You wouldn't think a game about sudden death and guilt would take in a frat party, a rock concert and a wedding, would you? Never mind one featuring ghosts, zombies and animated skeletons. Then again, The Wardrobe, from Italian indie developer C.I.N.I.C. Games, is anything but typical. Calling it a comedy horror is almost beside the point: that's just scaffolding for its real mission to squeeze in as much pop culture and as many oddball characters as possible before the whole thing explodes. Not to mention a gossamer-thin thread about self-acceptance and coming to terms with a bad situation. It also includes a bunch of headscratching puzzles and some nonsensical humour, but that can't put a damper on the game’s abundant, fizzing creativeness.
Plums. Sweet, succulent purple fruit or dealers of death? For poor Skinny, they're the latter. Not that he knew that when he sat down with his friend Ronald for a picnic on a beautiful summer's day. One bite was all it took for anaphylaxis to set in, Skinny to fall dead on the grass and Ronald to run screaming in panic, never to speak again. A tragedy, but death was not the end as a new spark was instilled in Skinny's body and he arose, reborn as a walking skeleton and sent to live in the coffin… errr, wardrobe in Ronald's bedroom. (Seriously, it's an easy mistake to make. Who has a six-sided wardrobe with a skull on top?)
Anyway, Fate still has plans for Skinny. In killing his friend, however unintentionally, Ronald has committed a mortal sin and will be damned for all eternity unless he confesses his sin to somebody within five years. Which could be a bit tricky, given that he hasn't said a word to anyone since the incident and his five years are nearly up. As Skinny, it falls to you to get through to Ronald, let him know that the accident wasn't his fault and save his immortal soul. Of course, the morning you finally pluck up the courage to deal with the problem would have to be the one when Ronald and his family pack up and move, leaving you behind!
If all this sounds a bit melodramatic and emotional, it really isn't. In fact, for all the horror window-dressing, it's more of a farce, albeit one with dark overtones at times. Skinny's more given to making sarcastic fourth wall-breaking comments about your performance than dwelling on his situation. As with so many quest stories, it's more about the journey than the destination – and what a bizarre, eclectic journey it is.
To give you some idea, the game opens with a talking squirrel before landing you in a bathroom with a bloody chainsaw in the shower, a skateboard for a toilet roll holder and a bearskin rug on the floor. A rug that can also talk, is in love with the rubber duck and is just hoping for a better view in the new house. Skinny's world is chock full of eccentric characters, from the ex-con crocodile in the sewer below to a magical, metalhead dragon and a junkyard foreman with a thing for black magic.
On top of that, it's also packed with pop culture references, to games, films, books and pretty much anything you can think of, all thrown together seemingly at random. Again, to give you just an example, at one point Skinny wanders into a frat house party to find Frank from Donnie Darko hanging out with The Matrix's Morpheus, watching half of Daft Punk strutting his stuff on a Mondrian-themed dancefloor to the beat of an alien DJ. In the next room, he finds the Ghostbusters, along with the bride of Frankenstein, the Flying Dutchman hanging from the ceiling fan and Jesus and Judas playing beer pong. Next to a fridge with a roasted Angry Bird inside and Tetris fridge magnets on the outside. I'm not sure the developers could have shoehorned more in if they'd tried, and there are bound to be plenty I've missed. There are so many, in fact, that even a Death Star, crashed on a hillside outside of town, doesn't merit comment.
All this is presented with gorgeous cartoon graphics, crisply hand-drawn in HD and packed with little details, like the pictures on the walls (Skinny-themed takes on classic paintings) and the glorious collection of bric-a-brac (who doesn't want a mounted T. Rex head in a fedora in their basement bar?) From the cracks in the walls to the grain in the wooden floors and all the little ambient animations, it's clear that a lot of love and care has gone into each screen. As you might expect by now, the locations you visit are nicely varied, starting in Ronald's old house and heading on, via a junkyard, to a meteor impact crater (with trolls and a barbeque), a mystic's treehouse, a beach (with its own time machine and alien landing pod), and a horrorbilly concert in the local cemetery.
The music doesn't stand out as much (though the concert and frat party tunes are pretty catchy). Instead, it does a good job of staying in the background and keeping the mood upbeat with a mix of perky, small-band cafe jazz melodies (just in case you were tempted to take any of this too seriously) and more atmospheric film score-style pieces (to inject a little light creepiness here and there). The voice work is also top-notch: from the dopey stoner removal guy to a prissy gay zombie and a meathead football player, each character has a distinctive tone. Skinny himself varies between being polite and well-brought-up (to most of the people he meets) to world-weary and sarcastic (when he's addressing you).
