Edna and Harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes Review
It’s been a rough few years for the adventure game. The genre is still very much in the doldrums after its dramatic fall from grace in the mid-nineties. Still, it’s a kind of game that so many players recall with fondness, and bemoan the lack of in recent days. Games like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max can still raise a smile — good going for titles that are nearing their twentieth anniversary. While the big boys may have moved onto more profit-intensive pastures, indie auteurs and tiny studios are still plugging away, producing many items of worth; successes like Gemini Rue, Machinarium and The Walking Dead leap immediately to mind.
At their pinnacle, adventures games bring all that is great about game design: an irreverent and off-kilter sense of humour, huge doses of creativity in character and setting, and problem solving which is more about forcing your mind into unaccustomed patterns than quick reflexes and large guns. When all the elements work together, discerning players are offered the perfect storm of mind-expansion and diversion, entertainment and achievement (and not the kind that comes with a virtual score attached).
Harvey’s New Eyes is the latest foray from Daedalic, developers of The Whispered World and Deponia, two critically-well-received titles that I must confess to never having played. By all accounts, the studio is making a name for itself in off-beat indie puzzling, making its new title all the more deserving of critical attention. It’s a shame then that instead of the perfect storm, most of what is on show here is better compared to hazy sunshine spattered with occasional drizzle.
Harvey’s New Eyes, or to give it its full title, Edna and Harvey: Harvey’s New Eyes, is the second in a planned series of adventure titles. The first game, The Breakout, showcased Edna’s escape from a mental institution with the aid of her talking toy rabbit. This second instalment stars neither Edna nor Harvey, but focuses on the travails of an orphan named Lilli, whose incarceration in a strict Christian children’s home forms the backbone of the story. You’ll be given various tasks to accomplish, which you’ll do with the aid of trusty genre staples: the hidden item hunt and the stick-one-item-to-another trick.
A problem that thankfully hasn’t made it over from the earlier game is the extremely poor presentation. Critics have been very cutting about the quality of the English translation in The Breakout, and while Harvey’s New Eyes won’t be winning a Pulitzer any time soon, the grammar is at least passable. The voice acting is strangely disinterested, but delivered in an efficient manner overall. The interface seems to have been given a new lick of paint as well, with the SCUMM-style verb picker ditched for a more modern context-based command system.
One thing to note is that like most modern adventures, this game swaps the broad charm of the LucasArts stable for a more adult tone, even slightly morbid at times. Lilli may be a saccharine-sweet protagonist, but most of her attempts to please others seem to end up in accidental death. What makes this even more unsettling, the character and the narrator conspire to ignore the swathe of destruction she cuts through the cast list, with strange gnome figures popping up to paint over anything too disturbing with lurid pink. It’s easy to miss at first, and I must confess to feeling a jolt when I realised just what my innocent solution to early puzzles had caused. Some critics have compared this to seeing through the eyes of someone with a mental illness; to me it’s more in keeping with the tone of morbid comedy that pervades a lot of children’s entertainment—continually referring to death, but in a safe, fictionalised way.
The same tone is taken with the script, with mixed results. The relentless positivity of main character juxtaposed with the depression and hinted-at abuse around her provides some good fodder for observational humour, delivered in a flat deadpan manner that initially amuses before quickly becoming grating. The dialogue suffers from a heavy-handedness that attempts to wring every last gag out of every action, leading to a relative lack of really effective knockout lines. The lightness of touch that makes the clean-up gnomes so successful is sadly lacking in the overwritten and leaden supplementary text.
The cartoon presentation is often faultless, with the backgrounds especially being wonderfully detailed and full of surprises for the sharp-eyed. Once the story really takes off, and we cross the border from creepily rendered reality into sheer absurdity, the twisted logic of the plot begins to make a certain kind of sense. The same can’t be said for the meat of the puzzling—it continues to suffer from the disease that infests the minds of all adventure game designers. Not only do they assume that steps to solve a puzzle that are logical in their minds will occur to players, but also in this world, roughly similar tools can’t be used to do the same job. If a solution calls for a hammer, then a spade just won’t do.
If it seems like I’ve been very critical with Harvey’s New Eyes, then you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the game just didn’t click for me. It presents an interestingly observed world, with a functional user interface and a workmanlike level of sophistication—it just doesn’t reach and grab me. The cast and dialogue are just too weak, and the gloomy teenage preoccupation with death and despair seems frankly silly in retrospect. It’s much like an Edinburgh afternoon in April. You could stick out the dreich weather and grab what fun you can, or you could just stay in and eat a pie and chips in front of the telly. I won’t blame you for either choice.