In our preview, we said that claymation adventure Armikrog could possibly be a case of ‘style over substance’. Having now completed the game, what has Kim made of its plasticine world?
|Developer:||Pencil Test Studios|
|Release date:||September 2015|
|PEGI rating:||Not listed|
|Platforms:||Linux, Mac, PC|
|More information:||Official website|
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: “This is your opportunity to express whether or not you’d like to see another clay and puppet, stop-motion adventure game… 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.
Anyone with a fondness of the genre 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 setting for a video game.
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 back in March and were offered the chance to try out Armikrog, and then were lucky enough to receive a key afterwards, I decided to sit down and give the title a fair chance. Following on from our preview in June, here’s our full review.
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.
After crash-landing Spiro 5 during their mission to save their own dying 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 fury 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.
One of the main issues with this title is just how underdeveloped both the storyline and characters are. The plot is only ever progressed through cutscenes and, being unable to examine or look at any objects within Armikrog’s world (more on that later), there’s nothing to give you even a hint of backstory or lore in-game. In the opening sequence, Tommynaut and Beak-Beak are portrayed as having colourful personalities and a humorous relationship; but they barely speak to each other and there isn’t much to the pair other than their objective to escape Spiro 5 and save their planet.
There aren’t many other characters present but those that are around suffer the same problem. Particularly annoying is the fact that Armikrog’s villain isn’t given much airtime or build-up and when he does eventually arrive, his motivation for doing evil deeds isn’t entirely clear – making it feel almost as if he couldn’t be bothered to turn up for the show. This results in it being very difficult to care about the fate of Spiro 5, whether the baddie will succeed in whatever it is he’s trying to do, and if Tommynaut and Beak-Beak will ever make it home. The game simply comes across as being flat and empty.
This is a point-and-click adventure, and I mean that literally: all you do is point and click.
Armikrog is a point-and-click adventure, and I mean that literally: all you do is point and click. Point on a spot in the environment and click to move there; point at an object you want to pick up and click to collect it; point at an object you want to use and click to use it. This shouldn’t necessarily be an issue and obviously means the user-interface is very streamlined but sadly there are issues here too.
When I previewed the game earlier this year, I noticed that the mouse cursor was the standard Windows pointer and assumed this was something that hadn’t been updated as yet, However, the same pointer is used in the released title: there are none of the usual cursor changes found within many adventures and players are given no hints as to which items can be interacted with. In addition, you’ll find yourself clicking on an object and receiving no response at all, but then having to use it later on in the game despite being given no indication that it’s now become available. It’s all very frustrating.
Pencil Test Studios decided to do away with a traditional inventory system and instead, you simply click where an item should be placed in the environment if you’ve already collected the necessary object. For example, Tommynaut is able to pick up a hand-crank early on and later finds a device that’s clearly missing the handle; and clicking on the machine results in him pulling the crank out of his suit, fixing it to the device and then start turning. There’s no need to combine objects and you don’t even have access to view your current possessions.
In this aspect Armikrog succeeds as the experience is simplified and there’s no need to item-manage or go through vague crafting sessions.
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; and not being able to view your inventory means that you have to rely on memory when it comes to the items currently in your possession.
I said in the first section of this review that I wasn’t a big fan of The Neverhood because its zaniness never really appealed to me. I went into Armikrog expecting that same sense of humour and being prepared to give it a chance… but it never amounted to much. With the environment being as colourful and creative as it is, you’re expecting some witty one-liners or laugh-out-loud-jokes and are left sorely disappointed. The ‘funniest’ part (and I use that term loosely) is coming across the PresidAnts: AbrahAnt Lincoln, Thomas JeffersAnt and what appears to be Theodore Roosevelt. But why isn’t the last given an insect-based pun? Or is that the joke? I’m still not entirely sure.
Unfortunately there are a number of issues with the puzzles contained within this release, the first being that many of them are repetitive. Most involve finding a level to activate a machine, locating an item to turn on a power supply or sliding tiles on a mechanism which functions as a lock. The second is that it’s necessary to switch between Tommynaut and Beak-Beak at certain points and, while this does add an interesting aspect to the gameplay, it feels completely disjointed. It’s not obvious when you’ve switched characters; there’s no feeling of team-work as they rarely speak to each other outside of cutscenes; and no indication is given when one can do something the other can’t.
Your motivation or current objective is never clear, leaving players feeling a little lost and unsure of what to do next – there’s very little to drive Armikrog forward.
Then comes the absence of logic, which is usually apparent in some challenges found within adventure releases but particularly highlighted here. You need to push the fluffy orange monster to the right to open a secret door; you have to use Beak-Beak to talk to an octopus-looking creature as it won’t speak to Tommynaut; you must piece together a diagram of a giant robot with very little visual direction. But why, but why, but why? These questions aren’t answered and your motivation or current objective is never clear, leaving players feeling a little lost and unsure of what to do next. This, along with the fact that the story is painfully undeveloped, means there’s very little to drive Armikrog forward.
