In 1996, a clay animation point and click by the name of Neverhood was released, featuring plasticine protagonist Klaymen against the evil Klogg, who was responsible for stealing Hoborg, the son of Quatar’s crown and sending him into a deep, deep, sleep. Nearly 2 decades later and after direct sequels such as the adventure platformer Skullmonkeys and an animated film that has never seen the light of day (yet), developer Pencil Test Studios released the spiritual successor Armikrog into the world.
In Armikrog, protagonist Tommynaut and his faithful companion Beak-Beak have unfortunately crashlanded on an unknown planet (soon to be discovered as Armikrog). Uncovering an unruly plot created by the evil Vognaut to steal the secret of Armikrog for himself, they must perservere onwards through series of puzzles to ultimately save the day and return home.
The journey through Armikrog brings forth tales from a group of Octopus (Octopi?) who willingly tell you what has become of Armikrog – in an unknown, strange language. Graphically represented however, the story is relatively easy to understand. There’s a slight technical issue with subtitles in other areas being triggered only after full conversations have finished (in particular with the ants who you meet) which may, to those with hearing difficulties, leave them rather disappointed as to the final execution. Otherwise, the range of voice actors and the sheer quality of those involved is incredible. We’ve not only got Michael J Nelson as Tommynaut (Mystery Science Theatre 3000) but we also have Rob Paulsen (Animaniacs, Looney Tunes, The Land Before Time and hundreds more) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) who pull together a VO trio to die for.
Their character designs look similar to their predecessor; understandable as they were created by the original Neverhood and Earthworm Jim animator Doug TenNapel. All in all, Pencil Test Studios had put together a dream team of big names, big talents and a quirky concept which would sit uniquely and innovatively in an over-saturated market such as Steam marketplace.
Clay animation appears to be a long-winded and time consuming art style, yet the result leaves the game feeling homely and down to earth. With every background, or moulded character face, there’s finger and thumb prints – mostly smudged from the smoothing of the plasticine; some slight flaws and imperfections which naturally occur when working with the material ultimately add more to the style than take away from it. You spot a slight imperfection in the background for example, perhaps there is a wall and some of the plasticine is smudged so that it’s a little heavier in one place than another; all this does it highlight that a pair of human hands has moulded not only that wall, but other elements of the game, building up the awe of the player in the natural skill and talent that exists in the artform. I felt during my playthrough that these little flecks of human crafting added a value to this game that is needed within the independent games industry – for humans, by humans. Creative and ultimately unique. The execution of a series of ideas by creative individuals outside of a template format for RPGs / FPS / top down dungeon crawlers. If there is a game representative of the incredibly awesome ideas out there, outside of the norm, Armikrog would have to be it.
In regards to the storyline, it is kept relatively basic but wise considering the length of time some of the puzzles take to complete. A more intricate story would have left players somehow forgetful of what had just happened and what they were doing for why, whereas an overarching simplistic theme is easier to remember.
However, there are a few issues with Armikrog which seem to let the title unnecessarily down. There’s a few slight bugs on the version I played – one was after completing a puzzle to get to a new tower within Armikrog, I had to complete further puzzles to open up the next area and face a boss. Fantastic. Except after I had completed these puzzles, all the success sounds rang, I travelled between rooms repeatedly but nothing would open. I even tried to re-do a puzzle that had already been completed to try and return to older towers, thinking that speaking to the prior Octopus would somehow reveal part of the process I had missed (although I learnt, after a gruelling hour, that going back was not going to be possible, which is the next issue). Live on stream I walked between rooms, tried to click on walls, doorways, windows, old puzzles, but nothing would happen – chatters were trying their best to help, coming up with new ideas and options but nothing. Upon entering a specific room for the fourth time however, suddenly a cutscene triggered and a door at the end opened. Having done nothing different to the three previous times of entering the room (including at least twice when I’d walked in, clicked on statues, walls, doorways, walked all over the room) and no cutscene triggering, this had done nothing but waste a chunk of my time because it just simply hadn’t worked the first time. I’d even gone through doubt, then second guessing myself and it was only by pure fluke and sheer desperation to somehow continue the storyline I had returned to the room on that fourth attempt. In fact, in all honesty, I was close to rage quitting the game at this point because I could not for the life of me work out what I had missed and I was physically unable to go anywhere.
