Monday, June 13, 2022

Old Skies, New Demo

I was excited to learn earlier today, by way of a post at Later Levels, that a playable demo had been released for a game on my Steam wishlist: Old Skies. It''s the latest project from Wadjet Eye Games, makers of Unavowed and the Blackwell Chronicles, all of which I very much enjoyed.

I downloaded the demo immediately. It only took a few seconds. Then I played it. Steam tells me that took a couple of hours. Actually I think it was more like one but I can't be sure. I left the game paused while I had a cup of tea and played with the puppy in the garden. I really ought to pay more attention to these things when I know I'm going to be writing about them later.

The demo is part of the latest Steam Next Fest, an event I am learning to love. This time around it runs for a week, starting today and finishing on June 20th. I'm looking forward to going through the demos on offer, picking a reasonable number, playing through them and posting my impressions here.

This is the first. A harbinger, if you will.

Coming from Wadjet Eye as it does, it won't surprise anyone to learn that this is a hand-drawn, 2D adventure game, although as the Later Levels piece explains, it was nearly a full 3D title. Maybe that would have been fine but based on other adventure series that took that route I'm not so sure.

Stay right there, pigeons! I have a surprise for you!

The flat, saturated style that makes each location resemble a cel from a 20th Century animated movie has always been one of Wadjet Eye's greatest strengths, so you'd have to wonder why they'd even consider moving in another direction. I'm pleased to say the images here are up to the usual standard, with the character models looking particularly appealing. I did find some of the detail a little thin but let's put that down to this being an early demo, not the finished article.

While it's always a pleasure just to gaze at a Wadjet Eye game, the core appeal lis in the storytelling. The characters tend to be nuanced, the world-building convincing and the narrative compelling. All of that is evident in the demo for Old Skies.

There are five characters in the demo: Fia, the protagonist; Nozzo, her handler, present only as a hologramatic head; Professor Joseph "Andy" Anderson, the client; Lisa, his erstwhile girlfriend and a waitress, whose name I can't quite bring to mind.  All of them, even the apparently forgettable waitress, make a solid impression in the short screen time given them but Fia, as befits the main character, is a standout.

When I watched the promotional video a while back, I was less than impressed with either Fia's dialog or the voice actor's reading. The delivery didn't seem so much underplayed as thrown away. It almost sounded like an early table read. Also the English Public Schoolgirl diction sounded like it would grate after a while. A very short while.

In the demo, given the full context of the plot and characters, that same delivery flares into life; subtle, smart, engaging and often very funny. It's the voice of a character you want to spend time with, get to know, to understand. So much seems to be happening beneath the surface, hinted at here and there by the echo of a sigh, the ghost of a smile.

All the characters are well-voiced, which is just as well since Old Skies is fully voiced by Wadjet Games' "largest cast yet". The music, once again by Thomas Regin, the composer responsible for the previous games, is good too, albeit considerably too loud in the default setting. I had to turn it down by half to hear what the characters were saying. 

Twenty-somethings still say "Jeeze Louise"? In 2024?

The setting for the demo is extremely near-future New York. 2024 to be exact. The basic premise of the game involves time travel so that's just one of the periods we'll get to explore in the full game. There will be seven in all, the announced eras being Prohibition, the "Gilded Age", which I had to look up (1870-1900, according to Wikipedia.) and, somewhat worryingly, the morning of 9/11. 

Time travel is a notoriously difficult concept to wrangle into anything even close to coherence. I learned long ago not to question any of the premises in a given interpretation too closely. All of them fall apart if looked at straight-on.

All that matters is that whatever position the piece takes it remains internally consistent and that the writer does something interesting with the conceit. There's not enough of the story present in the demo to be certain of the former but as for the latter I'm already sold. 

Very little, really almost nothing, is explained. Fia works for some organization that seems to be commercially-oriented although it could be governmental. Her job appears to be somewhere between a tour guide, a bodyguard and one of those KGB agents who used to make sure Soviet athletes and ballet dancers never got the chance to defect when they visited Western democracies. 

Jeeze, Fia! Spoilers, much?

So many unexplained references and casual remarks pass between Fia and Nozzo as they discuss the client, the job and the problems that arise. I absolutely loved it. Nothing makes me happier about a work of speculative fiction but that it assumes everyone already knows as much about its world as the characters who live in it. I realize others may find the approach less welcome but I'm sure it will all come clear over the course of the full game. I just hope they don't explain everything.

Gameplay is very much what you'd expect. There are some surface nods to the futuristic background of the characters but fundementally the processes are directly analagous to those used by the previous games. Expect to ask a lot of questions, read a lot of documents and research everything on a computer.

The Steam page mentions "Lots of puzzles that require temporal thinking to solve" but we'll have to take those on trust because the demo doesn't have too many puzzles and those it does have don't require any "temporal thinking" at all. At least I don't think they do. I'm a little vague on what "temporal thinking" might be, if I'm honest.

I was able to solve all the puzzles the demo put in my way without needing to look anything up out of game, which means they must have been pretty straightforward. I found the difficulty level just about right for my tastes, spot on for a demo, which needs to draw people in, not put obstacles in their way. I imagine the game itself will require considerably more mental effort if it's on a par with its predecessors. 

I'd tell you but then I'd have to kill you. Oh, wait... you think I'm kidding?

The only part of the demo and by implication the design that I found weak was the lack of realistic dialog responses and behavior when returning to characters I'd already spoken to but that's an all-too common generic fault of point & click adventure games. Characters in most of them seem happy to stand around in one location for hours or even days on end, always willing to chat even when the protagonist is being blatantly rude or repetitive. 

I've failed any number of puzzles over the years because I simply can't bring myself to be as boorish and pigheaded as a game requires, badgering people relentlessly on the offchance they might say something different on the sixth approach than they did last five times I asked them the same question. Old Skies is no worse in this respect than any other game but if I had one piece of feedback to offer (They invite it.) then that would be it. 

All in all, though, it's an excellent demo, a great advert for the game and a lot of fun in its own right. It tells a complete story so it feels like a short game as much as a chapter in a much longer one. I strongly recommend playing it although if you prefer you could watch someone else doing just that. 

I'm very much looking forward to the full game, whenever it comes. 

As yet there's no release date.


  1. I'd love to tell you you brought this game to my awareness but I did learn about it on Twitter ... uh, two days ago.
    Still, you brought the demo to my awareness! It will stay there for a bit as I'm quite distracted, might even miss it because of Next Fest's short time period, but there's no way I'm missing the full thing.

    1. I can't actually remember where I heard about it first, to have added it to my wishlist. It was someone's blog that I read and I wanted to credit it but I couldn't remember which it was. Thanks, whoever it was!

  2. That first screenshot reminds me so much of Unavowed. I Only played a few hours of that one and really need to go back to finish it….or I could go play this demo. It sounds great!

    1. The Steam page makes a point of saying the graphics are three times more detailed than any previous Wadjet Eye game but I agree. It looks almost identical to me.


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