The Whispered World review
From around 1995 to about 2005, 2D was a dirty word. The prevailing wind of new technology dictated that if a new game didn't boast a high number of polygons it was a dusty relic, hopelessly clinging to the past.
In 2010, things look a good deal rosier for flatness fans. The Whispered World is the latest title to join modern 2D marvels like Braid and Machinarium in looking absolutely, opulently, and distinctively gorgeous in just two dimensions.
The Whispered World is a point-and-click adventure game presented in the cartoon style of Curse of Monkey Island or Broken Sword; and that means lush, painterly backgrounds plus cartoon characters with plenty of personality and animation. Visually the equal of those games, The Whispered World is brilliantly designed. Background art, ranging from autumnal woods to dank prisons, is wonderfully detailed and charming, all twisty spires and distorted structures. The foreground animation is great, too. Character movements are distinctive, and full of character, and unlike inferior point-and-clickers, the animation is generous; if you decide to pick up pebbles, the character will actually reach out to grab them.
The visuals alone should be enough of an incentive for many players, but being an adventure game, there's also a detailed story. Here, however, results are mixed. You play Sadwick, a depressed young clown who lives in a traveling circus with his senile grandfather and sniffy older brother. Sadwick is visited by disturbing dreams, which identify him as the bringer of the end of the world, and Sadwick sets out to avert the catastrophe. The title presents a world worth saving; a charming fairytale fantasy of beasts the size of mountains, golden spires and huge locomotives. Unfortunately, Sadwick is not the companion I would choose to save it with. His main character trait, as his name suggests, is that Sadwick is gloomy and despondent; a fact the player is battered over the head with at any opportunity. Choose to examine an item, and Sadwick will probably make a reference to his own misery. These comments tend to follow a repetitious formula; "The X is empty. Just like my life", for example, or "The Y is broken down. Just like me."
Sadwick might have been a diverting character for all of a minute, but spending the whole game with his whining is tedious. This isn't alleviated by the lead voice actor. The Whispered World joins A Vampyre Story as another wonderfully animated point-and-click adventure rendered nearly intolerable by a main character with extremely annoying vocals. Sadwick is meant to be a child, but is evidently played by an adult doing a creepy ickle-boy voice. Think Butters from South Park, but about 50 times less cute.
Thankfully, Sadwick is accompanied by a character who actually is cute; his pet caterpillar, Spot. Spot is a little green grub who can transform into various shapes which are used to solve puzzles. There's even a sequence - one of the highlights of the game - in which you play as Spot, with no inventory, just his range of transformations. Your shape-shifting sidekick is the only stab at gameplay innovation in The Whispered World; the rest is the typical genre mix of use hammer-with-nail inventory puzzles and operating staple machinery like fixing some plumbing. Some of the obstacles are clever and original; there's a lovely dialogue puzzle in which you have to barter with an impressionable midget that's both funny and ingenious. Most are not. There's plenty of silly non-logic ("use mouse on pantaloons") at times but mainly the puzzles are just uninspired. Closing an open door to reveal the items behind it was a neat trick when Monkey Island 2 did it, almost 20 years ago. That's not true any more, especially when variations of this scenario are repeated not once, not twice, but four times throughout the game. A lot of the time, extra stages in puzzles seem to be thrown in just to inflate the - already generous - length. At least there are unique comments about pretty much every combination of items, meaning that while you might have to listen to Sadwick, you don't have to listen to him say "that doesn't work" again and again; a sticking point in many point-and-clickers.
With thoroughly charming hand-drawn graphics, a verb-coin nicked directly from Curse of Monkey Island, no hint system and old-school puzzles - replete with massive difficulty spikes - this is point-and-click adventuring circa 1997. For me, that's entirely welcome, but where The Whispered World falls down is that it doesn't refine any of the flaws of the classics it imitates, and in some respects suffers from the comparison. The story and script just don't match up to those games. Awkward stabs at humor abound - although some of the characters are funny, like a pair of belligerent anthropomorphic rocks, many are not. Every bit of dialogue is written in technically correct, but awkwardly precise English - an artefact, I assume, of being translated from German - and most of the one-liners just plain don't work.
The game is also a bit buggy, with multiple instances of subtitles not matching spoken lines, and - far worse - cut-scenes sending the game crashing back to the desktop. Then there's the endgame, which presents the player with an illusory "choice" which only yields one ending.
If, like me, you have warm fuzzy memories of the glory days of LucasArts, Revolution and AdventureSoft, you'll enjoy The Whispered World. And I did. But there are simply too many shortcomings here to give this game a hearty recommendation. Muted praise, then, for a whispered world.