A 20-hour fetch quest set to around three minutes of music
After having spent so many years reviewing games, I’ve now begun to realize that I enjoy discovering the hidden gems of the industry as much as I do reaffirming the hype and expectations of the big-budget blockbusters. So now, in contrast to my amateur days, when I see a game like The Island of Dr. Frankenstein—which looks, at the very least, unique and unheralded—cross my desk, part of me looks forward to unwrapping the package. There’s nothing like giving a game a fair shake when you know others probably aren’t going to.
Having said that, to my dismay, The Island of Dr. Frankenstein is not one of those elusive gems. Yes, it’s just 20 bucks—self-proclaimed to be a casual kid’s game—but in spite of its triumphs, it’s firmly anchored by its fundamental missteps and inadequacies.
Ah, and so we are met with the first of very many pointless errands to come
Floating islands, werewolves, and vampires
The premise of the game is as such: you play a smartalec kid named Frankie who just so happens to be a pretty intelligent inventor. Well, he’s kin to the creator of the entire island (Dr. Frankenstein, who now exists solely in an engineered preservation tube), so I suppose that’s to be expected. As such, he’s tasked with single-handedly maintaining the island (to no thanks from the inhabitants).
You see, Dr. Frank’s island is actually a floating continent—a la Chrono Trigger’s Land of Zeal, except instead of magic, it’s mechanical fans that keep this island in the air. Over time, these annoying little creatures called vaporites accumulate in clusters over parts of the land, eventually damaging the structures and mechanical backbone. Frankie is the only means of regulating the spread of the vaporites; he uses this bizarre contraption known as a steampack to suck them up and leverage them for energy (a meter on the side of your screen depicts the current state of vaporite colonization). Should the level of vaporites grow too concentrated, the island will become unstable and eventually crash to the ground.
You might be asking yourself why it is, considering the grave circumstances at stake, that the other inhabitants of the island don’t simply petition to be granted their own steampacks so that they, too, can keep an eye on the status of the vaporite colonies. Well, after spending a bit of time on the island, it might make a little bit more sense: people here are crazy. Everyone’s got problems—lost beards, saboteurs, broken machines of one form or another—and all of them depend on you to make things right again (typical, eh?).
Speaking of which, the King, who just so happens to be a werewolf, is well aware of such risks—and, in all his paranoia, he senses that a plot is underway to bring down the island. Naturally, he calls on you to investigate. So, as you roam the land, sucking up vaporites, collecting random treasures, and doing favors, you’re also supposed to be investigating this plot. Once the culprit is found, you’re tasked with bringing him to justice, after which point he simply escapes again. Not exactly riveting, but it does sound like a pretty eventful storyline, right?
Yes, it's true that the time of day changes. What's disturbing is that this is one of the most exciting aspects of the game.
Like a never-ending version of the Zelda trading quest
Well, don’t get excited. Unfortunately, in spite of the clever scripting, the actual gameplay is about the most monotonous—downright fatiguing—variety possible. From the very beginning, you navigate the island via analog stick, searching for people to speak to, all of whom either have nothing interesting to say to you or want you to do them a favor of some sort. This favor always amounts to one of two things:
A fetch quest in want of a particular item, generally located on the opposite end of the island
A visual puzzle featuring a ray of light and rotating gears, where you must produce gears (using collected vaporites in conjunction with meteorites) and guide the light to its designated end point.
The puzzles are at least interesting (though they’re all the same, just of varying difficulty), but the fetch quests grow old extremely quickly. Before long, you’ll be retreading your steps every few minutes, searching for someone who might be interested in a particular item you’ve picked up (a chicken, some bricks, a pair of boots…) and stopping regularly, as your vaporite meter continually climbs, to vacuum up some of the creatures (which regenerate constantly and quickly). The most action you’ll ever see is the faux-Ghostbusting mechanic of sucking up these creatures (which involves the use of the Wii remote to point in their direction) and the aforementioned light-and-gears puzzles, both of which get old very quickly. The actual feat of hiking from A to B is by far the worst part of it all—and it comprises 95% of the gameplay. It’s also entirely linear—so that’s even worse. Thank God for the map, which offers some degree of insight as to who might be the next correct person to speak with—but that doesn’t make the task any less tedious.
And tedious doesn’t really even begin to describe it. According to the back of the box, there’s roughly 20 hours of this sort of gameplay to be had. Considering my position, I was only able to suffer through several hours myself. But at no point during the game does this basic design evolve at all. Sure, you’re granted some new goodies—a steamgun (which can suck up black vaporites and then eject streams of the puffs at targets), a meteorite catapult (which can fire ballistic meteorites at certain targets around the island), and so on—but nothing sufficiently enriches the gameplay to the point of rejuvenating the player’s interest, which, for most people, will probably be lost within the first hour of play.
The presentation doesn’t help matters, either. Visually, things aren’t bad; simplistic, yes, but at least colorful and appropriate. Everything else beyond that is another story entirely. For starters, while walking, the overhead camera jerks to and fro in every direction, invariably tethered to your character’s movements. It’s an effect that is ultimately irritating and nauseating. Worst of all, however, is the music. The songs themselves actually are pretty decent—but they’re only 45 seconds long each, and they repeat, relentlessly, for at least an hour apiece. The music is the same no matter where you walk, on any part of the island or even indoors. It only changes when you’ve moved on from one major part of the game to the next, after which the time of day visually adjusts and the music is switched to another, different 45 second loop. It’s almost torturous to be perfectly frank.
The one bright spot of the presentation is the dialogue. It’s frequently humorous and always lighthearted, and it’s filled with goofy pop culture quips and clever euphemisms. I caught myself giggling at the conversations from time to time. For instance, very early on, there’s a strange bald inhabitant who repeatedly refers to the “spirit of the island.” He says, “the island talks to me. It has a plan for each of us…” (fans of LOST will surely recognize the reference).
But even the dialogue carries its own curiosities. Although The Island of Dr. Frankenstein is marketed as a kids’ title (even carrying an Everyone rating from the ESRB), characters occasionally utter mild curse words such as “damn”. It’s something we’ve seen before in other E-rated games, but it’s certainly not befitting of a title that clearly strives to be a children’s game.
You be the judge.
Overall, even at $20, The Island of Dr. Frankenstein is a repetitive, tedious mess. If you’re looking for a cheap stocking stuffer this holiday season, look elsewhere.