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PC Preview - 'Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens'

by Alan Butterworth on March 7, 2008 @ 6:34 a.m. PST

In Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens players take control of the witty sorcerer during his new quest in the Magic World. In this point and click adventure the story unravels when Simon travels around and interacts with dozens of characters, solves puzzles and brings order to the chaos his double has caused.

Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Playlogic
Developer: Silver Style Entertainment
Release Date: Q1 2008

Simon the Sorcerer, much like bronzed Baywatch star David "the Hoff" Hasselhoff, is apparently quite popular in Germany, where the fourth part of this point-and-click adventure has been available for nearly a year now. For non-Deutsch-speaking adventure gamers everywhere else, however, the wait is nearly over as Playlogic prepares to release Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens to the rest of the world.

Set some years after his last experiments in 3-D, Simon the Sorcerer 4 begins as Simon is knocked unconscious by a TV remote hurled at him by his bratty brother. While his lights are out, he has a dream in which his alter-dimension girlfriend, Alix, pleads for his heroic assistance. Returning from his remote control-induced head trauma, he wastes no time using his energy drink-powered wardrobe to hop dimensions to the Magic Kingdom, where he is unceremoniously dumped by Alix and discovers that a doppelganger "Simon" has been impersonating him and creating all sorts of chaos. This is where you come in, undoing the mess left by your double and thwarting a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom and re-getting the girl.

Unless adventure games happen to be your thing, you might be wondering who the hell Simon is that he deserves four games in his uninspiring name. Well sonny, put down your crazy motion-sensing toys for a second, and come listen while granddad takes you back to 1993, when the first Simon the Sorcerer game was released for PCs. Back then, Simon was an ordinary teenager transported by a spell book into a realm of twisted fairy tale characters who he ruthlessly insulted and derided with his special brand of wit and sarcasm.

Three games later, not much has changed. Of course, now we don't have to run boot disks to get our games to work and the graphics are a little better, but Simon is still the same witty teenager clad in his often-mocked red robe and pointy wizard's hat; he also has the same unstoppable tendency of being obnoxious to everyone he meets as he engages in accidental heroics. Fans will instantly recognize the gags, the Magic Kingdom landscape and a host of characters who return to reprise their past roles.

Some of you may be new to Simon and as a result, the frequent in-jokes will be lost like little children in the dark woods. Especially for you, here is a brief primer on the alternate dimension Simon occupies, known as the Magic Kingdom. First off, this is not the rodent-based theme park in Florida but is populated with a host of fairy tale characters gone horribly wrong. Little Red Riding Hood is an abhorrent brat armed with pepper spray and a feisty anti-man attitude. Goldilocks is a fake blonde wearing a wig to con her way through life as a master thief. The Big Bad Wolf is a depressed and cowardly alcoholic without any direction, and the bridge-guarding troll is a greedy entrepreneur. Simon's Magic Kingdom is a kind of rotten underbelly of fairy tale existence that you might expect to see when the cameras go off and the tourists leave.

True to the series, there are plenty of laughs in this vein throughout Simon 4, although there's a bit of hit-and-miss humor, too. The game succeeds best in its clever blend of the totally mundane with fairy tale magic, resulting in some well-written moments of surreal humor, such as the ad for a werewolf's self-help group. All of the environments are littered with irrelevant objects waiting for Simon to make a wry quip or sarcastic remark about. Very little in the world is spared the wrath of irreverent parody, and there are plenty of moments that should bring a smile to your face. The series is also well known for its self-referential humor where it pokes fun at itself and adventure games in general ("If you're in an adventure game and you see a rope, take it. That's an ancient rule."), and some of these are the best jokes in the game.

An important part of the delivery of these humorous elements is in the quality of the voice acting, which is fairly solid. Curiously enough, though, the script seems to have been penned by English writers, littered as it is with words such as, "git," "blimey" and "bloke," yet Simon is voiced by an American actor, and some of these colloquialisms come out sounding a bit off the mark. The preview build is also let down by a fair number of typos in the subtitles and hotspot text that should hopefully be tidied up before the game's release. On the plus side, the conversations are mostly entertaining and feature many branches with uniquely tailored responses.

Graphics are the strong point of an adventure game, and Simon 4 is no exception, with a variety of beautifully detailed, pre-rendered, hand-drawn backgrounds and expressive characters that perfectly fit the fantasy theme. Ambient sounds are decent, and I'm not saying the music is bad necessarily, just that sea shanties, "Lord of the Dance"-style folk tunes and karaoke backing tracks aren't my thing.

The gameplay is shamelessly point-and-click and full of the bizarre logic that pervades adventure games, where using the hamster with the tumble drier is the obvious and right thing to do. Expect to happily indulge your insatiable kleptomaniac/petty thief tendencies by picking up every red herring in sight to put inside your infinitely deep pockets. The quality of the puzzles spans a nice range from derivatively easy to original and perplexing and should provide a decent challenge to even those veteran adventure gamers who came up through the text-based trenches. The story runs fairly linear, and you'll never find yourself dealing with more than two or three quests simultaneously, which keeps things manageable and focused.

To make things even easier, there's a journal that keeps track of your quests, and if you're ever feeling lost, it lets you know what direction you should be pursuing. The quest journal even features an online help system consisting of three hints, each more revealing of the solution to a particular puzzle than the last. The hint system never completely reveals the solution to the puzzle, but if you still haven't got it by the third clue, chances are that you might also find feeding yourself and tying your own shoelaces to be perplexing tasks.

Quite a few environments have minute hotspots, and countless hours might be wasted building up frustration if it wasn't for the "h" key, which instantly reveals all of the available hotspots on the screen. The control system is masterfully streamlined to the point of Zen minimalism, and you can play the game entirely with your mouse and left mouse button, which performs context-sensitive actions (talk, use, take, look at), skips dialogue and can be double-clicked to quickly travel to a location. Later in the game, a map makes traveling between distant locations totally painless. Moving the pointer to the bottom of the screen causes your inventory to automatically pop up on the bottom row. The only flaw in all this is that there doesn't appear to be a shortcut key to the useful journal.

Expect Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens to be a welcome return down memory lane for fans of the series and a weekend well spent for devotees of the adventure game genre.

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