With such quality voice-overs and unique characters, it’s a pity that some of the jokes haven’t quite survived the journey from the original Italian. For example, on encountering a seemingly coal-powered van, Skinny says, “Where is my flying broomstick now?” You can sort of see what he's getting at, but as a joke it falls flat. That said, sometimes the more outrageous lines end up being awkwardly funny, such as when you mouse over lovers’ initials scratched in a tree and get the option to “inebriate yourself with love.” I’m still not sure whether the effect was entirely intentional, but it was certainly memorable. It’s far from all bad – a sequence where Skinny takes a moment to translate a football player’s dialogue from Jock to English is particularly hilarious – but the jokes that don't land are conspicuously clumsy.
The interface is pretty standard point-and-click. If you right-click and hold over a hotspot, you get icons for look, pick up, use and talk to, and mouse scroll (or tab) brings up your inventory, with the usual options to combine or use objects. If there is only one particular thing you can do with a hotspot (such as try not to look too closely at that suspiciously spooky picture in the living room), it's labelled with a description of what you can do and you left-click to perform it. The inventory screen (a view of Skinny's ribcage, with your objects hidden inside) also houses load and save options. There are just three save slots, though, and they're only distinguished by a screenshot, so be sure to stand somewhere distinctive if you want to remember which is which. Finally, pressing the spacebar activates a hotspot highlighter; given how crowded the screens are and how small some of the objects can be, this is a real godsend.
After all its good work building a quirky, beautiful world, it's a shame The Wardrobe is let down by its puzzles. They're almost exclusively inventory-based (with just one conversation puzzle and a stint maneuvering a crane to break things up) and they can be great fun, but they come out of left-field just a bit too often. Much of the time, you're doing things more to make something interesting happen than to achieve an obvious goal. That's fine, and pretty common in comic adventure games, but every so often the things you need to do make no sense, except possibly in retrospect, and even then only if you squint.
For example, early on you encounter not so much a dust bunny as a dust monster, with dreams of taking over the world. He's so small and feeble that those dreams are laughable, and at first I wrote him off as a bit of background colour. Except he's not, and you need to jump through a variety of hoops before he can help you acquire an item for reasons you don't discover until you've obtained it. It was only when I got stuck and started trying random objects on him for the sake of it that something popped, and even then I just got the incomprehensible clue: “Too few collateral effects. I would need something much more unstable.” I took that to mean I should try brute forcing my way through and I eventually stumbled onto a multi-step solution, but the whole exercise was a frustrating roadblock in what until then had been a fun experience.
This doesn't happen a lot, maybe a handful of times over 6-8 hours of playtime, but each time it brings you screeching to a halt and leaves you floundering. Just to rub salt in the wound, if you try enough random objects, Skinny will retort that trying everything on everything won't work in this game. (Technically, he's right: there's an unmarked hotspot at one point that doesn't appear unless you walk across it.) The worst part is that if you set these teeth-grinding moments aside, the rest of the puzzles are nicely entertaining, in the scattergun kind of way that characterises this game. It's not often that you have to break up a student tryst with a voodoo doll, find a way to marry off Cleopatra or out a fake boogeyman. The payoffs can be wonderfully unexpected, too, and generally come with a nicely-animated cutscene.
The story is perhaps The Wardrobe's weakest point, but that doesn't really matter. In the same way that, arguably, The Lord of the Rings is just about going to drop a ring in a volcano and then going home again, Skinny is simply on a quest to find Ronald, taking in the sights and puzzling his way past one obstacle after another. When the journey is as wacky as this, though, it's hard to mind. And while Skinny may not be changed as much as Frodo was by his adventures, in his own small way he finds peace. The early stages are full of comments about what he can't do because he's a skeleton, such as have skin to crawl or a bladder to empty, and being unable to go outside without freaking people out. By contrast, at the end he's more interested in the advantages of being undead, like having a load of free time, being able to eat what he wants without putting on weight, and being immune to electricity; he sees himself as a kind of superhero. The turning point is probably at the beginning of the second of three acts, when he realises that since it's Halloween he can go where he likes and everyone will just think he's wearing a really great costume. Even though he'd spent the whole time calling me an idiot and asking for a better player to take over, I wound up feeling oddly happy for him by the time the credits rolled.
You'd expect The Wardrobe, a game about sudden death, skeletons and zombies, would be at least a little bit dark, but in fact it's as joyfully exuberant as a puppy. The world brims with weird and wonderful characters and references, thrown together with no rhyme or reason other than to raise a laugh, and through it all wanders Skinny, a grumpy, bony teen, trying to be sarcastic but actually learning to love himself. The puzzles may be unfair at times and some of the jokes may be better in Italian, but the lovely cartoon graphics, bouncy music and sheer invention more than make up for that. If you like pop culture, comedy horror or just like the idea of taking a road trip with a wardrobe, it's well worth checking out.