Review: The Critter Chronicles is a few penguins short of adventure

Critter Chronicles Screenshot - Critter Chronicles

The Book of Unwritten Tales was a surprise hit: One of the best adventure games of the year and something of an international success story for adventure games, with a warm reception both overseas and locally. Developer King Art and publisher Nordic Games were quick to follow with a prequel only a few months after the release on Steam, but they may have counted their penguins before they hatched.

The Critter Chronicles shows how the friendship between adventurer Nate Bonnett and his animal companion, Critter, began. Nate steals an airship and flees from his orc pursuer, the bounty hunter Ma’Zaz, only to crash it into a snowy ice cap called the Northlands. As Nate plans his strategy against Ma’Zaz, he agrees to help a race of furry creatures by retrieving their spaceship’s mechanical “heart” from the evil Munkus, the villain of Unwritten Tales. Munkus wants to use the energy source to power the creatures’ extraordinary machine, which would allow him to produce weapons and other devastating creations on a massive level. Nate ends up in the middle: Half of him wants to pawn the relic and reap the spoils, and the other half wants to help the oppressed creatures beat Munkus and make it safely back home.

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While Unwritten Tales was one big spoof of The Lord of the Rings and made references to other games, like The Secret of Monkey Island, it was still one of the most original and interesting games to come out in recent years. Critter Chronicles is no different — this time it pays homage to Star Wars, Portal, and even Harry Potter — but it’s not half the game that Unwritten Tales was.

The humor is one quality that remains unblemished. Every scene engages the player with fun dialogue and creative characters, like an explorer who thinks he’s a Yeti and a crazy animal rights activist named Petra (an obvious pun on PETA). The types of puzzles are roughly the same although the logic isn’t quite as strong. The way you’re supposed to use many of the game’s items just doesn’t pop to mind as naturally as it did in Unwritten Tales. I’m not even sure why I needed to build one particular contraption, a Yeti trap, when all the beast did was walk out of his cave (he’d been doing half as much beforehand).

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Critter Chronicles is nearly as long as Unwritten Tales. It took me about nine hours, but you can finish in 10-12 if you listen to all the voice-acting, which is well worth your time as it was in the previous game. Unfortunately, the game feels like an expansion more than a stand-alone release, but it costs the same as its predecessor. Critter Chronicles takes you to just about every location you’ve seen before, like the airship, the Northlands, and the Mage’s Tower in the town of Seastone. Even if you didn’t view every nook and cranny of these places in Unwritten Tales, the people who are most likely playing the prequel now are those who tried and loved the first game. They deserve to travel somewhere new.

The locations aren’t the only familiar sights. Many of the characters are ones we’ve met before, such as Ma’Zaz, Nate, Critter, and Munkus. Those who are new to the series represent a mere fraction of the cast available in Unwritten Tales, and they're half as interesting. Although she’s funny, Petra doesn’t do much except whine and sulk in one spot, and Critter’s friends are just boring. I could tolerate Critter’s garbled speech in Unwritten Tales because he was unique, but to meet a whole band of creatures who look like him and talk in short phrases — that’s annoying. Only the quirky penguins won my complete approval.

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Almost half of the game is spent playing as Critter, too, so you have to listen to him chatter unintelligibly a lot more than you did in Unwritten Tales. This is most frustrating when you’re moving around as him, examining objects and trying to figure out what kind of commentary he’s trying to make. At least when you’re playing as Nate, his thoughts and speculations on items and characters are useful because you can understand what he’s saying, which allows you to piece clues together more effectively. The same doesn't apply to when you’re controlling Critter.

Most of all, Critter Chronicles feels like a disservice to the fans who adored Unwritten Tales. Aventasia is a big world, and the game pins you to a small corner of it. Unwritten Tales felt like a real adventure — with a huge cast, creative and logical scenarios, and plenty of places to visit along the way. The Critter Chronicles is like a chapter that got left out.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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