Digital Bounce House, the indie studio behind Tick's Tales: Up All Knight, an 8-bit pixel-art-style, point-and-click, adventure, has crafted a charming, if flawed, retro game. Let's start with the main village screen, which arrives shortly after the intro/tutorial, and which features prominently in Tick's Tales. As the cliche goes, one shouldn't judge a game by its opening images, but in this case, it's a fair dialogue line on which to click. The scene, with its fortress walls, open-timber buildings, and hero-sword anvil, while easily deciphered, feels like hastily constructed and arranged cardboard cut-outs that are then just as quickly scanned into an 8-bit filter on Photoshop. There's craft involved, to be sure, but beyond the comprehensive necessities (this thing's a tree, this thing's a house), there isn't a lot of eye candy. This isn't to say that a game, even a retro-style adventure game, must have eye candy, but part of the allure of the modern take on 8-bit pixel art is maximizing the appeal of the image while trapped in the confines of a technologically constructed era.
The character model of Tick is a perfect microcosm of Tick's Tales' visual style. He's clunky, indistinct, bland, and almost disappears into the grassy background most of Tick's Tales. However, every once in a while, he displays a charming flourish, from his face turning red after having eaten a lava mint, to his cheeks puffing in disgust after gulping the septic water from the town's fountain.
The wizard Gandarf's room, one the player will end up in time and time again, is another excellent example of the visual style. The moment Tick enters, he finds Gandarf in the midst of a chemistry experiment/magic spell. Gandarf drips a liquid into test tubes, and the experiment blows up in his face. It's cute the first time. Not dozens and dozens more after that. But forget about groan-inducing gags for the moment. Take a look at the guacamole lump next to the test tubes. It's an item. The only way to know what it is for sure, given its chunky, lumpy rendering, though, will be thanks to the text you get when you hover over it with your cursor.
Speaking of hovering mice, the central point-and-click mechanic was the most frustrating part of Tick's Tales. A surgeon's precision is often necessary to hit the exact set of 3x3-square pixels to make anything happen. In one instance, when Tick is faced with a locked chest, and given the tools available to him at the time, the solution to the epic chest-opening seems obvious. Even with the appropriate item, though, it takes needlepoint accuracy before the player succeeds. The problem being that the player most likely assumes they're not using the right thing or not in the right way and so scampers off to some other location, wasting lots of time clicking around when all they have to do is exactly what they thought they had to do.
The worst instance of this lack-of-precision clicking was when taking items out of, or putting them back into, the backpack. It's often necessary to pound the mouse button with a machine-gunned series of clicks. But not too many, otherwise the player inadvertently ends up, in many screens, clicking the prompt to send Tick out of the room entirely.
Back when point-and-click adventures first flooded PCs, the pixelated art, and point-and-click controls existed because, due to technological limitations, that was all that was possible. Many games and series, the King's Quest franchise to name only one, made efficient use of both. But nowadays, with so many great tools that free creators' inhibitions from technological restraint, there's no excuse for poor or poorly planned control.
Where Tick's Tales does well most of the time is in its story and puzzles. In the jail scene alone, there's the humorous fourth-wall breaking, a fun puzzle with unexpected twists, and, compared with much of the rest of Tick's Tales, catching visual design. In this scene, Tick has a problem, very clear goals and obstacles, and even with some necessary repetition, the player feels a sense of progression. The scene propels the player to forge ahead giddily.
Unfortunately, due to the infuriatingly obtuse clues and inter-item relationships in the first two chapters (out of five) of Tick's Tales, it takes so long for it to feel like it's catching up to itself, that some players may not be willing to make the full, five chapter commitment. So much time is necessarily spent running back and forth between screens, clicking through dialogue trees, clicking items onto every spare patch of pixels, attempting to combine items, and second-guessing every decision. Doing all that is so repetitive that it forces the player to memorize almost every detail, and that means that Tick's Tales simply isn't any fun for far too long. This is so much the case that several visits to online forums may be necessary for some pretty early-on puzzles. It's not even that the puzzles are terribly difficult exactly, just that there is a bit of a disconnect between the developer's intended clues and the player's nascent understanding of how the world works. Some clues rely on the literal interpretation of the dialogue text. Others rely on more figurative interpretation. Once the former has been established, the latter feels left-field.
With flat visuals, a humorous, but ultimately underwhelming story, the occasional solid puzzle drowning in fluff, and simply not enough content to justify a whole game, Tick's Tales: Up All Knight, in the ocean of pixel art indie titles, offers too little that's too similar to too much. If well-bottom profound nostalgia for brief, 8-bit pixel art click-fests is your thing, then Tick's Tales will be worth it on a heavily discounted sale. If not, then toss a rock into the rolling, amber fields that are the indie renaissance and you're bound to hit a shining blade.
Tick's Tales: Up All Knight was reviewed on Mac via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Some strong storytelling and puzzling don't save the game from bland visuals and frustrating mechanics.