A good story helps move a point and click adventure forward, letting gamers rely on their own intelligence to decide what to do next. In Alabama Smith in Escape from Pompeii, however, even the most experienced gamers will hit dead spots that require multiple hints. Some puzzles are satisfying, but overall gameplay can be frustrating owing to a story that jumps between too many instructions and none at all.
Alabama Smith starts out with two interesting characters and a good idea: a way to give additional guidance in an adventure. Alabama is a twentysomething college student. The school sends him on a summer course to Europe where he meets the daughter of an archaeologist and they set off on a quest for a mysterious amulet.
In a typical adventure game, the many details are what keep players involved while deciding what to do next in a nonlinear game. Alabama Smith throws all of that overboard, and substitutes a task list that literally tells you what to do next, even it doesn’t make sense. For example, at a dig in Pompeii you’ll see an empty oven, a dig site, and a shadowed arch. Your instinct is to decide between exploring the dig or the arch. However, the game tells you immediately to make a fire in the oven. Your next task is to “moisten clay.”
Finally, you are led to clay molds, and as soon as you put them in your inventory, the moist clay you already created automatically jumps into the molds, and you have a mini statue ready to be baked in the already built fire. There is no story reason for doing any of this, and nothing to figure out on your own except the interim steps of how to build the fire and moisten the clay.
Similarly, as you move your cursor most items have a text label. This does eliminate some unnecessary clicking. Sometimes reading the label solves the puzzle instantly.
At other times, though, you just don’t have enough information. At least twice players have to enter a combination/ password. It’s not clear there is an interim step that must be completed elsewhere first. However, unlike most adventures, Alabama Smith will literally let players make dozens of failed attempts and never tell them that they just can’t succeed where they are. The only clue will be that there’s still something on the task list. But since you often get multiple tasks, you never know when it matters. They should have limited the number of tries (to three, perhaps), then shut down the lock to force players to consider other tasks.
Other situations are impossible to solve logically. In one scene, you need to carry ashes from one spot to another. On the ground is a large metal helmet. Logic would indicate that’s what you’re supposed to try. However, it turns out that instead you’re supposed to use time travel and go to a different year, just to pick up a bowl. The only way to figure this out is to use a hint, which will indicate the time travel button. You will jump back and forth 4 or 5 times to solve a single puzzle, with no story logic to drive the decisions.
Most of the puzzles are quite easy, on the level of “find the key on the shelf and put it in the locked drawer.” Some of them are complex, but not necessarily logical. Two require significant physical dexterity, and may be too hard for those with hand movement issues.
Experienced gamers will be able to complete the game in three or four hours. Novices may give up altogether because of the extreme variation in difficulty from one task to another.
On the plus side, the game offers two modes, casual and expert. The casual introduces a Find Items list like a hidden object game. This is an interesting approach. In casual mode you also get more hints and can skip mini-games. You can even switch modes between scenes.
One puzzle, the fresco, is exactly what an adventure puzzle should be: long, complex, logical, and thematic. We wish the whole game had been more like that.
We applaud the decision to create a smaller file game, and we did like the characters, if not the animation. Leaving out side characters and voice acting worked for a game of this size. The idea of the task list, the text labels, and the find list was very good — it was the execution that suffered. We truly hope to see a sequel with more logical gameplay and a more balanced set of puzzles. Some players, particularly those who want a shorter adventure and who don’t mind using the hint button will enjoy Alabama Smith in Escape from Pompeii quite a bit.