Geekanerd Adventure Game Corresponent Fred reviews The Art of Theft by Yahtzee Croshaw, of Zero Punctuation fame...
In the rarefied word of internet-based gaming fandom, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's star is on the rise. For those unfamiliar, Croshaw (Je refuse, pointless nickname!) made his first mark on the world designing a series of clever and engaging games using the Sierra/LucasArts-aping Adventure Game Studio. Quickly rising to as much prominence as that particular world affords, he spent a few years dabbling in web comics and blogging before finding his Rushmore: the brilliant "Zero Punctuation" animated video game review series. Demonstrating once again the world's need for an erudite Brit to verbally eviscerate something (anything, really), the series has rightly earned Croshaw a mountain of praise, not to mention an all-expenses paid trip to gamer Mecca, Valve HQ in Seattle. However, in the midst of this ascent, he continues to design games, and has recently released a stealthtastic platformer called "Trilby: The Art Of Theft." Let the schadenfreude...begin.
Actually, the game is decent. In "AoT," you take on the role of gentleman cat burglar Trilby, the protagonist of Croshaw's most popular Adventure Game series. Using a lock pick, a tazer-tipped umbrella, and a variety of upgradeable stealth tactics, you sneak from mission to mission, collecting lucre while avoiding security guards, lasers, and rotating security cameras. The graphics are lovably old school, the MIDI score is surprisingly good, and the missions are well-designed. The gameplay is another plus. Trilby's movements are smooth, and after a little practice, I had him zipping around the screen pleasantly. The obstacles are repetitive by design, with Croshaw mixing and matching them enough to keep the game fresh. My one caveat to this praise is the difficulty curve. After beating the seven primary missions, your next challenge is to beat all seven missions in a row without stopping, with a punishingly low margin of error. To put it mildly, it's a huge pain, and the only reward is a new costume that, as far as I can tell, has no impact on gameplay. I have been told that if you play this uber-mission all the way through wearing a bright white suit that makes the game about ten times harder, you can earn a gold suit or a ninja costume or something like that. Deciding that I could live the rest of my life fairly happily without seeing a pixellated stick figure wear a pixellated golden tuxedo, I gave up after beating it once, content that I had milked sufficient fun out of AoT.
The biggest disappointment, oddly enough, is the story. In his reviews, Croshaw regularly takes designers to task for hackneyed plot lines, yet AoT's narrative, revealed through a series of rather lame noir cutscenes, is weak and at times almost nonsensical. You start off robbing some rich guy, then someone tries to blackmail you, then the rich guy gets murdered by his wife for some reason, who is on your side but then she isn't, only you help her out anyway for some reason. Oh, and there's a big evil corporation. Admittedly, this being a platform game, I'm willing to cut it some slack, but even the details are phoned in ( e.g. Croshaw gives his antagonist corporation the not-even-trying name "The Company"). None of this severely hampered my enjoyment of AoT, but it was a surprise coming from Croshaw.
Overall, AoT is a pleasurable B/B+ diversion and worth a few hours of anyone's time. I mainly worry about Croshaw himself, who I fear is running the risk of developing what I'm going to call the Dale Peck syndrome. Peck, a novelist and literary critic, achieved notoriety in the nineties and early 00s by writing a series of scathing reviews in The New Republic (he famously declared Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation"). The reviews were entertaining, provocative, and often hilarious. Great. Problem is, they ended up completely overshadowing his novels, all of which were met with a resounding "meh." Croshaw is a promising designer, and I would hate to see his games suffer from the popularity of Zero Punctuation, either by sucking up his time, unfairly inflating expectation, or putting him at the wrong end of a hiring desk, opposite some game executive he has enthusiastically pilloried.