Then there’s the ‘baby’ puzzle in which exists all of the design issues described above. Early on in the game you find an abandoned infant named ‘P’, and in order to stop her crying players must complete a memory test of sorts: hook toys onto a mobile in the right order so an annoying lullaby plays correctly, if you complete the test successfully you’ll receive a vital item. Why did I need to complete this puzzle three times over the course of the title? Where did I obtain the mobile from, because I don’t remember picking it up anywhere? Why the hell is P spitting out glowing green crystals?
And I haven’t even mentioned the bugs… more on those in the following section.
Visuals and audio
It would be impossible to review Armikrog without mentioning its visuals and as to be expected, these are quite impressive. A lot of work has gone into both the characters and environments (although it seems more attention was paid to the beginning of the title rather than throughout) and it’s lovely to see the artist’s fingerprints over the moulded walls. You’ll come across a furry box-like alien which contrasts beautifully against the plasticine background, and the lighting effects used in some of the locations 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 creatures.
The characters rarely speak outside of cutscenes and it comes across as they’re waiting for the other to apologise after an argument.
Sadly, the audio doesn’t fare so well. Tommynaut is voiced by Michael J Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rob Paulson from Animaniacs and Dexter’s Laboratory steps into the role of Beak-Beak and, while they do a good job, they’re just not given enough quality material to work with. As mentioned earlier, the characters rarely speak outside of cutscenes and it comes across as they’re waiting for the other to apologise after an argument. You’re unable to examine items within the environment, both those you can and can’t interact with, meaning that you receive no descriptions or hints from the protagonists to add colour to the game’s world.
The background music that’s there is pretty nice, but the tracks seems to randomly decide when they’re going to play and appear to cut-off partway through their length. Add this to the audio issues above and players will find themselves going through sections of Armikrog in near silence. There are too many moments when there’s no music, no talking, nothing to look at and nothing interesting happening on screen; and it results in a world that’s strangely empty and dull, considering its zany premise and look.
Many players and reviewers have criticised this title for its bugs and unfortunately I have to agree with them. While I didn’t encounter any problems that stopped me from progressing (although these have been reported by others), they were pretty frequent and annoying. At one point when Beak-Beak was no longer by my side, I could still hear his voice; despite selecting to play with the subtitles on, these didn’t appear consistently and sometimes didn’t even match what was being said by the characters; and in a certain location, I moved onto a platform and was then unable to get back off of it.
Each time I went in the room, P would be back under the skin and I had to go through the entire process once again!
The biggest bug I came across was in connection with the baby puzzle described in the section above. P can be found in a room, crying under an animal skin, and once picked up by Tommynaut she’s ‘added’ to his inventory; then after leaving, you’re presented with the challenge and have to make her stop crying by completing the mobile. I wanted to go back into the room to check for any items I’d missed but each time I went in there, P would be back under the skin and I had to go through the entire process once again! Take a look at the gameplay video below from 00:18:00 onwards and you’ll see what I mean.
Replay and innovation
I’m not going to lie: I have no desire to play Armikrog again. Despite the fact that the plot is linear, there are no choices to be made, the outcome of puzzles doesn’t change the game and there are no Steam achievements to aim for, there are too many bugs and not enough storyline or character development to make me want to devote any further time to it. I completed the title in a little over three hours, but I’m afraid to say that that time could have been better spent elsewhere.
I can’t say that this release is particularly innovative either. Tommynaut is essentially Earthworm Jim in plasticine form but with less personality, and Armikrog tries to repeat what The Neverhood did before it. In terms of its point-and-click mechanics, you could perhaps say that the new, streamlined inventory system is original; but I’m clutching at straws here, and all it did for me was give the impression that the game had been dumbed-down and oversimplified.
Screenshots and videos
Pencil Test Studios were reusing many of animation, modelling, sculpting, set-building, and clay-and-puppet fabrication methods they had previously worked with.
Throughout the Kickstarter campaign for Armikrog, the developer made a number of mentions of The Neverhood – which wasn’t surprising, given their backgrounds. It was also noted that their $900,000 funding goal was significantly less than the cost of the original game; but Pencil Test Studios confirmed that this was possible due to software that’s now available to them along with the fact that they were reusing many of animation, modelling, sculpting, set-building, and clay-and-puppet fabrication methods they had previously worked with.
In my preview I said that the game has a very unique feel that’s bound to attract plenty of gamers, but wondered whether it would have any material to keep them interested and voiced concerns about it being a case of ‘style over substance’. I also stated: “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.”
Sadly I have to report that it doesn’t feel as if this happened. Despite a few delays, the game feels as if it would have benefitted from even more time and budget to polish up the clay-work so the quality at the end was the same standard as the beginning – as well as more testing to iron out the silly bugs. The gameplay is oversimplified, the characters have limited personalities, the puzzles are repetitive and have no drive, and the world of Spiro 5 and its fortress are flat and empty.
This isn’t the spiritual successor fans are looking for.
It’s the waste of potential that spoils it the most and I can imagine many of the Kickstarter backers coming away disappointed. Perhaps the developers were relying on fans of The Neverhood and their collective nostalgia to see them through and make the release a success, but this isn’t the spiritual successor they’re looking for.
|Source:||We received a review key from Versus Evil|
|Positive:||Detailed and colourful environments made from clay|
|Negative:||Underdeveloped characters and storyline, with a number of audio and visual bugs|
|Score:||21 out of 60|