Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Game Review: Violett

Violett Game

Violett is a point-and-click adventure game that's half Coraline and half Alice in Wonderland. Of course, Coraline was already part Alice in Wonderland, which means Violett is like a child born of first cousins. All the good hereditary traits are there, but some double-recessives popped up as well, leaving the whole package more than a little flawed.

You play as Violett, a precocious teenager whose family has just moved into a dilapidated old house in the middle of nowhere. They're not even unpacked yet and Violett's parents are already arguing, so she retreats to her crummy new room for a good sulk. Sitting on her bed, contemplating the inequities of life, she notices a glint through a mousehole in the wall. She reaches in and discovers a strange amulet, which begins to sparkle and glow in her hand. Suddenly, Violett finds herself falling through a kaleidoscopic void. She comes to her senses inside the mousehole, a shrunken prisoner of Her Spiderness, the wicked ruler of this tiny new world.

Here's the delightful opening cinematic:

As you can already see, the game is blatantly and unapologetically derivative, but don't think that this makes it hackneyed. Violett brings its own unique flair to the otherworld-fantasy genre and, when it steals, it has sense enough to steal from the best.

As you play the game, you'll find the environments in Violett at once familiar and exotic. Like a dank pond, the surface reflects the world above, but mystery and darkness are always hiding below. It's not an explicitly evil world—save for the influence of Her Spiderness—but closer to the savage jungle: uncaring, amoral, and dangerous. And, it turns out, desperately lonely. Despite a wide array of fantastic and often helpful inhabitants, Violett is an intruder in this place and friend to no one.

The music is critical to creating Violett's atmosphere. The tracks are so light and unobtrusive that you'll barely notice them, but they're always at work in the background, setting the mood. Their overtones range from whimsical to spooky, but all have a deep, sad undertone that reinforces the forsaken feeling of the environments.

At first, you're going to feel helpless and overwhelmed in this strange new place. That's actually a big part of the game's charm. It drops you into the world and makes you figure it out on your own, just as Violett must. As you grow accustomed to the interface, though, you'll find the workings of the world surprisingly intuitive. All actions are context-sensitive. You manipulate tools and objects by clicking and yanking them in whichever direction you want them to go. It's fun and it keeps your mind in the game world, unlike the rows of action buttons some of you may recall from the heyday of point-and-click adventures.

Violett Caterpillar

The art is wonderful, the environments hand-painted and richly detailed. Looking through the notes I took while playing, you might think I was writing the thesaurus entry for "beautiful." "Gorgeous" appears several times, alongside "lovely," "scenic," "pretty," "creative," and "radiant." There's even a "pulchritudinous" in there, although I might have actually gone to the thesaurus for that once, since it's spelled correctly.

Every new screen adds to the growing impression of a magical world, but one which is neglected by its inhabitants and would be sliding into decay, even absent Her Spiderness' malfeasance. Solving the central puzzle in one area typically opens access to another, which is a reward in itself. In fact, you could almost entertain yourself by sitting back and staring at the environments for minutes at a time.

Which is a good thing, because some of the puzzles will leave you doing just that. I consider myself a pretty accomplished point-and-click adventure gamer, though perhaps a bit rusty. I cut my teeth on King's Quest and Gabriel Knight, back in the days when typical puzzle difficulties ran from "unfair" to "completely inscrutable," but I'm not ashamed to say that more than one of Violett's puzzles left me stumped for the better part of an hour.

Violett Termites

But even at its most difficult, Violett is a smooth and forgiving game, unlike the point-and-click adventures that I grew up with. The game gently points you to where you should concentrate your efforts, by placing the next critical item or gateway in sight but just out of reach. When you're stumped, stopping to study the environment will usually give you a clue to the next step. You don't get the sense of total despair that frequently accompanied old school puzzlers. There are a few annoying timing puzzles (more on that below,) but they can all be reset and retried until you get it right.

