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Indie Game of the Week 68: Deponia

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This weekly series is no stranger to graphic adventure games, and the Indie market never tires of making them. Yet, oddly, I've never got around to one of the most prominent franchises of this particular genre: Deponia, from Daedalic Entertainment. Part of the reason why is that I've always heard mixed things about these games, about how often the humor misfires or other fundamental issues that seem to run counter to its general success. Those impressions have made it sound like it was The Big Bang Theory of Indie adventure games; if not in subject matter then at least in terms of this paradoxical disharmony of its popularity vs. its popular perception. If something's loved by millions but also abjectly awful, how are you meant to parse that?

At any rate, I can see where both the "I hate Deponia" and theoretical "I love Deponia" camps are coming from. Set on the eponymous junk world, the game follows the deadbeat and selfish inventor "hero" Rufus, a man blessed with the sort of resourcefulness that befits an adventure game hero but lacking in the empathy that would make him any way tolerable as a protagonist. His one and only goal is to escape Deponia and reach the fabled land of Elysium: a glowing utopian metropolis that floats miles up into the sky, not unlike the setting of a certain movie of the same name. When the game starts, you get a sense that he's been terrorizing the populace of his local burg for years with his many flawed "escape plans", either by stealing their meager belongings for his contraptions or demolishing their properties with his sudden crash landings. As such, the game starts with this very weird and uncomfortable energy as you play an unrepentant asshole in a community where everyone hates his guts.

I really don't care for this dude, nor his dumb chin fuzz.
I really don't care for this dude, nor his dumb chin fuzz.

Added to that unease is the game's odd sense of humor, which I'd be tempted to say comes from its Teutonic roots except I'd prefer to avoid generalizations. Thing is, The Book of Unwritten Tales series is created by a team that is based in the same country, and is riffing on a similar background - that would be the Simon the Sorcerer franchise, which was popular enough in Germany that a local development studio, Silver Style Entertainment, picked it up after the original developers folded - and is a whole lot funnier and more palatable. No, I think this probably can be laid at the feet of Daedalic themselves, though I can empathize to an extent if some of the jokes might've been misplaced by the localization. Others, though, are predicated on Rufus's sociopathy, and while that was a major element of the cynical Simon the Sorcerer games, I think perhaps Deponia takes this humor construct a little too far. Rufus is clearly meant from the beginning to have an arc that sorts him out, and one does occur in this game albeit far too late, but it makes it difficult to help him realize his selfish dreams when so many others suffer due to his actions. Maybe if they made the rest of the cast as unpleasant as he is, I could sympathize with him more, but they're mostly eccentric salt-of-the-earth types who are rightly aggravated by his workshy attitude and destructive tendencies. Then again, I always found it funny when Simon tortured the pathetic and good-natured Swampling, so maybe I'm being a little hypocritical.

In purely mechanical and aesthetic terms, which don't include the characterization, writing and humor, Deponia is excellent. The hand-drawn 2D artwork is marvellous, every bit as rich and detailed as their previous game The Whispered World, and the game smartly maps all the controls to the mouse, with left and right clicks corresponding to a context-based "interact" and examine, respectively. The mouse wheel, meanwhile, can be rolled to access the inventory and clicked to highlight hotspots, the latter is always a welcome feature that alleviates the "pixel-hunting" issue that can often plague games of this genre. The puzzles can be a little more hit and miss: maybe it's just because I've been playing a lot of HOPAs recently, the difficulty of which sits between "casual" and "non-existant", but the lack of direction for its more Professor Layton-style brainteasers made it challenging to figure out what the intended end state was. If you hit this desired state, Rufus mutters something about getting it perfect and you can no longer access the puzzle, so at least they don't keep it too ambiguous, but getting there can be a struggle if you're not sure what the parameters are meant to be. To bring up one example, you have to use a device to mess with the magnetic signals that carrier pigeons are using for their postal deliveries; the goal is to reassign the birds in such a way that the smallest is misassigned to the largest packages, but that goal is not so evident in the puzzle itself, which requires you to spin colored lights around so that the center column has the fewest lights. There's a few other logic leaps like that, like how it's a vital piece of a puzzle to know that three people waiting ahead of you in a queue are all wearing hats that correspond to the roofs of their houses (they mention that their roofer has gone into the hat business, but it's a stretch). I got stuck a few times, and it didn't always feel like it was my own dumb fault. I also tired of the game's soundtrack real fast, though mostly just the cacophonous chaotic theme of Rufus's hometown.

I like elaborate wordplay as much as the next hack, but this just felt forced. A lot of the game's jokes do. Some still hit, though.
I like elaborate wordplay as much as the next hack, but this just felt forced. A lot of the game's jokes do. Some still hit, though.

I dunno. I managed to end up with the whole Deponia quadrilogy through a combination of different bundles and giveaways, so I figured I ought to bite the bullet as a supposed fan of graphic adventure games. I'll say that the first game didn't disappoint me enough to convince me to toss in the towel this early: I can't fault its old-school heart or its presentation, nor will I admit that I never laughed at any of its jokes. I liked how Rufus refused to accept that a friendly trash barge driver wasn't a pirate or the way he'd frequently injure himself, even if I've got a long way to go before I turn around on the man himself. Here's hoping the sequels, including the next game Chaos in Deponia, will be better.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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