Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Sea Will Claim Everything - Review

The Sea Will Claim Everything is the latest point and click adventure game from Jonas Kyratzes, a man who has built up a reputation for creating charming and thought-provoking games. In TSWCE, you visit the Lands of Dream through a special window which allows you to see, travel, and interact with the various elements of the Fortunate Isles. Your window initially connects you to the Underhome -- a living, biotechnological house that's been damaged by goons threatening to foreclose on it. As you help The Mysterious-Druid get Underhome back in shape, you find yourself on a much larger quest to free the citizens of the Fortunate Isles from the political and economic oppression of Lord Urizen.

If I had to describe my experience with TSWCE as simply as possible, it would have to be "a clever, quirky, emotionally-engaging experience in a whimsical realm of fantasy and reality." The gameplay elements are ultimately nothing to write home about, but this game drips with charm and made me connect to its world in a way that I don't often experience. From the wonderfully vibrant hand-drawn visuals, to the offbeat descriptions of nearly everything on every screen, to the brilliant soundtrack, to the elegantly poignant characters, to the game's clever handling of the fourth wall, I found myself deeply engrossed and sad to see it all eventually come to an end.

The first thing you need to know is that you don't play just any character -- you play as yourself, sitting at your computer, looking into the Lands of Dream through a portal. Characters are likewise able to see and interact with you through the portal. When you start playing, The Mysterious-Druid explains the nature of the "window" to you and helps you configure it to work properly (basically, explaining the gameplay interface). Other characters greet you as a visitor and comment on the window and your own world. When a character talks to you, they are speaking directly to you, not as a gamer or a character, but as a person in reality.

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This lends the experience a lot of personality, because it connects you personally to the setting. It also provides a plausible framework for you to fantasize that these places and characters are actually real, and that your "computer game" is actually a highly sophisticated piece of technology letting you visit their world from the comfort of your own home. As long as you can buy into or play along with this idea, the game can immerse in its setting and scenarios in a pretty magical way that you don't often find in even the biggest, most-successful games.

Your immersion is also aided by the unique visual and audio artistry. Every screen is hand-drawn with oil pastels and permanent markers, making it look much like a child's coloring book, evoking nostalgic feelings of childlike whimsy. It's just very soothing to look at, and the amount of detail makes everything rather stimulating. The soundtrack uses a variety of instruments to create different tones that perfectly set the mood for different locations and situations, and they're all just fantastic to listen to. I can't really describe it much better than that, but it's worth sampling some selections from the soundtrack on, like Home, Underhome, Baharat, Plingpling Fairydust, and Habanera of the Sun.

Gameplay functions like any typical point and click adventure game; the window in the center shows you the graphical display of each screen, and the interface surrounds it. You click on characters to talk with them, and you click on items to pick them up or to read their description. You use the green arrows in the upper right corner to move from screen to screen. The other icons let you save your game, fast-travel with your map, consult your quest log, and look at or use items from your inventory, with various buttons on the left providing customizable settings.

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Almost every object on every screen can be clicked for some kind of amusing description. As part of the magical, fantastical nature of the Lands of Dream, all flowers and mushrooms (which grow seemingly everywhere) are somewhat sentient. Clicking on a red mushroom might say "This is a communist mushroom." Clicking on a mushroom dangling from the ceiling might say "This mushroom wonders why you're upside-down." Likewise, you also find a lot of bookshelves with dozens of books on them, and each one can be clicked to read its title and author, many of which spoof or give reference to popular and obscure cultural icons all across the spectrum.

The bulk of your gameplay is spent collecting items which will be traded with some character for another item, or combined with others to create a new item that will let you proceed down a locked path. This is all relatively simple at first, and you just have to look around the various rooms of Underhome to find what you need, but as you unlock new locations and the map opens up to several different islands, it becomes a far more complicated issue. Quests start to overlap a lot, where one person asks for an item, and you have to help two or three different people before you can get it, each of them requiring their own sub-quests as you journey great distances in all directions of the map.

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It's kind of disappointing when you stop and realize that the entire game is essentially just a bunch of fetch-quests. It can also be really frustrating when you have five or six entries in your questlog that you can't complete because you're missing one critical item meant to start a series of events. There was one major instance when I was completely unable to move forward in the game because I'd apparently overlooked one early item in a densely-packed screen. It was then incredibly tedious and mind-numbing to backtrack through every single screen clicking on every single item trying to figure out what I could possibly have missed, talking to every single character seeking a non-existent clue as to its whereabouts.

Considering that some screens have as many as 50 different things for you to click on (95% of which are just there for flavor text), it might have been nice for crucial items to be a little more obvious, like if the item would highlight when you hover the mouse over it.

As crude as it sounds, though, it can actually be fairly satisfying to follow leads across the map, tracking things down on your own. A lot of objectives start out rather vague, like "Fix the neural network of Underhome," and as you explore the Fortunate Isles, you start meeting people who know more or less about Underhome and can give you further suggestions. Occasional instances of frustration mire the gameplay a little bit when some objectives offer zero hints, and you're just expected to stumble upon them as a result of some other questline, but these moments are offset by a genuinely rewarding feeling of discovery -- the simple pleasures of exploring the islands, meeting new people, and figuring things out as you go along.

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On a few occasions, the game plays around with the fourth wall in some pretty clever ways. There's the tutorial introduction, where The Mysterious-Druid explains how the portal interface works to you (it's a bit of biotechnology grown by Underhome), and at other times you have to solve puzzles by fiddling with the interface settings of your portal. It's actually a little devious when you consider that 90% of the "puzzles" just require you to fetch some item; I found myself stumped at one critical area simply because I wasn't thinking outside the box. There's also at least one moment when the portal glitches out on you and plays a pretty interesting role in the story.

The story itself is a little more philosophical and political than your average video game premise. Your initial goal is to help the denizens of Underhome heal and repair their biotechnological dwelling. While seeking the aid of various citizens all across the Fortunate Isles, you learn that each of the three islands is experiencing their own political conflicts. All of the islands are in an economic crisis, but their corrupt leaders are making the situation worse with their own greedy aspirations. As you work to heal Underhome, you discover the truth behind the three mayors' schemes, thus rallying each of the Fortunate Isles to overthrow their leaders and reclaim their cities in the name of the people.

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The political undertones can be a little heavy-handed at times, especially at the end when the story-telling loses most of its subtlety in favor of a grand, dramatic demonstration. It's a story about freedom from oppression, helping a democratic society fix the problems caused by their own elected officials, and fighting to maintain their freedom even in the face of possible total destruction. Barring a few isolated instances, the execution of this story offers a simple elegance which might have brought me to tears were I any less of a man. I found myself really attached to this world because of how personal all of your interactions are, and I felt a heart-warming sadness near the end when I was given a free rein to travel the islands, saying goodbye to characters before closing the portal for good.

Plenty of other elements lend a lot of quirky style and personality to The Sea Will Claim Everything; it had me smiling often at its amusing wit and sense of humor. It's a whimsical sort of fantasy setting that brings you personally into its charming locales and just lets you enjoy the adventure, the exploration, the characters, and the discovery. Minor issues with the gameplay can make it a little tedious or even frustrating at times, when you're missing an important item and the game offers no clues to help you find it. But besides those kinds of issues (which can be solved easily with a walkthrough), The Sea Will Claim Everything is a wonderfully magical experience.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for the great review and a personal thank you for your extra kindness towards the music!