and though it has its problems, it’s a good way to slaughter a couple of hours if you’re up to it.
5) King’s Quest 2: Romancing the Stones
If you’ve conquered all the different endings of Tale of Two Kingdoms and your King’s Quest jones just isn’t satisfied, why not check out this independently developed remake of that series’ second installment? There have been quite a few of these types of games cropping up recently, re-imagining the classics of adventure gaming’s heyday with slightly more advanced graphics and occasionally (gasp!) actual voice actors. This one, however, is way above and beyond: developers AGD Interactive took what was a pretty bare-bones fairy tale plot and added enough depth and character development for two or three games. As icing on the cake, we get connections to other games in the series, past and future, that strengthen the series’ mythology and actually made me feel, for the first time in years, that King’s Quest matters, that it has a real story to tell and means something important. Hold on, I think… I think I’ve got something in my eye…
What do you call a more wistful, emotional steampunk? Steamfolk? Steamo? Whatever your terminology, this was one of the big adventure hits of the decade. A moody story about a young American lawyer who comes to Eastern Europe to execute the will of a dead genius and finds herself drawn into a quietly magical world of clockwork men, steam engines, and woolly mammoths. Definitely not for those with short attention spans, but everyone else should give it and Benoit Sokal’s other titles a look.
3) Runaway: A Twist of Fate
So the second Runaway game, The Dream of the Turtle, ended with a completely unacceptable cliffhanger, leaving nerd-turned-surfer-douche Brian Basco very far away from saving his girlfriend Gina and foiling the bad guys. Perhaps realizing this, the developers set the third, final, and perhaps best game in the series much later, with Brian convicted of murder and a mysteriously rescued Gina along to help him clear his name. Somewhat refreshingly, these are not the most scrupulous of characters, willing to destroy property and get innocent people in trouble in order to achieve their goals. Loaded with non-pc humor, Runaway is a fun, cartoony comedy-thriller, with an old-school emphasis on zany inventory puzzles and CG that doesn’t completely suck (even if the lip syncing does).
Somehow, Amanita Design, the makers of the irresistible but incredibly short Samorost and its sequel, managed to take everything that worked about their popular freeware title and only improve upon it for this quirky full-length offering. In addition to the creatively stylized environments we’ve come to expect, we have a moody, elegant score, fresh and surprising character design, and some startlingly clever puzzles, both environmental and item-based, that may bring back fuzzy memories of adventure games of yore. Plus, it’s about robots. What more could you ask for?
1) Shadow of Destiny
Anybody remember this one? Awkward voice-acting aside, this has got to be one of the best console adventures ever devised. Young alleged German and John Candy sound -alike Eike Kusch is killed by a shadowy assassin but is saved when an otherworldly being gives him the ability to travel through time and change the past. Or is he? Eike soon finds himself making a series of time jumps ranging in length from a few minutes to a few centuries in an attempt to stop his murder and uncover the truth. And to top it all off, the game has almost as many multiple solutions and alternate endings as Chrono Trigger, highly encouraging repeat playthroughs. And to top it all off even more, it was finally released for the PSP last January, and the CD-rom version is six bucks at Amazon. You have no excuse.