After about two years of Kickstarter, development time and delays, Pencil Test Studios has finally released Armikrog, spiritual successor to the 1996 claymation point-and-click adventure The Neverhood.[caption id="attachment_57165" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Just a Boy and his Beaky[/caption]
Armikrog puts players in the role of Tommynaut, youngest in a trio of astronaut siblings that is now a solo due to the other two being dead. Tommynaut is joined by his faithful companion Beak-Beak, who is some kind of weird talking dog thing. The duo crash lands on a planet housing a mysterious fortress that seems to have been recently attacked. It's up to our duo to solve the mystery of Armikrog.
Armikrog plays like a simple PAC (point-and-click). Stuff is on screen, click to interact, standard stuff. I say "simple" because the game lacks inventory or commentary on clicked objects, something I was really hoping for. This leave player's basic interactions fairly limited and solely rooted to the mouse unless accessing menu screens. Players can switch between Tommynaut and Beak-Beak by clicking on the characters. While players will mainly be using Tommynaut, Beak-Beak is used to hold down pressure switches and explore tight and/or out of reach passages.[caption id="attachment_57175" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Things get surreal as Beak-Beak explores the innerworks of Armikrog[/caption]
I expected more out of the character swapping. Most of what Beak-Beak does could either be performed by a paperweight or he can only do it because otherwise he wouldn't have enough to do. For instance there are many low to the ground buttons that activate an area's electricity. Tommynaut could easily crouch down and press these buttons, but only Beak-Beak can press them because he's shorter ... I guess? This switching is especially limited by the fact that the two can't travel between screens independently except in certain scenarios. I even encountered some glitches when letting the two stray to far, but that'll be discussed later. I feel a lot more should have been done with the character switching aspect, giving the two protagonists more to do independently, which could have made for some interesting puzzles.[caption id="attachment_57181" align="aligncenter" width="584"] This puzzle forced me to pull out a paper to graph the changes in the constellations[/caption]
I applaud Armikrog's puzzles for standing out from the standard PAC's puzzles. Many screens in Armikrog will contain some form of hint or hieroglyphic that holds the key to solving another room's puzzle. I recommend keeping a pencil and paper handy to keep notes. A keen eye is necessary to find clues and know how your actions have affected a room. This makes every bit of scenery not only pretty to look at or a source of entertainment but something that feeds into puzzle-solving. There aren't a whole lot of puzzles in Armikrog, and content-wise the game is fairly short, but most puzzles will have you spending a good amount of time on them, both in figuring out the key to a puzzle and then actually doing it, making the game feel fuller than just its content. I'm not ashamed to admit I spent far too long in certain areas looking for solutions when the answer was something I merely forgot, given in a bit of dialogue I should have paid more attention to.[caption id="attachment_57254" align="aligncenter" width="584"] President themed ants provide keys to some puzzles[/caption]
The entirety of Armikrog is either made of sculpted clay or uses modeling techniques to emulate the style. This choice of material, combined with the imagination of Doug TenNapel, creates surreal environments that would make Rayman blush. Traveling through the fortresses of the strange planet you've crashed on gives a sense of emptiness and mystery that feeds into the desire to know what exactly happened here. While the cut scenes are done in beautiful stop-motion, along with some nice animated segments, the game obviously is not, which can be a jarring transition and drop in quality. This isn't to say Armikrog is a bad looking game. It's a beautiful example of surrealism and claymation, though occasionally you'll find some graphical glitches.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tkm-k9fH1Ug
I was disappointed in the game's soundtrack, which seemed to start and stop randomly, either playing a randomly loaded song or playing nothing at all. What I heard was pretty good; there just wasn't enough variety, and there seemed to be no structure or reason to when and where music would play.
If you've played The Neverhood, then the beats of Armikrog's plot will seem familiar. End up in a strange land in a strange building, there's a short story's worth of lore bolstering it, and you've wandered into a story that's already at its tail end just in time to save the day. Players learn bits and pieces of what transpired before the start of Armikrog and how your presence and actions affect the story. This gives Tommynaut and Beak-Beak strange roles in Armikrog, like the Deus Ex Machinas of the story rather than the protagonists. The story itself is fine, though heavily made up of stuff that already happened, and the ending of Armikrog leaves players with questions, especially surrounding the villain's motives and ends on a To Be Continued that may or may not lead into anything. Honestly, the lore of Armikrog felt more engaging than that the plot.
You can read several stone tablets that give the backstory of Tzurk and Meva, two characters who are too important to the plot to spoil. Reading through the lore I often stopped and wondered why this lore full of romance, adventure, and magic wasn't the story I was playing through, similar to my feelings after reading The Neverhood's lore. As a whole, Armikrog delivers a great story, though the best parts aren't what you're playing through.
More than anything I was surprised by the lack of humor in Armikrog. Judging from the game's opening cutscene, I thought there would be more dialogue, some banter, slapstick and comical observations between Tommynaut and Beak-Beak, but they're mostly silent with scarce moments of dialogue. I feel this would've been a great game to have an Examine feature, so the duo could make humorous comments on the strange world around them and give more insight into their personalities.
Despite all the positives, Armikrog suffers from several game breaking glitches. Once I found myself pushed back much further than I had saved, forcing me to redo several time-consuming puzzles. Another time I left Beak-Beak on a pressure switch and had Tommynaut wander on his own to use one of the electric car-thingamajigs. The animation to put Tommynaut in the car finished, but without Beak-Beak, the game was locked into a state where I couldn't move and was forced to restart. I recommend creating multiple save states to guard against this and other glitches.
Armikrog is a competent successor to The Neverhood, delivering a familiar experience. Unfortunately, it's hindered by bugs and glitches that make playing Armikrog a worrisome experience, like holding a balloon, hoping every little bit of pressure won't make it pop. It really feels like the crew should've delayed the game for a month or two to iron out all the kinks. I'd like to give Armikrog a higher score, but unless a patch is released the game will continue to suffer from its technical failures.
Full Disclosure: The reviewer donated to the Armikrog Kickstarter and was given a copy of the game for review purposes.
Armikrog is a beautiful and challenging adventure that suffers from game breaking glitches. Fans of the genre and The Neverhood may tough it out, but most will be turned away until these bugs are fixed.