The Next Big Thing
Developer: Pendulo Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: 04/21/2011 (04/20/2010 for digital pre-orders)
So, here’s a funny story for you. On Monday in my preview of The Next Big Thing, I stated that I would have to put a review of this game on the back burner since I had Black Mirror II, Red Johnson’s Chronicles, Jurassic Park: Episode 1 and beta testing for Society of the Serpent Moon to get through, and I wasn’t going to purchase TNBT because of its price point of $29.99, which is lot higher than most adventure games run these days. However, after that piece went live, Focus Home Interactive, the publishers of the game, sent me a digital download code for The Next Big Thing. As review copies automatically go to the head of the line, a game I thought I wouldn’t be able to review until mid-May was played and beaten before the actual release of the game. Sometimes I love this gig.
Now, I was pretty high on TNBT. I’m one of the few people to have played and enjoyed the first game in the series, Hollywood Monsters. I loved the original Runaway, and TNBT was one of my ten most anticipated indie titles of 2011. Now the time for talk and hype is done. Is The Next Big Thing Brock Lesnar like… or is Viva Media going to wish I had left this game on my backburner?
It’s a shame more people don’t know about Hollywood Monsters, as there are some aspects of the game that would make a little more sense if one had played it. See, the world of TNBT just dumps you right into the game and doesn’t explain the back story or specifics of the world. You just kind of have to accept it and go with the flow. The world of TNBT is inhabited not only by people like you or me, but by monsters. Vampires, werewolves, revenants and the like are all real everyday joes too – they just happen to have special needs and/or physical conditions. Most have taken jobs in Hollywood doing horror films and live the lives of celebrities rather than foul beasties lurking under the beds of children.
…and so begins The Next Big Thing. Your two main characters, Liz Allaire and Dan Murray are assigned to cover the monster equivalent of the Oscars. Liz is somewhat insane and/or psychic as she is prone to blurting things or out being able to tell what people are going to say before they say it. Dan is an ex-sports writer demoted to the society page because of one too many foul ups. Neither one likes each other very much, but when they catch Big Albert, the world’s smartest man, and Frankenstein’s Monster breaking into the home of RKO Studios Mogul William Fitzrandolph, Liz smells an even bigger story than the movie awards.
What follows are six acts where the player controls Dan or Liz as they try to discover the nationwide conspiracy going down. The eventual reveal of the conspiracy is a bit underwhelming, and frankly it paints every human as seriously racist. In fact the bad guy has an Ozymandias from Watchmen thing going on, and it’s hard to paint him as evil or even misguided. He truly believes the ends justifies the means in this case. Of course this isn’t the only story problem. The entire game is rather disjointed from beginning to end. There is no chemistry between Dan or Liz, either in the game or through their voice actors, yet the game decides to shoehorn the two characters together as a couple. As well, in the first few acts of the game, Liz is shown to be either seriously insane or psychic, but the last half of the game drops this sub-plot completely and it’s never brought up again. Disappointed and poorly done. Worst through is the translations. This game is originally a Spanish title, and much like how we used to make fun of “Engrish” in old 8 and 16-bit titles, you’ll encounter some “Spanglish” in the game with slightly odd translations in both the game’s dialogue and the even the menu screens. For example, you’ll be asked to “give a description” when you save a game. Weird minor things like that.
With all that in mind, the story IS funny and it is fun to play through for the most part. There are moments in this game where I laughed long and hard, and I think there was a smile on my face consistently through the first four acts of the game. The latter two… not so much, as that’s when the game fell apart, but there is some incredible witty dialogue here.
I was surprised how much I liked the story, as the hook of the game is the EXACT SAME as the first Hollywood Monsters, right down to two reporters that don’t get along, the same newspaper, the same weird thrown together romance, and monster related scoops. However, the game did go in a very different direction, so I’m happy about that. Overall, I enjoyed the story of The Next Big Thing, but the issues mentioned above kept it from blowing me away.
Story Rating: Enjoyable
Without a doubt, The Next Big Thing might be the best looking video game I have ever seen. Aside from the beginning of Act 4 where Liz and Fitzrandolph are animated very poorly compared to the rest of the game (it’s still better than most games though), The Next Big Thing looks better than most full budget animated movie features. This game is just gorgeous from beginning to end and it’s very impressive than a independent development team like Pendulo can pull out better graphics that nearly every AAA company I can think of. Again, I honestly can’t think of a better looking game in terms of animation, art and the sheer detail in the world. Characters look amazing, the backgrounds are beautiful, and you really do feel like you are watching a movie at times rather than playing a game.
