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Old 04-09-2012, 07:30 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Despite Its Name, Yesterday Doesn't Look to the Past

Out of all the possible emotions induced by gaming, disappointment often hits the hardest. We've all played games that could have come so close to excellence if some unfortunate design decision didn't keep the ideal experience forever out of reach. In the case of Pendulo Studios' Yesterday, I fully expected the Spanish adventure game developer to have learned from the past 40-or-so years of the genre, given that they work within such a tiny chunk of the gaming landscape. Of course, it should be noted that some of the greatest games stem from idiosyncrasy, and it's doubtful that we'd see outlandish titles like Metal Gear Solid 2, Portal, and Wario Ware had developers decided against chucking out the rules in favor of making up their own. Still, inventiveness always benefits from a strong understanding of past mistakes -- a lesson that Pendulo apparently didn't keep in mind when developing Yesterday.

To adventure game veterans, Yesterday seems like it could be the next big thing. For a genre that relies mainly on comedy and cartooniness, it's refreshing to see an adventure that goes beyond family friendly chuckles and brief flirtations with PG-13 humor -- Telltale's upcoming The Walking Dead definitely makes for a step in the right direction. The trailer for Yesterday promises suspense, intrigue, and a healthy dose of Satanism, all delivered in a beautiful mix of 2D and 3D assets. Unfortunately, Yesterday only pulls off the latter, leaving adventure game fans wondering what wormhole the Pendulo people disappeared into as LucasArts continually perfected their craft throughout the '90s.

In what should be considered a flagrant act of misdirection, the opening bits of Yesterday don't feel so dire; though the game suffers a bit from a low-budget localization and some awkward animations, it never stops looking fantastic. Pendulo found a happy medium between traditional hand-drawn and polygonal graphics, and though their characters don't always move convincingly, they look great from every angle. And the first few forays into puzzle-solving don't seem to indicate future problems; though your character can seemingly pick up everything that isn't nailed down -- a staple of the genre -- the game makes it clear when something can't be used through the use of a Sierra-style detached (and snarky) narrator. The first real stumbling block comes relatively early, though: when your protagonist faces imminent death, he's forced to answer complex chess-related questions (for some reason?), complete with intricate diagrams floating above his head -- definitely not one of the more organic ways to integrate a puzzle.

Artificiality isn't the overlying problem with Yesterday's puzzles, as the game somehow suffers from the same adventure game issues that lovers of this genre have been complaining about since the days of Mystery House. Thankfully, you can't paint yourself into a corner in Yesterday -- Pendulo at least had this much foresight -- but a good portion of the game's puzzles unfortunately fall into the "How the hell was I supposed to know that?" category. One particularly tricky one had me struggling to figure out how to sharpen a letter opener, until I resorted to the old "use everything on everything" trick and discovered that rubbing the blade on a stone horse statue would do the trick -- because this is a thing people typically do? Most of Yesterday's areas are small enough to brute force your way through any puzzle using this method, but doing so never feels satisfying. The game also has a tendency to lead you towards the solutions to puzzles before the puzzles themselves, so you'll often be working towards a goal without fully understanding the reasons why. No matter how advanced they may look, adventure games have an inescapable old-school charm to them -- but in 2012, Yesterday should have shaken itself free from the problems of the past.

Yesterday's one saving grace could be its story, since a few interesting twists and characterizations can often save average adventures from complete mediocrity. Once again, Yesterday misleads by opening with two somewhat-interesting protagonists; while the nerd character doesn't really offer much beyond the expected stereotypes, his burly and laconic buddy makes for a much more interesting personality -- he seems to suffer some sort of Boy Scouts-based PTSD, and normal events of his everyday life are riddled with flashbacks of a sadistic Scoutmaster chewing him out. After one of the most unexpected and poorly thought-out plot/character twists, though, you're thrown into the dull shoes of John Yesterday, a literal blank slate who doesn't offer any of the interesting quirks as the prologue's protagonists. The remainder of the game follows his adventures to both regain his identity, and to discover the secrets of a Satanic cult -- standard Dan Brown schlock, but with none of the cheesy cliffhangers to keep you wanting more.

Admittedly, I've only played about half of Yesterday's five-to-six hours, and I'm going to stick with it just to see how Pendulo Studios brings this game to a close. Apparently, their latest game comes from a line of highly uneven and poorly paced adventures dating back to 1994, so it looks like they've had many chances to learn a thing or two about adventure game design. According to our sister site Gamespy's review, my experience probably won't improve, but like a bad book, there's something about a bad adventure game that keeps me playing -- if only to justify my vitriol.
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