Exactly how big are we talking, here?
Two years after wrapping up their critically acclaimed Runaway trilogy, the Spanish point-and-click veterans of Pendulo Studios bring us their next big thing: The Next Big Thing (TNBT). Sequel to the 1997 Hollywood Monsters (the game is known as Hollywood Monsters 2 in Spain) TNBT takes the player on an adventure through an alternate universe in which monsters freely go about their business... and their business is acting.
Investigation Team, go!The game starts off when two newspaper reporters, the young and naive Liz and the cool, hardboiled Dan, after attending the annual Horror Movie Awards show witness monster-moviestar Big Albert entering the office of famous monster flick producer mr. Fitzrandolph... through a window. Eager to embark on investigative journalism instead of simple reporting, Liz is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. What follows is a mad tale laden with (quite literally) colorful characters, intrigue, kidnapping and love.
One of the first things players will notice is how little TNBT troubles itself with properly introducing the main characters or setting up the gameworld. Although it doesn't take too long before things become clearer, more than once in the first couple of levels I found myself feeling like I started watching a movie twenty minutes in. When we first meet Liz and Dan they're bickering about something that's never cleared up, one of the first conversations in the game centers around an interview that we never saw happened and even the conversational running gags (of which this game has quite a lot) when first encountered are delivered as if the player should already be aware of them. All in all it makes for an interesting narrative technique and none of this poses too big a problem, but it does require players to pay close attention in the opening chapters of the game.
At this point I should probably admit that I have not in fact played Hollywood Monsters so maybe I am actually missing some things. It sure felt like it on some occasions. However, requiring players to have played a little known adventure from fourteen years ago in order to fully grasp what exactly is going on does seem a little ill-conceived.
Oh TNBT, you so crazy!Other than the initial struggle of getting up to speed with the characters and the world the game does a pretty great job as far as storytelling is concerned. That is not to say the story itself isn't batshit crazy, because it is, but the game features a lot of interestingly eccentric characters with a lot of personality. Combined with TNBT's witty writing and snappy speech delivery, the conversations are an area in which TNBT definitely excels. The actual storyline is, to say the least, a bit random, but amusingly so. Over the course of the game players will find themselves inside a storage room, an Egyptian-themed theater, a zeppelin, a secret underground lab... even Liz's... peculiar mind sets the stage at some points.
With the crazy storyline and the crazy world being what they are, it is a pretty amazing feat Pendulo still manages to make the puzzles and their solutions seem more or less logical. I have seen this game being criticized on account of packing ridiculous puzzles with even more ridiculous solutions, but in my experience, barring two very specific instances, TNBT's puzzles consistently hit the sweet spot between providing a challenge without being frustratingly difficult. The two exceptions to this rule are a puzzle concerning hieroglyphic grammar and one in which the player has to produce a tango with an orchestra of flowers, which are just plain ridiculous.
Need a hand?If the player does find himself stuck on a certain puzzle, on the easy difficulty setting the game offers a rather neat help system in which the game's narrator recalls 'what happened next'. On top of that, a very useful hotspot button highlights all hotspots on whichever screen the player happens to be. On medium difficulty the narrator's help is inaccessible, and on hard one has to do without the hotspot highlighting as well. I had little serious trouble completing the game on medium, but if one can restrain oneself to only use the help button as a last resort I'd recommend playing on easy, which should eliminate any need for having a walkthrough handy (with the exception of the aforementioned two puzzles of doom).
Another welcome aid in unraveling the mystery is the checkpoint button, which when pushed presents the player with a screen on which the path to progress is mapped out. Very useful when you find yourself unsure which direction to go, the checkpoint screen provides the player with an overview of what currently needs doing and why.
Now! In full HD!Visually, TNBT offers nothing special. It being a point and click adventure, surely no-one expected otherwise. The drawing is neatly done and the art does what it needs to do. Characters neatly blend with the hand-drawn backgrounds. Pendulo makes a rather big deal out of TNBT being playable in full HD, but although that might be a novelty in the adventure genre, in 2011, should we expect any less? Also it should be noted that although the gameplay might be in HD, the video sequences are not. For a game actively advertising as being in full HD, this is a bit of a bummer.
What music there is is rather good, I never felt the urge to slide down the music volume slider and put on my own music as I often do. Like any good background music, you barely notice it's there. Although that could also be because on a number of occasions it actually wásn't there. I'm not sure if I am dealing with a bug on my end, but I did notice the music being altogether gone a couple of times. The voice-acting is great. What with TNBT featuring a largely conversation driven story, this is all the better. The actors really succeed in giving personality to the characters and barring one or two misses (Professor Fly comes to mind... he's annoying) deliver good performances across the board.
Surely not THAT big?!Playing on medium I completed the game in about 7 hours, which felt rather short. Especially considering the game's price point, which is the last thing I'll discuss in this review. For some strange reason Focus Home Interactive decided it would be a good idea to offer the game for $30,- in the US, while asking €40,- in Europe. At the current exchange rate, this means Europeans are paying twice as much as Americans for the same product. Although since steam uniformed their prices Europeans might be getting used to getting screwed over, this still seems rather outrageous. To be honest, even $30,- strikes me as a little steep for a digital download of this game, which doesn't offer too many hours of gameplay to begin with.
All in all, The Next Big Thing is a fun little adventure game which fans of the genre should definitely check out. But you might want to wait until it's a bit more reasonably priced. Don't pay €40,- for this, but keep an eye out for pricedrops, as it's definitely a fun game.