Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Robotragedy 2: Countdown to Doomsday Review

Ladieeeeees and gentlemen! Welcome to this week’s fight for the fate of the universe. In the villain corner, weighing an impressive 358 pounds is a large crocodile who returned to conquer the entire reality as we know it. In the hero corner, weighing 47 pounds (if we take away his entire inventory) is a big metallic ball on top of a pole with wheels, also known as Toby X, a common household robot. And so, without further ado, llllllets get ready to rumbleeeeeee!”

We’re in trouble. A villainous villain has emerged, threatening to spread his villainy and take over the entire universe.

“Whyyyyyyy?” Cry all the beings that are capable of making a sound. “Why does it have to be a reptile? Why not a pink flamingo, donkey or koala? Why is the villain again a crocodile?”

We may never know. But here’s some good news: the villain can be stopped. All we have to do is to find five pieces of an artifact, which nobody really believes exists, and whose parts are conveniently strewn through five planets, hidden behind numerous traps and puzzles.

“Whyyyyyyy?” Cry the same beings again. Actually, not all of them – there are a few worlds which adventure clichés didn’t reach yet. “Why is it always a device straight out of a legend, which is more magical than technological, and yet which somehow got scattered across the entire universe, several very distinct cultures, and which is protected by puzzles that require chewing gums, magnets, and who knows what else?”

Fortunately, not everything is lost. I’m sure that the Galactic Council finds someone capable of solving this crisis. Oh wait, I’ve spoken too soon…

“Whyyyyyyy?” The cry is getting quite annoying. Especially now, when it reaches a new, feverish pitch, and threatens to rip my eardrums. “Why did the Galactic Council choose a tiny household robot incapable of lifting large items, with only one retractable arm and socially awkward? The entire universe is at stake and the Council didn’t consider using every means necessary – including military force – to comb over the five planets and collect the artifact?”

Oh well, too late to change anything. So now it’s up to you, Toby X, to save the day once again. You got some adventuring experience when you rescued that pop star you were in love with from the kidnappers. Granted, her life was not in danger because as a robot she had none, but you still became her hero and married her at the end. Now, however, the love nest is empty. She is recording a new album, and you have a universe to save.

This, in a nutshell, is the premise of Robotragedy 2, which is a much better adventure game than you may think after reading the introduction. Its author must be a special case: patient, organized and very inventive, as he managed to create a game that’s long enough to compete with most commercial titles, and which remains interesting from the beginning to the end. Even though the story has been told numerous other times, the author’s knack for puzzles, very good writing and non-linear gameplay makes this one a keeper.

The game is tightly controlled in three self-contained parts. In the first part, you’ll be able to access only one planet, in search of the first artifact piece. This allows you to get used to the kind of puzzles you’ll encounter, the large dialog trees, as well as traveling between the artifact planet and your home to collect items you may need in your quest. The second part is much more expansive, with thee new worlds becoming available. Applying the same principles you learned before, especially in terms of solving puzzles on one planet with items collected elsewhere, you’ll work on finding three more artifact pieces. Just when the quest becomes tiresome and repetitive, the location of the last piece is revealed, and the storytelling switches to a frantic mode. Even though there are no action sequences, you’ll feel like time is really against you.

Puzzles play an enormously important role in this adventure. Unlike many other adventures, the narrative is only secondary here. Cut scenes are short and quite generic, as the author focused on puzzles. They are often very complex, sometimes requiring you to visit several worlds to piece together the solutions, and other times interacting with several non-player characters. Conversation often triggers new actions, which unlike other games don’t consist of simple FedEx quests. In fact, very few characters will ask you for something. They’ll either mention a problem that needs to be solved, or you’ll find out about their needs from other people. Puzzles that don’t require character interaction often consist of several parts, which cannot be solved at once. Instead, your character will be forced to set a puzzle aside, in order to solve something else, which in turn will allow him to continue on the previous puzzle.

I must admit that I wasn’t too good at solving this game. Just like the original Robotragedy, I got distracted by items that served as a ruse. There are many items that offer very simple and elegant solutions for given problems, but they are either not available, or they’ll become available much later in the game, as part of a much more convoluted solution to a wholly different puzzle. In addition, despite having three entire worlds available, the game remains relatively linear, as many crucial items only become available as previous puzzles are solved. The author has greatly limited the number of concurrent puzzles, which, in my opinion, detracts from the gaming experience.

Presentation-wise, the game is above average. The graphics range from good to great, with some of the backgrounds being on the top end of this scale and a few characters on the bottom. The good news is that the graphics remain consistent throughout the entire game, which is impressive given the length of this title and the number of locations.

Interface, on the other hand, would benefit from a little more polishing. The author is not a native English speaker, which shows in the language, but given how important character interaction is in this title, asking a few people to proofread would help a great deal. The dialogue and item descriptions confused me at times and led me away from a particular puzzle solution.

The other problem I’ve had with the interface is the inventory screen. Robotragedy 2 is heavy on items, often requiring you to combine multiple pieces into a single contraption. Unfortunately, the inventory screen shows only one row of four items. Scrolling back and forth to combine items has proven to be quite the exercise in patience.

All in all, Robotragedy 2 is a great game, albeit for a limited audience. Its expansiveness and puzzles take it out of mainstream independent adventures and put is along classic LucasArts titles. As such, veteran adventure players will enjoy the challenge, but newer gamers, used to the current crop of commercial and independent adventure games, may find themselves overwhelmed and frustrated. I found this title’s design to be refreshingly challenging and yet addictive, often turning off the game, only to keep thinking about a particular puzzle and a returning to it first thing next morning to try several new approaches. And unlike so many other recent titles I played, I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment when I finished this game and saved the universe.

“Whew,” said people all across the universe. “We lucked out this time; the villain’s minions were obviously so inept that they couldn’t foil this little household robot in finding the amulet. Come think of it, this wasn’t such a great threat after all. Maybe it’s time we fire the Galactic Council for spreading panic and elect new representatives. And maybe, just in case the little robot is needed in the future, we give him a second arm and a laser on top of his head. A big fricking laser…”

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