Dropsy, a point and click adventure game about a circus clown, is quite the surprise. Coming after the genre got turned on its head thanks to the success of Telltale's The Walking Dead, and King's Quest returned sans the pointing and clicking, a back-to-basics adventure game with a mouse pointer and obscure puzzles - that's actually really rather good - is a breath of fresh air.
Out on PC for a very reasonable price of £6.99, this is the bizarre, freaky and often touching tale of a clown who wants people to love him. It's a point and click adventure in the oldest sense of the genre, with rock hard puzzles, some so difficult I had to seek help, and the reliance on visual communication over written dialogue adds another hurdle that must be overcome.
Dropsy himself does most of the work, but he has a few animal companions who join him for the adventure, each with their own skills that let them access areas the big clown would struggle to reach alone. Thankfully a car is given to you part way through, meaning you can quickly travel around to key locations, eliminating the slow trudge that blighted the recent King's Quest reboot.
If you don't tread water for long periods, scratching your head over an unsolved puzzle (why am I carrying a vampire mask? How do I make the scrap king like the soup he's being made?), the main quest can be completed in around five hours, but chances are you'll come unstuck at least a couple of times. What's more, I finished with items left unused and NPCs still posing visual riddles. There's also a whole area I couldn't access, presumably only possible if you finish off some secondary quest lines.
Drawn with a very low-fi style (pixelated so you add extra detail in your mind, with text being simple symbols - that can be deciphered if you wish), Dropsy certainly apes the genre classics extremely well, and the large cast of characters are some of the most diverse and interesting I've seen in a video game for quite some time. Pleasing all these people is all Dropsy wants to do, which is lovely in an age when most problems in video games are solved with violence.
If you miss the old days, before games of this ilk got streamlined and simplified, give this a whirl before you read too much about it. That's coming from someone who knows their stuff when it comes to circuses. One of my uncles was a clown.
Full Disclosure: I probably should have been an acrobat, or a clown or something
In an age when games journalists (lol, journalists) are under increasing pressure to disclose everything, god-forbid they have any private life that isn't the business of everyone who's read their name beside an article, I had an ethical dilemma. Having thought long and hard about what the right cause of action is to preserve the sanctity of video game reviews, I felt it was my duty to lay all my cards on the table.
Where do I begin? I was born in Australia, my mum and biological dad touring with Chipperfield's Circus. He was a lion tamer - resulting in many instant wins when bragging about dads in the school playground. He also worked with tigers, snakes, crocodiles, camels, horses, elephants, zebras and more. It was, I'm told, a crazy life - one that, understandably resulted in many horrific injuries for people who got a little too confident around the animals. There's no real point in adding that final detail, seeing as Dropsy is about kindness and not gruesome acts of violence, but I wouldn't want to be caught out when someone discovers a secret quest or something.
Thinking about it all as an adult it's obvious animals like this shouldn't be caged and trained to perform, but it's a part of circus history that can't be changed. His brother, can you believe it, used to work with polar bears - something my mother drops into conversation around the dinner table now and again. Characters do eat dinner in Dropsy, but as far as I can remember there's never any mention of polar bears.
My brother and I used to visit now and again when we were young, checking out the animals (the massive room full of snakes always freaked me out) and seeing how the tent was erected. It always seemed like a slightly surreal experience, offering a glimpse into what could have been. This is important as there are tents in Dropsy, although no snakes - other animals do make appearances.
In comparison my mum's career highlights seem relatively normal, but still include riding elephants and performing an aerial trapeze act - not exactly the usual skills you find on a CV. Thankfully she got out of the circus before me and my brother could crawl and brought us over to England, although remained connected by making many of the dazzling sequined costumes the performers donned while in the ring. You never see any performers other than Dropsy, so I can't say if my exposure to sequined dresses has had any influence over my opinion. If unseen characters wear sparkling outfits it is without my knowledge.
Those family links alone would probably cast me as the most well-equipped video game journalist of all time to review a game about a clown, but there's more.
Nan used to perform in a dance troop called the Dinky Dots, and then went on to be a ballerina... on the back of a bull! Her first husband was a CLOWN (alarm bells!), and the two of them used to put on a slapstick comedy routine. She once tried to teach me to tap dance, hoping I'm sure that I had some circus bones in my body. I didn't, and don't, instead using all my free time to read Mean Machines. To quell your concerns, I have never performed as a clown or been part of a clown show, although I did attend a fancy dress contest at school once, dressed as a clown.
As a child my strongest circus memories come from seeing my auntie and her partner perform as a balancing act duo, who after leaving the circus used to tour holiday camps. As a child it felt like we were constantly driving up and down busy motorways, eating a burger and chips as the pair performed, and then heading back at close to midnight. Incidentally, Trevor, the man you can see upside down in the picture, took me and James to Woolworths once to buy Moonwalker on VHS. Again, this last anecdote is almost entirely irelevent, but the fact I bought Moonwalker with my hard-earned money might tell you all you need to know about how you take my opinions.
My uncle, who I saw at the circus many, many times, specialised in throwing knives at his show partner, who would be spinning around on a wooden board. He also cracked whips and pretended he could barely walk in order to build the tension as he worked up to the first throw. As thrilling as his act was, our stays on the circus over summer holidays stick in my mind mostly due to the horrendous porta loos. If anything showed how I wasn't cut out for a life in the circus, those loos were it. There is a porta loo in Dropsy, but for my money it doesn't portray this 8th circle of Hell at all convincingly.
Oh, here's me and my brother. Stroking a lion cub...
And getting rather close to a baby bear.
So, yeah. If the natural order of things had happened as destiny most probably wrote, I'd currently be touring the country (or maybe Australia) with the big top. Seeing as I'm a twin I have no doubt we'd have been made to do something together, probably an acrobatic act or some kind of comedy duo - or maybe a magic act (probably called Twin Magic). But my life took a very slight detour away from that path and into the equally crazy world of games journalism.
With that weight off my shoulders I feel you can read the above review and fairly assess if you want to trust my words.