|Pencil Test Studios
|Pencil Test Studios, Versus Evil
|August 23, 2016
|PC, PS4, Wii U
If you were a gamer in the 90s, chances are you were familiar with Earthworm Jim. To say the game was unique would be a massive understatement, taking the standard “save the princess” motif and turning it on its head with crazy sci-fi themes, wacky characters, and some of the most random situations this side of a Looney Tunes cartoon. I have a lot of fond memories of the original 1994 release and its sequel in 1995, so I was delighted to find that members of the original dev team were still active and releasing a new game called Armikrog. The old sprite-based action gameplay was replaced with slower-paced point-and-click adventure gameplay with a claymation art style, but surely the old magic would still be fresh so many years later, right? … Right?
While I am well-versed in the small collection of Earthworm Jim games, my knowledge in the works of Doug TenNapel since then is a bit limited. Researching Armikrog revealed that the game is apparently considered something of a spiritual successor to the similarly-claymation 1996 The Neverhood. Players take on the role of Tommynaut, a brave spaceman on a mission to locate a material known as “P-tonium” in an effort to save the society of his planet from collapsing. The game’s opening sequence is good at pretty succinctly explaining that Tommynaut needs to make his way to the planet Spiro 5 to find the rare fuel. With Beak-Beak, his pet/sidekick dog-thing, in tow, Tommynaut sets off on his mission. Disaster (and a meteor) soon strikes, forcing our heroes to crash land on the planet. Before long, the local fauna attack the duo, who find shelter in the dungeon of a nearby fortress, the titular Armikrog. From there, the two will explore the lofty halls solving puzzles, opening new areas and righting wrongs that occurred before their arrival.
Armikrog’s gameplay is nothing you’ve haven’t seen before in a point-and-click game. The left stick controls a cursor on the screen which can be used to move Tommynaut and have him interact with different objects in the environment. Pushing Triangle will allow players to switch to Beak-Beak instead who can access certain small spaces that would be impossible for Tommynaut. It’s never really explained, but Beaky also appears to be able to perceive a separate plane of existence containing items and clues necessary for solving puzzles. There’s not much more to say about it, but it never seemed to me that the gameplay was the focus of Armikrog; it was the presentation. So, the question comes down to whether or not the still somewhat novel use of claymation in games was enough to make up for the rather barebones gameplay.
I’ll start by saying that I thought the animation in Armikrog’s cutscenes was absolutely charming. Tommynaut and Beak-Beak are both interesting-looking characters, and it was entertaining to see them move about and interact with each other and the environment. The game also features a few hand-drawn cutscenes that explain the plot, which is a nice break from the claymation of the rest of the game. They also have an art style strongly reminiscent of the Earthworm Jim games which I was already sold on anyway. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the art during gameplay itself, at least not all the time. While the environments themselves, from dank caverns to spacious halls to grand outdoor canyons, were almost always eye-catching, Tommy and Beaky themselves were just so… normal. They hardly ever did anything out-of-the-ordinary, so much so that I soon forgot that I was playing a game featuring stop-motion clay characters at all. Whether or not that was the intended effect is a mystery to me.
The audio side of things is a bit of a mixed bag, as well. While I found the game’s mix of sci-fi, rock and jazzy tones pretty catchy, the voice acting left something to be desired in a number of ways. The voice cast is made up of a number of well-known actors like Michael J. Nelson (Mystery Science Theater 3000), Rob Paulsen (Animaniacs, Metal Gear Solid) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), yet the actual number of voiced lines was so paltry as to make me wonder if including voice acting at all was even worth it. Not only that that, but the quality of the voices seemed surprisingly lacking, as well. While I would say both Nelson and Paulsen gave fine performances, it sounded as though the recordings, during cutscenes, at least, were not so much made in a studio, but rather someone’s bathroom, with an echo that could make it difficult to understand the lines from time to time. The game does include an option to use subtitles, but they are so small on the bottom of the screen that they can be easy to miss if they show up at all. There were more than a couple times when I had trouble understanding a character’s dialogue, but the game simply didn’t include any captions, leaving me more confused than necessary.
On the subject of confusion, while the majority of the game’s puzzles were a suitable blend of interesting and difficult, I had trouble understanding why Armikrog included multiple instances of a certain puzzle that tasked players with repairing a broken mobile for a crying baby. As far as I can tell, the puzzle doesn’t require any real strategy to figure out — just a question of trial and error as you try to find which cute creature should be hung where — but the constant wailing of the baby throughout creates a level of annoyance that gives even Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island a run for its money. The fact that the game grinds to a halt and forces you to solve this puzzle on three separate occasions is baffling to me. It could simply be an effort to pad the game out as, clocking in at roughly five hours to complete, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of replay value. That’s one way to get players to spend more time with your game, but it would have nice if it wasn’t through the use of one of the more insufferable puzzles.
I can’t help but feel that I would have rather experienced Armikrog as a movie instead of a video game. While there was nothing technically wrong with the gameplay, I can’t say that I was truly enjoying myself while I played the game. The only time I really was enamored was during the cutscenes which, while the quality of the voices was less than stellar, had top-notch animation. From the painstaking stop-motion of the characters to the charmingly cheap-looking practical effects, this truly was the highlight of the game. I just wish the rest of Tommynaut and Beak-Beak’s outing could have followed suit. I will say that, if you’re somewhat new to the point-and-click genre and want to try your hand at something that isn’t going to fry your brain with unnecessarily obtuse solutions to puzzles, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy from Armikrog. Plus, with the $25 price tag, it’s a nice budget title that should help make the decision a bit easier. Seasoned fans — either of adventure games or the previous works from the dev team — will very likely be sadly disappointed.
Review copy provided by the publisher
Armikrog is available on Amazon: