Ye olde point-n-click adventure games may appear to be a long-dead genre, but look in the right places and you’ll find they’re not entirely extinct, they just suffer from widespread habitat loss.
The genre’s granddaddy, Tim Schafer, has shown the industry folk with his record-breaking Double Fine Adventure in development, that there is still a passionate audience for adventure games.
Pendulo Studios have been catering to that crowd for a while, releasing a few old-school-styled adventure games, like The Next Big Thing and Runaway, imbued with a light sense of humour and cartoony but detailed visuals. I got my hands on their new adventure, Yesterday (that’s the title, not when I played it), which keeps the mechanics and visual style the studio is known for, but takes the genre into a darker place.
Yesterday plays as you’d expect an adventure game to: you explore the environment by clicking on objects of interest, pick stuff up, combine items in your inventory, and use them in ways that normal people would never think to.
The puzzles in the section I played were challenging enough without being too ridiculous. Sure, there’s the usual suspension of disbelief required, but generally, your current objective and the method of achieving it are reasonably logical. If there’s something that you can’t figure out, chances are you aren’t supposed to use it or pick it up yet. The section I tried out was played through from two different perspectives, and things the first character couldn’t interact with, the other could.
There’s a hint option to get you through some of the genre’s notoriously obscure puzzles. Click the hint button once, and you’ll receive a vague indication of your next move. If that’s not enough, a second hint will be more specific.
If you feel like that’s cheating, a less direct help system is also included. Click a crosshair symbol in the toolbar and the objects in the area that you can interact with will be highlighted briefly. It doesn’t give away anything about how to use them, just lets you know that they can be examined, picked up or used in some way. I found myself using this feature a fair bit, as a mechanic rather than a “cheat” system. I don’t think it detracted from the game, although I could understand if purists choose to steer clear.
One section that might be a sticking point is a puzzle involving chess moves. The player is given a few options to how someone might achieve checkmate within one turn, but there are no consequences for failure: it simply says “that’s wrong”, and lets you choose again. If this is an indication of some of the “puzzles” throughout the game, it’ll be less an exercise in problem-solving and more about clicking your way down a list.
Overall, there isn’t a lot of deviation from standard adventure game mechanics, but for a genre that isn’t too prevalent in recent years, that’s fine, especially when done as well as this. What’s most important is the adventure that’s undertaken, and from my brief time with the game, Pendulo have weaved an intriguing tale.
Yesterday is named for the main character, John Yesterday, who wakes up with – ironically – no memory of yesterday. All he remembers is that he recently tried to commit suicide in Paris, he’s an expert in Satanism, and he’s been hired to investigate a religious sect’s involvement in a spate of murders of New York’s homeless population. A life like that you’d assume one would remember, but it’s clear the memory loss is due to powers beyond his control.
The preview section appears to take place years before the main part of the game: you play as a young Henry White, who goes on to hire Yesterday in the future (you know what I mean) to investigate the murders.
Henry and his hulking partner Cooper are volunteers for the Children of Don Quixote, a charity that offer support to the homeless. Their services have been in particularly high demand lately, since homeless people have been turning up brutally murdered. With no ID, and no families to identify the bodies, the crimes are going unresolved. The Children of Don Quixote are doing the best they can to offer protection before the homeless end up dead, and during a routine check-in on a derelict subway station known to be used as refuge, Henry and Cooper become caught up in the mystery.
The game aims to intrigue, and so far it’s working, giving me a small piece of the web that left me wanting to know more. I mean, I haven’t even met the main character yet! Story-wise, it’s set to satisfy.
The cel-shaded visuals might seem at odds with the darker tone, but it works. The characters are caricatured, with exaggerated facial features and expressions normally reserved for comedy. The comic-book-style cutscenes provide multiple windows into the action, allowing several key aspects of a scene to be displayed simultaneously.
But while the visuals are pretty cool, the sound seems to have been overlooked. I’m not sure if the version I played is the final one, but there were no voices at all: the characters speak only through text bubbles. Now, that might change before release, but if it doesn’t, it feels a bit lacking. Pendulo’s previous games have been praised for their voice acting, so its absence here is all the more jarring.
The sound effects weren’t anything too special either, and the music barely registers. It pops up at a few dramatic moments, but overall, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. It’s the only part of the package that doesn’t deliver.
Not to end on a downer, but apart from the sound, Yesterday is shaping up to be a hearty, satisfying meal for the starved adventure game fan. Go wash your hands for dinner then, because Yesterday will be served up towards the end of March.