Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures: Fright of the Bumblebees is one of those games I knew I was going to love even before I started playing. It combines my love of animator Nick Park with my admiration of how Telltale Games can turn just about anything into pure adventure game magic. I knew that for several hours I would play through a fantastical adventure with two of the funniest claymation characters ever created, all in the style of an old SCUMM-style graphic adventure (think: Maniac Mansion or Monkey Island). Now that I've played through the game I can honestly say that this first episode is worth playing, but for whatever reason I didn't love it as much as I thought I would.
In case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, Wallace and Gromit are the stars of some incredibly funny animated shorts from Great Britain. Wallace is a mild-mannered inventor who seems to have a new business every time we check in on him. Gromit, on the other hand, is Wallace's pet dog, an expressive mutt who seems to be just as capable (if not more so) than his owner. Together they make a perfect team, solving mysteries and helping their neighbors in one ridiculous adventure after another.
Now these crazy adventures are coming to your Xbox 360, thanks to the creative force behind the resurrection of Sam & Max. While it might sound like a slight to say that this Wallace & Gromit game is nothing more than a reskinned Sam & Max episode, in some ways that's the truth. The game controls in much the same fashion, with you controlling one of two characters (Wallace or Gromit, though only one at a time), picking up items and solving a bunch of puzzles along the way. Thankfully there are differences, such as the game's more polite British sense of humor and the fact that you now control the character directly (as opposed to using a cursor to navigate). But, by and large, this game is very similar to Telltale Games' other adventure titles.
In an odd way that's a very good thing. While this Wallace & Gromit release isn't going to be accused of being the most innovative game of the year, it does tell a fascinating story full of memorably quirky characters and strong puzzles. These graphic adventures have always been about the narrative and giving you a lot of funny gags to laugh at, and that's exactly what Telltale Games was able to accomplish with their first stab at Nick Park's iconic claymation duo.
The story is fairly straightforward. Wallace has decided to get into the honey making business, which means that he's built a giant honey machine (complete with bees) in his basement. When a big order comes his way, a nearly destitute Wallace decides that this will be his big break. Unfortunately, Wallace doesn't have the time or the bees to make the amount of honey that has been ordered, so he devises a way to grow extremely large flowers in a fraction of the time. Of course, just like any Wallace & Gromit adventure, things go spectacularly bad for our heroes. Before long it's up to the duo (but mostly Gromit) to save the townsfolk, make the honey and battle some gigantic bees. It's a story straight out of the animated shorts we've come to know and love.
The gameplay is simple enough, you control either Wallace and Gromit (depending on which part of the game you're in) picking up items and interacting with your surroundings. Much like Sam & Max, each of the items you pick up has a use, so it's up to you to figure out what goes where and how you can use these puzzles to your advantage. Each act has several objectives. For example, in the second act you'll be forced to make a magical muscle growing formula, but in order to do that you'll need to obtain the three main ingredients. Unfortunately this means that you're going to have to solve a series of puzzles to get each ingredient. Once you have them you can mix them up and move on to the next grouping of puzzles and brainteasers.
The big difference in this game is that you directly control the movements of these two characters. Since you don't have a cursor, you can use the right analog stick to look around and see objects to interact with. This is the addition that not only makes this game user friendly, but keeps things from going into frustrating territory. The right analog stick works as a way to switch from one object to another, so you rarely have to position yourself in the exact right location to read a poster, pick up a piece of cheese (mmmmm, cheese) or pull a level. You can simply select it with your analog stick and push the action button. It's clear that Telltale Games was thinking of ways to translate the point-and-click PC controls into something worthwhile on the control-based Xbox 360.
Sadly not every element of this transition went as smoothly. Simply walking in a straight line can be a major hassle thanks to the somewhat unresponsive control scheme. Because of the way the camera moves and changes positions, it's easy to get into trouble just using the left analog stick to move your character. Thankfully you can resolve this by using the right analog stick to look and interact, but there's no excuse for the game's poor character handling.
Another problem I had with the game were the weird frame rate issues. While the game certainly looks good and has fantastic production values, I couldn't get past the jerky look and the occasionally rough animation. The game's frame rate actually plays into the poor handling of the character, which can be real frustrating when you're expected to do something quickly in an action sequence. Thankfully there aren't too many times when this is a factor, but I was disappointed by the sluggish frame rate from beginning to end.
The good news is that this short (two or three hour) adventure is still worth playing through. As I mentioned above, the production values are actually quite strong. All of the characters look and act just like they do in the cartoon, and the great writing and sense of humor has been left intact. Better still, the voice acting is spectacular, even when you realize that Wallace is played by Ben Whitehead and not Peter Sallis. Fans of the animated shorts will fall in love with the way the game looks and the atmosphere it creates. This is a perfect compliment to Nick Park's animated shorts.
A lot of the same criticisms that were leveled against the first episode of Sam & Max can be said about Fright of the Bumblebees. The game isn't massive in length or scope, it's a simple adventure that doesn't try to be anything more than it actually is. There aren't a lot of set pieces, only a few rooms in your house and a sizeable town square. The puzzles, while challenging, aren't so difficult that you will have to run to a walkthrough guide or forum for help. And once you've played through the game, you probably won't be rushing back any time soon. But this is a $10 game, so this isn't tyring to be some sort of 20 hour epic with a deep narrative. It's the first episode of a new batch of Wallace & Gromit games, a way to reintroduce our heroes, set up the world they live in and get you accustomed to the types of puzzles you will need to solve. And as a first episode, it succeeds at doing all that. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it's a delightful adventure game with a lot of good-natured laughs and some strong voice acting.
I cannot think of a better way to capture the genius of Wallace & Gromit in an interactive medium. With its simple story and engaging cast of characters, it's hard not to fall in love with the antics of these two inventors. No matter if you're a fan of Wallace & Gromit or just love an old fashioned adventure game, Fright of the Bumblebees is a great way to spend a few hours. I expect big things from this promising new episodic series.