Video games can be kind of overwhelming these days. The big games seem to try and cram in so many systems, so much content, and as serious subject matter or morals as possible. I’ve come to be burned out by the 80-hour open world action RPGs that seem to crop up left and right. In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself to be at my happiest playing games when they have cute art, pleasant writing, and a run-time barely the length of a movie. The debut adventure of Frog Detective checks all those boxes for me.
I’ve been a fan of Grace Bruxner and her work since late last year. Her games up to this point have been the equivalent of a Halloween sized box of Nerds candy. Super small and oh so sweet, these adorable experiences put you in an alien casino or an underwater farmer’s market. You aren’t tasked with collecting coins or blasting baddies, though. All you need to do is walk around and soak in the sights, sounds, and delightful jokes.
The Haunted Island takes the simple charm of these games and expands it into a more properly structured video game with menus and interaction. It’s the whole nine yards. Make no mistake, though; this is still a brisk experience. You’ll wrap up your journey with the titular slimey detective in around an hour, and even with the low cost of entry – it’s £4 – that might turn off some potential players. I was grinning from end-to-end for that entire hour, though, and if you’re a fan of charming writing and adorable art then so will you.
The Haunted Island sees Frog Detective journying to a far away island in order to investigate reports of a spooky ghost troubling the residents of the island. A team of ghost scientists was hired to track the specter down and came up empty, but they’re still there for you to talk to in order to get to the bottom of things.
Most of what you’re doing in the game is simply walking around the island and talking to the characters on the island, asking questions in order to get info on what to do next. Many of the characters have items you need, but also have items they want, and as you talk to everybody on the island, a web of connections is formed between the inhabitants and their possessions.
This web isn’t actually displayed in-game, mind you. It’s all in your head. I usually appreciate having some kind of in-game journal or tracker for this kind of stuff, but with such a small game, it was never really needed. The tasks to perform and the things everyone wanted were simple enough to keep track of mentally, and it was so satisfying to make the dominos fall as I began to go down the chain of demands and trades to end up with the tools I needed to finish the game.
The gameplay is simple, sure, but it’s the means to an end for experiencing the wonderful writing and beautiful visuals of the game. Every character has their own quirks and personality, and the dialogue does a great job of embodying those individual characteristics. There’s a handful of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and exchanges in the game, but most of the writing is just simply and silly. I loved every second of it.
The art and visuals of the game are equally simplistic yet charming, and it all comes together perfectly. Text and menu options are rendered in a hand-written font, and characters are modelled in a simple, blocky style that still manages to have a cohesive and quirky art-style. The original soundtrack, made up of some jazzy and smokey tracks evocative of a true detective adventure, further serve to bring the entire package together.
Frog Detective’s first outing pleased me from beginning to end, and any issues I have with it are minor. You have a working magnifying glass you can bust out at any time, but it disappointingly never factors into the gameplay or progression at all. I would have loved to have to actually hunt for some tiny clues with it at some point. The charm of Grace Bruxner’s games comes in part from their simple and unabashedly unpolished nature, but some players might be turned off by the handful of missing floors and floating rocks present in some corners of the island.
The Haunted Island is the perfect way to close out 2018. Playing this game made me happy and giggly in a way so few video games make me, and it’s the kind of video game experience I wish I had more of. In an industry that only grows larger and more expansive every year, this latest release from Grace Bruxner is a standout treat that goes against the tide of video games and delivers a silly, adorable adventure that everyone deserves to experience.