Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Neverhood (PC)

1996; The Neverhood, Inc.

Sierra's use of claymation in their classic adventure series and Clay Fighters were impressive, but it's The Neverhood that truly defined the claymation via videogame movement of the 90s. Who am I kidding? No one remembers The Neverhood because of the animation, but because how well the animation ties to a fantastic adventure game and brings what would be a dated 32-bit world into a timeless world made of clay. Yes, these two forms are just as aesthetically pleasing to select crowds and are both the end product of working hands, but The Neverhood has a personal touch of charm and humor that is often amiss in the media of video games. The Neverhood might not have the brainiest puzzles, most captivating story, or prestige of the Sierra or Lucasarts namesake--what it has is a quality and look that is as distinct in 08' as it was in 96'.

In every sense, The Neverhood takes after PC gaming's biggest success (well, until The Sims): Myst. You start in a world with no backstory, you often navigate through a first person perspective, and you are solving puzzles that are designed to hurt your head. The best thing about The Neverhood is that it plays to Myst's fanbase while cruelly making fun of them. Not too long after starting the game, you'll find yourself in the Hall of Records. Not only does this location poke fun at the idea of unnecessary backstory for the most dedicated to read, but forces you to walk aimlessly for a good 10 minutes. There is also the fruit tree which forces you to watch a 3 minute clip of Klayman, the protagonist, belching. Thankfully the game doesn't pester you too much with these indulgences. It's as if The Neverhood is telling you, "You know these games are stupid right? Good. Now have fun."
At 4 hours for experienced adventure fans and, perhaps, 6 for newbs, The Neverhood is as short as they come. It leaves the game feeling more like a short story despite it's lavish production, but it ends right where it feels like it should--where many a video game would stretch on to it their own detriment. More than just a new coat of paint, The Neverhood refines the Myst-model by making the world less open (converse to most genres, a good adventure game needs this). Most of the game's puzzles are self-contained and fun, but there are a couple that require writing down symbols and backtracking. With an original score and art design, The Neverhood's gameplay matches its artistic vision when played in small doses.

The worst that can be said of the game is that it may refine Myst but it hardly solves any of that game's problems. Moving about in a 3D space can be an absolute pain when you need to backtrack. The game apologizes halfway through by offering you a teleport system, but even that is still limiting and time-consuming. Even worse, is that the game falls victim to one or two random devices to move forward. Most of the puzzles in the game you look back on and see the logic, but you'll find a couple things that will frustrate you even in hindsight. To the game's credit, there are many puzzles that seem like painful trial-and-error but offer a brainier alternative. They are open to be solved either way, but they often also have a more definite, quicker way to go about. However, the game seems archaic in much of it's game design, which is a shame because of just how well it holds up aesthetically.

With an upcoming film based on the game, now is the perfect time to play The Neverhood. It falls fault to many 90s adventure game issues, but it has so much charm and imagination that even today's games rarely match. The story is a minimal but is masterful in its delivery, much like Team ICO's games. The clay world is unlike anything else and the music, while decisively annoying, is also something you won't soon forget. Even though the game only sold about 41,000 units, it was enough for the company to make a platformer semi-sequel called SkullMonkeys. One could think that the development team really just cared about the world instead of the gameplay, with the mixed reviews SkullMonkeys received and their absolutely paned BoomBots. Or, maybe, their heart was in the dying adventure game genre that they felt a need to branch out of because of financial reasons. Not as epic as Grim Fandango or influential as King's Quest, The Neverhood is one of the adventure games that will continue to be lost, but, more importantly, be so rewarding for those who find it.

Gameplay Video:

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