To know Wallace and Gromit is to love Wallace and Gromit -- and if you do not know Wallace and Gromit, then you can objectively be said to have led an incomplete life.
Endlessly funny, clever, and optimistic, Aardman's Oscar-winning claymation duo have charmed audiences through short films and full-length features for decades. As well-known as the British duo is for their noninteractive appearances, however, their brief forays into the world of videogames have been pretty forgettable up to this point.
Can Wallace and Gromit's inimitable charm finally translate into the world of videogames? Can Telltale follow up their hit-or-miss Strong Bad series with something more consistently enjoyable?
Hit the jump to find out.
Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures: Fright of the Bumblebees (PC [reviewed]/Xbox Live)
Developed by Aardman and Telltale Games
Published by Telltale Games
Released on March 24th, 2009 (US)
If ever there were a game that could get by on charm alone, it'd be Fright of the Bumblebees. Not that Wallace and Gromit's first episode doesn't include some interesting puzzles and gameplay -- far from it, thankfully -- but the game is as endlessly pleasurable as it is thanks primarily to how well it captures the look, feel, and style of Aardman's original Wallace and Gromit shorts. You'll come for the gameplay, in other words, but you'll stay for the way Wallace wiggles his hands in front of himself when he's happy.
Upon hearing about the Wallace and Gromit episodes, one thing in particular worried me: would Telltale be able to translate the visual charm of claymation into a computer-generated world? After playing through the episode on a relatively high-end PC, I can confidently answer: pretty much. The character textures have been cleverly and lovingly stamped with little imperfections to make them look more like their claymation counterparts. When Gromit turns in the light, you'll see tiny divots and thumbprints on his torso, and all the characters even have tiny black holes in their eyeballs (which presumably existed in the claymation models so their eyes could be easily moved from shot to shot without removing them from the dolls' heads entirely) that serve no gameplay purpose and don't actually make that much sense in a computer-generated world, but go a very long way in endearing the world to fans of the original shorts. Call me childish, but it was even a pleasure just to watch Wallace and Gromit walk around, so accurate were their animations and mannerisms. The lip-syncing is the only place where the game unfortunately falls flat; the characters' mouths feel pretty stiff and inarticulate when they talk. Given how fluid everything else in the game is, the human characters' awkward facial movements sadly stand out.
Storywise, everything feels like pure Wallace and Gromit: one of Wallace's inventions screws up a local shop, and to make it up he has to deliver 50 gallons of honey to the store's adorably ethnic owner. Things complicate from there, and eventually the duo find themselves fighting off gigantic, mutated (but still adorable) bees.
You'll alternate between controlling both characters, and Telltale has quite impressively managed to subtly cater different gameplay styles to each protagonist. Wallace's sections work much as one would expect in a regular adventure game -- he walks around, talks to people, and uses inventory items on stuff in the world -- except where most adventure games typically task the protagonist with stealing or behaving less-than-admirably to accomplish their goals, Wallace is just too darn kindhearted to ever do anything of the sort. Wallace may indulge in a little dishonesty throughout Fright of the Bumblebees, but he never intentionally hurts anyone's feelings to get what he wants. This is, in addition to being a nice change of pace from casually misanthropic Telltale protagonists like Sam and Max or Strong Bad, f*cking adorable.
Conversely, Gromit's sections make up the more action-oriented gameplay in the episode; you'll shoot porridge at things, and engage in high-speed chases, and generally go out of your way to save Wallace's life (and livelihood) at every turn. The character switches come at predetermined sections (this isn't The Lost Vikings, or anything), but the gameplay change-ups always come at a welcome time.
Telltale episodic games have always had a problem with puzzle difficulty and though Fright of the Bumblebees is no different, it's a definite step in the right direction. Since neither Wallace nor Gromit can engage in dialogue trees or combine items in their own inventory, puzzles usually come down to finding a crapload of items in the game environment, then utilizing them in a sort of self-contained mini-puzzle. For instance, at one point Wallace has to get his robotic cheese-sniffing device (shaped like a mouse, of course) out of the local jail. In order to get the mouse to show appropriately remorseful responses to the village constable during an interrogation, Wallace has to plant different types of cheese in different areas and, by choosing to draw the robo-mouse's attention to specific cheeses at specific times, can manufacture regretful emotions and thus secure his release.
Now, the actual intellectual puzzle of finding out where and when to use the cheese is great -- like most of the game's puzzles, it's cute and easily understandable, but is fraught with just enough complications that it'll take you a few tries to get it just right -- but even once you've figured out what you need to do, the game's reliance on forcing the player to pick up a dozen inventory items complicates the issue more than is necessary. I ran around West Wallaby street for the better part of two hours with only one type of cheese in my inventory and the knowledge that I needed another thanks to Wallace's incredibly vague audio hints. I eventually had to give up and email Telltale for a hint, at which point I found that there was a second, incredibly easy-to-miss piece of cheese in Wallace's bedroom that I had not once noticed despite searching that damned room at least twice.
Perhaps I'm just as much to blame for being blind, but the game's awkward PC control scheme (arrow keys to walk, mouse to interact, shift key for inventory) and sketchy mouseover detection (I often had to run my cursor over items two or three times before I was able to interact with them) exacerbate these problematic pixel-hunting puzzles. I also experienced a few game-ending bugs that were easy enough to get around, but, you know...they were game-ending.
