Despite The Book of Unwritten Tales’ ending seeming to be the perfect set up for a sequel—not to imply that anything was left unresolved—King Art Games have decided that instead of looking to the future, they would look to the past and expand on the titular Critter’s history. In some ways it’s a logical thing to do: Critter did seem somewhat at odds with the fantasy aesthetic of the original—Critter being a pink, fluffy thing with two arms and a very big stomach. It also helps that he just happened to be a big fan favourite.
The only trouble is that he was paired up with Nate—many people’s least favourite character of the original who, if we are being frank, was a rather annoying approximation of myriad American action adventurer clichés. To make matters worse, The Critter Chronicles begins with Nate being chased by a familiar villain—without Critter by his side—as if to rub the choice of protagonist in one’s face, but it’s an excellent narrative touch because this time around Nate is much closer to the lovable lout that King Art Games were no doubt going for in the original.
Sure, he’s still arrogant, self-centred, and not nearly as charming as he likes to think he is, but the way he recounts his rather amusing history early on in the game in such a nonchalant, unobtrusive way helps give one reason to be sympathetic towards him; some reason to root for him beyond the safety of the other characters, which was the main (only) reason for being sympathetic to him in the original. I can’t help but be reminded of the portrayal of Rico in Killzone 3; after Killzone 2 just about everyone hated poor Rico, so in a misguided attempt to make him more sympathetic, everyone around Rico mercilessly bullied him; it was hilarious, but did more to validate one’s own anger through other characters, than to make one feel sorry for him due to the incessant bullying he had to endure. Thankfully The Critter Chronicles handles things in a much more astute manner.
Nate’s character continues to develop over the course of the game, and his voice actor greatly benefits from a far more consistent and standardised script and translation. I say standardised because I believe some of the most noteworthy things about the original were the little moments of genius in the writing and translation which came at the cost of both falling over pretty badly every now and then—an excellent line full of alliteration and lucid, lavish language could be followed by an ugly, unspeakable phrase that was genuinely atrocious.
But without those low points Nate’s voice acting is smooth sailing; it also helps that the direction of the voice acting is consistent as well, resulting in only one style used by all actors. Unfortunately this also means that another of the most enjoyable and original things about The Book of Unwritten Tales is gone—an adherence to Asian voice acting aesthetics.
However, not only do these things all help make Nate a far more engaging lead, they also mean that The Critter Chronicles is, as a whole, far more consistent and confident than The Book of Unwritten Tales was. It’s just a shame about some of the things that were lost in the name of polish and consistency.
Due to the change in the style of writing there is a higher reliance on joke-jokes to keep proceedings interesting. These jokes range from visual humour, one liners and non-sequiturs to pop culture references. Naturally jokes of this nature were present in the original, but the overall tone of the language and performances meant that they weren’t over-relied upon to keep one engaged; here an individual joke can feel as if it is being given too much of the limelight. This is great when a joke hits its mark, but only serves to make the bad jokes fall even flatter.
But perhaps the biggest—and most welcome—change is in the difficulty of the puzzles. Just as with the introduction of Nate, King Art Games let their intentions be known from the very beginning by allowing one to choose between hard and easy modes. The difference is that on easy the puzzles are far less complex, require less messing around with items, and can generally be solved in but a few steps where it might have taken several on hard.
While it may be a welcome change, it could certainly have been handled better. There’s no doubt that the puzzles are significantly more complex than in the original, but sometimes unnecessarily so, and there is no uniform style of logic behind the puzzles—many of the puzzles are solved in the simplest, most obvious way, and some are convolutedly complex. Need to get something that’s out of reach? Grab it with that conveniently placed skeleton hand! Simple. But at other times far more abstract logic comes into play. And sometimes there’s no logic at all. During a later puzzle once again an item is out of reach, and despite Critter having a ladder stored in his stomach for convenient access, he can’t simply prop it up for ease of access to said item. One is not even given an obligatory justification by the writers as to why something logical can’t be done as would be expected of the genre, and perhaps the reason for this is because it’s inaccessible only so that Nate (who is much taller than Critter) can pick it up for himself a scene or two later.
As previously stated, complexity can also be an issue; not insomuch as it makes puzzles too challenging to solve, but because due to the rather extreme item combining, there has to be an extreme number of items to be combined. This means that there’s an awful lot of some rather extensive pixel hunting just so that one can find enough items to build one’s rather extravagant puzzle solving dues ex machine.
To make matters worse, there is sometimes a lack of direction in the puzzle solving. One might know what the general problem one is trying to solve is, but due to the copious amount of items one has to deal with, it often seems as if there are a hundred different possible solutions to a handful of different puzzles that could possibly solve the general problem one is facing, but only one or two of those puzzles are actually genuine, so which possible solution should one focus on and work towards? With few visual cues or clues to guide one beyond which items one can combine, it can feel as if one is shuffling through one’s pocket or stomach of goodies whilst trying every possible combination at random, rather than really putting one’s mind to work and figuring out which puzzle or item is not a red herring. If The Book of Unwritten Tales was too telegraphed in its execution of puzzles, then The Critter Chronicles is fiddling around with the pigeon post and the pigeon in transit is Glenn McGrath!
But not all the puzzles are like that; many of them are a joy to solve with the long, convoluted threads (often quite literally) that compose them, and many of them take full advantage of the game’s sense of humour—it’s these puzzles, where the twisted sense of logic works so well with the twisted sense of humour, that are the highlight of the game, coming across as far more original and enjoyable than the more straightforward—though still satisfyingly complicated—puzzles that make up the bulk of the other puzzles; the bad ones being in the minority.
The pacing also benefits immeasurably from the new found consistency. Whereas The Book of Unwritten Tales began awkwardly and ended with a whimper, The Critter Chronicles is strong throughout, the storytelling keeping things engaging, and the puzzles following the twists and turns in the plot excellently; save for a significant lull in the middle of the game that drags on for just a little too long both in terms of puzzles and plot.
And let’s not forget about Critter; King Art Games stay true to their promise of expanding his backstory and character, and only manage to make him all the more lovable as the game progresses. Munkus returns, reprising his role as the villain to the same degree of success as in the original, but with a little extra polish, and the characters that didn’t make it into the prequel are often referenced which, if one thinks about it, is a little odd what with it being a prequel and all. Some of the references seem to go against canon too: there are paladin metrosexual jokes made by Nate, but in the original Nate was surprised and bemused by the paladin’s metrosexuality, implying that a paladin would not normally be metrosexual as far as Nate was previously aware!
The cherry on the top of this rich German black forest cake is the graphics: environments look as lush as ever, and character models are composed with a significantly higher level of visual fidelity than in the original—most importantly in terms of animation. In the original the animation was jarringly archaic and stilted when compared to the backgrounds and the vocal performances, but here—while still coming across as a little awkward—they meld far better into the general aesthetics of the game and thus allow the vocal performances and the environments to be more easily appreciated.
There’s not quite as much visual variety as there was in the original, and the game returns once more to Seastone, but at approximately half the length of the original that is to be expected. At least one gets to explore a new part of familiar surroundings.
And best of all? Nate can run and Critter can zip around at speed! No more does one have to wait five minutes for a character to walk across the screen. It’s the little things in life that make the most difference, it really is.
All of this results in something akin to the original: a game that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Sure, there’s a far higher degree of polish on just about everything, but with that polish goes some of the starkly original charm of the original, and some of the things that it tries to improve upon from the original are executed with mixed results. Yet, once again we are left with a highly engaging and enjoyable adventure game in spite of its flaws. And once again Critter is a badarse.