Aside from Flash games for my Flash Flood column, I really don’t play casual games; if I’m not spending two hours pulling my hair out after dying on the same boss, the game just isn’t any fun. However, when I am offered my first-ever free review copy of a puzzle/adventure game that also happens to be a casual game, I am totally a casual gamer. From Space Quest to Portal to The Adventures of Lolo, I love a game that wants me for my brain.
That is exactly why I enjoyed Hamlet, or the Last Game Without MMORPG Features, Shaders and Product Placement. I should point out that Hamlet is also the Last Game Without Multiple Save Slots or Menu Options of Any Kind. The three-button menu screen (New Game, Load Game, Quit Game) is a breath of fresh air from PC games with cryptic options like “Enable Hardware Moose” and “Anisotropic Toaster” that break your game if configured improperly. Simplicity is the name of the game. Well, Hamlet is the name of the game, but anyhow.
Forget what you thought you knew from half-paying attention in English class; Hamlet is the story of a man who hopped into a time machine, went back in time, and accidentally landed on Prince Hamlet. You know; the historical Prince Hamlet. Because of the whammy Hammy incident, the time-traveling man acts as Hamlet’s understudy and sets off to slay the lovely Ophelia and woo the evil Claudius. You think I’m joking, but I distinctly remember the so-called “Hero” tossing Ophelia into a river so he could play Guitar Hero with Claudius a few scenes later. Just like in the original play.
Actually, if you’re expecting Hamlet to be an adventure game that closely follows the plot of Shakespeare’s classic and preserves every last “doth” and “thou,” you’ll be pleased to know that the game has nothing whatsoever to do with its source material. Hamlet takes creative liberties with Hamlet the way a radioactive spider bite takes creative liberties with your DNA. While there are certainly familiar elements from the play (such as “a castle”), Hamlet does whatever the heck it feels like doing with the story, and that’s a good thing. In this case, the story isn’t so much the brief cutscenes between acts as it is the way the action unfolds through a series of amusing, tedious, clever, and infuriating puzzles.
Unlike games such as Monkey Island and King’s Quest, Hamlet does not possess a single puzzle that can be solved by randomly using inventory items on everything until something works (“Quit asking me why I’m trying to shove this ham sandwich into the padlock!”). Instead, Hamlet eschews the inventory system and utilizes a simple point-and-click interface where you click on an object, and either something or nothing happens. Period. This allows for puzzles that can be solved by randomly clicking on everything until something works. However, most of the puzzles involve some combination of timing, sequencing, attention to detail, pattern recognition, and metacognition (ooh, big word) that makes them nearly impossible to solve by randomly throwing a salt shaker at a hippo.
For the most part, Hamlet‘s puzzles are fair, intuitive, and creative enough to be an enjoyable challenge to veteran adventure gamers without alienating even the most casual of gamers. For the most part. A few puzzle objectives are woefully unclear, and the only source of insight is the thought bubble that appears over the Hero’s head when you click on him. Unfortunately, the Hero uses up all his brainpower generating useful clues for the intuitive puzzles that you’ll probably solve on your own, which leaves him with helpful comments such as, “What’s going on?” and “Now I have defeat Claudius.” [sic] for the puzzles that are starting to make you cry.
Fortunately, as you continue to fail miserably at solving a puzzle, a circle fills up at the bottom of the screen that will give you a hint after several minutes of futile frustration. Given that so many of the puzzles are deviously clever or very poorly explained, it’s not uncommon to just leave the hint clock ticking while you go out to the kitchen to grab a ham sandwich to shove into the padlock that’s blocking your progress.
Even if the hints are occasionally a little cryptic, they are always extremely helpful, though I find it strange that, after viewing a hint, you have to wait several minutes for the circle to fill up again…only to see the same hint you saw before. A tiered hint system that got progressively more helpful would have been nice, but I’m willing to settle for feigning excitement every time the circle fills up again.
Even as a veteran adventure gamer who’s gotten into the habit of trying to solve every puzzle game he plays without a walkthrough, I still found myself relying on the hint system on occasion…because I’m a veteran adventure gamer. It sometimes felt as though Hamlet was punishing me for thinking of complex puzzle solutions that, in my mind, made far more sense than the actual, way-simpler solution. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but there are little details all over the place that seem like they should be part of the puzzle solution, but are really just there to derail and annoy players who are used to listening for faintly grunting boars to determine which jungle path to take.
One example, if I may be mildly spoileriffic, is a scene where you can hear rhythmic and incredibly obnoxious snoring coming from an open window. There are three penguins nearby that make various rhythmic noises when you click on them, but seem to serve no other purpose. As my objective for this area was not at all clear from the Hero’s thought bubble, I figured these were mystical penguins that did something very special when you clicked on them in the right order. The noises they made sounded vaguely like the irritating snoring, so I figured I needed to listen closely to the ear-grating nose music to detect a pattern, and then click on the penguins in the proper order to make them produce sounds that mimicked that pattern.
See, this is why I don’t make adventure games. You’d hate me.
Anyrage, this made perfect sense to me, but it turns out that everything about the whole situation was a red herring! Worse yet, the tedious solution didn’t make any sense until after I solved the puzzle, so I found myself clicking on things with no real understanding of what purpose they served. This kind of thing didn’t happen often, but it happened more than once, and that’s more than once too many for my tastes.
