Doug TenNapel is best known as the creator of Earthworm Jim. In our eyes his greatest contribution is The Neverhood - a very particular, comical and extremely bizarre adventure from 1996 created with clay and animated with the stop motion technique. We played this in our youth, long before we discovered the lures of teenage life. We lived for The Neverhood for a period of time. We didn't have any access to guides and the whole game was ours to explore.
We played it with a friend, at home, at their place, each on their own, together again. We would discuss puzzles on the schoolyard. It took a year to finish. One year with a game that didn't offer any multiplayer or epic story campaign. One year with a point and click adventure born out of clay, told through minimalistic dialogue and accompanied by a truly weird soundtrack. We were simply captivated. Completely.
The Kickstarter-funded spiritual successor Armikrog is naturally something we've been looking forward to. During the intro sequence we get butterflies as we recall our magical adventures in The Neverhood. The main character Tommynaut - only a few pencil strokes removed from Neverhood's Klayman - crashes on an unknown planet with his trusted companion Beak-Beak and they soon find themselves locked up in a fort called Armikrog. The presentation is brilliant. Terry Scott Taylor's characteristic music screams The Neverhood 2.0, while the design is full of imagination, fittingly crude and colourful. The fact that it's all hand-animated and not polished to perfection with the benefits of modern computer graphics grants the game world and its inhabitants unique character.
Sadly it appears as if most of the $900,000 the Kickstarter campaign amassed has been invested in the presentation. Soon after the intro ends and we set out to explore the various rooms the problems start to pop up. Armikrog has been delayed multiple times, but the game still lacks polish. The music cuts in and out as it pleases, as do the voices. Sometimes Tommynaut is stuck in certain animations and at one point we were forced to watch the same cutscenes four times and solve the subsequent puzzles the same amount of times.
There's no interface to speak of. You can't see the various items you carry on your person and there is nothing to indicate whether an object in the environment can be interacted with. The cursor remains the same throughout the adventure. This results in us clicking on everything in every room, just to see if anything happens. To increase this sense of frustration certain levels and buttons can only be interacted with when the game decides it's possible. At one point we tried to press a red and extremely visible button on the wall with no luck. After messing with a few other things all of a sudden it's possible to press it. Even if this is an old school adventure things like this took our frustration to a whole new level.
Most of the time it's the difficulty of telling what you can click on (and when) that causes issues, not the puzzles themselves. If you've played The Neverhood you know the drill, there are blocks that need moving, characters that need to be assembled, weird symbols that need to be interpreted and put into context. Most of the time we enjoyed thinking about these puzzles. Often you'll need to make use of a notebook and keep a keen eye on visual clues in the environment. The satisfaction of solving a puzzle is somewhat diluted as several are recycled later on. Armikrog is a short adventure (it took us four hours to complete), and to use the same puzzle three times feels like a cheap way to pad out the playtime.
However the main weakness here is the actual plot. It's more or less non-existent during the entire game, that is until the very end when a villain is thrown into the mix and the stakes are raised. Tommynaut and Beak-Beak hardly say a thing to each other outside of the cutscenes. Their relationship never evolves beyond Tommynaut saying "good job" and "look over there". Worse is that the kernel of story we get from the cutscenes isn't reflected in anything we do as we play. The villain is presented without any build-up. We walk through a room, watch a short cutscene where things escalate and then we're back to the same sort of pacing. The narrative feels like a layer in Photoshop that hasn't been merged with the rest of the image.
We're not sure whether it's a case of running out of Kickstarter funds or whether there wasn't more ambition, but at the end of the day Armikrog is unfinished and disappointing. It certainly has merits, the visual side is brilliant, the music (when it can be heard) is catchy and the puzzles are (for the most part) fun and inspired. But the game never fully blossoms. It's too short, the environments too few, the puzzles repeat, and nothing really happens in the narrative until the last half hour. Tommynaut and Beak-Beak had potential to be a truly memorable duo, but they end up as two half-mute avatars that the player controls. We still remember every nook and cranny, puzzle and scene from The Neverhood. Sadly, we'll only remember Armikrog for what it could have been.
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