If you've been in gaming long enough, you know that trends that once seemed strange and uncomfortable can eventually become normal. Take PC gaming: in the modern era, most of the popular titles seem to fall into either shooter or real-time strategy categories, however loosely defined. It didn't used to be this way, though – back in the '80s and early '90s the adventure game ruled, along with flight sims and RPGs. People looked forward to the latest Sierra or LucasArts titles the same way we now wait for something from id.
That's why there's a minor undercurrent of hype for Telltale Games. Their work is an unapologetic throwback to the Golden Age of adventure games, just with a lot of modern touches. They're one of the only choices in town when it comes to a good adventure in fact, so some of us watch the company with a keen eye.
The land of cheese and honey
The company's newest line of games is Wallace and Gromit: Grand Adventures, based on the Aardman claymation shorts (and feature) of the same name. Wallace is a half-crazy inventor, strangely obsessed with cheese; he lives in a town called Wigan with Gromit, an extremely patient beagle who never says a word yet manages to continually wedge Wallace out of tight spots.
Fright of the Bumblebees is actually the first in a series of four episodes, each shorter than a full-length game but no more expensive when lumped together. The beginning episode finds Wallace broke, at the same time as he and Gromit are launching a honey-on-tap business. To pay for damages to a shopkeeper's store, he promises an ungainly amount of honey by the end of the day; this leads to a growth formula shortcut, which not only produces overgrown flowers but also overgrown bees.
The closest parallel for Flight's gameplay, aside from the Telltale Sam & Max games, is arguably LucasArts' Grim Fandango. Players alternately control Wallace or Gromit as they solve a variety of object-based puzzles, such as making a rather complicated breakfast or trapping some of the giant bees. They're a refreshing change from what seems to be standard with adventures these days, in which the puzzles are really just logic exercises with no connection to the story.
The comparison seems most apt though in terms of interface, since players navigate through static, third-person scenes using the arrow keys. The game also attempts to give inventory management the same simplicity, though instead of having Wallace and Gromit cycle through objects in order, hitting Shift brings up a selection sidebar. The controls are still ridiculously easy to get used to, such that I could see handing the game to kids without a problem.
Tale told well?
I take that suggestion seriously, on the basis of the game's story as much as anything. Much of Flight's appeal rides on the charm of Wallace and Gromit - aside from the absence of Peter Sallis as the voice of Wallace, the game really does feel like another Aardman short, down to Gromit's exasperated reactions and the omnipresent British culture references. It's genuinely funny, treading a careful line between being sincere and sanitized. Like Wall-E, you could say, it's one of those few "family-friendly" offerings does entertain everyone.
The game benefits from good art direction as well, capturing the style of the original shorts. It proves to be a form of compensation however, since the engine behind the game looks several years behind the curve. Models are decidedly low-poly, while lighting is flat. Animation is generally smooth and well-executed, but sometimes transitions abruptly.
If the game has a serious fault, it's brevity. It's not an issue with puzzle design; barring one or two exceptions, the puzzles manage to be clever without being condescending. There simply isn't enough of them, as the game can be finished in less than six hours. This is by design of course, but some gamers may get impatient waiting several months - through to July - to see the entire experience. It's a matter of preference, ultimately.
As I've mentioned, there aren't many alternatives when it comes to adventure games. The question becomes whether you should play Fright of the Bumblebees when you could be playing something from another genre. Action fans, no doubt, will want to stick to something like Left 4 Dead, while RTS gamers will continue to plug through Dawn of War II. For those of us who remember how good an adventure can be though, Fright should provide a solid if brief diversion.