First Impressions is a close look at the crucial first hour spent with a game and its’ ability to draw you in or turn you away. Somewhere between a review and a preview.
Ugh, the dirge of licensed titles. History has, unfortunately, shown us that no studio, no creator and no IP is exempt from half-hearted attempts to cash in on the latest fad (there’s a video game based on rubber bracelets). The first, and thus far only, Adventure Time game – 2012’s Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?! – was a fun surprise for fans (especially us old farts), melding classic 8-bit motifs with the TV shows’ unique characters and style of humor. So pardon my possibly naive excitement after the news that creator Pendleton Ward was once again working with developer WayForward Technologies to create a new Adventure Time game, this time on home consoles as well as the 3DS, and based around top-down dungeon crawlers, mainly Gauntlet. I know better than to get my hopes up, but the geek child in me couldn’t be held back. I’ve waited patiently for months for Amazon to ship my pre-order, and UPS arrived a little over an hour ago with my package. Was it worth the wait? Will I keep playing?
My ten-year old daughter and I fired up the Wii U, and watched gleefully as the introduction began. Lovingly constructed, the first moments of the game are a charming throwback to 8-bit era storytelling – simple, thick-framed images with text underneath, and the occasional, indistinguishable sound effect. In a twist of modernity, this is all accompanied by voice acting from the show’s cast. We watched as Princess Bubblegum gave us our mission: to travel through all 100 rooms of her dungeon, and find out what’s responsible for the recent escape of many of her prisoners. I was amused; my daughter couldn’t wait to play, and asked if we could skip the dialogue.
As an aside, when I was ten years old, I nearly shit my pants while playing Gauntlet in an arcade. Part of my resistance to visiting a toilet had to do with the fact that I shared the screen with three very impressed sixteen year-olds, but, really, it was the sheer fun I was having playing the game. Gauntlet is mesmerizing, constantly expanding both the playing field and its boundaries. With multiple routes and exits, usually blocked by hordes of enemies, each level is more exhilarating than the next. It’s difficult to pull away from Gauntlet because, a.) you put in so much effort to advance, and b.) you want to see what’s next. I can’t blame young me for trying to dance and squirm a throbbing loaf back in to my body while playing through my final quarter. The same cannot be said for AT:ETDBIDK. In fact, I wish I wouldn’t have pooped earlier today because it would’ve been a great excuse to get away from this boring, sluggish, uninviting game. I had waited months for, ironically, a game that is itself a turd.
Overall, there’s nothing glaringly bad about the game, which is maybe the worst sort of criticism to give. The controls are just fine, the graphics are rich and crisp (very reminiscent of Ubisoft’s Scott Pilgrim game) and care was obviously used on the game’s concept and initial design. On the surface, Adventure Time:ETDBIDK is the sort of game fans of the series should be excited over. It’s biggest downfall is that it’s just so incredibly undirected and boring. I’m embarrassed to say that I spent a good five minutes in the forced tutorial trying to figure out how to block and redirect attacks, as instructed by Princess Bubblegum. Blocking is not explained, nor is it intuitive to have to actually hit the block button and move in the direction of that attack at just the right moment (strangely, no redirection occurs). It’s a complicated move with no payoff when actually playing the game. Upon meeting the goal of my first quest – collect ten treasures while in the dungeon – I kept playing through rooms, waiting for something to happen. It wasn’t until I beat the fifth dungeon that I inadvertently realized I had to hit the + button while on the summary screen to return to the hub (on-screen instructions simply tell you what to do to advance to the next room). It’s lazy detail omissions like this that first dragged down my excitement. Maybe this is standard fare for this game genre, but I’m an Adventure Time fan, as so many others buying the game, so more instruction would’ve made my first moments far more enjoyable.
Poor instructions aren’t really the problem, though, because once you get a hang of the game, you realize pretty quickly that each room is a bore. Unlike Gauntlet, AT’s rooms are sparse, are poorly designed and have one exit. Walls and gaps don’t direct you as much as block your path. The first eight levels are, basically, a large room with partitions – like an office floor. All playable characters walk incredibly slowly, which epitomizes the term “dungeon crawler.” I was often times faced with the decision to explore an out-of-the-way area, or just head toward the exit, and because I moved so slowly and the treasure is so scant, I usually just chose to leave.
Attacks are simple and irritating – they come in a cycle of three, but at the beginning, enemies take four attacks to defeat. So you hit the button three times in quick succession, get stuck in the attack cycle, then have to wait a second for the cycle to reset and dole out one more attack to kill some dumb ass skeleton or goopy tentacle or swooping bird. It’s exhausting, and absolutely no fun at all. I finally just made a goal of immediately looking for the exit.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the Wii U (and evidently 3DS) interface. The touch screen replicates the face of beloved character BMO, which is smart and hilarious. BMO talks directly to the player throughout the game, mainly responding verbally to certain moves that are made. While watching the show, I’ve often told my daughter I could listen to BMO talk all day; well, I was wrong. After about five minutes, the dialogue begins repeating itself, and often times overlaps with in-game dialogue or events. What should be a unique draw to the Wii U, and an amusing enhancement to the game is tedious and poorly constructed. Ugh.
So, basically, it is with a heavy heart that I suggest fully avoiding Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON’T KNOW! As an enormous fan of the show, it’s sad to recognize how much effort went in to developing a game that stays true to the show, but also realize that this passion was slathered on to a turgid, by-the-numbers game that is instantly boring. Perhaps when the game shows up for $10 in a bargain bin it’s worth it for fans to take a look, but beyond that, stay far away. I’m getting rid of my copy post haste (thank God I didn’t unwrap my 3DS Collector’s Edition), and keeping my fingers crossed that Pendalton Ward and WayForward take to heart what will certainly be across-the-board negative feedback.