Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: March 13, 2007
Hans Christian Andersen: The Ugly Prince Duckling is developer Guppyworks' first foray into the point-and-click adventure gaming genre. Set in the city of Copenhagen during the "Golden Age" of the 1820s, HCA is a comic and fictional take on the life of Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, who penned well-known titles such as "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Princess and the Pea," "Thumbelina," and, of course, "The Ugly Duckling." With my mind filled with fairy tales and visions of sugarplums, I giddily started up the preview build.
In HCA, legend has it when the Danish princess turns 15, an evil troll will come to wreak havoc; unfortunately for the denizens of Copenhagen, that day is today! When the evil troll and his minions come out to play, they spread darkness, disease, and fear throughout the land. If Hans crosses paths with a troll, there will be some very mild "fighting," in which they kick him and take his money — much like childhood lunchtime bullies. Hans must stop this evil and save the kingdom (and the princess!) by finding a magical tinderbox, which will emit a bright glow to scare away the baddies.
At the heart of HCA is a social gameplay system, and instead of levels, the title is broken down into five neighborhoods. Starting off in the "poor quarters" of Copenhagen, 14-year-old Hans will perform fetch quests and solve puzzles to advance to the next neighborhood and improve his station in life. The final level is set in the royal castle, so along the way, you will meet the right people and make the right friends, climbing the social ladder in the process.
When you initially wander into town, you're denied entry because, well, you look like a beggar. Each time you bump into a police officer, you're thrown out of town on your ear. It's very frustrating at first, but the cops aren't too swift on their feet, and their areas of jurisdiction aren't very wide, so it gets easier once you learn how to evade them. When you become more successful, you'll escape the scrutiny of the police by greasing their palms with a few coins.
The first level serves as a tutorial of sorts so you can learn how the game works, but the second level, where you find employment as a tailor's assistant, is when things pick up. Hans purchases a more respectable outfit from the tailor at a reduced cost, and he'll be able to do this again a couple of times before the tale ends.
You have a journal to keep track of your quests and findings, and the middle scroll wheel on the mouse lets you cycle through all of the items in your inventory without leaving the game screen. If you interact with NPCs while an inventory item is active and such an action exists, it will occur. For instance, if your wallet is selected when you click on children who are begging for money, you can kiss some coins good-bye. When you move up to the artisans' area but are looking for clues in the neighboring richer region, the police will still stop you for vagrancy, but they will forcefully shake you down for money in exchange for looking the other way ... for a short while.
Guppyworks' proprietary A.I. technology provides NPCs with the ability to more accurately imitate human behavior. As Hans' social status improves, the women go from threatening to report him to the police, to openly flirting with him. If that's part of the behavior imitation logarithm, color me impressed.
In most adventure titles, you scour the environment looking for items that are obtainable, although you have no clear understanding of why you're doing so, but you never have to mouse over entire scenes in HCA. When arriving at new locations, Hans will look in a particular direction, and that will be enough of a clue for you to start looking for hotspots in that general area. Because of this, your "pixel-hunting" is confined to a small section so you don't have to scour the entire screen waiting for your cursor to turn into an animated yellow circle. Additionally, you will consistently see a puzzle that is missing a component before you encounter the doodad completely out of context and wonder what purpose it could possibly serve.
HCA is one of the most straightforward games out there, and you don't need to think resourcefully or tap into your inner MacGyver in order to make your way through it. Once you know what the five cursor variations mean (walk, look, talk, push/pull, and give/take), you're all set. There is a simple maze near the end, and as long as you step back and take in the pre-rendered backgrounds, the solution is blindingly simple.
The game has lovely pre-rendered backgrounds, with various building types and a multitude of indoor, outdoor and underground scenes. Although the backdrops are fairly good depictions, the characters have exaggerated cartoonish features, which underscore the title's kid-friendly content. Discourse is decidedly one-sided here. Hans can listen, but there is no conversation tree for him to pose questions.
In terms of story and creativity, HCA is an enchanting mix of fact, fairy tale, and fun. The writers have done a superb job here, as they've managed to weave quite a few elements from Andersen's life and works into the game. Hans is tasked with creating a new military ensemble for the King ("The Emperor's New Clothes"), a mermaid is sitting by the docks and lamenting the loss of her true princely love ("The Little Mermaid"), and a swineherd is trying to swindle kisses from the princess ("The Swineherd"). The tinderbox from one of Andersen's tales is the key to saving everyone from the clutches of evil. While doing a bit of research, I was surprised to learn that the real Hans Christian Andersen had already moved onto his third job by the time he turned 14. This certainly explains why the game has Hans attending the Semper Labore school ("Always Work"), and why the chalkboard is covered with the Latin conjugation of "to work." (Yes, I always have been and always will be a linguistics nerd.)
Hans Christian Andersen: The Ugly Prince Duckling takes us back to a simpler time when a good bedtime story was the solution for everything. The straightforward gameplay will be accessible to people who found Myst's puzzles too confounding, and the attractive visuals will draw in admirers of all ages. Minor issues that were encountered while playing the preview build, such as loading times and awkward pathfinding, should be fixable by the launch date, or with a subsequent patch. Get ready to be enchanted later this month.