Melancholy music, a shady figure climbing through the window and a disappeared woman – these are some of the trademark elements of a 1940’s B movie. Add monsters to the mix and you have The Next Big Thing, Pendulo Studios’ latest foray into the point and click adventure.
Some gamers may scoff once they read the genre. Of course point and click has seen better days as it seems, outside of licensed games and established franchises, there is a substantial lack of originality in this particular space. But these scoffing gamers would be at a loss to just shirk The Next Big Thing. Instead of trying to redefine the genre, it finds originality by staying true to its essential pillars and excelling on every one – challenging puzzles, in-depth dialog and quirkiness of plot. The game even manages to pull off a couple surprises in the process.
As fans of point and click adventures know, story is more important in this genre than it is in others. Point and click adventures are on a linear track , and true to its namesake pointing and clicking are all you need to progress. So, apart from the puzzles and dialog, the story must be pitch perfect to keep one truly engaged. As The Next Big Thing takes many cues from 1940’s film noir and monster movies of that time, playing through the game is much like watching a cheesy, melodramatic B movie, which is a good thing in this case.
Gameplay starts in 1940’s Los Angeles, with seasoned sports writer, Dan Murray, and novice investigative journalist, Liz Allaire, attending the heralded Annual Horror Film Awards ceremony. They’re almost a bickering couple, throwing words like “jerk” and “lunatic” around. Their petty squabble is cut short when they spot Big Albert, a red shaded Frankenstein’s monster, climbing into the office window of movie mogul William A. Fitzrandolph.
Ever the investigator, Allaire is on the case in the first chapter of the game. Using sharp reporter questioning and cunning, she uncovers the first piece to an intriguing mystery of sex, race and power. Ultimately she catches up to the behemoth monster only to find him knocked out cold in the estate cellar, where she is rendered unconscious and captured herself. This prompts the next chapter to begin with the player taking control of Murray, on a quest to find her.
Now, this is no trite damsel in distress tale, as later on you take control of Allaire once more to single handedly escape without the help of a knight in shining armor. Rest assured this is only a miniscule plot twist amongst bigger ones, in a story that has the player traipsing through an ancient Egyptian temple, an underground laboratory and literally the inner workings of the subconscious mind (that’s where the word “lunatic” really gets fleshed out).
Plotline aside, The Next Big Thing shows you how much story can be embedded throughout other gameplay elements. Aside from cut scenes, players get a sense of character development in how each one is played. With Allaire and Murray as the only playable characters, you get an interesting polarity mirroring their relationship. In the beginning where you play as Allaire, you have to solve puzzles more through semantics and sleuthing. As Murray, players must take a more physical approach, like demolishing a car with a baseball bat in order to progress to the next plot point.
Then, as the game progresses, you start to see a shift. Not to give too much away, the two start to warm up to each other. Interestingly this translates to Allaire becoming much more hands on while Murray begins to flex his wit in dialog and logic. You see them start to meet in the middle. This does well to keep the gameplay interesting as it varies the types of puzzles you encounter.
Puzzles and puzzle placement are designed well for the most part. Each chapter starts you off with the easy stuff. Then they build in complexity the closer you get to the end. For example, at the beginning of Murray’s quest in the Egyptian temple, you’re tasked with gathering hieroglyphics for an oracle who likes to play with shadow puppets. To get one hieroglyph, you must convince a guard to give you an artifact. This is a simple navigation through dialog and inventory choice. You then enter a room full of sarcophagi, where you must figure out the pattern with which the mummy moves from coffin to coffin. Picking the right coffin gets you the artifact in the mummy’s hand. Picking the wrong one resets the puzzle. The next puzzle involves a more complex exercise in pattern recognition and Egyptian grammar, and so on.
