My Kingdom For A Hint System
HIGH The long, breathtaking drive up to Truberbrook.
LOW The entire town festival sequence.
WTF I’m in an asylum now? What?
When people lament the death of the point-and-click adventure genre, its difficulty is often raised as one of the biggest factors that drove people away. ‘Moon Logic’, as it’s often called, undermines players’ attempts to solve puzzles because the solutions are not only impossible to guess by someone who didn’t invent them, but because they don’t make sense even once the solution is revealed. A well-designed puzzle should make the player say “of course!” when they figure out the answer. A badly-designed puzzle makes them say “how was I supposed to know that?” when they look up how to solve it on the internet.
Developers weren’t necessarily worse in the ’80s and ’90s when these practices were common — they just suffered from perverse incentives. Publishers actively wanted adventure games to be as oblique and frustrating as possible, because they had a lucrative income stream from selling hint books and tip lines.
The internet killed these businesses — anyone with access to GameFAQs doesn’t need a 1-900 number to tell them how lure a cat into a rocket’s nose cone with only a waffle and set of groucho glasses. With the profit motive stripped away, one might hope that developers would dial back on the random nonsense, and while some have opted for more grounded puzzles and investigative interactions, Truberbrook is a perfect example of how the old spirit of baffling puzzle design lives on.
Set in the lovely titular town in the 1960s, Truberbrook follows the adventures of Tannhauser, a physicist who’s been lured to Germany via a suspicious vacation sweepstakes win. (PROTIP: If you win a vacation without entering a contest, don’t go!) He quickly finds himself surrounded by quirky characters and mysterious goings-on, and it’s up to the player to reveal the town’s secret history and deep-dive into the nature of reality itself.
Truberbrook’s story is immediately captivating. The initial conflict — a scientist stranded in a backwards town — gets players on Tannhauser’s side right away, especially when his work papers are stolen and he struggles to figure out who could possibly need a treatise on theoretical physics out in the boondocks.
As the plot progresses, the cast grows and things become increasingly bizarre, the script does a magnificent job of gradually dialing up the strangeness and keeping the player slightly off-balance as more and more sci-fi elements are layered in. Eventually the very fate of the world is at stake, which is something that might have seemed unimaginable when Tannhauser first got off the bus at the start of the game.
Every bit as impressive as the story is the presentation. Top-notch voice acting brings the variously accented characters to life, and the classic, almost claymation-style look of the characters is a perfect fit for the backgrounds.
Those backgrounds, however, are on an entirely different level. Every location was built as a physical set before being scanned and layered with 3D models, and it shows. Surfaces have visible brushstrokes and tool marks, and the kind of grounded texturing that could never appear in a fully digitally-crafted game. Each new location, from a dingy hospital room to an idyllic mountain lake has a beauty and character that one doesn’t find in even the most lushly-animated virtual areas. I can only imagine the amount of work that went into these sets, and the payoff is fantastic. Looking only at the visuals, Truberbrook is a masterpiece, and one of the best-looking point and click adventure games I’ve ever encountered.
The puzzles, though, need some work.
I had high hopes at Truberbrook‘s outset. In the early sequences, it focuses on limited-location object-based puzzles where player have just one or two screens to worry about, and only a few items to pick up. Even if a particular obstacle seems baffling, there are only so many possibilities, so a solution can be found via trial and error, if nothing else. There’s even a button to make interactable hotspots appear onscreen, so there’s no need to hunt specific pixels, and items are only usable when the player clicks on the location where they can be employed.
Problems crop up later, however — a questionable city festival scene layers one bizarre and counterintuitive puzzle atop another, asking the player to go back to the same conversations over and over again, and suddenly travel to locations whose existence hadn’t even been hinted at. It’s an abrupt, frustrating turn into the worst kind of point-and-click puzzle design, and it burns a lot of the goodwill that it had earned up until that point.
Naturally, I turned to the internet to guide me through this slog and a couple of annoying points that followed, but as I was doing so, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had to. Specifically, why doesn’t Truberbrook have a hint system? There’s a button letting me know where I’m able to click on the screen, so why not a button nudging me towards the item, character, or location I’m supposed to interact with next? Casual point-and-click games (especially in the Hidden Object subgenre) have fully embraced the concept of hint systems, and have done quite well. So why not include that here? Why force players to alt-tab out to look up a puzzle solution, rather than just guiding them to it?
Truberbrook is a beautiful sight to behold, and its story is a great example of light comedy sci-fi. It’s only the overly-oblique puzzles that killed the adventure genre in the first place that keep it from being a truly exceptional title. There’s a valuable lesson here to adventure game developers here — it’s possible to have the best production values and plotting imaginable, but if consideration isn’t given to how players interact with the work, the result will wind up frustrating instead of magnificent.
Disclosures: This game is developed by btf and published by Headup Games and Whisper Games. It is currently available on PC, Switch, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed (with the internet’s help). There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game was rated T by the ESRB and contains Mild Violence, Use of Tobacco and Suggestive Themes. Truberbrook is safe for even younger teens. What violence that’s included is fairly mild, although there are dead bodies on display and some distinctly frightening situations. As it is set in a rural German town in the 60s, there’s plenty of alcohol referenced and consumed in the game – there’s an anachronistically tiny amount of smoking, though, so that’s something!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played much of the game without audio, and encountered no trouble. All dialogue in the game is subtitled. The subtitles are not adjustable. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. The game is controlled by clicking with a mouse on the screen. It’s also playable with a game controller — when using that, player move their character with the left thumbstick, control the cursor with the right, and use face buttons to decide how they want to interact with hot spots.