We’ve managed to get our hands on a preview copy of Armikrog, the spiritual-successor to claymation adventure The Neverhood. What will Kim make of Pencil Test Studios’ latest project?
|Developer:||Pencil Test Studios|
|Release date:||To be announced|
|PEGI rating:||Not listed|
|Platforms:||Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Wii U|
|More information:||Official website|
Anyone with a fondness for adventures has probably heard of The Neverhood at some point along the way. Released on PC in 1996 by The Neverhood, Inc, this title stood out from others at the time because it had a rather distinct look: it was produced using claymation instead of pixels. This form of stop-motion animation meant that each character and background was made of a malleable substance so it could be ‘deformed’, and it lent itself to creating an extremely unique world for a video game.
Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield, founders of independent development company Pencil Test Studios, assembled much of the original team who created The Neverhood including Doug TenNapel with a view to producing a new title as its spiritual successor. A crowdfunding campaign for Armikrog was launched in May 2013 with the developers stating: “Kickstarter is our most direct link to you, the fans. This is your opportunity to express whether or not you’d like to see another clay and puppet, stop-motion adventure game. Armikrog is a unique and creative project that we would love to make for those of you who have, over the years, dreamed of the chance to immerse yourself in another world of clay.”
And many fans did indeed take up that opportunity, as a total of $974,578 from 18,126 backers was raised enabling the team to reach their Wii U stretch goal. Now I have to confess that I was never the biggest admirer of The Neverhood myself. While I enjoyed the look and feel of the game, I never quite got its ‘zaniness’ and the far-out humour just wasn’t my cup of tea. But when we went to visit the team from Versus Evil at the Rezzed event in March and were offered the opportunity to try out Armikrog, and then were lucky enough to receive a preview key afterwards, I decided to sit down and give the title a fair shot.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been easy as the ‘beta build’ we were provided with was extremely buggy. I’ve spent around ninety minutes with it so far but have only managed to get through the first few areas before encountering glitches, such as stepping onto a platform and then being unable to get back off of it and a lift preventing me from going downwards. Nevertheless, it’s given me a feel for Armikrog and what to expect from the game going forward; but it should be noted here that there simply isn’t enough material available yet to form a complete opinion.
After crash-landing on a strange planet, space explorer Tommynaut – who bears a striking resemblance to Earthworm Jim (which isn’t surprising since Dietz was an artist for this release) – and his talking-dog sidekick Beak-Beak find themselves in a bad way. Their ship is completely trashed, they’re unable to find their location on any charts and a giant furry beast would very much like to eat them. They barely manage to get away to the safety of a nearby building but this turns out to be the mysterious fortress known as Armikrog, and they’ll have to overcome numerous challenges in order to escape.
I’ve encountered only a couple of minor puzzles so far and these have had both good and bad points. On the positive side, some challenges require swapping between Tommynaut and Beak-Beak and this lends a nice teamwork-aspect to the gameplay; for example, during one section of the demo I had to play as the sidekick in order to traverse a tunnel which was too small for Tommynaut to get through, and his dog-vision means that he can see at special wavelengths and uncover invisible clues. On the negative side however, locating an item required a certain amount of pixel-hunting and I didn’t find Beak-Beak’s clues to be of much help. I agree that it’s good to have a bit of a challenge when playing an adventure but so far Armikrog hasn’t been entirely intuitive.
Instead of a traditional inventory system, the player has to simply click where an item should be placed in the environment if they’ve already collected the necessary object.
Pencil Test Studios have decided to do away a traditional inventory system: instead, the player has to simply click where an item should be placed in the environment if they’ve already collected the necessary object. For example, Tommynaut is able to pick up a hand-crank early in the game and later finds a device that’s clearly missing the handle. Clicking on the machine results in him pulling the crank out of his suit, fixing it to the device and then start turning.
Any adventure gamer knows how frustrating a poorly-designed inventory system is – take that from Grim Fandango, which looks like a dream but is painful to cycle through. In this aspect Armikrog succeeds as the experience is simplified and there’s no need to item-manage or go through vague crafting sessions. On the flip-side however, this has the disadvantage of removing some of the challenge and it almost feels as if the title has been dumbed-down. Perhaps it’s because I’m an older gamer and plenty of experience of classic adventures that make use of an inventory, but I’m curious to see whether the developer can make this mechanic work in their favour as the game progresses.
It would be impossible to preview Armikrog without mentioning its visuals and as to be expected, these are particularly impressive. A lot of work has gone into both the characters and environments; for example, you’ll come across a fluffy box-like alien which contrasts beautifully against the plasticine background, and the lighting effects used are striking. Take a look outside the window in the first room several times and you’ll see a humorous little scene involving a giant beast with a fishing-rod for a tongue and his appetite for little wheel-based aliens. It’s this attention to detail that makes for such an absorbing world – while Versus Evil have asked for no recordings and we’re honouring their request, the screenshots throughout this preview should give you some idea.
But this brings me on to my main concern with the game. Throughout the Kickstarter page for Armikrog, Pencil Test Studios have made a number of mentions of The Neverhood – which isn’t surprising given their backgrounds. It’s also been noted that their funding goal was significantly less than the cost of the original game; but the developer has confirmed that this is possible due to the software that’s now available to them along with the fact that they’re reusing many of the animation, modelling, sculpting, set-building, and clay-and-puppet fabrication methods they’ve previously worked with.
So far the title looks absolutely amazing, and the claymation technique used gives it such a unique feel that its bound to attract plenty of gamers. But will Armikrog have any substance to keep them there? The preview version we’ve had the opportunity to experience has been short and, as stated above, doesn’t yet contain enough material for us to be able to form a complete opinion. But in the short time I’ve spent with the game I’m concerned there could be a possible case of style over substance. If the developers now focus their efforts on developing the gameplay and establish Armikrog as a title in its own right away from The Neverhood, we could potentially have something quite lovely on our hands.
The official website states that the game is ‘slated for release in 2014’ and the Steam page advises that it’s ‘coming soon’. If you’re a fan of adventure games, claymation techniques and zany humour, then this one could be for you.