A few years ago, Gary Winnick and Ron Gilbert wanted to make a spiritual successor to their hit adventure game Maniac Mansion. While many independent developers (and a few bigger studios as well) made their own homages to the point-and-click genre, the prodigal sons had returned to bequeath us with Thimbleweed Park, a love letter to LucasArts games of yore straight from the proverbial source. Initially released in 2017, this tongue-in-cheek hit now finds its way to the Nintendo Switch, perhaps one of the best platforms to play it on.
Set in the distant past (er, 1987), Thimbleweed Park begins with a murder. A body is found in the river of the small Podunk town and two FBI agents are sent to investigate. What follows is a multi-faceted story that takes our protagonists from one end of town to the other in search of clues in a plot that is both funny in a deadpan way and a genuflection of the likes of Twin Peaks or the X-Files. It’s told from multiple points of view, everywhere from a foul-mouthed disrespectful clown to the ghost of an owner of the local pillow factory. The story weaves its way through flashbacks and back in a satisfying manner, bringing plenty of context to what’s truly going on. A nice dash of fourth wall breaking humor and reverent in-jokes round out the package nicely.
Thimbleweed Park stays true to its roots not only in presentation, but in game mechanics as well. If you’ve ever played an adventure game you know the drill: investigate your surroundings, talk to people to infer some clues and use items you’ve picked up to solve puzzles. Rinse, wash, repeat. The game gives you a plethora of ways to maneuver Agents Reyes and Ray and crew that all feel well-suited to the way you want to handle it. Whether with a pro controller or using the touch screen, picking and choosing verbs, inventory or just moving to new locations feel natural. The game also offers both a casual and hard mode, with the differentiator being how many steps it may take to solve a puzzle. Considering there isn’t really a lose state in Thimbleweed Park, it’s worth noting you’ll miss out on a bit of content going with the former option.
For everything Thimbleweed Park has going for it, it does still fall into the trap of being a bit obtuse for its own good, as adventure games are wont to do. For the most part solutions to problems are sensible, it’s just a matter of finding the right item in the right place, which usually requires you to fumble your cursor around each screen until you come upon the magical McGuffin that’ll set the wheels of the game back in motion. Mileage may vary depending on the player and their skill at seeking and finding objects, but you will occasionally get hung up and your patience may wear thin.
Gilbert and Winnick have most definitely channeled their past selves to make Thimbleweed Park the proper descendant Maniac Mansion they’ve been wanting to make. If you’re a fan of SCUMM adventure games, wry humor, plumbers dressed as pigeons and plenty of irreverence we can’t recommend this game enough. If you’re new to the genre and can count on two hands how many times you’ve pointed and clicked in a game…well, we’d recommend Thimbleweed Park as well! It’s intuitive to play, it doesn’t intentionally obfuscate the player and did we mention there’s a couple of plumbers dressed like pigeons? Who doesn’t like pigeons!?
I used to believe that graphic adventure games were bimodal when it came to quality. Either they were good or they were bad, with the line between the two so fine that there wasn’t room for any middle ground. Now that I’ve played The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1, I may need to rethink my hypothesis.
The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle is a point-and-click styled adventure game starring the eponymous Mr. Fiddle and his one-eyed man-servant, Gavin. Mechanically, the game is quite sound, sticking to the tried and true formula of exploring environments, grabbing everything that isn’t nailed-down, and then using said items to advance further. That said, it doesn’t add much of its own to the mix. Normally, this would be a problem, but this style of adventure game has always banked more on plot and puzzles than unique mechanics, so I’m willing to give it a pass.
Speaking of which, the game thankfully avoids the typical pitfall of “moon logic” puzzles that is all too common in the genre: every puzzle has a creative but entirely logical solution. Moreover, the game is quite good at dropping hints without ever feeling like it’s spoon-feeding you the answer.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. The art style has a nice mid-90’s Nickelodeon vibe to it and does a good job of setting the tone. Unfortunately, between the muted palette for backgrounds and every other environment being the dull and lifeless streets of Victorian London, the environments quickly start to feel repetitive.
