Doctor Who is a license built on narrative, mystery, and humor, but 2D puzzle platformer The Eternity Clock's combination of spiteful puzzles, fun-sapping bugs, and a phoned-in plot fail to do the revered BBC series justice. Despite some excellent voice work from actor Matt Smith, The Eternity Clock is a clumsy but sometimes-funny platformer wrapped up in a crude Doctor Who skin.
The Eternity Clock starts in the traditional Doctor Who fashion, with the Doctor--who's modeled on and voiced by actor Matt Smith--crashing the TARDIS on Earth and puzzling over the cause. It's your job to find out what went wrong and ultimately save the universe. Initial sections of the game are promising as you guide the Doctor around the Bank of England's underground vaults and as Smith delivers the Doctor's eccentric quips with a suitably tongue-in-cheek quality: "Who designed this place? Escher?" There are opportunities to play as River Song too (Alex Kingston). In a particularly noteworthy sequence, River sneaks past unwary guards by kissing them with hallucinogenic lipstick--a rare mix of stealth and feminine wiles.
But it's not long before the cracks begin to show. One of the game's biggest problems lies in the ham-fisted design of the various puzzles. First, there are those that mix nominal explanation with sadistic checkpoints. They involve a lot of running around not knowing what to do, but with none of the fun that accompanies such hijinks on the show. The worst offender involves a four-story building, the Cybermen army, and a security room. You have to escape the building, but first you must unlock the exit. This requires breaking into a seemingly impenetrable security room on the top floor. The only way to get in is to wait for the Cybermen to climb all four floors of stairs.
Infuriatingly, the tin men slog upstairs like geriatric Daleks, leaving you to twiddle your thumbs for three whole minutes. This isn't even the worst part, because it's anything but obvious how you're supposed to get rid of the Cybermen hordes you were forced to let reach the room. Since you have little health and lots of enemies to contend with, you'd think the game might help you out with a hint, but no dice. As a result, this puzzle will likely take several retries, and here's the kicker: every retry sends you right back to the start, meaning you have to endure those three minutes of nothingness each time you die. Every single time.
Beyond absurd checkpoints and a lack of help, that puzzle and others like it expose some basic design flaws. If a game includes full-screen minigames while insta-death enemies are around, it's only fair for it to let you know when those enemies are getting close. If a game forces you to run away, it should indicate where the insta-death enemies are. These aren't exactly subtle mistakes. Other puzzles, such as crate pushing and weight balancing, are lifted straight from Puzzle Platformer Design 101, and the Doctor's sluggish dragging animations completely destroy the pacing of the game. There are stealth puzzles too, which involve pressing L2 to duck and knowing how to time a run, but these are just as dull.
If you can get past the puzzles, there are still a plethora of bugs to endure. Even when the game is at its best, the screen tears. When the game is at its worst, it skips minutes of dialogue, gives you an AI partner who frequently gets stuck, drops out audio during dramatic moments, and randomly kills you for no discernible reason. Even when the bugs aren't game-breaking, there are so many tacky errors that you always feel like you're peeking behind the curtain. This would all be defendable if the game could nail the Who factor. After all, the platforming physics are graceful enough, the minigames (which spin familiar but cute twists on everything from Pipe Mania to dominoes) are as fine as they are simple when there are no enemies around, and there are a lot of collectible hats to find. In some ways, The Eternity Clock gets close.
Smith, for one, is consistently brilliant. Highlights include his invigorated blurting of "Ooh look! Rocks!" and a bizarre conversation the Doctor has with River that revolves around his uncle. Also, when the Doctor and River work together across time in split-screen co-op mode, it neatly taps into the Doctor Who spirit. River, for example, leaves the Doctor's sonic screwdriver somewhere in Victorian London for him to then find in Future London. This sequence pans out in single-player too but with you playing both parts one after another. Working with a friend in tandem better captures the time-traveling show's character.
Sadly, beyond those things there's little in The Eternity Clock that feels deeper than a Doctor Who glaze. The only things that distinguish each time period you visit are how it looks and which monsters are in it. There's none of the cultural exploration that's in the show's DNA, just as there's no resonance or tension within the storyline. Doctor Who is so popular because it mixes family fun with elegant sci-fi and emotional plots. Meanwhile, The Eternity Clock tosses in some funny Doctor lines, the occasional "Hey sweetie" from River, and a bunch of baddies, and gives it all a stir and hopes you enjoy the vaguely Doctor Who-flavored cocktail.
Maybe that will be enough for some to get over The Eternity Clock's numerous problems, but it could have been so much better. The few times banter clicks between the Doctor and River it clicks so well that you don't care that they're side-scrolling sprites. When the game actually incorporates the show's identity into the play, like River snogging guards or the level that literally makes you keep your eyes on the Silence at all times, it's as imaginative as it is true to its roots. That's what's so frustrating about The Eternity Clock. It could have been the great Doctor Who game. Sadly, beyond the promising opening minutes, it has been executed so poorly that not even the Doctor can rescue it.