Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: The Room and The Room 2

It’s always surprised me that there aren’t more point and click adventure games on mobile devices. The genre seems tailor made for touch screen controls, and the slow, methodical pace of gameplay sits well on a device often used for brief gaming sessions on the go. Helping matters is that such games tend toward simple, easy to learn control schemes while the puzzle design handles the legwork of giving the game depth, effectively allowing the genre to bridge the gap between the casual and hardcore gamer markets.

But alas, the point and click adventure game is sadly underrepresented in mobile markets, so we’ll just have to be satisfied with The Room and its sequel, which at the end of the day isn’t such a bad thing because The Room is an excellent game.

As The Room begins, you find yourself in a room with a mysterious safe and an equally mysterious note instructing you to open the safe and find an item of great power within, and thus you are introduced to The Room’s primary thematic gimmick: puzzle boxes. Each chapter sees you attempting to open a new box contained within the one before. As you get closer to the center of the safe, you will discover notes left by your benefactor which provide context, and each layer brings you closer to the truth.

The narrative is light, but engrossing. I was eager to dig further to find out what was at the center of these boxes and why they were all locked up so tight. There’s a darkness to the narrative and a sense of grim inevitability that I found very compelling, like skimming the edges of a Lovecraftian cosmic-horror story. The Room could almost be called a horror game, but the story doesn’t have the necessary shock value for that. As it stands, it creates a creepy atmosphere that draws you in and makes you curious to know more, even as you know that no good can come of it. I love this kind of storytelling, and The Room does it better than many larger games.

Each box layer takes many steps to open, and the puzzles get gradually more complex as you go on. The fact that each chapter focuses only on a single puzzle box gives the puzzles in each chapter a very tight and connected feel, even when individual puzzles aren’t really related. Every box has numerous “stations” where you can zoom in for a closer look and solve localized puzzles. Puzzle solving involves using the touch screen to move switches and panels or picking up items like keys from one station to bring to another. Puzzles feel clever and intuitive, except for a few that require you to tilt your device, as the game never gives any hint that this is a mechanic. It’s always difficult to talk about puzzles without spoiling them, but I was very satisfied with the puzzle design. I rarely got stuck, but I always felt engaged and never felt like puzzles were too easy either. There is an in-game hint system to help if you just can’t figure something out, though, which is a welcome feature.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this game, however, is its incredible presentation. The visuals, while not exactly winning any technical awards in the modern graphics arena, show a dedication to aesthetic excellence. The game uses its lighting to establish and reinforce the atmosphere shared with the narrative given in the notes. Everything is illuminated enough to see clearly, but there are omnipresent shadows, which creates a striking visual contrast with the gleaming metal and polished wood that makes up the puzzle boxes. The way the boxes themselves are designed is also a pleasure to look at. The way panels slide and latches unhinge all feel like  these boxes could really exist.

Even more impressive is the sound design. The music and ambient sounds go a long way to building the game’s atmosphere, and every sound from the boxes themselves are extremely satisfying. If just feels good on a gut level to hear that loud “click” when you turn a key or to hear the internal cogs and gears of the box working as you progress. Good sound can elevate a game, and in The Room’s case, it definitely does so.

In brief, The Room gets a hearty recommendation. Fun puzzles, and engrossing atmosphere, and excellent aesthetic design combine to make The Room a very solid game. And better yet, at the time of this writing, it’s free! (Well, on iOS. Android and Kindle users aren't so lucky.)

The Room is available from the iOS App store, Google Play, and Kindle Fire.

“Now hold on,” one might say. “It says on the game page that The Room was the App Store Game of the Year for 2012. We’re almost at the end of 2013, and it's not an old enough game to be 'retro.' How is this review be relevant today?” to which I would reply first that good criticism is timeless and it can never hurt to see new opinions, but opinions on criticism aside, I do have a real reason for talking about The Room today because December of 2013 saw the release of a sequel, simply titled The Room 2.

The Room 2 shares many of the strengths of its predecessor. Unfortunately, everything it does differently only makes the game weaker.

The Room 2’s story picks up right where The Room ends. There are more notes to find, and this is still the primary means by which the backstory is revealed. Notes this time around, however, feel too disjointed and disconnected. They simultaneously explain too much and too little. The supernatural elements of the story are more obvious, but ill-explained. It looses some of the feeling of skirting the edges of something vast and unknowable. Yes, there’s still mystery, but it’s a mystery that can easily be explained with “it’s magic, just go with it.” There are attempts to ground the backstory by filtering it through the perceptions of people from varying historical and cultural backgrounds, but this only creates the feeling that the player is just a tourist passing through the story rather than an investigator focused on unraveling it.

The biggest difference in terms of gameplay is that each chapter, rather than focusing on one puzzle box, focuses on one puzzle-filled room. This too, I feel, is a step in the wrong direction, as there are still roughly the same number of puzzles per chapter, only now they’re spread out across several stations in a larger room. Spreading the puzzles out just makes them feel more disconnected. The sense of unity that existed in each chapter of the first game is lessened dramatically, and taking inventory items between puzzle stations feels like more of a chore than it was when each chapter was just one box.

This also creates problems for the narrative. In The Room, the boxes were explicitly puzzle boxes, made to test the intellect of anyone who desired entry. There was a reason the puzzles existed. The puzzles in The Room 2 have no such excuse. It makes one wonder just what kind of world this is where it’s considered normal to have to rearrange the beetles on a display and then direct a laser around a room every time one needs to change a blown fuse. It gives a sense that each room is itself a puzzle, much like the boxes in the first game, but fails to justify its puzzles.

On that subject, the puzzles in The Room 2 feel like they have taken a step down in quality from their predecessors in The Room. Too many simply boil down to flipping a switch or finding a key from station A to bring to station B. There are plenty of clever ones mixed in, and they’re as much fun as anything in The Room, but too often I felt like I was simply going through the motions of puzzle solving without any real effort or engagement. In many ways, it feels like the developers were simply running out of ideas. One type of puzzle that gave me particular frustration, however, is based around observation. There are many cases where the “puzzle” is simply in finding something hard to spot. In The Room, this type of puzzle felt fair and natural, since the scope of any such challenge was limited to a single puzzle box. It freed up the design to allow secrets to be hidden in really clever places. By contrast, The Room 2’s greater scope means that there is much more ground to cover to search for any given secret switch or compartment, and consequently such secrets are both harder and less satisfying to find.

Now, from all this, it might sound like I disliked The Room 2, but actually, I was quite fond of it. Every complaint I have given is simply an example of how it failed to live up to its tightly focused predecessor. I would call The Room great, and The Room 2 merely good. It is still wonderfully presented. The atmosphere and sound design are still some of its strongest points and hold up even in comparison to much larger console and PC games, and in its stronger moments, the puzzles are just as fun and engaging as the first game’s.

Get The Room on iOS, Android, or Kindle

Get The Room 2 on iOS

Publisher: Fireproof Games
Developer: Fireproof Games

1 comments:

I did enjoy the first one but the puzzles really annoyed me after a while. A great game though just wish there was storyline (I love stories in games) and I'm struggling to finish the epilogue right now. Growing up playing Atlantis, Broken Sword and Monkey Island, I was hoping for a game similar to these. Hopefully they'll be one in the near future!

Hope you can check out my post about The Room and comment with your opinion:
http://www.nynyonline.co.uk/the-room-ive-been-struggling-in/

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