Of course, the main draw of these sorts of games is the story. Our adventure begins with a suspicious letter asking our protagonist to assist with a personal matter for a shady, but wealthy, individual. Mrs. Fiddle, however, doesn’t approve and instead tasks our heroes with taking her dog to the groomer, but then they get their bag mixed up with that of a stranger on the street, and somehow the whole thing spirals into a hunt for a serial killer…
If that attempt at a summary didn’t tip you off, the story is a tad unfocused. Several plot threads are introduced very early on and then immediately shunted off to the side to make room for the next one. Now, this can actually work quite well with a mystery plot, as what originally seemed like completely unrelated occurrences are slowly woven together into a tapestry of intrigue. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens here. Instead, Bertram and Gavin wander the streets of London, happen across an item on their to-do list (entirely by accident), decide they really have nothing better to do, and then move on to the next scene to repeat the process with little rhyme or reason.
Unfortunately, pacing isn’t even the writing’s biggest weakness. The concept of an English gentleman and his stalwart man-servant going on an adventure in London immediately evoked the image of one of my all-time favorite literary works, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series. The thought of a similar duo starring in a point-and-click adventure game sounded like a smashing idea.
Unfortunately, Jeeves and Wooster they are not. Simply put, neither the protagonist or his sidekick are particularly interesting. There’s little in terms of discernible characterization for either of them and what little is there is just plain uninspired. Bertram is a globe-trotting explorer, and an amateur sleuth, and an inventor. In short, he’s not just a gentleman adventurer, he’s every gentleman adventurer…and that’s it. He’s not particularly smart or stupid, he’s not a lovable loser a la Guybrush Threepwood, he’s not a likable jerk, he’s just a gentleman adventurer. His sidekick, Gavin, is even less interesting, only offering advice in the form of proverbs from his homeland.
That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting characters in this game; there are several. The problem is they’re in and out of the story so quickly, they never really get much time to shine.
Most of the humor consists of [insert clip of Bertram saying “terrible puns”] and poorly-executed, pop-culture references, but the few times it does stray away out of its comfort zone, it’s actually pretty decent. Like I said before, many of the odd folk the protagonists encounter during their adventure are entertaining and I’m always a sucker for the “the solution to one problem comes back to bite you later” gag.
Oh, and this happened. [Show picture of two Bertrams] This isn’t the only graphical glitch I encountered either.
So in summary, The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1 is a mechanically solid point-and-click adventure game that features good puzzles, so-so writing, and distracting glitches. All of these factors balance out to lead to a completely average, perhaps even mediocre, game, which for a game of this genre is an odd sort of accomplishment. That said, I would say that the asking price of $5.00 is completely fair.
I give The Adventures of Bertram Fiddle: Episode 1 a shrug.
Note From the Author: The game discussed in this article, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Duel Destinies, has been rated M for Mature (ages 17+) by the ESRB for the following: violence, blood, suggestive themes, and language. That said, this article focuses only on the game’s mechanics and should be appropriate for all audiences. Please use care and caution when deciding what games are right for you and your family.
I typically don’t play story-heavy games during the school year: they take a long time to beat and all of that pesky suspense and intrigue makes them hard to pull myself away from. So when summer rolled around earlier this year, I decided it was high time I got around to playing a game I’ve been meaning to tackle ever since it came out way back in 2013, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.
After slogging through other plot-driven games in the past solely out of pride (I beat games, not the other way around), I figured that I—a busy adult with things to do—simply had grown out of those types of games. As such, I went in to Dual Destinies with fairly low expectations.
It didn’t take me long to remember one crucial piece of information: I like the Ace Attorney series…a lot. This game is no different. While not the strongest entry in the franchise (clumsy writing in places, too much hand-holding, and not nearly enough Trucy Wright), Dual Destinies still managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
The Ace Attorney series is no stranger to introducing new gameplay mechanics and gimmicks, but until Dual Destinies, I honestly can’t think of a game in the franchise that took existing elements and trimmed the fat. Overall, the game has the best pacing and flow of the entire series, which is why I think it’s the perfect candidate for a case study on how to streamline gameplay mechanics. Court is now in session!
Dual Destinies managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
Opening Statement: The Investigation Phase
Cases in the Ace Attorney franchise are generally split into two distinct parts: investigations and court sessions. For anyone not familiar with the franchise, defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator. They question witnesses, search for clues, and sneak evidence out of crime scenes when the cops aren’t looking, all to prove their client’s innocence. This portion of the job is represented in gameplay with what’s known as the investigation phase and plays much like a traditional adventure game in the vein of the Monkey Island series or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. These segments of the game are often the longest, and fittingly, most of the trimming the game does is in these portions.
Defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator.
