Ben There, Dan That!
Time Gentlemen, Please!
|Genre||Point-and-click double pack|
|Buy from the Developer|
So as I'm moving through my Steam backlog, my next games are the adventure duo Ben There, Dan That! and its sequel Time Gentlemen, Please! Both are old-school 2d adventure games, harking back to classics such as Maniac Mansion, Loom, Monkey Island and Sam & Max (admittedly, none of which I have played aside from the free Sam & Max episode on Steam).
In case you aren't familiar with the PC adventure game genre, they're dialogue-heavy puzzle/detective games of a sort. You walk around, talk to people, pick things up, interact with objects and generally figure out ways to progress to your next or overall objective. It's generally very simple to play, not requiring twitch skills or muscle memory like most modern games and can be taken at whatever pace you wish. The humor of the games are by far their biggest draw, with large amounts of clever, lighthearted, endearing dialogue. Of course, then the dialogue is the main draw of the genre and allows it to stand out over say, an electronic version of Clue. Other significant factors towards the final product include ambience, intelligent pacing and a basic yet effective control scheme. The genre as a whole has a fairly rabid dedicated fanbase. This is in contrast to the majority of the gaming world, who doesn't even know that the genre exists.
To jump straight into it, Ben There, Dan That! is a freeware/donationware game created by Zombie Cow Studios (oddly enough, headed by two men named Dan Marshall and Ben Ward). The game has all the feel of an indie game paying homage to its predecessors, beginning with an expository learning screen and a flash-esque opening before dropping you in a livingroom with posters of former adventure heroes. The game itself starts out fairly simple, having the player head through rooms to check for and combine items in order to get the television working to watch some Magnum P.I. Then, Ben and Dan are suddenly abducted and are thrown into a central hallway of doors that they need to fully traverse while progressing through the storyline.
This is also where, to me, the game started to feel like it was dragging on. The first couple of areas were entertaining and had a lot to do, but you soon began to fill your metaphorical item sack and at the same time received fewer and fewer hints of what to do. So you combine every combination of items from your inventory, usually to no results and even end up trying to stuff that radio on that painting, just hoping that something would work. This wouldn't so much be a problem if the puzzles made sense in a clever way, but sometimes they just seemed random for the sake of being random. For me, this resulted in frequent annoying backtracking and needing to exit/reopen the game each time I looked online for a hint since the game engine, Adventure Game Studios, had a lot of issues (more on this later). I have a feeling that even the backtracking and random item usages wouldn't have even been quite as bad, but the lack of background music and wonky controls increased said annoyingness. As such, the pacing felt fairly stilted and didn't lead up well to the ending sequence. In fact, at times I was about to give up on adventure games completely, after unfavorable experiences with this game and in the past with others. However, I pushed on. The ending itself is pretty good and that leads us to...
Time Gentlemen, Please, the slightly less free followup and sequel. It starts out with another flash-style recap of Ben There, Dan That! before throwing you into the action. And from the first screen, it's obvious that the presentation is much better in this second outing, with a decent full-screen rain effect, multiple screen layers and soon after, some much-appreciated background music. The new story builds off the old one, with Ben and Dan accidentally killing off everyone in the world. They finally got their Magnum P.I. marathon and in the meantime, the rest of the world forgot to go about their regular living schedules. Oops. This naturally needs to be remedied, so they head out for clues in the warehouse that their future selves built. They quickly come across a time stick, which takes them to modified nazi-controlled Europe, and thus the real adventure starts.
Time Gentlemen is a great upgrade over its predecessor, with darker darks, brighter brights, and shinier shinies. The controls feel a bit better and the dialogue and humor takes large steps forward (also in a decidedly more adult manner). Puzzles feel much more fair, leaving the player to more often think upon completion "oh, that's clever" rather than "well, that's random." The story plugs along well with much smoother pacing and builds to an ending sequence that readily outdoes the first. All in all, it rightfully feels much more of an indie game you'd pay for rather than a free one you'd just play to waste some time.
So basically, I enjoyed the game and kept alive my hopes of the adventure game genre. But I really do wish that the underlying game engine was less buggy. I naturally started Ben There, Dan That! by peeking at the config to fixing settings to my liking. Check the highest resolution, ok, pick highest graphics filter, smooth scaled sprites. Save and run. Oops, error. "Unable to initialize the graphics filter. Only supports 32-bit colour games." Uh... why give me the option then? I'll try 1920x1440 3x nearest-neighbor windowed then. Well, it completely ignores the windowed command and gives me a fullscreen display that doesn't fit properly in my screen or even line up correctly with the mouse cursor. So I guess I have to run in 1280x960 and this thankfully works correctly, although fraps is unable to see it to capture images/video in directdraw mode. I later eventually found that the engine can take screenshots by pressing F12, but it only saves to the local scrnshot.bmp and thus overrides each time you press it. This could even be workable with renames if the game worked correctly on alt-tab, which it didn't. Each time you restore from an alt-tab, all activated text skips uncontrollably, meaning you'd have to restart the game each time you wanted to take a new screenshot. Hooray.
Time Gentlemen had similar issues with the engine. Thankfully the new version of Adventure Game Studio has a DX9 mode with new options (to accompany the new shiny effects in-game). The new filters are 2-4x nearest-neighbor and 2-4x antialiasing. The game default is now 800x600, and these modes take it to 1600x1200, 2400x1800 and 3200x2400. Why doesn't it antialias up the textures/images then scale the resolution down to common/reasonable resolutions? I have absolutely no idea. All I know is that people probably won't be buying six-monitor dual-graphics card setups just to play Time Gentlemen, Please! at 4xAA. But thankfully fraps worked correctly this dx9 mode so I was able to take screenshots and video. However, I also found a bug where text would not show up in captured images. Apparently I had left the (non-working) windowed optioned checked, which bugged the text from showing in the images. For another problem, alt-tabbing was even worse in this game, as the visuals failed to reinitialize upon returning to the program. The fades and some visual effects were also buggy at higher than default resolutions, setting themselves in the top left-hand corner and failing to scale to fullscreen. I understand that this engine probably greatly simplifies creating these games, but at the same time, it made it very frustrating to play and I feel that it may have limited them some.
But overall, I came away with a fairly strong impression of the games, largely on the strengths of Time Gentlemen, Please! If you're an adventure fan or think that you may be, I would recommend playing through both. Otherwise you could try Time Gentlemen, Please! to get a good feel of what the genre's capable of (both Ben There and the Time Gentlemen demo are available for free at www.zombie-cow.com). Or in case you're just confused or want more pretty things to look at, we will also have an Audio-Visual Experience available of Time Gentlemen, Please! available tomorrow, which may assuage some of your issues. If you're still confused after that, I would recommend a lengthy nap.