The items necessary to solve a particular puzzle are typically found on the same screen, or just a few screens away. This minimizes cross-country fetch missions and removes the temptation for inventory shotgunning—a temptation which, in other games, is as pointless and frustrating as it is irresistible. Yeah, veteran players like to pretend that it was all about skill and logic back in the day, but when you ran out of leads, you were wandering the lands, asking the cemetery groundskeeper to take your hair gel, or trying to stuff a pie into the mouth of every passing villager. You know who you are.

Violett Turtle

So where does Violett go wrong? The unfortunate answer is, almost everywhere else.

While most of the puzzles are fantastic, a few commit the cardinal sin of being difficult for stupid reasons. Some puzzles give every indication of requiring you to learn a pattern, but actually have no pattern, and instead must be solved by following explicit directions hidden in the environment. I mean, seriously, that's just cruel.

A couple of other puzzles require split-second timing to pull off, even though there's no logical reason for such a narrow window of opportunity, and no indication of when the window starts and ends. Or rather, there is an indication, but the indicators are much wider than the window itself. Which means you'll try it the correct way, fail due to the narrow timing requirement, then become frustrated as you try a thousand different approaches, not realizing that you had it right the first time.

Violett Jawsome Beaver

The plot is whisper-thin and feels tacked on. Despite being presented as the villain of the game, Her Spiderness makes few appearances. Escaping from her clutches is your very first accomplishment, but she never sends anyone after you, never puts her own obstacles in your path, and rarely makes her presence felt in the world. Instead of casting her shadow on your every action, your goal throughout the game will simply be to make your way to the next area, hoping to eventually find a way home.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I never felt unmotivated, since getting Violett back to her mom and dad is motivation enough. But if Her Spiderness isn't what's driving me forward, why is she even in the game? She has the potential to be a truly magnificent villain, but instead of being wicked and cool, she just sort of sputters out.

The learning curve is also a little baffling. Difficulty doesn't ramp up as you move through the game, but you'll become more familiar with the puzzle tropes, so the second half of the game will tend to go much faster than the first.

Violett Storm

That's especially jarring, because if the learning curve is unusually flat, the pacing is just bizarre. The bulk of the game involves reassembling your shattered amulet, with each fragment granting you a new magical ability. Once you have the whole amulet, which under normal pacing would mark the transition between early and mid-game, you're instead shuffled straight to the end-game. And the fact that it's the end-game is barely even hinted at. I didn't even realize the game was ending until I made it to the final screen.

Which is not to say that it's too short. At 5-10 hours of gameplay, depending on your experience level, Violett has plenty of content for a game at this price-point. It's just arranged in a way that feels like the first ten hours of a twenty-hour game.

And then there's the diary. Yikes, the diary. The diary, found in pages spread throughout the world, is the chronicle of some past explorer. It's just about the only text in the game, and it's mostly awful, at least in the English-language version. It reads like... Well, how can I put this? It reads like a Balinese internet girlfriend scam. At first I thought the poor spelling and grammar were intentional, meant to show that the explorer was becoming unhinged during his passage through this world, but now I'm pretty sure it's just terrible English.

Here's a tip for any game developers who may be reading this: you can go on Elance and hire native speakers of almost any language, who will review all the flavor text in your game for, like, a nickle an hour.

Violet Diary Snails

In short, the game lacks polish.

Still, despite its flaws, Violett is beautiful and a lot of fun. I found it an absolutely wonderful adventure.

If you loved Coraline and Alice in Wonderland, I think you should try this game. If you love point-and-click adventure games, also try it out. If you love all three, go buy this game right now. Seriously, stop reading and just go buy it. There's an emptiness in your life that you didn't even know was there, but Violett can fill it.

That's why I'm awarding Violett five angsty spiders and a rating of "Flawed but Beautiful."

Flawed but beautiful

Violett is available for PC, Mac, and Linux on Steam ($9.99), for Android products at the Google Store ($3.99), and for iPhone and iPad at iTunes ($3.99). As always, I receive no commissions or kickbacks when you follow these links.

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