The game makes solving these puzzles accessible for the more novice gamer. Setting it to easy gives you access to hints and hotspots; setting it to normal turns off the hints; setting it to hard turns off all help. This is where my first gripe arises – as I played through hard mode, the puzzles I experienced later in the game all started to bear the same level of challenge. They were neither too hard nor too easy creating a sort of dull puzzle plateau. To tell the truth, I had a harder time getting through the initial chapters than the later ones. That said, there is still enough to keep your mind working throughout.
Dialog is also an important part of the point and click milieu. To be more precise, entertaining dialog is important; and The Next Big Thing gives it to you on many levels. Superficially, dialog is there for pure comedy and entertainment. On a gameplay level, the player must navigate through dialog trees regularly in order to uncover plot and clues, as well as solve puzzles through the right choice. On the next level sits a narrator who carries the player from chapter to chapter, and sometimes lays out the next goal.
Some may not like this – a narrator who spells things out for you. But I look at it like the guided text that pops up in a platformer telling you where to go next, or the pause menu in a FPS showing you the map and your current mission objectives. The Next Big Thing provides this functionality through the narrator, perhaps more overtly since he speaks to you, the gamer, directly. Of course, the narrator becomes an important aspect of the story as well, a twist I shall not spoil. In the least, he acts as comedic relief after completing a hard puzzle.
Overall the dialog, on all levels, is written very well. Speech is funny, menacing, helpful and downright pointless when it needs to be. More importantly, each character’s personality shines through dialog. Murray is crass and misogynistic. Allaire is sharp, inquisitive and loony. Another character, Dr. Fly, is, well, buzzy, and the Poet of Pain brandishes a slow, macabre tongue true to his name. All lends to the richness of these characters, and makes the playable characters more intriguing as they start to … appreciate one another.
What is dialog without voice? It bears noting that Pendulo hails from Spain. So the dubbed voice acting is an expected challenge to match with the animation. While there are a few times where movement isn’t in sync, it is negligible. And what is voice without the greater palate of sound? The Next Big Thing features some of the most mood rich music I have ever heard in a game. It supplements the hardpan, noir-ish underbelly that is the movie biz quite well. You even encounter a rhythm puzzle set to the tango to get you interacting with the music. The only complaint here is that at moments the soundtrack can get repetitive when you’re stuck on a puzzle.
Now, about the visual — the game offers pre-rendered, sharp, stylized 2D backgrounds that rival the best anime movie, with characters rendered in 3D cell shade. In some games that practice 2D backgrounds and 3D characters, one can tell. That’s not the case here. Moreover, the art style carries throughout and brings forth one of the most beautiful worlds to play through, rounding off a complete gaming package.
The metaphor of monsters in Hollywood calls to mind that special population who wears meat suits and drinks tiger blood. It is a familiar subject to Pendulo Studios. In 1997, Pendulo broached it with Hollywood Monsters. Fast forward to now, The Next Big Thing brings players back into this relevant universe where fame monsters are really monsters, and essentially holds a mirror up to this entertaining, but all together sick, part of society. Ultimately, the game lets us examine this subject in the most entertaining way possible, through an artistic and challenging point and click that has me reconsidering this as one of my favorite genres.
The pre-rendered background is highly stylized and sharp, blending seamlessly with the 3D cell shaded characters. Honestly, one of the most beautifully made games I've played this year.
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Solid gameplay overall. The variety of puzzles keep you engaged, despite a slight lull in challenge toward the end. The characters develop as you play them, bringing you closer to their story and actually caring for their outcome.
The music is deep and does more than fit with the noir, B movie themes. It can at times drown you in repetitiveness if you get stuck in a certain spot. Overall, you get a variety of noir, rag time and some latin themes.
This depends on whether you're good at puzzles. It's sufficient either way -- if you like to go gung ho without any help at all, or if you need that little boost during the harder times.
For point and click fans, The Next Big Thing is a solid title that brings a bit of fresh air to the genre. To everyone else, it may surpass expectations with an in-depth story, challenging gameplay and beautiful art direction.