"Bwana's plane is missing a few key parts, and he hasn't flown in a long time... and there's that pesky fear of heights thing, but business is terrible at his gas station, and he really needs the cash."
Point & click adventure game veterans probably remember LucasArts' amazing Grim Fandango.
I know I do, and my memories of it are fond enough that I started playing The Journey Down (Chapter One) for the sole reason that its visuals reminded me of the good times I had with Manny and the Grim Fandango crew. That kind of decision can be risky, but it paid off this time.
The Journey Down's first chapter is dedicated to setting up the story for the rest of the game, and it introduces you to the main characters and the people in their neighborhood. The antagonist and his lackeys make quick appearances, but that's about all. As the game begins, our hero, Bwana, gets a surprise visit from a woman named Lina, who needs a plane ride. Bwana's plane is missing a few key parts, and he hasn't flown in a long time... and there's that pesky fear of heights thing, but business is terrible at his gas station, and he really needs the cash. There's not much story here, but it does set things up well for future chapters, and the writing shows promise.
The game plays out in textbook point & click adventure fashion. If you've played one before, you'll instantly know what you're doing here. Check the environment for clickable things, pick up a random assortment of objects, figure out how to use them to solve puzzles. And they're good puzzles! There's a fair challenge level — most of the puzzles fit just where you'd want them to on the scale of obvious to insanely obscure, but there were also a couple that I couldn't work out for a while and a couple that took no thought at all, and that's fine with me.
I also enjoyed the game's sense of humor, most of which plays out in the dialogue. Bwana often breaks the fourth wall when solving puzzles or describing objects, and I appreciated, for example, his reluctance to put a live crab in his pocket. It helps that the voice actors for the main characters do a great job, although the same cannot be said for all of the secondary actors. This chapter of The Journey Down is set in a fictional port in a fictional version of Africa, and nearly every character has a different accent. Sadly, a few of the actors do a pretty poor job with the accent they were asked to perform. A few of them are noticeably off in their sound levels, too, although that's the kind of thing I can't blame on the actor.
While I'm on the subject of sound, the music's good stuff too! It's a short game, so there's not too much music, but what's there is nicely varied and appropriate to the setting. The tunes at Bwana's place feel very Caribbean, but when he makes his way over to a fancy cruise ship's dining room, the music is classic "lounge." All of the music relies on synthesizer, sax, and trumpet, with a little drums, but the composer has done a good job getting varied results from his small instrument set.
As you'd guess from my intro, this game's graphics are what really caught my eye. The characters' hands and faces appear to be made of clay, and they're animated well. Their faces are all based on traditional masks from various parts of Africa, and that really works with the setting. The backgrounds are hand painted, and they look great. There are places where the two styles don't quite work together perfectly, but they're few and far between.
As with the gameplay, the controls in The Journey Down are absolutely standard. It's clearly a game designed for touchscreen devices as well as a mouse. Click on an object to interact with it, click on a spot on the ground to walk there. If you put your mouse cursor near the bottom of the screen, it displays your inventory, and if you put it near the top, you get menu-type options. I wish that pressing "I" opened up the inventory, but the lack of keyboard shortcuts isn't the end of the world.
After just one chapter, I'm not sure I'd put The Journey Down in the realm of classics like Grim Fandango, or with the best of its episodic contemporaries like The Walking Dead and Back to the Future. But it's worth the purchase price, and I will definitely keep an eye out for the next episode's release.