Coming back from an adventure to find a flower that cures cancer, Dan and Ben find London in a worse state than ever. All the Apocalypses are happening all at once, and it ends up falling to our two adventurers to save the day once more.
Is there a big bad guy? A huge conspiracy looking to tear down the world? Not quite; they eventually find and have to teach a guardian computer all about human emotions so that it understands why we should be rescued. With Dan now determined to be an indie darling platformer, but his best friend Ben still his curmudgeonly LucasArts adventurer self… we’re probably doomed, aren’t we?
The first two Dan and Ben adventures were send-ups of the LucasArts era of point and click adventures, Lair of the Clockwork God sets its sights on more modern gaming trends. It’s not just indie platformers, but indie games in general, visual novels by way of the bundled Devil’s Kiss VN, and elements of the real world that get skewered by the real life Dan Marshall and Ben Ward’s sense of humour. Between the Sonic the Hedgehog and Walking Sim references, the story and settings can get pretty nihilistic at times, but hey, that’s 2020 for you!
It’s a pretty wild mash-up when considering the two very disparate styles of gaming as well. Lair of the Clockwork God manages to weave these two contrasting styles of gaming together by keeping them almost entirely separate. If there’s some jumping to do, dodging past spikes and giant buzzsaws, that’s all up to the diminutive, big-handed Dan. If something needs looking at, interacting with, or someone needs speaking to, it’s over to Ben. You can hop back and forth between the two with a simple tap of a button.
It initially seems as though you’ll forever be bounding around levels with Dan and then having to switch over to Ben to trudge around after him to get to the clue or puzzle that he’s just found, but the game thankfully introduces several ways to avoid that particular chore. After the prologue, Dan can simply use his oversized hands to pick Ben up (who starts grinning like an idiot once Dan gives in) and run around with him. When Ben is halted by even the tiniest step, you can now carry him through some light platforming sections, though this does have an impact on how high Dan can jump.
There’s a nice sense of weight and speed to the platforming, but it’s raw and rough around the edges compared to the slick feel of a side-scrolling Mario. It’s got the feel of The Swindle in how Dan moves, from the speed at which he’ll plummet back to the floor, the way wall jumping feels, and so on. As much as I love that game, it leads to platforming that’s not as refined as the indie platformers that it’s poking fun at. Then again, that’s probably the point. It’s definitely the point in one segment.
It’s a game that I feel is better played with a gamepad than keyboard and mouse, though one puzzle does need you to put fingers to keys. When adventuring as Ben, you have direct control over him to wander over to things, and can then bring up a radial menu to pick your interactions or dig through your inventory. It’s a touch jarring switching back and forth if you’re using the D-pad for more precise platforming, and then have to use the analogue stick to move Ben around, but you get used to it.
The point and click puzzle design still hails from the school of LucasArts, with plenty of barmy items appearing and being used in a nonsensical manner or in equally bizarre combinations… sorry, crafting. You’ll often be able to figure out a distinct purpose for items that can be used several times in different situations – like a wet mop head for cleaning stuff – but the game is pretty light on giving you direction and clues. When you do get stuck, it’ll be reverting to the tried and true of trying to combine anything and everything in your inventory, or simply trying to use everything on a person or object in the world.
What can sometimes throw a holo-spanner in the works is when the game breaks out of its shackles and starts feeding into the menus, other games, even the ‘Known Issues’ notes sent out to reviewers. These were the points that had me scratching my head the most, going round in circles and chasing after red herrings, before eventually realising what needed to be done. Thankfully, it’s at those instance that the game and dialogue was actually pushing me with hints, I was just misinterpreting them as jokes at the games industry’s expense. I mean, they’re that as well, but you know.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that I ran into a handful of minor bugs and issues while playing. None of these were enough to hold me up for too long, and the real Dan has pushed an update out prior to launch aiming to fix all the issues I and other reviewers ran into. Even so they did force me to reload the game or restart a chapter, laying the seeds of doubt when I was feeling stuck in a puzzle. After release I’m sure there’ll be a guide or two that you can lean on if you do get stuck.
Throughout the game, some of the puzzles, their solutions and narrative twists had me cursing at Dan and Ben’s ingenuity with a wry smile and a shake of my head. There’s a loveable idiocy to it that I simply have to applaud.