Hans Christen Andersen: The Ugly Prince Duckling is a family-friendly adventure game based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen. If the name isn’t completely familiar to you, Hans Christian Andersen was an author who lived in the 19th century, and who wrote numerous fairytales, including “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Now, putting Hans Christian Andersen into an adventure, and creating puzzles and encounters based on his works, sounds like a terrific idea. I was expecting something warm and pleasant and friendly to play. Unfortunately, this game is yet another example where theory is one thing and reality is something far different.
In The Ugly Prince Duckling, you control a young Hans Christian Andersen. You arrive in Copenhagen on the 15th birthday of the princess, but the princess barely notices you because you are well below her station. However, trolls suddenly attack the town, and a magical tinderbox goes missing, and it becomes your responsibility to escort the princess back to the palace. Along the way you have to make some money and find some new clothes, dodge groups of trolls when they get in your way, and meet several characters from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales.
First, the good news. The game is cute. The graphics are in 3D, and everything is bright and cheerful. Even the trolls are sort of cuddly. The style reminded me of those stop-motion Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town,” but without the singing and dancing. Since The Ugly Prince Duckling is aimed at children, this sort of cartoonish appearance is probably a good idea, and I’m guessing that children will enjoy watching the game, even if it’s Mom or Dad who is controlling the action.
The puzzles are also pretty friendly. Most of the time you just have to talk to people and give them things. For example, at one point a shepherdess asks you to deliver a note to a chimney sweep, and then the chimney sweep gives you a response for the shepherdess. After delivering some notes back and forth for a while, the couple finally gets together to live happily ever after, and the chimney sweep gives you a reward that you’ll need in a future puzzle. There are also lots of hints. If you’re stuck on your current puzzle, talking to just about anybody in the town will give you a clue about what to do next. As a result, The Ugly Prince Duckling isn’t very challenging, and it won’t take you very long to play. I finished it in about five hours.
Now, the bad news. The Ugly Prince Duckling has two serious problems. The first is the interface. The developers tried to make it versatile by allowing you to do everything with the keyboard or the mouse, or a combination of the two. For example, you can make Hans Christian Andersen move by using the arrow keys, or you can point and click where you want him to go. The problem is that neither mode works especially well. The interface is clunky and awkward and unfriendly, and sometimes it’s difficult enough just to get Hans to move let alone to actually solve some puzzles. Plus, the frequent camera shifts are disorienting, and that makes it easy to get lost. For a children’s game, I think it’s much more important to make the game easy to play rather than easy to solve, and the developers unfortunately got that completely backwards.
The other problem is the premise itself. In one way I think that basing a game on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales is a great idea, and putting the author in the game itself has potential, like making Shakespeare a character in the movie Shakespeare in Love. But the developers basically dropped the ball here. They used some of Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser known fairytales (like “The Shepherdess and the Sweep” and “The Tinderbox”), and when they did use a character from a fairytale, they didn’t emphasize the fact at all. The result is that you might play the game and not recognize a single reference, which is sort of sad and disturbing.
Of course, I’m not particularly close to the target demographic for Hans Christian Andersen: The Ugly Prince Duckling. I guess it’s possible that families with small children will like it better than I did. The game looks nice, the story is easy to follow, and most of the puzzles are easy to solve. But for me, the interface sinks whatever potential the game has, and I’d have to think that it would infuriate anyone playing an adventure game for the first time. So if you’re looking for a family-friendly adventure to play, I’d recommend something like Keepsake instead.