Every once in a while (e.g. during the present deluge of cut-rate hidden object titles), we casual game reviewers put the call out, begging publishers for something fresh and original… a little left-of-center, even. Thankfully, every so often (i.e. here, in one of the most clever and adorable mouse-mashing puzzlers seen in months), the powers that be actually listen, blessing fans of the hobby with first-rate outings like Penguins’ Journey.
The most striking aspect of the tale, as you’ll immediately ascertain from the initial loading screen, an animated vignette showing your alter-ego, a penguin wearing a captain’s hat, worriedly looking at cartoon eyes appearing in the dark? The fact that, from an animated main menu and lush, leisurely-scrolling tropical backdrops to fleets of penguins who waddle down the screen on each stage, warbling with pleasure, there’s much to note and adore.
Production values are nothing short of spectacular, with the program delivering gorgeous environments, lovely hand-drawn comic panels, snappy sound effects, catchy tunes and a bevy of empathetic characters at virtually every turn. But hey, if the thought of watching penguins tumble into the water, landing with a flutter of wings and throaty gargle before grasping onto inner tubes for dear life piques your interest, just wait until you get a load of hands-on play itself.
Moving point-by-point along a brightly-colored campaign map, you’ll make pit stops at each self-contained stage. Arriving on the scene, what you’ll find near the top of the display is a beachside path, ending in an expanse of water which continues down to the bottom of the screen. Using a random selection of varyingly-shaped hexagonal puzzle pieces (think straight lines, zig-zagging patterns of tiles and boomerang-like configurations), you’ll have to fill in the transparent grid which lies atop it, connecting the initial landmass with occasional stone outcroppings and another slice of earth which lies a ways off.
Why? Because a few seconds after the action starts, a fleet of squawking, flapping penguins begins to shuffle slowly downwards, causing the screen to scroll. Fail to provide adequate support for this ragtag bunch of flightless waterfowl, and individual members of the flock will fall into the drink, depleting your limited supply of life preservers and bringing you one step closer to defeat.
Challenging enough as is – you’ll be replaying scenarios multiple times within the first 10 levels – the game’s made steadily tougher as you progress to boot. Additional obstacles run the gamut from increasingly poorly-shaped piece configurations to purposefully fast-scrolling boards and frogs which, if not clicked on first, gleefully bounce atop random birds’ heads and send them sailing into the sea. Mercifully, you’re able to swap a limited selection of pieces out at any time, rotate shapes with a right-click and recycle unwanted hex patterns out every few seconds. And, of course, cop a selection of handy power-ups as well – such as hammers that break unwanted tiles, trowels that fill in holes or fans which slow your tuxedoed pals’ approach – using goldfish awarded for completing each level between missions.
General shining level of polish, however, there are a few minor peccadilloes that detract from the overall experience.
For example – the fact that as difficult as some stages are, even with a time fast-forward button provided, you still have to wait for the computer to start the scrolling routine before you can advance the display. It’s a problem since you’ll often quickly fill in bridges’ initial sections, meaning it’s frequently necessary to idly sit by waiting for new, unoccupied sections of the grid to appear – penguins advancing the whole while and artificially boosting the difficulty level – instead of putting head-starts to good work.
A distinctly mouse-oriented adventure, it’s also tougher to play the title on a laptop’s touchpad than using a separate, optical sensor-/trackball-equipped peripheral, as selecting a power-up only causes it to be highlighted for one use. This makes it way tougher to repair multiple holes or demolish poorly-placed bridge supports on short notice; hotkeys could’ve made it much easier to put out proverbial fires on-command. The bane of many a casual outing, severe repetition is also inherent to the experience, as is a great degree of randomization, which can weigh heavily on the nerves.
Nonetheless, so well-produced as to contain bonus mini-games (e.g. inner tube-swapping match-three challenges and other visual brainteasers) strong enough to be their own standalone releases, it’s hard to nitpick. Offering secret awards, sumptuous graphics (including a visibly scene-livening “True Color” feature, found in the Options menu – make it your first stop) and addictive reflex- and IQ-taxing action aplenty, who are we to cry foul?
Fire up Penguins’ Journey and see for yourself what all the fuss is over – it’s yet another emotional “march” fans young and old will be falling over themselves to trail along on.