Wizarbox has an impressive set of credentials for a start-up company, and hopes to bring some of that experience to So Blonde: they snagged Steve Ince, of Broken Sword fame, to write it and part of Fahrenheit's team to design it.
"It's not a Paris Hilton simulator," says Wizarbox CEO Fabien Bihour. "She's blond, but she's not stupid."
So Blonde is straightforward -- if you’ve played Monkey Island, King’s Quest, or Day of the Tentacle, then you should feel right at home with the trappings of adventure gaming: puzzle-solving, humor, pop culture references, cel-shading, multiple endings.
You control Sunny after she is gets marooned on a 17th century island while on a cruise with her parents. As Sunny, you can talk to the 30 or so inhabitants of the island, explore 55 different areas, and pick up, examine, and manipulate objects with a few simple clicks of the mouse.
The story revolves around Sunny’s attempts to unravel the mysteries of the island (complete with pirates and voodoo shamans) and get home. Sunny goes through a hefty bit of character development as she begins to realize that the antiquated island isn’t a gimmicky resort, and becomes a savvy navigator. True, it’s a classic coming of age story, but it’s clever, well-written, and well-paced -- I got a preview of the game at Wizarbox' studios in Sévres, France and, twenty minutes into the first of four chapters, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
Another of So Blonde's features is the player’s ability to control other characters at certain places. This is happens at pre-determined places in the narrative, and usually serves to gather information about other characters or get Sunny out of a bind.
Part of So Blonde’s appeal, and that of the adventure genre in general, is that it’s funny and laced with pop culture references. “Steve Ince was very attentive to detail,” notes Bihour. “There are several levels of comprehension, with a little bit for everyone.” Allusions include references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and Prison Break, as well as World of Warcraft, the Legend of Zelda series, Prince of Persia, and, of course, Monkey Island.
The coming-of-age backdrop also serves as a microcosm for the gaming industry and its participants: “We all pass from childhood to adulthood,” says Bihour. To underscore this, the narrative is punctuated by 16 mini-games, the first of which has Game and Watch-style graphics. As the narrative continues (and as Sunny becomes more mature and her situation gets worse), the mini-game graphics move into 8- and then 16-bit, and eventually become fully-rendered.
Visually, the game's art style is simple, yet effective and beautiful. The characters are rendered in 3D, while the environments are 2D. “The team is all fans of comics, bandes desineés, and cartoons, and we wanted to work on a game where the graphical style was very important,” says lead game designer, Jerôme Britneff-Bondy. The art falls somewhere between a traditional Western style and manga, in an attempt to reconcile the two cultures.
“We don’t claim a ‘European’ culture. Europeans have a tradition of integrating different cultures,” asserts Britneff-Bondy. He points out that the best-selling animation in Europe today is manga, explaining that by finding an artistic middle road, Wizarbox is trying to appeal to a wide audience.
What struck me most about my time with So Blonde was Wizarbox’s dedication to making a universally accessible game. The gameplay, the art style, and the narrative all serve to make the game as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. While this is certainly an admirable goal, So Blonde runs the risk of alienating the “hardcore” adventure fan. It’s not as out there as Day of the Tentacle, and, for all her merits, Sunny is no Guybrush Threepwood.
If seasoned adventure gamers can get past the introduction (where objectives include finding Sunny’s make-up) and into the meaty part of the game (where objectives include keeping Sunny from being sacrificed to the volcano gods), then they’ll find a light-hearted and fresh adventure game to keep them occupied until Myst DS and Sam and Max Season 2 come out. On the other hand, players that are new to adventure games will find a simple, yet effective, introduction to the genre and its mechanics.
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