The independent developer scene has certainly surprised us over the past few years, showing us that there is indeed a batch of fresh air blowing into the industry. And, just like in the early cowboy days of basement development, the quality of the offerings covers a wide and dramatic spectrum.
The offering du jour is a point-and-click adventure game: Hoodwink. Overall, it is a rather daring little entry from E-One Studio, a development house from Malaysia. Prima facie, this game has all the ingredients that make for a promising new franchise: quirky and colorful characters? Check. Unique visual style? Check. An interesting world? Double check! Unfortunately, despite having excellent ingredients, the resulting concoction falls flat.
Global-01, the world in which the game takes place, has gone to pot in a wheelbarrow. Mutations and plague run rampant throughout the world, the dish on the menu is rat fricasee, and the gallant UniCorp company has taken everybody under its benevolent umbrella full of happy pills... demanding only a trifle in return: total control.
The world is one that has gone bonkers, but its denizens carry on, adopting the ludicrous new standards of life with almost Pratchett-esque stoicism: mutated humans resemble large anthropomorphic felines (called 'Anthros'), who can be seen occasionally hanging out with regular-looking humans and Second Chancers (robots housing the brains of deceased humans.) This is a typical have/have not dystopian scenario turned on its head and handled with delicious sarcasm.
Hoodwink puts you in the rather large shoes of Michael Bezzle, acquisitions expert (it's what Sly Cooper puts down on his business card, too.) The narrative of the opening scene is one that will make you wish the game had been executed properly, because it shows so much promise. After a brief tutorial on how to move and interact with items, Michael settles down to smoke a cigar in a rather cushy-looking Private Eye office ... bu,t suddenly, the door opens and an anthropomorphic leopard in stock duster and fedora walks in, immediately pointing his gun at your gaping maw. In true Film Noir style Michael declaims: "The moment tall, dark and fuzzy walked through my door, I knew he'd be trouble.... it was his office, after all." Turns out that Michael is there to steal a precious ring... because he's going to propose to his girlfriend. Hijinks ensue, of course, and the game proper takes off.
The only problem is that it is a very turbulent take-off, weighed down by bad puzzle design and a clumsy interface, and the flight is over all too soon.
Simply walking around the world of Hoodwink is a chore- the walk cursor only appears intermittently, forcing you to click in several areas until you find the path that has been laid out by the developers... which is usually broken up by interactive objects, so you have to inch closer to them until the camera scrolls and you can click on the space of road directly after them.
Michael walks rather slowly, but double-clicking will activate his running mode. Unfortunately our hero has a tendency to rubber-band back and forth on certain screens when running, taking longer to cover ground than simply walking. Some exits, such as the exit to the main plaza, are not actually marked. In almost every other room, hovering the cursor over exits immediately morphs the cursor into a door, letting you know there is an exit-- this is not the case for the exit to the plaza, which is a nondescript-looking landing that only displays the regular walking icon.
Movement alone, however, is not the only obstacle the player must surmount. Hotspot recognition is extremely finicky, which is aggravated by very poor puzzle design. Developers nowadays must walk a thin line between avoiding the heights of insanity we've seen in some adventure game puzzles of ages past (use an inflatable rubber duck to rescue a key from a canal? The Longest Journey, I'm looking at you...) and avoiding serving everything to the player on a silver platter. Sadly, Hoodwink does serve things on a silver platter. An example of this is the first quest you come upon: As soon as you have escaped from Detective Pyre's office, you decide to talk to your hippie friend (Saffron) for advice on how to pull off your proposal. Her advice? You need to get some chocolates, make yourself smell good, and get your paws on a bouquet of roses.
How difficult is it to achieve these goals? Not difficult at all. In fact, all you need to do is go up one floor, stroll around, and just pick things up as you find them. Two items require you to interact with one character and one element of the environment respectively, and the chocolates require you to find a certain individual in the plaza (and, of course, figure out where that exit is...) and that's it, the challenge is pretty much nonexistent. Later puzzles, such as the one involving a lantern, feel like filler to pad out the experience more than anything else and really don't flow well at all. Puzzles are not necessarily the backbone of adventure games- characters and settings are- but when you have them, they need to reinforce the experience instead of detracting from it.
These glaring issues are a real shame, because the world of Hoodwink is fascinating. Although not explored at length, the quirky society with its odd denizens and rather black sense of humor do beg for your attention, and you'll be wanting to see more of it by the time the curtain comes down.
The graphics are eccentrically unique, a blend of gritty dystopian and cartoony playfulness realized in cel-shaded 3D. Characters do make an impression with their personalities: a second-chancer robot who thinks he still has a stomach, a trash can who is trying to commit suicide by jumping into an incinerator, the anachronistically flower-powered Saffron, and of course your fiancée- the game has more than its share of excellent characterization, and this is the area where it truly shines. The universe is also positively bizarre- if anthropomorphic detectives and brain-carrying robots weren't enough, mutations have also affected flowers: Saffron's supply room is populated by a large carnivorous plant that guards over a crowd of dancing, anthropomorphic roses. Some good throwaway comedy lines can be heard in crowd scenes - but their impact is lessened when heard for the tenth time, repeated by different voice actors (a slight déjà vu of Oblivion's rather schizophrenic voice acting.) Perhaps one of my favorite lines comes from UniCorp's boys in blue, constantly and cheerfully reminding passersby that "Unlawfulness will be met with courteous and lethal response!"
The music is more of a mixed bag- although the sparse soundtrack is stylistically appropriate to match the future-dystopia-meets-noir theme, traclks seem to be triggered at random and after long periods of silence with no discernible rhyme or reason: At one point a tune sprung up in the middle of a lengthy conversation with Saffron, and at least two themes were playing simultaneously when I entered her supply room.
The game itself can be easily finished in three to five hours, and it ends in a cliffhanger in anticipation of future episodes. The cliffhanger isn't as much of an issue as is the fact that it comes so soon and leaves so much still in the air. The world is barely touched upon, and the plot isn't greatly advanced... so after three hours, the player might feel... well, Hoodwinked: The copy I bought was sold on the Origin store for $14.99 which, for a three hour game with these many flaws, is asking too much.
As the hopeful start for a new episodic franchise, I truly do wish E-One Studio the best... unfortunately, I cannot recommend this game to anyone under its current price tag: it is too unpolished a product to be worth $14.99 - we would do well to remember that the Sam & Max episodes from Telltale Studios were selling at roughly $6.99 each. Should a second installment come to fruition in this series, I would recommend that E-One Studio spend as much time on the vital aspects of game play (puzzle design, interface design, path finding) as it obviously spent lovingly creating the visual elements and identity of this unique world. As it stands, it is lovely to see, amusing to listen to, but unrewarding to play.
Two adventure tigers out of five.