The graphics alone will probably keep a gamer glued to their computer, even if they usually aren’t a point and click fan. The Next Big Thing is so well done graphically that people will enjoy watching it as much as they would playing it; perhaps more if they aren’t into this genre.
Graphics Rating: Unparalleled
Like the visuals, Pendulo Studios and Focus Home Interactive have put together a simply phenomenal voice acting cast. Every actor does a magnificent job with their lines and they really bring the characters to life. The only one negative I can think of is that at no time is there actual romantic chemistry between Dan and Liz – but that’s more the script and plot’s fault, as the actor’s sure do the best with what they are given. Honestly, this is the best overall acting job I’ve seen in a video game in years, and I really wish Pendulo would consider turning this into a movie or TV series because the cast and animation are good enough to support either.
The music in the game is also very well done. The only negative I can think of here is that there is a specific puzzle where you have to put different musical instruments to the same tempo, but you can’t hear the bass guitar unless you crank your speakers up to ear splitting levels, and even then it’s just barely. Meanwhile everything else sounds like you’re standing next to a speaker at a monster truck rally when you do that…
Again, Pendulo Studios and Focus Home Interactive outdid themselves with the soundtrack and the casting in this game. Even if the plot had some problems and the ending of the game was hugely disappointing, the voice actors really made me care about these characters and should be strongly commended for their work here. They have really set the standard from here on.
Sound Rating: Unparalleled
4. Control and Gameplay
Like most adventure games, The Next Big Thing is a purely point and click affair. You use your right mouse button to toggle between talking, taking and interacting with clickable hotspots on your screen, and the left you activate it. You have to go to the very top of your screen to cause a drop down bar to appear. On this bar is your ability to show the hot spots, get a hint, pull up your inventory, go to the options and a list of the checkpoints you have for your current act.
There are good and bad things in this particular system. The good is that you can see the hot spots. The bad is that you can’t access them on higher difficulty settings. The good is that the help system is hilarious as it involves the narrator of the game giving you a hint in line with the story he is telling. The bad is that for the two truly awful puzzles in the game, the hints are utterly useless, which will make at least one of them impassible for certain gamers. The good is that it’s nice to have everything right in one place. The bad is that it’s kind of in a weird spot, and the flow of the game would be better if the bar was brought up by going to the bottom of the screen. Sometimes the dropdown bar comes up because a hotspot is too close to the top of the screen, like a ring in act four. Other times it is very slow to respond, especially after a dialogue scene.
For the most part, the game plays pretty well, and puzzles are easy enough to get through. I love that double clicking on something speeds you through to that locations instead of a slow walk back and forth through locations. The dropdown bar is a bit awkward at times, and saving your game is a bit weird at first due to oft-kilter localization used, but you get used to it. I do hate that you can’t overwrite a save. Instead you have to make a new save, “enter a description,” exit out, go to the delete game option, scroll through the old saves and click on one twice to get rid of it. CUMBERSOME. Like the story, the actual playing of The Next Big Thing is enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t live up to its name.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable
Like all adventure games, The Next Big Thing is exceptionally linear, and everything unfolds exactly the same each time you play it. That makes this a “one and done” game, which would be fine if TNBT carried the now standard price tag for adventure games, which runs between $9.99 and $19.99. At $29.99, and with a runtime of about only five to six hours, The Next Big Thing is rather pricey compared to its contemporaries, and it makes it a hard choice for people that aren’t diehard point and click fans to want to pick up – especially when you’ll really only get one playthrough out of it. Sure, you can come back to TNBT in a year or two when you’ve forgotten about the answers to the puzzles and all you really recall is laughing a lot, but the same could be said for any adventure game. As funny as this game can be, most people won’t have the need to come back to TNBT after they beat it.
Replayability Rating: Bad
Besides how the story comes apart in the last two acts, the other problem with The Next Big Thing is the puzzles. As adventure games live and die by both puzzles and plot, this can be a bit of a problem. Thankfully, like the story, the puzzle issue isn’t too bad – it merely keeps the game from reaching its true potential. All of the puzzles in The Next Big Thing are weird – there is no denying that. One involves giving a man eating plant caviar. One involves threatening to use the Necronomicon to make the dead rise and eat the living in order to get a mummy to give you a necklace. Another involves taking tranquilizer darts and using them to put a tentacle covered parrot to sleep. Now the truth is, nearly all of the solutions to these puzzles are pretty easily. Generally if I clicked on the help function, it was to see what the narrator would see instead of actually needing help.
