Adventure games have always been a favorite of mine. Some of my earliest meaningful experiences with video games have come from the likes of Lucasarts and Sierra. And in this day and age there’s no limit of indie developers attempting to recreate the brain teasers and in-depth stories that those classics brought to the forefront so many years ago. But I think that sometimes we forget just how absurdly difficult and unfair those games could be at times. And that thought specifically kept rushing to the front of my mind during my time with Earthworms.
Developed by All Those Moments and published by Ultimate Games S.A. on February 23rd, 2018, Earthworms actually resembles the weird horror of adventure titles like Shadow Of The Comet more than anything else. There’s a classic sci-fi theme of robots, dimensional travel, and tentacles at play throughout the gameplay, and the storyline itself is so weird that it might be worth playing based on that alone.
You play as Daniel White, your classic fedora and trenchcoat wearing gumshoe (who is inexplicably Buddhist for some reason), as you investigate a small town and its bizarre inhabitants. The interface is standard point and click, and I found its puzzle solving a satisfying flashback to the adventure games of the 80’s and 90’s. However, like those games, a lot of the puzzles required such a stretch in imagination that I was left flabbergasted as to how exactly I was meant to solve them without constant help from a cheat guide or playthrough. Sometimes the solution wasn’t spelled out at all, requiring me to just click on stuff until something happened. This is made all the more frustrating by how important items and clickable content tends to blend into the background, making it impossible to find until you happen to hover your mouse over it, often by accident.
That’s a result of the art style of Earthworms, which, to be fair, I found to be charming and unique. It’s sort of a classic adventure game through watercolors style. Imagine Indiana Jones and the Quest For Atlantis or Maniac Mansion with all the edges softened and the colors almost bleeding together. It’s a terrific way to introduce you to the surreal world of Earthworms, and at times I found it both pretty and haunting. But that style makes it really hard to know what it is that you’re meant to pick up and what you’re meant to ignore. I don’t need everything highlighted for me like they did in Maize, but it would help if I knew that that smudge on a rock was a switch and not just a weird piece of shadow. And Earthworms also has a nasty habit I’ve seen in other games: the inability to collect or interact with certain items until you’ve spoken to the right person or otherwise somehow unlocked it. Game developers: please don’t do this. It’s frustrating padding at best.
Daniel White also gets visions, which is a new one for me as far as this genre is concerned. You get a flash of an image when you visit certain areas and meet certain people, and these visions are meant to help you put the puzzle pieces together, I suppose. It’s never explained fully, and I went through the game without paying too much attention to it. It felt a little tacked on. I’m busy running a wild goose chase with random items I’ve picked up all over creation, I don’t need random images and vague feelings thrown at me to make this game more challenging.
But none of the moon logic puzzles or complaints that I might have here can make me ignore just how weird the storyline of Earthworms is. I don’t know if I’ve played a game this surreal in a long time. The plot takes some seriously outlandish turns, none of which I’m going to give away here. Let me just say that the case that you’re meant to solve gets solved very early on, and you just keep going deeper and deeper into this bizarre mystery about interdimensional travel, militia groups, and questionable canned goods. This spookiness factor of the story is effectively enhanced by a well-written, sometimes discordant soundtrack, and the fact that this is one of the more strange translations I’ve seen in awhile. And I mean that as a good thing. Translation has got to be a difficult thing to get right: not only do you need to get the basic meaning of the words across, you’ve got to translate them in a way that sounds natural and appropriate. Earthworms was developed by a Polish team, and they get the first part of that equation right, while completely bombing at certain moments on the second. The translation is, for the most part, pretty well done. But at other times it feels like it was created by a stoned, half-drunk Babelfish. You don’t think about it at first, and then you start to notice little things, like the fact that your protagonist refers to most of the women he meets as “nice lady”. Certain sentences are constructed in the oddest ways possible, and if the translation team for All Those Moments is listening right now, my advice is tell everyone you did it on purpose, whether that’s true or not. Because that aspect of this game only enhanced its weirdness: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Overall, Earthworms is about two or three hours of moderately unpleasant old-school puzzles painted into the strangest story I’ve seen in years. For those of us still scarred and hardened by moon logic and the frustration of point and clicks, you’ll be carried back to the eighties and nineties. It’ll be refreshing right up until you realize how rage-inducing many of those games actually were when they’re not viewed through a kid’s eyes. Anyone who likes a good story or a bad story with a ton of WTF moments ought to consider this one. But if you’re retired from the army of puzzles that stretch their credibility, you might want to steer clear.