Version tested: PC
There will be unavoidable nepotism in this review. The UK games community has got so tiny over the years that only developers who deliberately shun the limelight, or (as games industry myth tells tale) deny their workers internet connections and phones, and site themselves in the arse-end of nowhere, are unknown to the welcoming and judgemental circle of UK games writers. When it comes to UK indie developers, like Introversions or Zombie Cow, they pretty much make you know them. I will therefore admit to knowing Dan and Ben, the scriptwriters and narcississistic heroes of this game. However, as my nearest and dearest will attest, I'm pretty much a sociopath with no social skills and face no problems in offending people I know and like, and so I hereby declare that joyously imagining their weeping, betrayed faces when they see the number at the end will have no impact on my review.
Not that Ben and Dan need worry on that score, curse their bones; their game's few flaws must be obvious to them anyway, and are more to do with the engine and medium they've chosen to express themselves than any problems they've introduced. This game is built from the Adventure Game Studio engine, though heavily customised, but it's obvious their writing talents could be put to use in any genre; as with their previous (free) game Ben There, Dan That! (to which this is a sequel), they've made this adventure game because a) it lets them express themselves in the purest form of mainstream game, the interactive novel and b) because they have an unparalleled knowledge and love for the genre. Their excellent scripting, consistent, cartoony design and delight in overtly, overly referential absurdity is designed to appeal to the hardest of the hardcore. It's like they made the game for games journalists!
The plot follows Dan and Ben as they seek to undo the total cock-up they've made of history in the previous game by (minor spoiler) stopping the invention of the coathanger which, along with Dan's Magnum PI addiction, was to blame for total world genocide. Travelling back in time, their coathanger-related meddling inadvertently results in Hitler and an army of cloned Nazi dinosaurs conquering the world; our smug know-it-all heroes must work out a way to stop him and restore the earth to its correct timeline, whilst trying ultimately, we presume, to keep the eighties' most mustachioed detective (saving Angela Lansbury's later years) on their screens.
Admittedly, beyond the script and design, the engine is rudimentary but robust. You control Ben most of the time, with Dan tagging along as the Max to his Sam, the Chewie to his Han, the Bubbles to his... his sidekick. Right-clicking changes action (examine, use, use with Dan, talk to) and left-clicking performs the action. There's a handy map which teleports you between zones spatially and temporally, and a simple settings menu, which includes the Never-Before-Seen Racism slider. Is it a bad sign that when I slid it all the way to the top, I couldn't tell the difference? Or am I being anti-slideritic now? I just don't know any more. (Sob.)
Get past the simplicity of the interface, and the game is uproariously funny. Admittedly, there is a large element of randomly picking up items, but it's leavened by oodles of witty humour at every turn. We shudder to think how many lines of script the game includes - there is literally a funny, unique line for every possible combination of items and in-world objects. It's massively over-written, with banter between characters that can go on for minutes at a time (thankfully skippable, if you happen to activate it twice) and a genuine labour of self-love. It's also tightly-plotted, pretty necessary for something that plays around with timelines more than Primer.
Though it's not as referentially blatant as the previous game, TGP still manages to cram every three-headed cranny with tributes to old LucasArts, Sierra and other adventures. Where it differs though, is that the references are more subtle than last time - we assume the professor's basement being accessible through a Grandfather clock is a Day of the Tentacle reference, as are the numerous jaunts through time, and the extended rodent puzzle, but it's not shoved in your face. There's a choice of WITS, STEALTH and FISTS paths reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but it's used more as a running joke than game mechanic. (Dan and Ben are lucky in that all the things they refer to are being re-released as we speak.) There's even self-deprecating references to their own path-finding, and ridiculous meta-conversations about the scripting and art.
Gloriously, this game isn't just well written and drawn, in an unusual move for an adventure game, it's also entirely logical. I'm not preternaturally good at adventure games, mainly because of the genre's tendency towards pixel-hunting and obscure puzzles, but Zombie Cow has made puzzles that you can work out, if you just think hard enough, and nearly all the interactive bits are easy to spot. The game also features an in-game help system in the obtuse form of Dan, who will offer tips and hints, but only after you've had a damn good try, and item-on-item descriptions normally drop fairly blatant hints about the proper way to use something. In fact, rarely have I come across an adventure game that keeps the balance as far away from frustration or tedious simplicity, and firmly on brain-teasing. If you get really stuck, Dan and Ben are waiting on the Zombie Cow forum to give hints and tips. This is sounding too much like an advert now. Everyone's going to think I'm doing this because I know them. God, I hate Ben and Dan.
Past the wordy stuff, the way the game is presented is second to none - there's a mix of animation and drawing styles in the cut-scenes and credits that evokes old-school LucasArts, and the in-game animation/design is kooky and amusing but rarely disturbing. Meanwhile, the music is a mature mix of cafe jazz and subtley rhythmic plinky-plonky xylophones (no, I'm not a music journalist and never aspired to be, thank you very much) that shifts nicely from scene-to-scene; the sound effects are similarly innocuously cartoony and knowing.
One caveat about the game is that it's bluer than Bernard Manning after the watershed and about as mature as Viz. For example, while writing this my darling girlfriend has just found me trying to hide a dead mouse's rigor mortis-riddled willy beneath a tasteful miniature evening gown before impaling said rodent corpse onto a rocking hula doll to attract a horny live mouse. Her reaction was "eeeeuuugh" followed by "ooh, that music's good". This is not the worst thing that happens in the game by a long way, so this isn't for little kids. Just big ones.
Fat men in suits keep telling us that the PC is dying; grandfathers scare nippers on their knees with tales of adventure games emerging from their crypts in the twilight hours to say "boo". However, as Time Gentlemen, Please! and a million in-form games (Violet, Slouching Towards Bedlam, etc.) prove, big publishers can't produce the best adventures and scripts - even the Telltale titles are clunky and formulaic compared to the anarchistic invention of games like this and the Discworld.
What's more, if you want to find out if the game is for you, Ben There, Dan That! is still available for free and there's a 20MB demo of Time Gentlemen, Please! too. We think it's intelligent, witty, absurd, and, at GBP 2.99 we heartily recommend it. And, for once, it's not because we're enormously corrupt.
9 / 10