However, there are two puzzles that were not only completely out there, but that had completely bizarre solutions. The first is the hieroglyphics syntax test and the other involves orchestral flowers. The first doesn’t actually make sense at all, and it turns out to be a trick question, while the latter is almost unsolvable. You have six flowers, and each plays a different musical instrument. You have to not only figure out the order of the instruments, but you also have to get them to play at the right time and in the right tempo with all of the others. If you mess up, you have to start completely over, and what instrument the flowers play changes each time you start over. Now the big thing here is that the bass is almost inaudible, and this is coming from someone whose hearing is so good I can hear the radio on the first click of the dial. You really have to crank the volume up far past obnoxious action movie levels to hear it. Otherwise, again, it can’t be passed. Even worse is if you are a deaf gamer. If that’s the case, you won’t be able to pass this point at all. The flower puzzle alone made me consider stopping the game altogether because it was that poorly conceived, and the amount of times I was 1/32nd of a beat off and had to start over had me swearing like a sailor.
Thankfully those are the only two horrible puzzles in the game. The rest are very easy, if not logical, and you should be able to get through the game in about five to six hours. Although these two puzzles were pretty original, they were also amongst the worst I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game. Once again, The Next Big Thing had all the signs of being a truly great adventure game, but it managed to drop the ball to merely being an enjoyable one.
Balance Rating: Enjoyable
Although the game uses the same basic plot hook and character personality types in this game as were used in Hollywood Monsters, to the point where I was afraid at first that this was a high definition remake with new names rather than its own game, it really did become its own beast after the first fifteen minutes or so. As well, even though the game uses the same gameplay trappings that can be found in 99% of all other adventure games, Pendulo Studios really gave us some of the most original puzzles I’ve seen in an adventure game in some time. Of course, some of those are also some of the WORST puzzles I’ve seen in a long time, but the vast majority were as bizarre as they were funny. Usually I get annoyed when a puzzle’s solution is so outside the realm of logical thinking that there is no way a person would ever think of that, but much like with the Sam and Max games, since everything is so insane in The Next Big Thing, EVERYTHING enters the realm of the possible.
So, The Next Big Thing manages to do some outlandish and original things while still sticking to the tried and true trappings of the genre. Nice work!
Originality Rating: Above Average
I played through The Next Big Thing is only two shots. I played the first four acts without stopping, then I played the last two the following afternoon. The game really sucked me in, and not because I wanted to get the review up for the day or day after the official launch. The visual and vocal presentations both blew me away and kept me coming back for more, even when the story’s plot holes became more apparent or when the flower puzzle had me wanting to put my fist through the screen. The game is also laugh out loud hilarious, and after finishing the very grim story mode of Mortal Kombat, this was a nice change of pace. I really did have fun with The Next Big Thing, even if I was let down by the game several times. Still, it’s up there with Gray Matter as the best adventure game that I’ve played this year.
Addictiveness Rating: Good
9. Appeal Factor
Adventure games have become a niche genre here in the states, but the sheer beauty of the game’s visuals, the outstanding voice work and the hilarious story should be able to bring a larger numbers of gamers in to check this out. Hey, it works with Monkey Island and Sam and Max, so why shouldn’t it here? Of course, the down side is that The Next Big Thing is $30 and those comedic games are five for $30. Sure they are shorter games in all, but the combined runtime is a lot longer than the five or so hours you’ll get out of The Next Big Thing. As well, some of the puzzles here are so bad, a lot of gamers will put down their mouse with disgust. I know I nearly did and I’m a BIG fan of point and click games. We’ll call it a thumbs in the middle here.
Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre
So The Next Big Thing really ISN’T the next big thing. It has some story flaws, at least one of the worst puzzles I’ve ever encountered, and it’s priced at $29.99 in an era where games in this genre are usually $19.99 but can go as low as $6.99 for a first day release. At the same time, the production values are through the roof and it’s the most stunning video game I’ve ever seen in terms of animation quality. It’s very funny and it has all the necessary trappings for an adventure game to be a mainstream hit… but it also has issues that will also drive that same audience away. At the end of the day, I’m glad I played The Next Big Thing, and it is definitely a fun game, but it’s not a game I think I’ll ever have a desire to play again. Now if they made a TNBT movie or series, I’d be right there waving my disposable income around like a rag doll for it.
Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Don’t let the name fool you; The Next Big Thing really isn’t. Instead it’s a fun but flawed adventure game that falls slightly short of the mark. The game has some of the best animation and voice acting I’ve ever seen in a video game, but the plot completely falls apart in the last two acts, and there’s at least one puzzle that is literally impassible for people with even a hint of hearing loss. I liked the game well enough, but I’m also a big fan of point and click adventure games. If you like Sam and Max or other off-kilter games with an insane sense of humour, you’ll have fun with this. Otherwise, you aren’t actually missing the next big thing by passing on The Next Big Thing