I'll admit it. When I went for the demo earlier this week, I was a little nervous. Video game tie-ins have a weird place in my heart. On one hand, they're the inner child's dream come true. On the other hand, they almost always universally suck.
"There will be a big reveal," Aaron Blean begins as he fires up the console version of Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW! The game, he says, will be made available on the PS3, the Xbox360, the Wii U, the Nintendo 3DS and the PC. Anything but Mac and Linux, essentially. Boo. "I think a lot of fans will be blown away by what they'll find."
I nod. We go through the requisite back story: Princess Bubblegum, who is the warden of a Secret Royal Dungeon under the Candy Kingdom, needs help. For reasons yet to be revealed, the dangerous creatures she had incarcerated in this prison have begun to escape captivity. Finn and Jake, along with a myriad of other characters from the show, are commissioned to investigate the problem. It's not terribly impressive stuff, so far. While this could potentially build to a climactic revelation later on, the plot seems fairly generic. A good enough excuse to ramble through 100 subterranean levels, perhaps, but nothing more.
Then, I hear Jake scatting as the developer's logo fades in.
"We have full voice actors for the game." Blean supplies.
When a pixelated version of Finn ambles on-screen, I can feel my initial cynicism slowly oozing away. I'm not playing this because I want a cuttingly pithy statement about underlining philosophical themes, am I? I'm playing this because I want to smash things in the Land of Oo. The group (up to four players can play in local multiplayer) soon begins appropriating heroes for the session. I go with Marceline Abadeer, the millennium old Vampire Queen who is the most fragile of the available quartet (Jake, Finn and Cinnamon Bun make up the rest of the roster). Her low health is counterbalanced by the ability to float, a trait that makes her completely immune to pits and slippery surfaces, absorb anything red.
"Including red projectiles." Tomm Hulett, WayForward's Director of Adventure Time, tells me. "She can increase her imagination meter using red projectiles that way"
"Reminds me of a SHMUP a little." I say, reminded of those bullet-hell games where you can absorb some of the millions upon millions of projectiles fired at you.
We skip the opening cut scene ("Not quite ready yet," Blean apologizes hurriedly.) and head directly for the Candy Kingdom to meet a plethora of familiar faces. The main function of the supporting cast, as far as I can tell, is to supply stat upgrades and to provide ambient conversation. There's your standard-issue equipment dealer as well, of course, a rhyme-happy goose who supplies everything from thematically-appropriate grenades to dungeon keys.
Blean takes a moment to explain how tokens can be equipped to modify variables like offense, defense and speed before setting us loose on the sixth level of the dungeon. For a while, it's all just a companionable sort of half-silence. Blean names enemies. We hit things. We use character specific charge attacks (Marceline can frighten those within a certain radius into a standstill). Health items, ammo and currency rain down. At some point, Blean demonstrates an 'imagination' move: a screen-wide nuke featuring Lady Rainicorn. We run around further, swords and limbs and imaginations flailing.
Overall, the action is largely reminiscent of everything you might expect from top-down, Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers. What raises the latest Adventure Time project from being yet another competent but potentially unmemorable ARPG is the way Wayforward captured the spirit of the series. Finn and Jake's constant hooting and hollering as they engage in combat, the 16-bit inspired score, the cartoony sound effects that ring out whenever anyone hits anything, the way Jake winds up when he prepares for a charge attack - these all come together in a melange of audiovisual, franchise-appropriate awesomeness.
After bumbling through a dank, dungeon-like environment for a time, we're then whisked away to what appears to be a wing of the Ice King's palace. I encounter my first sub-weapon here: an Ice Sword that freezes anything it touches. Pink tentacles, which apparently have a connection to some dire secret, introduce themselves. A fast-moving reindeer swoops in to perforate the team. More boppage ensues.
Up till this point, it's been standard fare but then, circumstances take a turn for the worse (or better, depending on your appetite for chaos). A Hug Wolf infects our resident Cinnamon Bun with a thirst for affectionate embraces and he immediately becomes a worse menace than anything else we encounter. Halfway through a particularly large fight, Cinnamon Bun puts a yowling Jake (“No huggies, no huggies!”) on lock down. I collapse under a pile of skeletons. Finn is pinned against a wall. The party wipes and I feel my enmity dissipate even further.
Eventually, we go off to fight the Demon Cat who is the first boss among ten in the game and a creature endowed with a somewhat hifalutin vocabulary and the gift of 'approximate knowledge'. When we're done steamrolling over the feline, Blean informs me that the difficulty level will ramp up as players progress deeper and deeper into the catacombs.
Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW! is meant to be played by every one of the show's demographics, Blean continues. Kids included. As such, the upgrade system has been kept relatively simple to maintain accessibility. Characters are only customizable to a limited degree. If you want to play a long-range spell caster, you're going to have to pick an appropriate avatar; Finn can never be made into a wizard. Still, Hulett cites Etrian Odyssey as one of the influences on the game, a promising comparison if there ever was one.
“Gauntlet, Nethack and Smash Brothers were also influential, I think.” Hulett says when I ask about other games the team may have drawn inspiration from. “We're all fans of classic, 'pure' gaming at Wayforward and we're going to have that in the game.”
“So, does that mean we're going to see more bullet hell-like stuff too?”
A pause. Looks are exchanged. “Can't divulge too much but, let's put it this way. If you're a fan of that sort of stuff, you won't be disappointed.”
Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW! feels like a love letter. A hand-written, joyful love letter addressed to the community, to the creator of the show, to retro games, to anyone who gives half a damn about pixel art and co-op couch experiences. The final product might still be a flaming train wreck but hey, there's nothing wrong about nurturing a little hope, right? Stay algebraic, folks.