There are few genres that depend so entirely on their atmosphere and script than point-and-click adventures. The nature of these games is cerebral rather than skill-based, and so their success or otherwise depends on whether players enjoy spending time in this place with those characters. Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer are such beloved designers in this space for many reasons but the most important of all is that they're funny. Nobody loves Grim Fandango or Thimbleweed Park for the inventories; it's because hanging around in those worlds is both intriguing and a great laugh.
Trüberbrook is a new mystery game from German developer Headup and, while I wouldn't go too wild with the comparisons, it has something of this quality. The first and most striking aspect is the simply stunning art style, which is based around real-world miniature models that have been scanned and digitised. The effect this creates is somewhat akin to sophisticated stop-motion, and retains that technique's hand-crafted atmosphere. It's a world that feels like you could almost reach into the screen and touch.
The vibe it's going for is clearly something akin to Twin Peaks, casting the player as young research scientist Hans Tannhauser who's found himself in this remote, rural, and decidedly odd town. He has a familiar habit of making voice recordings for an absent assistant. After a brief prologue featuring another character, there's an absolutely gorgeous opening crawl following Hans' bus as it winds up the mountain road towards Trüberbrook. A sedate opening lulls the player into this setting, with the locals amusingly obtuse and a nice mix of helpful/unhelpful, before strange things start happening. To just go over the plot beats would be a little unfair on the day the game releases, but it's not too much of a spoiler to say that beneath this idyllic exterior lurks something much weirder. It's not as surreal as its main inspiration, favouring instead a charmingly archaic science fiction angle that, in concert with other unexplained factors, keeps you intrigued enough to play on.
Almost all of the appeal I found in Trüberbrook was in the set designs, which manage to elevate the mundanity which can settle over proceedings. It's not that Trüberbrook is a bad or boring game, but it's perfectly content to remain bound-up in the genre's mechanical conventions and accept their frustrations. This means you'll spend a lot of time mousing over the environment looking for interactive objects, which is fine. Less fine is the logic behind some of the puzzles which, as ever with traditional point-and-clickers, can be either poorly explained or non-existent. I'm not ashamed to say that, at certain points, I got so fed-up of clicking the same things over and over that I looked up a walkthrough, and was somewhat unimpressed to see the solutions I'd missed.
This is, of course, something that one could say about many otherwise-brilliant adventure games. Those that are able to survive the genre's restrictions do so because of their characters and worlds and script, an onward pull that makes you want to hear the next joke, see the next set-piece gag, and unravel the twists. It's why I adore Day of the Tentacle even though the puzzles are ridiculous. Trüberbrook is a mixed bag, because aesthetically it is simply outstanding but script-wise I found it starting to drag and Hans, the main player character and observer of this world, to be a little... dull.
The Dale Cooper influence on his character is unmistakable and, for my taste, a little too strong. Whenever he makes one of his little voice notes I start thinking of Cooper, and it's not really a comparison that's ever going to end well for the imitator. Cooper is a funny guy: wry, a little aloof, whip-smart. With Hans there's something about the humour that feels a little off, a little forced at times, even a little cynical.
Humour is hugely subjective, and it may be that Trüberbrook leaves some folk rolling on the floor. I couldn't help but feel that something doesn't quite translate here, like the mindset behind certain lines isn't quite lining up with their delivery and expression. Take for an example one of the first observations Hans makes, on arriving in this incredibly beautiful, mountainous region: he feels he's arrived in "the most barren, dark void in Europe" before opining it may make for the "greatest holiday ever." These lines are obviously intended as a joke but the deadpan delivery falls somewhat flat, for me, and leaves you wondering what Hans actually means. This is indicative of a slight misjudgement in tone throughout. I suspect that, if I was German and playing this in German, the humour might be considerably more effective, but there's something about the archness of these characters that doesn't work too well in English.
Looks will get you so far, but only so far. I've been waiting to play Trüberbrook ever since I first saw this style and, while the final product isn't quite as detailed and shiny as some of the early target renders, it still looks stunning. Environment after environment took my breath away, and it's no exaggeration to say I spent as much time gawping as I did playing.
What's beneath the surface isn't quite so appealing. The game is short, and pulls you through its stunning scenery at a fast pace. Others may find something to love in Trüberbrook's alternate take on history, its wild narrative twists, and its dour protagonist. I left charmed by its style, but I don't think I'll be going back.