Other puzzles were problematic for different reasons: One puzzle requires you to quickly click on a series of tiny objects that don’t always register your clicks, and though I love the idea of the puzzle, it is extremely unfriendly to anyone who misses the X button every time they go to close a Windows application. Another puzzle required me to press color-coded buttons to follow along with something that was randomly changing colors, and any mistakes would destroy all my progress and force me to start over again; not a bad puzzle, except for the part where I’m color-blind. No, it’s OK, it was funny; taking screenshots every five seconds and enlarging them to get a good look at the colors I could barely differentiate is funny.
You won’t hear reviewers say this often, but take what I’m saying with a grain of salt from the shaker you were going to throw at that hippo. Hamlet, I suspect, is a game where the enjoyment you derive from it is largely dependent on the kind of gamer you are, and on the way your mind works. I overthought some of the puzzles, couldn’t see the logic in a few of them, and greatly enjoyed many of them because they were absolutely impossible. Hamlet challenged my puzzle-solving skills in ways I have rarely been challenged in an adventure game, all the while testing my reflexes to make sure my hands didn’t atrophy from leisurely pointing and clicking—and I liked that a lot. Hamlet aims to challenge the player in a variety of ways, and whether you like the game probably depends most on whether you’ve got enough of the necessary skills and not-color-blindness to be successful.
Indeed, Hamlet makes no effort to sucker players into playing because of a dynamite soundtrack or jaw-dropping graphics—the focus is entirely on the puzzles. Hamlet takes the player through a series of relatively mundane locations such as inside a castle, outside a castle, below a castle, and nowhere near a castle, so you’ll probably never find yourself getting lost in the wonder of some exotic locale. The simple, cartoony graphics are cute but not excessively so, meaning you’ll never lose valuable playing time to dropping what you’re doing and shouting “kawaii!!!“, which is incidentally the single greatest reason for noise complaints in Japan.
Speaking of noise complaints, the soundtrack—assuming white noise qualifies as a soundtrack—is perhaps overly atmospheric, with little more than the faint sounds of wind, water, and machinery to keep you company. This is but one of many examples of how Hamlet‘s simplicity is both a blessing and a curse: the unobtrusive ambient sound effects create a pleasant atmosphere that encourages clear thinking, but without super-gorgeous graphics to ogle or even a mediocre soundtrack to hum along to, an impossible puzzle gets very dull very quickly. See, it’s contagious—there’s no music in this paragraph, and look how boring it’s already gotten.
The cheerfully ominous tune that plays between each act almost makes up for the fact that there’s virtually no music anywhere else, and I firmly believe that a little more music would be a welcome distraction from the more frustrating puzzles—one particular puzzle in the first act sits on the border between brilliant and infuriating, and I think the silly elevator music in the background helps to keep it from crossing the line. The generally lighthearted atmosphere and mild humor that permeate the game do a good job of reminding you that you’re playing Hamlet to relax, have fun, and feel good about pushing Ophelia into the river.
So, without luscious 3D graphics to drool over, a horrendous soundtrack to complain about, complex controls to obfuscate the gameplay, a deeply intricate plot to fall in love with, or riotous comedy to burst your spleen, I don’t expect players to have a strong reaction to anything in Hamlet except for the puzzles. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing; it just means that each individual puzzle gets held up to higher scrutiny than usual, and boy, can I nit-pick.
There’s only one thing independent of the puzzles that did elicit a somewhat strong reaction from me, and that’s the save system. As I mentioned at the beginning, Hamlet does not have multiple save slots—not that you really need those, considering it’s impossible to get stuck or die while playing (not that playing Hamlet makes you immortal; you misunderstand me). You’re only allowed one savegame at a time, and your progress is automatically saved, meaning your options are to start a new game or continue where you left off last time. Rather convenient, actually, provided you don’t want to go back and replay old puzzles to enjoy them again, take screenshots, and write a walkthrough, and if you don’t have a house filled with siblings and/or a significant other who are also vying for Hamlet.
This isn’t a huge deal (like most of the things I complain about in my reviews), as Hamlet can be finished in an hour if you are the Lord of Adventure Games, or if you are the Lord of Wishy-Washy Adventure Gamers Who Use a Walkthrough at the First Sign of Needing to Think. Once you (or your friendly neighborhood walkthrough) have solved all the puzzles, you’re officially through with the game; subsequent playthroughs will yield nothing you haven’t already experienced, aside from this tingly feeling of deja vu.
Despite the almost nonexistent replay value, a handful of unpleasant puzzles, and the agressive simplicity that simultaneously works for and against the benefit of the game, I enjoyed Hamlet. After nearly a month of playing the often-exasperating Mega Man 10 to complete every mode and challenge, it was a relief to play a game that didn’t go on forever, felt comfortable and welcoming from the get-go, and challenged my brain more than my patience.
Hamlet has the makings of a truly stellar adventure game; with a bit of fine-tuning, consistently clear and logical objectives, and perhaps just a smidge more humor and audiovisual flair, Hamlet could truly set the standard for what inventory-free adventure games should be. Hamlet‘s biggest flaw—and its greatest asset—is that all the focus keeps coming back to the puzzles, which were really hit-or-miss with me. I liked the game well enough, but I’d love to see where a sequel, spiritual successor, or blatant ripoff could go from here.
Hey, I may sound like an adventure game curmudgeon, but I had fun—thanks again to Alawar Games for letting me try this out!