Gamer Limit recently got its hands on a preview of The Next Big Thing, Pendulo Studios’ latest adventure set to release in just a little over two weeks. Pendulo has been trickling teasers for some time now — videos and pics touting the game’s seemingly sleek and shiny art style, and its zany characters, but not much has been revealed about the overall story or gameplay. The preview spoke volumes to all these points and then some.
Now, if you haven’t heard about Pendulo Studios or The Next Big Thing until now, you get a pass. Pendulo, in their five game career, have focused solely on point-and-click adventures. Gamers old enough to have owned a PC with Windows 3.1 understand when I say this genre has seen better days. This is not to mention the fact that the studios hail from Spain where, according to the developers themselves, gaming didn’t hit it big until the 90′s. These can be insurmountable odds for the faint of heart. From the first few chapters we were able to preview, the title will go above and beyond beating them while bringing vibrant life to PCs and Macs worldwide.
The false start — it’s a device widely used in books and movies (think of the opening hostage scene in Fight Club or the first glimpse of Jim Carrey’s character in Me, Myself and Irene). The false start is what you’re greeted with at the opening of The Next Big Thing. You find yourself peering over the shoulder of a man looking at some fish behind behind glass as dramatic music plays in the background, the kind of music you’d hear playing in a seedy 1940′s B-movie murder mystery.
Complete with brown leather jacket and tan slacks, the man bears strong resemblance to Indiana Jones. Perhaps the music and his familiar visage has you wondering what adventure recently transpired here as he turns to stand over a sleeping Frankenstein’s Monster, alongside a hovering mutant fly in a lab coat. Quickly they’re interrupted by giant, gray, hunched over neanderthal who tells them it’s time for a pizza break. Just when your bearings have been shook, the narrator, a bald man in a tuxedo, strips them off completely. Unapologetic, he then introduces the true beginning of the game.
Now, the false start among other things is meant to jar the audience, grab their attention and get them to wonder at just what the hell is going on. With The Next Big Thing, you’re doing just that only guided by the fact that you’re in a world that is cinematic, a world with a gorgeous soundtrack, a world inhabited by monsters.
To kick off the gameplay, the narrator has taken you back in time with the Indiana Jones-esque man now in a tuxedo, to attend a horror movie awards ceremony taking place on a millionaire movie mogul’s wealthy estate. In the passenger seat is a blond haired, blue eyed woman in a slinky dress. He and the vixen are obviously not friends. Bickering boils into yelling as the vixen exclaims that he, Dan Murray, sports beat writer, is a jerk. Murray returns that she, Liz Allair, investigative journalist, is a lunatic.
Liz is quickly distracted by the sight of Big Al, the Frankenstein’s Monster you saw in the false start, breaking into the mogul’s mansion. Thus begins your first quest: get into the mansion and find out what Big Al is up to.
Once you take control of Liz Allair, another big aspect of the game becomes clear — you are playing in something that has been relentlessly pored over to the point that it’s a fully fledged world. Backgrounds are pre-rendered in 2D while the characters are obviously 3D cell shaded. However, the colors and sharp detail of both blend so well that they seem part and parcel of the same thing and it’s hard not to become immersed.
Now, full immersion only comes when story hits on the same quality notes as the rest. This is true whether it’s a novel (prose + rhythm + story = immersion) film (cinematography + audio + story = immersion) or video game (graphics + audio + interaction + story = immersion). What varies is the degree each note needs to hit. Obviously, for something like Bulletstorm, your story need not reach such a high pitch as the interaction with skillshots; but, with a click-and-point adventure you need a story that is a bit more rich and subtle.
The Next Big Thing aims for that richness and subtlety in no small way through dialog. A great example is when Liz catches up with the millionaire movie mogul, William Fitzrandolph. A monster himself, he’s asked to comment on the social stigmas regarding his kind, much a comment on racism and paranoia, perhaps mirroring the social milieu of the 1940′s, as much as the game’s music and references do (Fitzrandolph is the owner of MKO pictures, an obvious pun on RKO pictures, an actual motion picture company at the time responsible for the likes of Citizen Kane).
Much is also revealed about Liz through her interaction with the various characters she meets. For instance, we quickly learn she is a damned good investigative journalist. When she needs Dan to distract Fitzrandolph, she greets him with a loud ,”hey Dan, how’s it going!” What follows is an astonishing interrogation where she gets him to reveal his addiction to gambling and an urgent need to attend a boxing match on Friday. She knows exactly what buttons to press in order for him to do her bidding.
We also know she’s a bit of a nut. She’s prone to spouting random numbers in the middle of a conversation, or saying seemingly meaningless things like “vegetable soup” out of nowhere. All lends to the essential comedy, trademark of a good point-and-click. There was another scene where she encounters two guard robots who can only say “Negative” or “Restricted Area”. For the fun of it, she sparks a small game of ad libs. “Fill in the blanks,” she tells the robot on the left. “He touched her …”
Midway into the demo, Liz makes here way into the small warehouse at the back of the mansion, close to breaking the next big story, where she finds Big Al knocked unconscious. She is then knocked unconscious herself, and the next chapter starts.
The plot is thick once you take control of Dan. It is now daytime and you’re tasked with finding out what happened to the disappeared Liz. The change in time is appropriate because Dan plays the exact opposite of the leading lady. Where she would solve a puzzle by verbal coercion, he would take a bat to it — the true embodiment of the saying ‘as different as night and day’.
This is an interesting development of gameplay as point-and-click adventures have trouble differentiating themselves in this area. They seem to be defined by the essential — you gather materials to solve puzzles, you solve puzzles to move the story along, you move the story along to the climax and denouement. They also seemed chained to this gameplay.
The Next Big Thing further aims to separate itself by making its graphics part of the gameplay itself. Again, it is the marriage of these aspects that make a truly worthwhile game. Just as it wants to impress you with the seamless blend of 2D and 3D cell shade, this game wants to challenge your detective skills as the items you collect are 2D just like the background, and also so well rendered to the cursory glance they’re just a part of the lush environment. They force a little more effort in detective work, and soon you find yourself taking a little more time observing the environment, hovering the mouse over more areas hoping for an icon to appear, drinking in the sharp and stunning detail, immersion.
For only a two scene preview, I saw a lot going for this game. Of course, no score can be handed down based on such a short (but sweet) demo. However, it does impel me to bug Pendulo to hand over a full copy. The demo just makes you want more — telltale of an effective beginning. Never have I wanted to play something more in my gaming life; and it’s a point-and-click.
I’m definitely looking forward to its full release on March 25. I’m looking forward even more to Pendulo making its mark in the U.S. with this, its sixth title. No matter what, I’m getting my hands on it when it comes out. That’s my impression.