Living African masks attached to claymation bodies? No, it's not Chris Capel's worst nightmare.
Oh, an episodic adventure game? With proper puzzles, inventory combining, point-n-click interface and quirky humour? Welcome, we've missed you. For a while it looked like this would be the only way we'd get adventure games thanks to Telltale, but since Jurassic Park they've abandoned their LucasArts heritage in favour of choice and consequences and Kickstarter's become the new home of the genre. The Journey Down however is both episodic and deliberately LucasArts in feel, and that makes me very happy indeed.
When we last met Bwana he and his friends Lili and Kiko had set off on a plane in search of his father Kaonandodo and the mythical Underland, while avoiding the reach of the sinister Armando Power Company. When we meet them in Chapter Two their plane is totalled and they're picked up by a fishing ship lost in the terrible mist. They have to get back to shore, escape the corrupt authorities in the city of Port Artue, and get to the Underland before the Power Company catches up with them.
Not at all conspicuous, Bwana
The story is very simple, and keeps so. It doesn't get much more advanced than my description above, other than Bwana having to break in or out of various places, although a couple of nice wrinkles involving dodgy police chief Barlow and a group of vicious pirates add a bit of flavour. It's not too much of a problem but we don't get any detail on how the government is corrupt other than there being an exclusive restaurant that's members only and the train station being closed for unknown reasons. It's a pretty shoddy outfit too, after Bwana and Kito's easy-as-f*** escape from a maximum security prison - I never even saw a guard, and no one came looking for them.
The world at least is interesting, with cool salty characters, a grubby vibe and interesting mythology, but there are still problems. First and foremost, Port Artue is very reminiscent of Grim Fandango's Rubacava, from the dirty noir feel right up to the corruption, except not as good. I can forgive developer SkyGoblin for leaving out interesting locations they mention on the map (like the house of butterflies or the disused clock tower) as they're only a small indie developer and can't model everything, but I just wish their influence wasn't so blatant since in Rubacava you could go everywhere and it felt more like a proper town. Nevertheless I like the stuff with the very tall Misttrawler ships hunting for eels while avoiding pirates, and they do paint a good picture of a town in decay. I was kept interested enough to keeping push ahead to find more out about the world at least.
I love Kiko. He always thinks with his head
Characters though remain a little iffy, but none are outright bad. Bwana is still likeable (take note Daedalic) despite the weird Jamaican accent clashing with the African mask face, but you understand his motivation and while still not that smart he's no Guybrush-level dunce. His definitely-a-dunce pal Kiko is fun too, although he's not in this chapter as much, and the corrupt police chief Barlow is at least allowed some character development even if he really needed more. The other characters though are a bit one-note, with the only interesting ones being the Mr. T-like taxi driver and the shifty pair down by the docks. Lily still ends up the worst sadly, as we don't really get a clue what's going on with her other than that she needs to get to the Underland. Maybe next time.
In terms of puzzles, they're all very traditional and feels right in spirit with the LucasArts classics SkyGoblin clearly want to evoke. The trouble is, they're not very difficult. If you're a remotely experienced adventurer you'll have identified everything important the second you walk in a room. If you run through the few dialogue options on every character you'll basically be told what to do and nearly how to do it. The only time I got stuck was when I hadn't talked to the exact person I needed to. There's not enough space in an episodic indie adventure to get Grim Fandango/Monkey Island-level stuck, but even Broken Age and Telltale's for-kids Wallace & Gromit adventures felt tougher than this. For example, an early minecart-based logic puzzle I thought I was going to have to spend ages with turned out to be solved with two turns of a crank and a couple of button presses.
Bloody customs, gets worse every year
Which is not helped by the number of technical issues I had. I don't mean bugs or errors and I can forgive the odd spelling mistake and simple animations, I mean genre improvements that Journey Down ignores. There's no autosave on exit. You can't pause cutscenes. There's no hint system or interactive area highlighter. Worst of all are a couple of manual-entry systems which seem to offer plenty of options but instead only say "that doesn't work" to everything. A browse-able phonebook sits next to a phone, but dial any number out of the hundred or so available that isn't the correct one and no one answers. You can also type anything into the town hall records computer, but unless it's the exact word you need you'll get nowhere - even if you type in the name of the mayor, police chief, or the town itself. Compare these to the library in Monkey Island 2 or even Rosa's internet phone in the Blackwell series. If there's only one option don't pretend to offer me more Skygoblin, or to put it more accurately: if you can't walk the walk don't talk the talk.
THE JOURNEY DOWN: CHAPTER TWO VERDICT
Nevertheless despite these issues I still found myself enjoying The Journey Down: Chapter Two a lot as it is just a fun, charming adventure that gets the LucasArts spirit pretty darn right. The puzzles could be tougher, it needs a few more modern genre staples like a hint system, it bears more than a little similarity to Grim Fandango’s Year 2 and it often promises things (like certain interesting locations or the ability to call any phone you want) that it just can’t keep. Nevertheless perhaps because Bwana is so much fun to hang around or the world is so interesting I found myself really digging it. Sometimes you don’t need an epic tale with complex obscure puzzles or a “comedy” that shoves jokes and an irritating protagonist down your throat (hello Daedalic), instead a short fun little adventure that makes you smile and doesn’t tick you off is all you need. The Journey Down: Chapter Two is that sort of game, and I enjoyed it enough to ensure I’ll be in line for the next phase of the journey.