What do drag queens, mobsters, and computer hackers have in common? Or how about museums, hospitals, and ghost towns? They’re all people and places you’ll meet in Runaway: A Road Adventure, a new point-and-click adventure from Spanish developer Pendulo Studios.
In Runaway you play Brian, a geeky physics student. (Finally, an adventure game hero I can identify with.) Brian is on his way from New York to California so he can begin his graduate career at UC Berkeley when he runs into a lounge singer named Gina. I mean that literally. He runs into her with his car, and so he has to take her to the hospital. At the hospital Brian learns that Gina witnessed her father getting executed by the mob, and so now they’re after her. Worse, since Brian helped her, they’re after him, too. So you get to spend the rest of the game dodging the mob while trying to figure out what’s so special about a crucifix Gina’s father gave to her just before he was killed.
The premise of the game works out pretty well, because it allows Brian and Gina to go all over the place and get themselves into complicated situations. At one point Gina is captured by a pair of henchmen, and Brian has to recruit some drag queens to help them out. Later, Brian has to assist an extra-terrestrial enthusiast so he can get something for a sculptor so he can use a catapult to... but you get the idea. Runaway plays on the whimsical side of the spectrum, and it sort of feels like what might happen if Guybrush Threepwood was a physics student rather than a pirate captain.
Even Runaway’s engine is reminiscent of the Monkey Island games (particularly Monkey Island 3). Its interface uses a simple point-and-click system to move Brian around and allow him to manipulate and pick up things, and you’re not allowed to do anything that would kill Brian off or prevent you from finishing the game. Moreover, the characters and locations in the game are crisply and colorfully rendered using a 2D cartoon style that works admirably well. The game’s manual claims the system “has been used in some of the most important animated films,” and I’m inclined to believe it. Everything about Runaway’s engine is about as good as you can get.
Plus, the puzzles are pretty good. The game itself is a little kooky, and so some of the puzzles can have odd or unlikely solutions, but they’re usually fun and well thought out, and there are usually enough hints to keep you going. The only thing I didn’t like about the puzzles is that they relied a little too much on hidden inventory objects, and so you might spend a lot of time visiting and re-visiting locations, and doing a lot of pixel hunting. But, luckily, the game is divided into six chapters, and each chapter is self-contained with maybe a dozen locations and a dozen objects, and so you don’t have to wander too far or do too much trial and error work to get where you need to go.
Where I had a problem with Runaway is, well, maybe the theme. When I first started playing it I thought I was really going to like it. A similar style game, Gilbert Goodmate, was one of my favorite adventures from 2001, and I usually like goofy, humorous adventures more than “weighty” adventures like Myst III and Schizm. But for some reason I never got into the story or the situations, and Gina came off as a woman who lies, manipulates and uses her looks to get what she wants, and so she wasn’t a sympathetic character at all. Worse, there are also scenes of gratuitous murders, nudity, and recreational drug use in the game, and while I don’t mind adult content at all, I don’t know why you’d make a game that is 99% family friendly and 1% adult. The combination just feels inappropriate.
Plus, Runaway styles itself as partially an interactive movie, and there are long stretches where you do nothing but watch. One sequence in the middle of the game must have gone on for 20 minutes when about half that time would have sufficed, and even the ending sequence dragged on and on. Many times during the game Runaway felt like a new book that hasn’t yet had an editor go through it and determine places where things need to be pared down or punched up.
And so I have mixed feelings about Runaway, despite the high score I’m giving it. The score reflects more the quality of the engine rather than the gameplay, but I liked the game well enough, and there is such a dearth of other adventures out there, that it’s a game worth owning if you enjoy the genre. I also suspect that people will like the game more than I did, but that’s always difficult to gauge.