Retro Gaming News (Commodore 64)
Caren And The Tangled Tentacles
Reviewed By Dave E In Micro Mart #1435Retro Gaming News
What better way to start a new weekly look at the retro gaming scene than with one of the games that has seen more publicity than most - Caren And The Tangled Tentacles, a point and click adventure for the Commodore 64 which, if you believe the hype, is the greatest graphic extravaganza since Lucasfilm's original Monkey Island on the Amiga.
However, don't get overexcited. Caren is a much smaller game than that classic. But the great news is that it is expertly programmed. It fits on a single 5.25" disc and each scene loads very quickly, positively enhancing its playing experience over that of some of the Nineties point-and-clickers where loading seemed to take forever.
Let's see how to play. At first sight, the instructions seem thorough. They introduce you to exactly how to move the protagonist around each room, how to pick up and drop items and how to save/load progress. When characters speak, speech bubbles appear containing their words. Even how quickly these words appear, and indeed how the control panel responds to your movements, is configurable.
But there's a glaring omission. Who exactly is Caren? Are the tangled tentacles friends or foes? Whether by accident or design, the game's instructions have no backstory at all, and working them out is perplexing. You'll quickly gather that you're Caren, a chemistry scientist and that all your colleagues are all unexpectedly absent from work. But that's about it.
So, now what? Well, after solving a few puzzles and flitting quickly between your house and the lab, you'll find a body floating in one of the water tanks. So far, so curious.
If you've ever played a point and click adventure, you'll be aware that the solutions can range from the easy (insert an ID card to open a door) to the ridiculous. At first, my experience of Caren was going well - I discovered the key to the laboratory easily enough, went in, got hold of my ID card, discovered the body, headed downstairs to a character (who seemed to be based loosely on Back To The Future's Doc Brown) and received a boot disc off him. The game seemed to be guiding me quite easily in the "right" direction, allowing me only to access certain areas of the game and only introducing puzzles which could be solved by drawing on previous interactions and a little brain-power.
Unfortunately, it then all seemed to go awry. Certain locations seemed to be blocked off for no good reason, whilst others opened up but seemed to be quite confusing.
The real problem is that very lack of backstory that I mentioned earlier. I'm all for "discovering" the solutions to problems by trial and error - but Caren seems to include a baffling array of distractions as to what that discovery should be. As one example, there's an old cartridge-based Atari, joystick and Tennis cartridge to be found. Whatever the mission may be, it seems self-evident that playing with your Atari isn't going to solve it.
Also, consider what happens when you discover and use the bathroom. Caren proclaims "I wonder where the sink drains to...?"
I presume the answer to this question is extremely important, and if you go there (via that big grate outside her house), some great mystery will be unveiled. But what causes my brain to go foggy is that I don't understand why, in the absence of any scene-setting, she would suddenly be wondering this at all. I further don't understand why I can manipulate a plethora of her chemistry equipment in the lab. That's simply because the game has not introduced me in any way to what it is that I am meant to be doing.
More confusing still is that the game appears to exist in a number of 'versions' which are completed differently (right from the very opening scene), so heading over to YouTube for a walkthrough is likely to only further baffle you unless you happen to hit the correct one.
Finally, in talking to the lab receptionist more than once, I found an odd bug that garbled her speech into an unfathomable diatribe of unordered text.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is something about Caren; hundreds of C64 officiandoes singing its praises cannot be mistaken. It's as gorgeous-looking as any game for a machine with much higher specs, and it includes some lovely graphics, animations, sound effects and music. It also has some nice comedic moments, and the user-interface, once you get used to it, is an absolute doddle to master. No tediously walking across empty rooms a la Monkey Island - just point and tap the fire button twice to glide right through them, for example.
Sadly, the bewilderment I have alluded to doesn't do the game any favours. I never felt such confusion playing Monkey Island, Darkseid, Day Of The Tentacle or any of the multitude of point and click adventures we've seen over the past two decades.
There's no doubting that this is an exciting release, especially if Prior Art has built it on a scalable game engine comparable to SCUMM - there's no telling what further homebrew point and clickers would follow such a development. But I'd warn all those who have heard the whisperings about how Caren is the C64's equivalent of Monkey Island that, regrettably, it isn't.