Ah, Wallace and Gromit – those lovable plasticine characters in their northern town seemingly trapped in the Fifties, a nostalgic hinterland as warm and comforting as fish and chips. When Christmas television degenerates into a quagmire of Eastenders and Corrie, of screaming arguments, murder and endless tears, you can always rely on Nick Park’s clay creations to lift your spirits. The Jeeves and Wooster-esque relationship between put-upon dog Gromit and his eccentric, cheese-obsessed master Wallace have a timeless, effortless appeal that has everything to do with Park’s typically British humour and deft hand with a lump of plasticine. It’s the type of animation that’s impossible to capture with computers, with their new-fangled polygons and pixels… isn’t it?
Telltale Games have attempted to capture the personality and charm of Wallace and Gromit in a series of point-and-click adventures which, like Sam & Max and Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, are download only and will be available in separate episodes over the next few months. Fright Of The Bumblebees is the first, and opens on a typical day for Gromit, who must make breakfast for his bone-idle master, who sits at the dining table fussing over his bills. It isn’t long, however, before one of Wallace’s labour saving attempts goes awry and unleashes a swarm of oversized bees, and unsurprisingly it’s up to poor old Gromit to save the day while Wallace spends most of his time twittering on the phone and muttering about Wensleydale.
It’s obvious within moments that Telltale have put considerable time and effort into recreating Nick Park’s characters in digital form; while the animation never quite passes for the real thing, it’s admirably close. The way the characters are textured to look like clay is a nice touch, and Gromit’s expressions of defeat and resignation are beautifully mimed.
New characters are well integrated too: there’s an amusingly delusional old major who babbles on about snails, a shopkeeper who enjoys coming up with imaginative insults to shout to her husband lurking upstairs, and the eponymous bumblebees, who make for an amusing opposition, even if their taste in music is appalling…
In terms of gameplay, Fright is as typical a point-and-click adventure as you can get; control switches between Wallace and Gromit at various points in the narrative, and there are items to collect which are used to solve problems later on. Most of the puzzles are based around Wallace’s crackpot inventions – finding the correct part to get an egg-frying machine working, or the correct ingredients to make a flower-growing tonic, for example. While most of these conundrums are simple enough to deduce after a little thought, there are a few that are wilfully obscure – one ‘guess the word’ sequence amounts to little more than trial-and-error.
Thankfully, there’s enough gentle humour and character in Fright Of The Bumblebees to carry it through its more irritating moments – which is just as well, because there are a few. While the characters all look the part, there’s some surprisingly stiff dialogue now and again. Mr Paneer, the stereotypical Asian shopkeeper, has an absurd accent that veers from Welsh to God-knows-where, and the repetitive brass-band soundtrack also had me reaching for the volume control on more than one occasion.
And on the subject of humour, there are odd moments that feel as though Telltale Games have tried to sneak some filthy innuendos into the game’s script without Nick Park noticing – references to cheese under helmets and a woman who repeatedly talks about bending down to ‘inspect her purple pansies’ made me chortle like Finbar Saunders. Or maybe I just have a vulgar mind.
Minor flaws, random puzzles and eyebrow-raising double entendres aside, Telltale have done an admirable job with this first Grand Adventures episode – it’s an interactive story bursting with character and humour, and genuinely feels as though it’s been put together with care and a respect for its original characters. It’s not a hugely long adventure, but it’s an enjoyable one, and one that will leave you looking forward to the next instalment.