Deponia: Down in the Dumps

(I was assigned to do a review on Deponia, was given a review copy and everything from Nightmare Mode. It was written, editing and ready for posting. Then the day before it was scheduled Nightmare Mode went on hiatus to restructure itself into its present form. I was given my review back and allowed to find it another home. Another site took it, but it fell by the wayside for various understandable reasons. I remembered recently that this existed and I asked for it back and the editor graciously said yes. It’s pretty far from the game’s release so I doubt any site would be interested in it, so it finds a home here.)

The Secret of Monkey Island is one of the most beloved adventure games of all time, so it is understandable that Daedalic Entertainment would want to craft Deponia to be like it. Much of the game hits the same broad notes, but unfortunately it fails against such a comparison. The Monkey Island style of adventure games has fallen out of favor over the last two decades – and for good reason.

Rufus is an inventor, handyman and layabout trying to escape Deponia, his junkyard planet home. He wants to escape to Elysium, the floating cities in the sky, and forge a new life where he won’t get nagged to do the dishes or get a job. His latest escape attempt gets him aboard a passing cruiser where he “rescues” Goal, a woman from the cities above. And then shenanigans ensue as they so often do.

Deponia is lacking on a number of fronts, but the one that is clear from the get go is how unlikable the protagonist is. His mishaps are a means for comedy, but in comparison to Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood there is a clear distinction that I don’t think the developers understood. Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood is accident-prone and gets into all types of trouble along his adventures, but at his core he is a good guy. He rushes headlong into danger to do the right thing and save the girl – even if she didn’t end up needing it. In short, he is hapless, but heroic.

Rufus, on the other hand, is an unapologetic asshole. He’s a whiny, self-centered, egomaniacal jackass, so sure of his non-existent greatness and eager to blame everything on the failures of others, that he contorts himself into a knot of justifications and bile. He is an internet troll. He’s also a creeper. Dangerously close, in another life, to being the defendant on a Law and Order episode.

I wonder if Daedalic Entertainment was trying something with Rufus or fell into the contemporary conventions that all comedy protagonists nowadays have to be insufferable man-children without an ounce of charisma or common sense. Several of the characters in the game recognize Rufus’ repulsive character and outright call him on it. He’s called egotistical by his ex-girlfriend and best friend, just two of many who show utter contempt for him. Daedalic is aware of his character, but they don’t seem aware that it doesn’t work.

I began to wonder why I was playing as Rufus at all. I couldn’t have cared less about him. It wasn’t just how he treated other people either: how he solved puzzles had me cringing in places. Whereas Guybrush’s stumbling through solutions were endearing, a result of his hapless, yet confident ability, Rufus’ solutions are the result of his utter incompetence. Thankfully we’re running on cartoon physics here, so nothing ever turns too bad.

A game can have an unlikable protagonist. It can change the focus from empathizing with the character to focusing on a player’s fascination with the character. Rufus isn’t fascinating. He doesn’t even approach interesting. He’s the kind of person one avoids on the street and blocks online, the kind of person you don’t want anything to do with.

This may be a lot of time spent ragging on a character in what is ultimately an interactive experience, but adventure games are about the world and the character’s eyes are how we view that world. Worse still, this is supposed to be a comedy game. Rufus’ utter failure to be endearing or witty means that jokes range from falling flat to causing utter confusion with what was supposed to be funny about the situation. The one moment with an honest-to-God funny joke was ruined when a character laughed at it. Nothing kills a joke faster than the comedian laughing at it for you.

For all its presentation, Deponia is a game that could have been released in 1992 and fit right alongside its contemporaries. It is an old school point and click adventure, and it does the game no favors. The two bugbears of the genre – pixel hunting and ‘moon logic’ – are here in abundance. While you don’t have to click on everything, since interactive items on screen will highlight the cursor, the art is so cluttered with stuff as a result of the setting that you have to scan the whole area anyway. It is easy to miss things and you will end up crisscrossing areas over and over in a desperate attempt to advance. Want to talk moon logic? This game has it in spades.

There is nothing as egregious as The Longest Journey’s duck puzzle or the Babel Fish sequence from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but instead a constant stream just above a reasonable person’s ability to logically connect different elements. It’s particularly egregious in the first chapter that takes up about half the playtime. Literally a fourth of the total game is spent trying to make what I’m pretty sure is a lethal cup of coffee. In the second chapter, there is one puzzle that I didn’t even know existed and it stopped me from progressing.

As the game reached its climax, we finally got to see a human emotion from Rufus that would have been nicer at the beginning of the game so we didn’t find him completely repugnant. For instance, while he’s rattling off all the reasons he hates Deponia, we see the psychological damage that literally growing up in garbage has done to him. The conclusion of his arc from jackass to slightly more standup guy was obvious from the opening minutes. It’s still idiotic, but there is enough sincere pathos that makes it work.

The one leg up Deponia has on those point and click games from the early 90s is the presentation. The hand painted art is detailed and gorgeous; characters’ movements and expressive ticks are well-animated. The soundtrack is an eclectic blend of styles and tones that fit the world and story. Honestly, it’s a great listen on its own and probably one of the best soundtracks of the year. However, it is hurt by the endless repetition of music as you backtrack through the areas wondering what the hell you are supposed to be doing.

The last third of the game is the best and, on its own, could have made a decent short story. There’s a real bad guy; the rest of the game’s obstacles are the beleaguered citizens of your hometown and non-functioning machinery, yet they are treated like enemies. I feel far more sympathy for Toni, Rufus’ ex, despite her being painted as a shrew. Puzzles make a modicum more sense with actual hints and clues to how to solve them. The last third isn’t isolated, though, and the rest of the game that you have to slog through to get to it just isn’t worth it.

Deponia fails, but it fails in such an ordinary way. It falls short in all the ways that caused adventure games to fall out of favor and doesn’t try to push the boundaries in any way or have any other redeeming factor, like humor or an interesting story, that makes it worth playing.

PS. This is the best part of the game. Huzzah the chorus guys rule.

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