I recently visited a friend to help him with playing EA's The Simpsons Game. While a fan of video games, my friend is still quite unskilled at 3D platform jumping. After a little play together I agreed the game was definitely not for novices and cited the camera as being the biggest problem, which was something he wouldn't overcome without lots of practice and patience. So, I encouraged him to try my copy of Super Mario Galaxy I brought with me instead. As expected, he did marvel at the graphics and fun factor, and the camera, while not movable like The Simpsons Game's, made platforming much simpler. He was bounding around in 360 degrees without a problem, and while we played for a good while, he soon reached a planet where he fell into a black hole over and over, and he was done with it.
"How about you try my Zack & Wiki?" I suggested, and we swapped the games out again. "There's no combat or platforming or funky cameras, and it's pretty fun."
Contrary to what some may have written off the treasure hunting game for-- kid-skewing presentation, point-and-click controls and adventure game tropes-- my friend fell in love. "These are some nice graphics," he said.
Yet beyond that first compliment, the truest flattery was that he wouldn't stop playing. We worked through one level, then another, and then another that was supposed to be the last, but then without a word he immediately jumped into the next. He wanted to make sure the game was saved before I left, just in case, you know, he might buy it.
I'm near certain he'll be buying the game shortly. Just as IGN begged its readers to pre-order the game before it came out, we can confirm the hullabaloo was merited. Zack & Wiki is not only an excellent game for Wii and all of its ever-growing demographics, but also a breath of fresh air to the adventure game genre.
Many games on Wii have been hit-or-miss graphically, and that may be attributable to hardware that's comparatively weaker than its current-gen rivals, or perhaps lazy development from staffs not willing to go push the full "2.5" abilities of a machine said to be 2.5 times more powerful than its predecessor GameCube. Zack & Wiki, however, is an exception to these lowered expectations. Much how The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker created a presentation that was timeless in that it looked so sharp it'd be hard to attribute to one console generation or another, Z&W does much the same, though, arguably, with 2.5 times more polish than something that could have been done on GameCube.
From start to finish, Z&W has a polished depth to its anime-styled, cel-shaded graphics. Character designs are cute, cartoony and memorable, though Zack's ragtag rabbit crew are a bit odd. Beyond the heroes, villains and henchmen, the fun visual aesthetics carry over to environmentally-appropriate goons and animals, and genuinely impressive, large bosses cap many of the game's worlds.
Typical of a video game, Zack's treasure hunts span across extremely disparate environments-- jungle, volcano, ice and haunted-- but all are bright and given just the right touch of detail to give pause while searching for a solution. And for some strange reason, it's always a treat when the game cinematics take to the skies because Capcom has really nailed creating some of the prettiest billowing clouds.
Dolby Pro Logic II is supported in Z&W which adds a lot of depth to the audio presentation, but fancy stereo isn't necessary to appreciate the game's music, which is complex and sprightly leaps from epic to mysterious to shock at a moment's click. On par with a movie soundtrack, there's often a meatiness to the compositions but they still manage to get out of the way when needed. Some fun rhythm-based mini-games that pepper the treasure hunt stages also let the gamer engage in some great beat-matching action where the TV plays a majority of an NES-quality song, while successfully swinging the remote as directed makes the remote play the missing part of the track from its own speaker.
The remote speaker also gets used many other times throughout the game when tied into other hands-on actions that Zack performs. For instance, if Zack rings his bell, the sound not only plays from the TV but also the Wii remote, creating a nice sense of immersion in the game's environment. Other sound effects for the many contraptions and tools in the game work well, though the incredibly dramatic orchestra sting when something revelatory or scary appears still takes the cake as the most fun and amusing punch to the proceedings.
Complementary to the anime look of the game, many of the game's main characters have short one or two word quips that are spouted while full actual dialogue text types out across the screen. Expect to hear the very Pikachu-sounding Wiki say, "Zaa-ckuuuuu!" many times.
Zack & Wiki's overall structure is simple enough: Zack and his shape-shifting, flying monkey companion Wiki are members of a sea-faring crew of pirate rabbits. After a nasty run-in with rival air pirates Rose Rock and her crew, Zack and Wiki stumble upon an unusual treasure-- a gold pirate skull who begs for its finders to seek the other golden treasure pieces that comprise his full skeleton. Barbaros, this pirate-turned-treasure, promises Zack and Wiki his legendary ship as well as a trip to the fabled Treasure Island once he's reassembled and returned to normal state. A previous relationship between Wiki and Barbaros is hinted at, but Wiki plays dumb.
Conveniently for Barbaros, each of his body parts is stored in separate puzzle stages. The first couple stages' simple challenges and the number of body parts to retrieve is misleading: this game is not easy or short. No puzzle is so impossible that only Mensa members could apply, but there are genuine head-scratching moments and some stages may take more than an hour or two to ultimately conquer. Further, not every stage is concerned with retrieving a body part; other, distinct missions will arise that force Zack and Wiki into new objectives, albeit still under the same puzzle-solving structure. One stealthy puzzle later in the game is particularly engaging and fun.
