Mini-Review: Next Life / Reprobates

(Official web site)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Behold a game which has everything. Long and detailed plot; lots of characters who interact with each other; creepy environment with hidden depths which changes over time; interestingly reused tools; dialogue; mystery; revelations; humor; a sophisticated structure which weaves together foreground and background story elements. Next Life is an ambitious piece of interactive fiction. It's also no fun.

I shall start with the small problems and work up.

The title Next Life is lousy. I can't remember it. I actually just typed it as Next Wave, despite having typed Next Life two sentences earlier. Second Life? Next Time? Blah, generic. Mind you, the original (European) title was Reprobates, which gives a somewhat skewed impression of the story but is at least distinctive.

(Mind you, the original title was Zatracenci -- the designers are the same Czech studio that did Black Mirror and Nibiru. I think it means "The Damned". Which is quite a good title for this game, although it probably wouldn't sell well in the States.)

Enough about the title.

The English translation is terribly, horribly no good. This is becoming a theme in adventure gaming, isn't it? Ghost in the Sheet, Keepsake, any dozen other European imports...

We've got the confusing responses: "I can't get out" when it should say "I can't get it out." We've got the downright misleading responses: "There isn't anything here" when you're just using the wrong tool. We've got the objects with inconsistent names, or blatantly wrong names, or (frequently) both. We've got the utterly mangled idioms. (My favorite is when you discover a dead body and say "The mills of God were quicker before I could do it." What? I think that was a snarky line, originally. The humor suffers nearly as much as the clues.)

In short, you can't trust anything the game tells you. Enough about the translation job.

The interface trips you up. You left-click on an object to examine or use it; you right-click to examine it more closely. The right-click is mentioned in the manual, but I missed it, and you're three chapters in before you encounter something that you must right-click to solve. Whoops, and there's my first trip to the walkthrough.

The navigation hotspots are small and weirdly placed. Not so badly at first, but by the latter half of the game, you are flailing the mouse around to go anywhere. You can aim at an exit and miss. The game provides a workaround: if you hit "E", the exit hotspots all flash for a second. This does not mollify me because, one, they flash not quite long enough for me to remember them all. Two, even after I remember the location, the spots are too small to hit easily, so I have to flash them every time I want to use them. And three, when you find yourself putting in this kind of workaround for your design problem, take it out and fix the damn game instead!

None of these are the real problem.

Next Life is boring. If a game is about what you do most, then Next Life is about waiting.

It's a third-person view adventure, and it's really careful about avatar animations. No flicking from here to there, no spinning the avatar around. If you click on an object, the avatar takes a sidestep to turn, several more steps across the screen, one careful step across a floor irregularity, several more steps, a half-step to get perfectly positioned... it's methodical and precise. It's like a man walking on slick ice while 66.6667 percent drunk. It's unbelievably tedious. Every single action you take engenders this parade of obsessively-strung motion, and all you want is to find out if the stick can pry the door open. Or if there's anything hidden in the bush. Or whatever.

When you pick up an object, its icon flashes for exactly twice as long as it ought to.

The game is divided into chapters, and many chapters take place on a small island. The island has ten little huts, some inhabited, some not. Each chapter, you probe just a little farther into some corner of the environment. This is stylistically really cool... or it ought to be.

In practice, each island chapter runs exactly the same. 1: Pick up your bottle of water and your packet of crackers (mistranslated "cookies" most of the time). 2: Go outside. 3: Pick up three sticks and two rocks. 4: Go around and talk to everyone. 5: Go around and find the one thing that's changed. 6: Go everywhere and talk to everyone. 7: Go everywhere and find the one thing you can do. 8: Go everywhere and talk to everyone. 9: Repeat, until, 27: the chapter ends.

Notice most of this is "go everywhere". Did I mention the tedious walking animations? Did I mention the precarious navigation hotspots? You can double-click to run somewhere, but if it's on the same screen, it barely saves any time: you take a sidestep to turn, a walking step, three running steps, a half-step to make up the remainder... yeah, like that. Double-clicking to run off the screen causes an immediate fade-out and scene change (praise the creators and the angels that inspire them), but even then I would have made it fade out faster.

Oh, I didn't mention the constant scraping of the screen with your mouse to reveal poorly-distinguished pixels. That's 2.5, 4.5, 6.5, ...

Other chapters are set in other environments, which are cool. Those sections have the advantage of novelty. Again, I admire the structure of this game. With any other interface, it would have been great. Heck, if they'd just deleted the animation engine and let your avatar teleport, I think this would have been a mostly-positive review.

But it's not.

(Late in the game, you have to climb and scramble over rocks. This is implemented as a chain of navigation hotspots -- five or six across each screen. And, oh yes, this is the chapter where you can easily leave an object three screens away and have to go back for it. Twice. I come full circle to a perverse admiration: these people are working the hell out of their interface. They ramp up the complexity and the trickiness and the engagement throughout the game. I just wish that ramp didn't run from "mildly irritating" to "fairly annoying" to "hideously painful".)

But wait, I have not finished the laundry list of incomprehensible design decisions.

Hunger timer! Recall the crackers and water: you must resort to them regularly, or your generic health bar runs down.

(It's not actually a timer. Rather, strenuous actions cost health. That is, experimenting with your environment can cost health. How is this a good idea?)

For most of the game you have plenty of reserve, so this mechanic didn't actually annoy me. A bit repetitive, mildly character-engaging -- fine, I'll take it. Then in the last two chapters you're desperately short of food. Whoops. Kill hunger mechanic with rusty pole-arm, please.

I never found out what happens if you run dry. I managed to reach food in time -- barely in time, at one point. I suppose it's possible that the game is designed to fake you out -- to run the health bar down towards zero without ever reaching it. But I don't really believe this. The designers have no qualms about killing you in other situations.

Death! Okay, it's not that big a deal. The screen goes red, the game jumps back to before your stupid mistake, and you can do something else. So I assume that starving to death would have a similar mild-annoyance, try-again mechanic. This is my preferred way of handling death in graphical games, so I have no complaint here... except for that one scene where the game froze after my death, and I had to kill the app and reload.

Whoops. Kill death mechanic with dull stiletto, please.

I know, it's a bug. I shouldn't hold the design to blame. And it was just once. But even when I didn't hit that bug, the "try again" for that scene involved several long animations in a row. I went and got a paperback to pass the time.

Clicky mini-games! Some scenes try to enact a "physical" challenge -- some precision task or so forth. A little game pops up and you have to hit the arrow keys. With a time limit. Fail and die. Yes, "die" means the screen goes red and you have to start the scene over. Yes, Sam&Max do it too. But the challenges are hard and it isn't fun. Particularly not the third time you start over.

The save-load interface lists games from oldest to newest! So after the first three, you're guaranteed to have to scroll a lot. An old favorite hate of mine.

Gratuitous polygon-modelled nudity! Funny how many of the female characters are willing to have a scripted conversation after being interrupted in the shower.

All right, I'm not really complaining about that one. I just thought it was funny.

In short: I wish it were worth plowing through this game to see all the good stuff in it. Also, now that I re-read my review of Black Mirror, I see that they made all the same mistakes back then too. Sigh.

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