Now that LucasArts has folded (which I say like they didn’t stop making good games over a decade ago) indie publisher WadjetEye has quietly and surely become the new king of quality adventure games. Other publishers like Daedalic have a bigger output but have mixed quality control, whereas WadjetEye have been knocking out unique, compelling adventures since 2006, despite the range of first-time-publishing developers under its banner. Their next upcoming release is Technobabylon from Technocrat Games, best known for the slightly dubiously titled but actually surprisingly good and harmless “Nancy the Happy Whore and the Perfidious Petrol Station”. Try asking for that in GameStop. Anyway, we got an early hands-on with the new title, which hopefully is less embarrassing to talk about.
In the late 21st Century the internet has become the holographic cyberspace Trance, the local government is an AI called Central, and some unhappy man nicknamed the Mindjacker is killing people, blowing up buildings, shooting at cops and flying away in a jetpack. I played two characters: a Trance addict called Latha who never leaves her crappy apartment but is now forced to, and a CEL cop named Regis on the case of the Mindjacker who’s getting older now and is less tolerant of the brave new world of high technology.
I love how Cheffie sings T.H.E., and then I immediately want to infect her with a virus. That's an idea...
I only got a taste of the story and the world, but I’m already intrigued. Most importantly for a future world, it feels believable. With VR in its early stages I can totally buy the internet becoming a Matrix-like entity that we have to plug into, AI handling the rudiments of all government and administration, and expert hackers being the bane of society as literally everything becomes connected. Watch_Dogs was right, people!
If WadjetEye has an aesthetic, Technobabylon meets it head on. 2D Adventure Game Studio graphics with the look of a 1995-era adventure game is the first thing to expect. If you’re after beautiful smooth non-pixellated 2D graphics try Daedalic (although good luck finding one of theirs set in the future that’s not terrible), but the pixel look is still fun in a retro way. More specifically to WadjetEye though, we’re talking serious events with humorous character moments, a modern, streamlined interface, clever puzzle design, and an immediately interesting setup. Don’t expect any mad wacky hijinks here.
In fact expect the exact opposite - occasionally quirky characters and cool quips yes, but only in the direst of dramatic circumstances. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say that Latha’s attempts to leave her apartment don’t go so well, and Dr Regis (along with his partner, Dr Max Lao) have a few very disturbing encounters. This is a very dramatic game, with plenty of death, destruction, grief, poverty, terrorism, and even outright mass carnage - and that’s just in the first hour or so that I played.
It’s in these moments where the pixel graphics really shine, reducing gruesome scenes of carnage into something you’re happy to scan for clues. Like comparing the Fatalities in the original Mortal Kombat to Mortal Kombat X - they’re much the same, but are much more cringe-inducing with modern graphics whereas before they were just amusing. Both of which are fine depending on what you’re after in a game, but in an adventure game perfectly-realised images of sickening violence would distract from the puzzles. Adventures with better graphics would have to tone these scenes down, but Technocrat can get away with them. The sickos.
Let's hope he hasn't got a jetpack!
Of course the main gameplay is the puzzles, which also seem to fit into my newly christened “WadjetEye Aesthetic”. They make you think of course, but unlike most adventures you actually have to think practically, as in “what would you do if faced with this puzzle in the real world?”. If you wanted to find the address of an electronics store in The Blackwell Epiphany you’d just whip out Rosa’s smartphone and look it up. Despite being in the future things work much the same practical way - you’re a cop, you can’t get into a suspect’s apartment, something may be wrong, what do you do? You get the Central AI that runs the city to open the door, you’re a cop after all. You need a door code to an office building? You phone the manager and ask him to give you it. You want to retrieve a gun from a bloody crime scene Jacuzzi? Combine a fishing rod with a coat hanger and a magnet stolen from a sculpture of course. Er, okay, there are a few “classic” puzzles in there too. Still, it’s only the first couple of hours and I’m already happy, and I particularly liked how there seemed to be potentially branching storyline pathways or at least multiple solutions.
There are a few big-name adventures incoming, like Broken Age Act 2, Silence: The Whispered World 2, the King’s Quest reboot and Ron Gilbert and co’s Thimbleweed Park, but as I’ve learned in the past it would be foolish to overlook WadjetEye. Technobabylon already has me intrigued, with a compelling start, intelligent puzzles, and a believable world. If you’re after a new, proper, well-made adventure, and don’t mind pixelly old-skool grafix, keep an eye on Technobabylon. It’s got at least 74% less hookers in it, promise.
Technobabylon is published by WadjetEye and developed by Technocrat, and will be released on 21st May.
Most Anticipated Feature: getting to see more of the Trance cyberspace.