Although we have another May feature in full bloom, that doesn't mean I can neglect my weekly Indie check-in. Daedalic's point-and-click adventure games are a fine fit with the other retro happenings this month, though, as faithful as they are to the genre that reigned supreme in their home country of Germany for most of the 1990s. In particular, the Deponia series is beholden to the Simon the Sorcerer games - a British franchise that featured a sardonic and not particularly heroic protagonist, who only saves the world when it'll make him look good - and its combination of dry wit and irreverent trope lampshading.
Chaos on Deponia is the second part of a four-game series, so I won't focus on story stuff too much for the sake of spoiling what happened in part one. In short and vague terms, Deponia is a planet full of trash and pollution that is scarcely survivable, but a handful of people nonetheless make the best of their unpleasant situation. One who steadfastly refuses to do so is the self-obsessed "tinkerer" Rufus, who has been dreaming about leaving Deponia for the orbital utopia that is Elysium, only ever spotted occasionally as it floats over the planet. A chance encounter with a beautiful Elysium agent, given the meta name of Goal, puts Rufus on a selfish quest to figure out how to escape the literal garbage planet he resents which, very gradually, becomes a selfless quest to save same from the vaguely fascistic Organon soldiers planning to detonate Deponia's core.
The first Deponia game, for better and worse, models itself as a classic '90s graphic adventure game from that brief golden era window where the genre had decent voice acting and 16-bit pixel graphics but 3D graphics and FMV hadn't completely taken over. That also occasionally meant bizarre logic behind its inventory puzzles, the occasional annoying Mensa/Layton mini-games, and NPC dialogue trees to navigate. However, the Deponia games also feature a number of worthwhile quality-of-life improvements, including the ever-welcome "highlight" button for hotspots and an option to skip any mini-game if it proves too irritating. Most of the mini-games I've seen so far have been softballs, but there are a few reflex-dependent ones that might not be what people come to this genre to play. There's no quality-of-life improvement to fix the moon logic puzzles: the game lacks a hint system, save when it injects its own inside a NPC conversation or some other manner, so you're sometimes left with the old "try everything on everything" approach. However, that could just be me missing an important detail; there's no one particular puzzle that stymied me that I can look back on and say was more their fault than mine.
Chaos on Deponia also does that thing where you have a relatively large map to explore and multiple goals to accomplish simultaneously. Without revealing too much about the plot, Goal has her memory implant chip damaged after the game's intro and Rufus has to convince her to come back to the local scientist to get it fixed. Unfortunately, Goal's personality has been split into three parts - Lady Goal, her officious Elysium persona; Baby Goal, the naive but idealistic freedom fighter; and Spunky Goal, the source of her courage and assertiveness - and all three of them hate Rufus for his constant interference in her mission. It's the goal of the first act to charm all three by appealing to their personalities, leading to three disparate missions which each themselves have multiple parts. This fracturing can often make it tricky to figure out which of the three missions is related to any immediate puzzle, and you're given about a dozen screens full of hotspots and NPCs to work with.
That said, there's a certain component of adventure game fans that would salivate at a challenge like that, and Deponia does at least have half-decent puzzle design and writing. Not quite to the level of The Book of Unwritten Tales in either sense, but solid enough. So far, Chaos has also been a clear improvement over the first Deponia, thanks in part to toning down the obnoxious arrogance and sociopathy of its "hero" in addition to some small tweaks and better writing. The humor is starting to grow on me, like in one situation where Rufus couldn't remember a secret knock because the apparently diegetic background music kept distracting him, making the puzzle impossible to complete until the player turned the music off via the settings menu (the game conveniently lets you undo this change after the puzzle is over). There's also the prologue where two characters talk about how far Rufus has come as a competent tinkerer while he creates an ungodly mess in the background to their conversation. I still don't care for the "bard" that appears between each chapter, summarizing the story thus far in a song that doesn't feel like it was written or performed by someone who speaks English as a first language (they probably had to fit the localized lyrics to the original tune also, which I can imagine wasn't easy), and Rufus still grates more often than he amuses, but after the flawed but serviceable first Deponia I was hoping for this series to find its feet, and it appears to have done so. I might not get to the rest of Chaos on Deponia any time soon - this month will be a busy one - but I can't say I dislike it.
: 3 out of 5.
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