Beginning life as a free pixely adventure game in 2010, the folks at Skygoblin gave the Caribbean noir tale a Grim Fandango-inspired face-lift and episodically released its contents as a trilogy on Steam and iOS platforms over the years. It’s an African-flavored point-and-click with all the makings of an instant classic — endearing characters, comedy, an eye-catching aesthetic, and some video game-ass puzzles all pull their own weight. With the final chapter of The Journey Down releasing last week on September 21st and the current iteration’s four-year history coming to a close, how does the modern adventure series fare as the sum of its parts?
Well, let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
When Kaonandodo mysteriously disappears, his two adopted sons Bwana and Kito take over the family gas station in Kingsport Bay. They’ve since run into financial trouble, which results in their power being shut off, but a visitor’s promise of a big pay day gives the struggling pair a glimmer of hope. Lina, the visitor, arrives at Kaonandodo’s Gas n’ Charter not in hopes of refueling her boat, but in search of a peculiar book called The Journal of the Journey Down. Containing secrets of the Underland, this journal was highly sought after by Lina’s missing professor, along with a rival pair of thugs hellbent on securing it for their boss’s personal gain. Why would a tome of this nature lead Lina to a struggling gas station of all places? Because, as luck would have it, that’s precisely where it’s been hiding. All Bwana and Kito have to do is repair their beaten down charter plane and fly Lina and the journal back home. Sounds easy enough, but of course it isn’t.
The first chapter of The Journey Down certainly feels like an opening act more than a finished product, in terms of narrative. The entirety of the short-yet-sweet 2-hour episode is spent tracking down parts to repair the charter. No more, no less. All of the game’s context is front-loaded, then entirely avoided until the ending cinematic segues into the game’s next chapter (the actual adventure). It succeeds, I guess, since I’m now interested (enough) in where the story is going, but the overall feel is definitely more an appetizer than a main course. It’s a good appetizer, though.
Throughout the duration of the adventure the player controls Bwana, a former pilot who learned to fly at age twelve, yet he’s ironically deathly afraid of heights. As the down-on-his-luck, yet somehow jovial service attendant, you’ll click your mouse around a handful of different scenes while conversing with locals and collecting items that’ll eventually declare their use whenever the appropriate puzzle presents itself. These provided a welcome balance of challenge and absurdity, which is a difficult thing to nail in this type of game. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the logic-defying puzzles in The Journey Down sure are video-gamey and light-hearted. One, in particular, had me slathering canapes in white paint to avoid having them eaten aboard a cruise ship, while another had me repairing a ladder with stale breadsticks found inside of a dresser drawer. Sure, why not? It’s fun and entertaining, right?
We’re immediately introduced to the game’s African influence, with Bwana himself modeled after a West African Chokwe mask and Kito inspired by the Makonde people from Tanzania and Mozambique. The late, great Simon D’souza provides a beautifully fitting array of tunes that play around the Caribbean and Rasta themes, which can be felt elsewhere in the game’s art style and voice-overs. However, with the game’s cursory run-time I don’t feel as if I was given enough time to really connect with anyone other than Bwana or appreciate The Journey Down’s influence beyond its elevator pitch. I have a general idea of what to expect when I launch into chapter two, but I certainly don’t feel connected to the world Skygoblin is building just yet.
I did find myself appreciating The Journey Down’s blend of hand-drawn and digital artistry within its backdrops, which served as visual stand-outs above the game’s seemingly dated character models. Taking a quick step back, the term “dated” isn’t being used in place of “bad,” with Bwana and company’s chunky aesthetic clearly stemming from Skygoblin’s Grim Fandango influence. Something about them felt off, like I was actually playing a game from 2002 instead of 2012 — which I hope doesn’t come off as a backhanded compliment.
On the technical side of things, I have a gripe with the quality of the game’s voice-overs. Not the quality of the actors and actresses, but rather the fidelity of their recordings. The voices of many of the NPCs sounded as if they were captured in separate studios, on a cellphone, or at home using the embedded microphone on their laptop. The primary trio sound fine for the most part, but there were clear instances where different lines spoken by the same NPC had a noticeable shift in quality.
Another odd design choice is the game’s use of text. Rather than having a portion of the screen dedicated to subtitles, character text floats awkwardly above the speaker which clashes atop the other cast members and drastically pulls away from the game’s admirable backdrops. The Journey Down was developed by an incredibly small studio who no doubt had an equally small budget, but hopefully these issues improve in chapter two (or, at the very least, become far less jarring).
As far as introductions go, The Journey Down: Chapter One lays a foundation that’s just good enough. I’m pretty unsatisfied in its lack of character building and I was certainly disappointed by how quickly the game detracted from the overall story outside of its narrative bookends. However, its charming aesthetic, brilliant soundtrack, and promising balance of adventure gaming played well enough with its African influence and Grim Fandango inspiration that I actually want to see it through to the very end. Hopefully Chapter Two improves upon its short-comings while Chapter Three culminates into something truly special.
So, where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money. I trust in your ability to make the right decision!
Full disclosure: This review was done using a Steam key provided by the game’s developer, Skygoblin. While I’m sometimes given games to critique, I pride myself on providing an unbiased review to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for a game is irrelevant.