As a point-and-click adventure game, Z&W could have been underwhelming. Yet by virtue of its presentation and expertly crafted puzzles the game is thoroughly compelling all the way through. The minimal number of time-sensitive sequences and lack of combat (save for one frustrating, crude instance near the end of the game) provides an overall relaxing atmosphere to consider things over. Yes, Zack can die, but usually that's from a logical error on behalf of the player and not an inability to expertly jump from one floating platform to another.
As detailed in our preview, most puzzles require a logical chain of events that are intuitive and not obtuse as in adventure games of old. Sometimes just taking the birds-eye view of the full stage allows for the solution to reveal itself; other stages require careful exploration in search of animals, insects and other creatures that can be "itemized" into useful tools with a ring of Wiki, who happens to transform into a bell when grabbed and shaken by his tail with a simple shake of the remote. Centipedes become saws, moles become drills, worms into straws and frogs into bombs. The transformations are always consistent, but they also serve as accessories to obstacles that are natural within a given stage's confines. An ice stage may have you using the ice as mirrors and focusing elements for light beams, while common sense physics are used elsewhere when plugging a lava drain to create enough pressure to shoot a geyser-powered elevator into the air. A few Myst-styled, genuine brain-teaser puzzles also show up, but luck and persistence assure all can be solved in due time.
Yet given the "first this, then this," nature many of the puzzles require to be solved, it is possible for a gamer to do something that will prevent the stage from being completed by, for instance, disabling a tool before it is used to open a door. The game remedies this by allowing the purchase of Oracle-summoning dolls using coins found in the puzzle stages. Once summoned, the Oracle will let the player know if the level must be started over, or if not, what to do next. Adult gamers will be unlikely to fall into this trap very frequently, though anyone who plays will likely suffer an accidental death, another pitfall the development team remedied specifically after complaints from North American gamers who got a shot at the game before it came out. In addition to Oracle Dolls, Platinum Tickets are also purchasable using the same previously mentioned currency. These tickets revive Zack to a point right before his death, provided the stage hasn't reached an "unsolvable" state by the player's actions.
While by and large an excellent game, there are a few areas for improvement, the most painful of which being the motion-sensing of the remote. Every time Zack interacts with an item, the game switches to a first-person perspective and provides an on-screen prompt on how to hold the remote in order to perform the action. Umbrellas require the remote held straight up to the sky, a crank requires the remote gripped sideways, and so on. Yet once a gamer starts ringing the bell, sawing a tree or swinging an anchor, the game occasionally hiccups and Zack jarringly stops and starts the action. Sometimes the gamer needs to completely stop moving, carefully reposition the remote's orientation, and then try again. Aside from some bits in the very last stages of the game related to swords and item throwing, this isn't very detrimental, but when it does happen, an unnecessary amount of frustration kicks in, perhaps because so much of the rest of the game operates so smoothly.
Another issue is with Zack's rabbit crew, which stays in the "hideout" hub from which Zack can choose which stage to tackle next. The rabbits end up being window dressing for an options screen-- getting hints, choosing random treasure digging spots, checking stats. While meant to add personality, they end up being more in the way, and the library of books that archive special items found in treasure hunts is even more cumbersome to flip through, removing the excitement of poring over discovered treasures let alone staying in the hideout to begin with.
The rabbit crew also ties into another key point: this is an adventure game with very little story, which is counter-intuitive to the original spirit of adventure games, which are typically known for their story before their gameplay. Plenty of material exists to have provided more backstory, even optionally-- there's a primitive culture on the island, more than enough rabbits and pirates, incredibly intriguing ties to Egyptian culture, not to mention the backstory between Wiki and Barbaros. However, much of this is never addressed and left instead to interpretation and inference. Such a shortcoming is surprising given the amount of thought put into designing the world and its puzzles, but less exposition (which incidentally drags down the introduction, natch) allows for a faster-moving game.
In spite of these shortcomings, what's worth focusing on is that Capcom put most of its energy into what it does best: excellent presentation and gameplay, which are the foundations any game lives or dies by. And just when the challenges of the main story wrap up, gamers are thrown a massive amount of additional treasure hunting, complete with very cryptic clues (now's the appropriate time for Mensa people) to find hidden treasures in the previously finished stages.
As in Super Mario Galaxy, additional players (up to three) can grab a remote to assist the main player in solving puzzles. Like something out of Monday Night Football, each additional player is free to point at and draw lines and circles on the screen in an attempt to guide his or her friend to the end of a stage. While a nice feature, this multiplayer is more presentational than interactive: additional players have no impact on the gameplay or what's happening on screen, other than drawing over it. If there's a Z&W sequel, a cooperative puzzle solving mode, maybe in the vein of Agetec's Cookies & Cream, would be incredible.
Adventure games are often compelling but hinge upon primitive, boring gameplay. Capcom shows how all future adventure games should be designed: with engrossing gameplay that both intuitively and innovatively solves puzzles. While there's not much story to pull a player through Zack & Wiki's treasure hunt, the brilliantly designed puzzles and their vivid presentation ensure that most anyone will feel compelled to keep playing through-- even folks who tried Mario Galaxy first!