Which brings me to another slight technical issue I had with trying to get back to other towers. Earlier in the game this wasn’t an issue, returning back was simple because I had already solved the puzzles that connected the two buildings and this remained open. However on the final and last tower – as previously mentioned when I was trying to return to work out where to go next – a puzzle which consisted of a roulette style puzzle where each icon would move the ‘transportation railing’ seemed to fail me entirely. I even went back to basics – I copied the symbols as provided on the wall but even when I used these more than once they created nearly three different combinations, even though they were the same icons. I even got to the point where I wrote down every icon on the roulette and had run back and forth between three screens to see which symbol caused which reaction, but the same symbol would often create more than one reaction meaning even if I could ever identify a way to get back to the previous tower, me inputting this on the puzzle would not necessarily mean the railings would be in the right place. It became apparent after an hour that the only purpose of the puzzle was to ensure we could go to the mysterious hidden room but never to return to tower 2 and unfortunately, never speak to the Octopus you meet previously when they switch languages.
Given the opportunity to travel freely, I would have definitely gone back to speak to the other Octopus after the language switches, eager to hear the tale I’d not understood verbally, properly. I feel there’s an opportunity missed there and although the last Octopus does explain the ‘last stance’ element and the big boss fight to come, it would have been nice to have been able to go back should we wished to.
There was only one other issue with puzzle solving which absolutely destroyed me during this game and that was one where you had to put the robot design in to the puzzle to lower a nest so you can transport across. Nice and simple… although I had not seen any of the robot pieces before and had no guidance. Checking other rooms showed no clues and ultimately I actually guessed the combination which was more coincidence than skill. I only found after I had guessed it, succeeded and travelled to the next part, that the robot parts were displayed on the platform you land on. After the puzzle you’re supposed to solve. I couldn’t quite fathom how I was ultimately supposed to get to the platform prior to the puzzle in order to know which pieces I needed, but seeing as we managed to solve it, I dropped it and moved on. It could have been possible that I was to use another transport railing to get there, but the only one I could find took me to see the birds who were squawking away.
That being said, these were the only bugs I came across and could be resolved – the first, if the cutscene activates upon the first time you go there after solving the puzzle, then I wouldn’t have spent an hour and a half trying to solve where to go. For the second, this would never have happened had the first issue never cropped up. And the third, well… if the clue could be put somewhere in the first section of the game, instead of after the puzzle has to be completed, then that’s it – still challenging, still requiring effort, but not near impossible. The remainder of the puzzles were varied and some were just on that line of challenging which makes you feel fabulous when you complete it and I particularly loved the musical puzzle which happens when you’re introduced into looking after P.
One strong attribute that Armikrog has is the compulsion to complete the game – it is so delightfully unique and weird that it’s too difficult to just walk away without seeing it through to the end. After all, what does happen to Tommynaut and Beak-Beak? What about P? Will we ever vanquish the evil Vognaut?
What’s more, is there are fantastic opportunities to continue Tommynaut’s adventures which would be incredible; Armikrog in length is not overly long and leaves you wanting to complete more areas. Perhaps an opportunity to expand into other areas of Armikrog, underground, out in the plains or even perhaps across other worlds. I am torn between saying I’d like to see it as an episodic series, purely because although I feel it could work, would the cost of creating the game simply not see a return in this format?
Overall, the game is incredibly enjoyable (with the exception of a few issues) and has fantastic VO talent, fantastically fitting music (which we barely touched on, but does deserve merit), intriguing storyline and character development with a variety of puzzles provoking a challenge close to frustration that leaves the player feeling accomplished when complete. If old school point and click puzzlers are your type of thing, then you are missing Armikrog from your life – if puzzlers make you want to rip your eyes out, well…