The Xbox Live Arcade version unquestionably controls differently, but not having played it, I can't say for certain if these control problems and bugs also exist in the console version.
Granted, a few minutes after one of these irritating puzzles you'll engage in a really great Gromit action-puzzler sequence and all will temporarily be forgiven (especially the final "boss puzzle," which is so well-paced and clever that it could very easily have been ripped straight from a lost Wallace and Gromit short), and I found myself having a more challenging time with Fright of the Bumblebees than any previous Telltale episode in recent memory. Those adventure gamers who are looking for a challenge will find themselves (mostly) pleasantly surprised by Wallace and Gromit's puzzles.
Fright of the Bumblebees has a lot going for it: it's adorable as all hell, totally faithful to its source material, and includes a many surprisingly good puzzles. While those good puzzles share their time with some equally not-as-good puzzles, and while the PC control scheme is more than a touch unwieldy and buggy, the game's charm factor and optimism alone were more than enough to put a smile on my face for the vast majority of the episode's running time. If you dig adventure games, you could do worse than Fright of the Bumblebees; if you dig Wallace and Gromit, it'd be a downright crime not to pick it up.
7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
I adore Wallace and Gromit. Their first animated adventure, The Wrong Trousers, may be one of the finest examples of claymation I have ever seen. The characters havea quaint charm about them which can bring a smile to the face of practically anyone. That is, unless you happen to be playing a videogame starring the well-meaning inventor and his resourceful pup.
Fright of the Bumblebees is not a very good start to this new series of episodic games from Telltale, which is tragic because the formula of Wallace and Gromit feel so perfectly suited to the point-and-click adventure genre. All of the basic elements are there: It has quirky, memorable characters, there is an absurd premise at work and Wallace's Rube Goldberg-inspired style of invention practically begs to be converted into complex and clever puzzles.
What it also has is a host of annoying technical issues and design choices. A good example of this is the awkward control scheme, which is very clearly designed with a controller in mind. Interacting with objects in the environment still makes use of the mouse cursor, but actually moving Wallace or Gromit requires use of WASD or cursor keys. Why the game chose to completely eschew the well-established convention of complete mouse control in this style of game without even an option to allow for it is completely beyond me. You do get used to it after a bit, but it is annoying to have to reach for the keyboard anytime you want to see the rest of what's in your current location.
[Editor's Note: We have been told that there is support for Xbox 360 controllers on the PC version of the game, perfectly emulating the control scheme in the upcoming XBLA release. Attempts to do this with supplied review code met with failure.]
Not that using the mouse exclusively would necessarily mean that all control woes would be solved. Mousing over items in the environment that you should be able to interact with occasionally do not respond, making it very challenging at times to observe which items you can pick up or perform an action with. It seems sporadic and may not ever have an effect on some players, but it is certainly there and frustrating.
Another issue which is less game-breaking and merely annoying are the cutscenes. I'm not sure exactly what activity is required to trigger events, but the sequence in which you perform tasks somehow seems to matter in whether or not plot-related scenes fit properly into the narrative.
As an example, at one point in the game control switches to Gromit and one of the items he needs to collect is the home answering machine. Walking into the kitchen on one occassion may have you finding the device inexplicably sitting on the kitchen floor without any explanation as to how it wound up there. A subsequent visit (presumably after performing some unknown task which should frankly have had no bearing on what happens) shows the cutscene which explains the phenomenon. The glitch muddles the flow of the narrative and can be confusing.
Lest you think that I'm merely focused on the negative, Fright of the Bumblebees does have a fair bit going for it. Many of the puzzles in the game are brilliantly smart, with just enough of a challenge to set wheels turning but never spinning. Particularly good is a word puzzle involving one of the new characters being introduced in the game, a woman who runs a newsstand, in which you must devise a perfect insult to deliver to her curmudgeon of a husband using the headlines and product names at her shop.
None of the puzzles ever feel unfair (provided you can actually find/interact with the items you need to accomplish them) and usually only take a little bit of pondering before finding a solution. This would keep the game moving at a brisk pace, were it not for the inevitable puzzle where you know exactly what tasks need to be done but seem unable to get the necessary equipment. One puzzle also winds up being essentially duplicated (done once as Wallace and then again later by Gromit), which feels a bit lazy but is adorable enough to overlook.
Taken altogether, though, these benefits just don't make up for the shortcomings. Maybe if Wallace waved his hands in front of his face a few more times I could get over the glaring faults and enjoy myself but, frankly, the times when that specific action occurs are the majority of the ones in which I even cracked a smile. Climbing through the drudgery for some sparse humor here and there simply doesn't provide an adequate quantity of reward for how frustrating aspects of the game can often be.
Wallace and Gromit has had one consistent trait throughout its assorted animated shorts and films in that the character of Gromit is clearly intended to be one which the viewer most closely identifies with and it is no different in Fright of the Bumblebees. He is constantly dumbfounded by Wallace's behavior but this is tempered by love and devotion to his master. At the same time, I can't help but feel that Gromit's disbelieving stare projects past Wallace and into the offices at Telltale, while the poor clay dog shakes his head in dismay.
Overall Score: 6.25 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
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