Sunday, June 6, 2010

Flight of the Amazon Queen

Platform:  Computer
Developer:  Interactive Binary Illusions
Genre:  Point and Click Adventure

The Game
A stray bolt of lightning strikes the Amazon Queen, a passenger airplane flying over the Amazonian rain forest, stranding its pilot Joe King (get it?), Skip the mechanic, and famous actress Faye Russel in the middle of the jungle.  While Joe tries to find a way for them to get back to civilization, he gets embroiled in the vile machinations of Dr. Ironstein, a German scientist determined to create an army of dinosaur Amazon warriors in order to take over the world!

FOTAQ is a pastiche of various pulp fiction stories and movie serials popular in the 1940's and 50's, and more specifically it was inspired by Indiana Jones (they even have a crystal skull, more than a decade before Indiana Jones did it!) and the Monkey Island series, and it contains several other George Lucas based references, primarily from Star Wars (including one of the voice actors, who was Porkins in A New Hope!).  One wonders why it wasn't actually published by LucasArts, but I'm sure they enjoyed the free advertisement anyway.

If you, too, wish to play this game but don't want to spend time trying to find or build a really old computer to do so, then you're in luck!  Just head on over to the ScummVM website.  "ScummVM" stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion Virtual Machine, and it enables new computers (and other digital devices) to play several point-and-click games from that era.  Including, as the name implies, Maniac Mansion.  "But, Jim!" you wail helplessly.  "I don't have the disks for Amazon Queen!"  Well worry not, whiny peoples of the internet, for FOTAQ is one of a few games that have been offered up for free use with the ScummVM system!  Just head on over to the downloads section of the site and grab it!

The Characters
Our erstwhile hero is Joe King (get it this time?), a rough-and-tumble airplane pilot who somehow manages to get into all sorts of weird adventures, including an ill-defined incident in Borneo.  He's a likable fellah with a jocular wit and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty in order to get himself and his friends out of a scrape.  This isn't to say he'll resort to violence, however . . . at least most of the time.  He does get a couple of good punches in, but for the most part he'd rather use his noggin to solve the many mysteries of the Amazonian jungle.

Along for the ride is Skip, the wide-eyed mechanic with a penchant for Commander Rocket comic books, and Faye Russel, an aggressive film star prima donna who naturally blames Joe for everything and lords over him every chance she gets.  You'd think she'd be the natural love interest in that case, but no, that role goes to Princess Azura, the strong and beautiful leader of the Amazon women.  Because naturally there would be a tribe of strong and beautiful Amazons.

Dr. Ironstein (how about this one, do you get this one?) is your typical mad scientist, using his mad science in an overly convoluted manner as part of an overly convoluted plan for world conquest.  He's got the lab coat, he cackles madly, and he's got an army of German goons - some competent, some not - working for him.  Also working for him is Hans Anderson, a Dutchman who sounds like he's doing a bad Sean Connery impersonation and stands as Joe's rival in the passenger airplane business.

And then there's the ton of minor characters with which Joe must interact to proceed through the game, including but not limited to a tribe of pygmies (even though they aren't pygmies and pygmies are from Africa, but they call themselves that in order to beef up their tourist trade), Trader Bob (an Aussie bloke who runs a convenience store out of the pygmy village), Jimmy and Mary-Lou Cook (missionaries who failed in their attempts to teach the pygmies and are now concentrating on spreading the Word to the monkeys of the jungle), the ferryman (who, as a skeleton dressed in a long black robe, looks suspiciously familiar), and various others.

The absolute best minor character in the game, however, has to be the gorilla.  I won't spoil it . . . you've just got to play the game to meet up with this fine specimen.

The Writing
Point-and-click adventure games tend to rely equally on two things: the quality of the puzzles and the quality of the writing.  And in this case, the writing definitely pulls through and delivers.  The humor of the game ranges all over the place, from silly puns to subtle wit to parody to pop culture references to pure absurdism.  The dialogue is tremendously clever, and it's worth reloading from your last save point just to go through each conversation multiple times just to hear all the different ways they can go.  The voice acting is superb as well, making what might seem like kind of a dud line when you read it instantly funny when it actually comes out of Joe's mouth.

The writers were obviously going for a combination mockery and homage to old pulp movies, and they captured that exact feel perfectly.  They threw in basically everything they could find, including fantasy, science-fiction, action adventure, monster movies, lost world tales, pseudo-Nazis, and a little bit of romance.  The entire experience is just a fun romp through the old tropes and cliches those various genres have to offer.

The Gameplay
It's pretty much your basic point-and-click setup, so there's not really that much to say.  It all works just about as well here as it does in any other adventure game of the time . . . there's a reason that kind of interface is a classic.

Still, there were a couple of very minor points.  Having to scroll through a ton of different items to find just the one I wanted would get a little annoying from time to time.  And while Joe is moving, you can't see the names of anything you scroll the pointer over.  You can still activate it (thank goodness), but if you don't know something's there already, you might miss it unless you wait for Joe to stop walking and then have a look around.

But like I said, very minor.  It doesn't really get in the way of enjoying the game.

The Challenge
FOTAQ does not in any way work on moon logic, for which I am extremely grateful.  Having done several moon logic puzzles in the past, I have learned to hate them with the burning intensity of a thousand suns.  The puzzles here, thankfully, all use a logical progression of thought and the sensible use of your various tools.  It's still challenging to figure out exactly how some certain things go together, but overall it's nicely balanced.  Difficult, but not painfully so.

The real trouble, especially as you get toward the end of the game, is figuring out exactly where you're supposed to go to get or use certain items.  The various areas in the game are pretty big, and Joe isn't exactly in a hurry to get anywhere, so you might end up searching for a very long time for just the right room to use your sticky bat in.  And at one point, I wandered around for what seemed like forever all because I couldn't tell that the darkest section of a dark section in a dark room was a door, so there was an entire pathway I kept missing, no matter how many times I walked around the temple.  What made it worse was that it was just over another door on a lower level, so that when my pointer was saying "walk to door", I thought it was just registering the door I could actually see.

But besides those little upsets, the basic challenge level of the game is just right.  As long as you pay attention to your surroundings and use your noggin when trying out various item combinations, it should be clear sailing.

The Graphics
I'd played this game before, but it still strikes me just how pretty it is.  The character models have a great deal of expression to them and the backgrounds are lush and simply awe-inspiring.  And thank goodness, because spending hours waltzing around from one side of the jungle to the other looking for stuff would get pretty damn boring otherwise.

The characters in the cut scenes are a little creepy looking, but everything else around them looks so good that I'm willing to forgive that.

The Music
At first I was prepared to just say "What music?"  It wasn't until I was about halfway through before I even realized I should be hearing music but wasn't, since there was one puzzle in which Joe specifically comments on the music playing.  After a great deal of searching for answers and fiddling around with the settings, I figured out that the music options need to be set on "AdLib" for some reason in order for the music to play.

Sadly, as soon as I had the music turned on, I kind of wish I'd left it off.  It's not bad, per se, and in fact it's kinda toe tapping in places and I wouldn't mind just listening to it by itself.  The problem is that it's distracting.  I'm trying to listen to the pygmy chief tell me about the mystic crystal skull, and all I can hear is the "piddle pink tink da da da" music playing in the background.  Even after I turned it down a little, my ear still kept getting drawn back into it.  I would have turned it off again, but I needed to suffer through it for the review!

So my verdict is, the music on its own is good, but as a part of the game, it's bad.

The Bottom Line
Hilariously written with challenging yet logical puzzles, great voice acting, and beautiful scenery.  One of the best games I've ever played, and it's free!  You can't beat that!

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