While Telltale has undoubtedly overcome the complex development hurdles involved in bringing episodic point-and-click adventures to life, the results often live and die on the strength of the script. In both Sam & Max and Strong Bad's case, the games divided fans and critics alike, but the response was more positive than negative. In Wallace & Gromit's case, it's easier to imagine widespread apathy.
The formula remains much the same. The first instalment in what will become a four-episode series features just over a handful of locations, each stocked with usable contraptions and objects to add to your inventory, and by moving around with WASD and pointing and clicking, you can examine, combine and experiment to solve minor puzzles that contribute to a greater quest: to create 50 gallons of honey by sunset, so that the greengrocer's crumpet festival, and Wallace's new honey-making business, will be successful.
Like Strong Bad, Telltale divides the route to the main goal across a few sub-objectives - in this case, gathering a few specific substances - so the episode, even though it can be finished in a few hours, isn't just a linear procession through each location rubbing everything against everything. There's a troublesome squirrel, a curmudgeonly copper who won't release Wallace's robot rodent from custody, a crazy old war veteran and a flower-obsessed neighbour, all of whom present overlapping obstacles. And although you control Wallace for the most part, before all that there's master's breakfast to worry about from Gromit's perspective.
Visually Telltale has captured Aardman's clay-mation look well enough, with waxy, smoothly animated characters and simple but well-appointed environments, while a context-sensitive cursor overcomes any difficulty you might have establishing what can and can't be clicked. The direct movement control is a bit superfluous - you might as well just click and let Wallace or Gromit walk to the object you favour - but apart from a few missteps it's easy to make your way around without delay or confusion.
Instead, the first problem is that all the dialogue is spoken, and it's immediately noticeable that the traditional voice of Wallace on television, Peter Sallis, is absent. Although Telltale's impersonator does a reasonable job, the kindly English actor's subtle inflections are slightly off.
The rest of the cast is fine, but the gentle pace needs big laughs to carry it, and the bigger problem is that the script isn't very funny. It was over an hour before I laughed out loud at anything, and even then it was a throwaway line from the local bobby. There were a few mild titters along the way - Wallace pulling the lever that Gromit used to spring him from bed to the breakfast table in the opening scenes and remarking, slightly forlornly, "I must already be up" - but with Wallace and Gromit separated for the majority of the episode, there's scant opportunity to smile knowingly along to Gromit's reactions, and few if any of the sight gags that help the TV and film versions of the duo's antics to charm viewers - much less the 'everything's a joke' level design of the early LucasArts adventures that inspire a lot of Telltale's output.
The puzzles are well-judged, at least, requiring a bit of deductive thinking, but while they fall firmly into traditional categories - consider a situation to figure out what it's missing, poke around the environment to find something that seems like a logical fit, and then acquire it, occasionally via an additional level of obfuscation - they shortcut a lot of the tinkerer and the lad's charm. Given Wallace's infatuation with madcap contraptions, it seems a shame that so much of the episode effectively focuses on collecting ingredients for a witch's brew to power up your bees.
Overall, while it certainly captures a lot of its source material on spec, Wallace & Gromit's other strengths - Peter Sallis, Gromit shrugging or staring despondently into the camera, needless contraptions and simple directorial flourishes - are sorely missed in Fright of the Bumblebees. Fans of Telltale Games or fans of Wallace & Gromit will be far from horrified by the results, but it's hard to imagine anyone becoming enthralled, and even harder to argue that the marriage between Aardman and Telltale has lived up to its promise in this first release. We'll revisit it when the series is complete to make our minds up.
6 / 10