Exhibit A: The Search Command
Like many adventure games, players in Ace Attorney games must search the environment to find items they can use, in this case evidence to prove their client’s innocence. The examine command brings up a cursor that the player can then use to click on objects in the environment to investigate them. Now, not everything the player sees in an area is going to be evidence (Phoenix’s office plant, Mr. Charlie, for instance), and when clicked these objects, instead of advancing the plot, will just trigger some flavor text wherein the protagonist and his plucky sidekick humorously palaver on about the object in question (#TeamStepLadder).
Now, in games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there (I’m looking at you Wright & CO. Law Offices). This meant players were expected to search every area. Just because a murder occurred in, say, a public park doesn’t mean the player won’t end up searching an abandoned doctors office for clues on the whereabouts of the true killer’s lost shoes.
In games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there.
Dual Destinies improves on this feature in several ways. First, the game limits use of the examine command strictly to crime scenes. This means that there’s only ever one searchable location for the player to worry about at a time, unlike previous games that let the player switch between searching multiple areas, each of which could change depending on event flags. More over, the game now has the courtesy to inform players when they’ve found everything they need, which too often wasn’t clear in previous titles. Lastly, Dual Destinies introduced the ever so subtle—but oh-so-useful—addition of having the cursor take the shape of a check mark if the object being highlighted by the player has already been investigated. Considering that many of the conversations triggered when clicking on something could be quite long, even with fast forwarding, this U.I. feature is something longtime fans can appreciate.
And to top it all of, despite the newly imposed restrictions there’s still plenty of that sweet, sweet flavor text.
Exhibit B: The Travel Menu
Locations in the Ace Attorney series are normally static, disconnected, one-screen “rooms” that the player travels between via selection from a menu. It’s about as utilitarian as it gets, and yet Dual Destinies still managed to smooth out the rough edges. See, for whatever reason, previous games in the franchise had a four option limit on the travel menu, meaning the player could only travel to four other locations from any given area. The way the developers got around this—quite frankly arbitrary—limit was to have each area have its own list of destinations. So, for example, if the player wanted to go from the detention center to the crime scene, they may have to travel to back to Wright’s Office, then to the front door of the building the body was found in, and then to the actual crime scene.
Of course, a sleek, afigimatiko-dynamic game like Dual Destinies isn’t about to put the player through all that for something as simple as getting from point A to point B! Enter the magic that is “scrolling”! With this space-aged technique, players now have the uncanny ability to pick any location from anywhere in the game simply by “scrolling” between options! (Restrictions may apply in accordance to plot demands.)
Exhibit C: The Notebook
Anyone who’s played an old-school adventure game can tell you that the worst thing that’s guaranteed to happen to the player at some point is getting stuck without any clear directions. This is why many modern games of all genres keep an objectives list or provide a character who the player can ask for advice at any time. Unfortunately, until Dual Destinies the Ace Attorney games fell into the old adventure game trap of not always giving the player clear directions on what to do next. To make matters worse, N.P.C.s had an annoying tendency to just up and disappear until the player triggered the right event flag. This led to the player constantly going back and forth after every event to see which N.P.C.s had returned to their post and who had new dialog options.
Dual Destinies introduced an extra section to the court record (basically the player’s inventory screen) for notes—which in this case is more of a checklist than a place for the player to jot down information. Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notes tab, and be on their way. Admittedly, Dual Destinies’ plot is structured in such a way that the player rarely needs extra input, especially once you factor in the previously listed enhancements, but the handful of times I did need it, I greatly appreciated the fact that I could just hit a few buttons and continue the game instead of wandering around in circles for ten minutes.
Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notebook tab, and be on their way.
What I hope to get across is how seemingly small changes eventually add up. Small U.I. improvements can help better communicate information to the player, which leads to less time spent on tasks that slow progression. Moreover, limiting when a player can perform certain actions—like investigating their environment—can keep them from getting side-tracked or lost. In Dual Destinies’ case, the end result is the first Ace Attorney game that didn’t have me at a complete loss for what to do next at any point. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s not necessarily the best game in the series (my personal favorite is Apollo Justice), but I will say right here and now that it’s the best structured and paced, all because the developers weren’t afraid to make some compromises regarding many of the accepted, long-standing conventions of the series. I’ll miss you, dear glut of humorous flavor text, but I can’t deny the game’s pacing is better off without you.
About the author:
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan and has been an Ace Attorney enthusiast ever since he first played Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney back in 2008. His love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming and is currently studying to get a masters in computer science. Despite his name and choice of professions, he is in no way related to Glen Elg.