A bump in the night.
Jacob Jones and The Bigfoot Mystery: Episode 1, A Bump in the Night (I’m just going to call it Episode 1 herein, as otherwise 90% of this review would be comprised of the game’s title alone) is a new IP and the first of episode of five for Playstation Vita (and iOS) by Lucid Games, who’s previous outing on the Vita was an app called Travel Bug. Developed with the Unreal engine, Episode 1 introduces us to Jacob Jones and Camp Eagle Feather, where you set out on a heavily story driven, point-and-click cum puzzler that is sure to evolve and grow with each episode. Being the first of a series, not a great deal admittedly happens in Episode 1 apart from setting the scene and beginning Jacob on the journey that will surely change his life. For those out there who have ever touched a Nintendo DS or 3DS, there is a certain little puzzle adventure title called the Professor Layton series that has received worldwide praise for it’s clever, witty dialogue, razor sharp voice acting and devious yet inventive puzzling. For those of you unfamiliar with this type of game, simple tasks such as unpacking your luggage, helping others (nearly every character you speak to miraculously has some puzzle or conundrum you can help out with) or learning to communicate with Bigfoot (met fairly late on in this first chapter) are given mini challenges which you complete. Outside of these puzzles the rest of the game involves exploration, interaction and even “hidden object” characteristics.
The story begins with Jacob being taken to camp for the summer, as often is the case in America. Jacob doesn’t want to go as he seems more interested in discovery than socialising with his peers but quickly gets introduced to Mrs. Haggardy (the owner of Camp Eagle Feather), the other staff at the camp and also the boys and girls he will be sharing his summer with. Although I found Jacob initially seemingly a little whiney (he’s 9 years old) within about ten minutes I began to take a shine to the character that stars here and even more so to the staff and children. Each character you interact with is often an over the top, enthusiastic cliche such as “Deathkill”, the ginger rock kid who delights in being bossy and swears he will form a death metal band when he leaves camp, Lafonda Dewitt who is quick to sarcastically comment on more or less everything Jacob says, and the dinner lady Mae who clearly hates her job, the children and more or less everything else. Although the story starts a little too slowly and finishes a little too early (it barely has time to gain momentum before the credits roll), the often sharp dialogue and fantastically stylised graphics (even if the characters look like three dimensional versions of South Park characters) make for what ends up as a fairly engaging experience.
Control in the game is simple. Everything is controlled using the touch screen, with swipes to the left or right changing the camera angle and moving Jacob around, tapping things to interact with them and holding the screen and moving your finger can pan the camera slightly within the angle it is sat at. You can use the Vita’s gyroscopic controls instead if you prefer but it’s a little lax on sensitivity and as a result you need to move the Vita to an uncomfortable angle using this method, so I ended up just using the touch screen instead. There are over twenty different puzzles in this first chapter and while most of them are fun to play, they aren’t particularly unique and instead feel a little too safe. For example, one puzzle is a complete rip off of “lights out”, two of the puzzles involve trying to move objects around in confined spaces in as little moves out possible (unblock me, red stone etc.) and another two puzzles both involve guessing the odd one out. I also found the difficulty somewhat unbalanced.
I managed to complete nearly every puzzle without ever needing any help at all, and while a couple of the puzzles did tax me a little, a couple of them I ended up having to search for guides to as I found the hints way too vague. It feels to me like Lucid Games have tried to appeal to as many people as possible including children and while this isn’t much of an issue to the enjoyment of the game, some design choices are baffling. Take for example the “hidden object” element of the game. On each screen there are often several soda cans (and occasionally Gnatnobblers, a type of bird). The soda cans are used as in game currency; each one found gives you phone credits which in turn you can spend in varying amounts for hints on puzzles. One credit gives you access to to the Hintbook which looks kind of like a Facebook wall with a few comments on the puzzle that are fairlyvague and may give a small hint. Two credits allows you to call Uncle Ed who often gives much more helpful hints, and if you’re really stuck you can call Big Bro who will more or less spell out the answer to you. Puzzle passes can also be used up to three times throughout the course of the game if you simply hit a brick wall and while the whole hints system is good in principle, sometimes the three credit hint still doesn’t help enough and also the abundance of soda cans throughout the game means it would be easy to not bother thinking about the puzzles and instead abuse the hints system to breeze through much of the game. By the end of my playthrough I had no less than 106 phone credits remaining, which kind of shows the lack of challenge.
Luckily the voice acting, sound effects and music are all top notch so enjoying the game despite it’s simplicity is difficult not to do. The game is also short at around four hours for the average gamer but for little more than a price of a portion of chips it’s difficult to grumble at this. It will be interesting to see if as the episodes continue the chapters get longer (and possibly more expensive), but to it’s credit the price point and the production values here didn’t leave me feeling short changed. Minor complaints aside, I did notice a couple of problems though being episodic I’m sure these can be improved upon in future chapters. Firstly, being based on touch screen actions and interacting using just the screen the game sometimes gets a little confused with your prods and gestures. The biggest offender here is the hidden soda cans, as sometimes they are near or behind objects of interest so you end up being asked whether you want to “go to the canteen” or being told it’s not time to go to the airfield over and over rather than grabbing the soda can you were aiming for. The game also sometimes registers you tapping an object of interest or a tap and drag to pan the screen slightly as a full swipe, meaning sometimes you are sent back and forth to different areas when it isn’t what you had intended to do. There are also a couple of glitches present. After a sequence on a bridge outside of the camp, I backtracked one screen to try and grab the rest of the soda cans in that area. The second time I continued over the bridge I had to go through the exact same set of dialogue again, this time with an invisible character. A couple of times when I came back to Episode 1 and attempted to resume, the game also got stuck at the loading screen and I had to quit and retry loading to resume my progress.
While there isn’t anything awful about Jacob Jones, when the bar has been set so high by the Layton series it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed by Episode 1. Luckily the script and concept as well as the art direction and acting are impressive enough to carry it through, and being the first episode it’s not unreasonable to expect some teething problems. This is certainly a series to watch out for as it grows and improves in later episodes. As I’ve said before, the price is set ridiculously low and the game is enjoyable and shows enough promise to warrant a purchase. I was also left wanting more, which I guess it kind of the point when you’re looking at the first episode of five. Still, I’m left hoping the wait isn’t too painfully long till episode two, and hopefully a little more balancing will be implemented with slightly more inventive puzzles. And yes, there’s trophies (but no platinum)!