Though for a long time it appeared to be teetering on death’s door, the adventure gaming genre is not dead. Thanks to the resuscitative efforts of such studios as Telltale and their licenced point-and-click gems in recent years, adventure gaming is alive and kicking (or is that “clicking”?) again. As incredible as some of these modern titles are though, very few of them actually gave me that swift punch of nostalgic goodness as much as Among the Innocent did. Billed as the “first of five installments in the Stricken series, each exploring a stage in the Kübler-Ross model for dealing with grief and loss,” Among the Innocent is a brief Lovecraftian descent into madness. And not because it’s set in Free State.
A sobering voiceover and black and white storyboards, underscored by a simple but chilling musical score, kicks off the woeful tale of struggling South African writer Peter York. In an attempt to find a cooler head after a relationship spat, Peter speeds off on his motorcycle into the countryside, but instead finds himself on the wrong side of a rockslide. A few bumps and bruises and a brief divorce of his consciousness later, Peter wakes up to a wrecked motorcycle and a decrepit cabin in a deserted farm valley. His path back to civilization blocked by the fallen rocks, Peter has no choice but to explore his surroundings to find another way out. But as he makes a series of ghastly discoveries in and around the cabin, Peter realizes that he may have stumbled into something far more sinister.
Among the Innocent is the first release from Zero Degree Games, a local development studio based out of Johannesburg and fronted by former NAG editor Geoff Burrows. Inspired by the standouts of the genre, the game is a throwback to classic brow-furrowing adventure gaming, wrapped up in modern first-person perspective visuals. Context-sensitive pixel hunting, an inventory filled with seemingly mundane items that you need to combine, random scraps of minutiae you hope turn out to be clues, and a measured pace as you walk around exploring and clicking your way to potential freedom. All the genre staples are there, painstakingly recreated exactly as you remember them for better or for worse. This of course includes fiendish puzzles that will have you threatening to bash out your own grey matter as you get stumped once again. Many of these puzzles are a combination of deceptively simple logic-based challenges while others are nerve-jangling tests in endurance, memory and an eagle-eyed knack for spotting the most infinitesimal of details.
Unfortunately some of the latter puzzles are made challenging to the point of bitter frustration due to some obscure clues and unclear puzzle design. One particular headscratcher involving a treehouse had me wanting to put my fist through my screen in response to its apparent impossibility – only to find that I had missed the items I needed to complete it simply through a lack of sufficient visual clues on the game’s part. Not helping matters is that there are a number of bugs still lurking around. Most of these are innocuous little slip-ups, but I did experience two real game-breakers that forced me to have to reload an earlier save and perform some arduous puzzle-solving tasks all over again.
Luckily for my sanity – and probably yours – Among the Innocent also comes with an online hint book. Broken down act by act, it gives you a series of hidden hints that you can click on to expose, each more revealing than the last. So whether you want to just get the faintest of nudges in the right direction, or have a detailed, step by step description of how to solve a puzzle, the option is there if you don’t feel up for possibly having a game incite you to violence in the best way.
If you do find yourself hulking out, at least you will have some calming visuals to look at, as the desolate, sun-blasted valley you find yourself in is brought to life really well. With a team that essentially consists of just Burrows and a pair of part-time helpers, you shouldn’t expect this game to deliver AAA levels of polygonal orgasms here, but the quality of graphics Among the Innocent brings to the table is certainly no slouch. While some textures and models appear a bit low-res and jaggy, for the most part part they’re overcome by some great lighting effects that really sells that hazy, scorching sun feel of the Free State farmland.
And while the game’s soundscape does feels a bit barren, often with nothing more simple effects punctuating your movement as you traverse the landscape, its score does a solid job of boosting the atmosphere, particular in some of the more disturbing moments. And there certainly are a number of those across Among the Innocent’s ~3 hours of play time in this first chapter. Although there’s nothing too shriek-worthy, the game’s macabre narrative hooks you in through some ghoulish details and intriguing plot threads. While I would have appreciated a bit more threads spooled out for this tapestry though, there is certainly enough here for me to want to know what Zero Degree Games does next in this genre revival.