Those that follow the torrid torrents of fashion all come to realise that popular styles can rise out of the darkest unfathomable corners and then just as quickly fall back to the depths from whence they came, only to raise their heads again decades later. Gaming trends are no exception to this eternal rule. The Adventure genre once proudly stood as the pinnacle of video gaming, back in the late eighties to early nineties, due almost entirely to the fantastic team at LucasArts at the time. Yet soon the style lost favour among those who pull the strings in the industry and, like the dwindling eighties synth pop bands, it disappeared under waves of generic clones and the rise of gung-ho gaming.
Recently however there has been a marked resurgence in the Adventure gaming genre led again, at least in part, by former employees of LucasArts. A large amount of credit also needs to be given to the folks at Wadjet Eye Games who have for years been picking away at the invisible wall that has been holding Adventure games back by continually publishing games with exceptional quality. The underground classic Blackwell trilogy is their doing, as is the deviously clever sci-fi romp Gemini Rue. Perhaps this explains why, when Resonance - their latest release - fell from the internet heavens onto my virtual desk , I was genuinely excited about playing an Adventure game for the first time in many years.
It starts off with a bang. Literally. A stunning live news segment sets the scene. It shows scenes of catastrophic destruction to many major landmarks across the world, all mysteriously caused by globe shaped chunks of matter ripped from reality. Somehow, the news reader remarks this shows similarity to an event in a American laboratory a few weeks earlier. Soon we are thrown back through time to a seemingly innocuous man waking up to an alarm in a dirty student apartment, and the point and click Adventure begins.
While Resonance does not drift too far from the common tropes of the genre (you can still expect to have to collect and combine items, explore every pixel and if perhaps on a couple of occasions resort to throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at problems when stuck) certain elements the designer chose to elaborate on make it a refreshingly different experience. Take the setting for example. Adventure games rarely touch modern day reality perhaps for fear of becoming completely unbelievable when they slide into absurdity as is all too common. However Resonance uses this realistic setting to allow the characters to be relatable. The people under your command have jobs, ride the subway and even develop believable backstories throughout the game. This relatability is important as Resonance is just as much about the people while they twist, tumble and turn through the shocking events that unfold before them, as solving the problems it poses.
And the pluralisation, people, is used for a reason. Perhaps Resonance's most interesting and innovative design choice is the ability to control four distinct characters. In the first act you play out sections individually as each character, prior to the catastrophic event, building a coherent backstory for each. The game then opens out allowing for control of any character along with the ability to converse and swap inventories. While this format may seem to have similarities to Day of the Tentacle, it actually plays out rather differently since each of the four characters explore the same areas and rely on each other to solve puzzles by combining their individual skills. Cleverly it also acts as a discreet hint system as discussing a situation with your colleagues usually results in pointers to help you solve a problem. The only issue with it is that at times when your team can be spread out across various locations, it can be mundane and unnecessary legwork to bring them back together when needed.
Another interesting innovation of Resonance comes in the form of the memory system which is available in two flavours, long and short term. Long term memories act as a graceful way to remind players of relevant plot developments and current tasks, while short term memories are effectively an addition to the inventory. Characters can drag any selectable item from the environment into their mind and then use this in conversations later. This enables conversations to branch out far further than the common tree structures seen in Adventure games, although admittedly most illogical conversation topics are met with a nonchalant shrug (or sometimes amusing Easter eggs). At first it can seem a little overwhelming as a huge database of unnecessary memories develops wildly out of control (who knows when you may need to speak to someone about a small broken sign hanging from a wall?), but soon you come to realise that most of the required conversations are sensible and coherent.
Perhaps another direct consequence of the modern day setting, multiple characters and the memory system are the logical puzzles wrapped within. Virtually every solution in Resonance, with the exception of a couple of smash-your-head-repeatedly-on-the-desk-until-it-bleeds clangers, is coherent and logical. Bereft of the absurdity that constantly comes entwined with the genre, rarely do you find yourself having to to resort to the tired old Adventure gaming staple of using anything with everything to overcome a problem. It is refreshing and some of the puzzles are genuinely intelligent. However it does come at a price. The loss of those head banging stopping points makes for a very fluid but unfortunately rather brief experience. Those that like to sit down and bash through a game in one session may finish it in under five hours, but at least it is five hours of satisfying puzzle solving and emotional turmoil rather than a longer desk-breaking-headache as many Adventure games tend to achieve.
Resonance is being promoted as a labour of love, created over years by a tiny team led primarily by indie developer Vince Twelve. It shows. The incredibly detailed pixel-art for each scene fills you with nostalgic glee, reminding us that, despite all the graphical improvements on offer today, atmosphere can still be created in chunky coloured blocks. The voice acting is surprisingly engaging and emotional for such a low budget production and the music remains at that non-intrusive but still enjoyable level with ambient jazz riffs and electronic synthesisers emphasising the setting superbly. Perhaps the most impressive part of the presentation however is the user interface. Stripped of the common point and click selection system (‘look at, ‘use’, ‘talk to’, ‘combine’, ‘invite around for a game of charades’... etc), Resonance opts for a simple left click for examine and right click to use interface, which feels cleaner and when combined with the excellent drag and drop memory system, much more elegant.
Resonance is a key addition to any Adventure game library. Its emphasis on logic over absurdity, emotions over whimsy and elegance over complexity makes for a wonderful story driven experience. The plot, scuttling and spinning like an unpredictable scorpion, at times catches you off guard, with a vicious game-changing sting in its tail. Perhaps it breaks down a little at the very end, dalliancing off into frustrating conspiracy theories, but it is still modern day science fiction at its best: intriguing and relevant. While it does not stray too far from the immutable bed of the Adventure genre - with pixel hunting, linearity and obscure design choices still too prevalent - the innovations it does push are a welcome addition. If ever there was evidence to show that Adventure games can still be relevant and even fashionable in today’s gaming landscape, Resonance is it.