The frustrating thing about The Neverhood is that its simple beauty belies its malformation, making it all the more difficult to squash. Never before has a game's window on its own secret world begged so colorfully and texturally for you to stick your hand right into the thick of it and start moving your character around. Were this by some as-yet invented medium actually possible, however, the design would backfire, for the ability to encircle little Klayman's neck and squeeze all of the animated life out of him in the last third of the game would make ever finishing it impossible.
Which is not to say that finishing the game isn't impossible anyway. While exploring The Neverhood's early stages and solving its puzzles - which involve moving or rearranging items, making connections, and mimicking a tune - are a pleasure to work your way through, things take a serious turn for the worse the deeper you go. Clues are so abstract they will lead you to despair. Remembering what you have encountered and how it may be relevant to your current situation or problem becomes a dumbfounding enterprise - in part because once you pick up an item and add it to your inventory, there's no way to see it to reconsider its use - or anything else you are carrying - again. It's not until you click on whatever else one or more of your inventory items goes with that it suddenly reappears and fits itself into the grand scheme of The Neverhood's muddily linked together objects. Trial and error is one thing, but to make, for instance, the assumption that players will spontaneously relate a beam of light and a series of floating crystals to the colors in the spectrum of visible light that you learned back in high school is just plain unfair.
Which is a pity, especially when you consider how the game's fungible look and feel will, on the surface, appeal to younger players. The irony saddens the heart, because The Neverhood seems to have everything going for it: A lovingly hand-crafted character dreamed up by Earthworm Jim creator Doug TenNapel, painstakingly modeled sets, and - for once - marvelously animated cut scenes that are a joy to watch, each one building upon the last, as though you're sitting front and center in the screening room of your own private, shoe box-size claymation film festival. Yet despite its lively hero and enchanted story, The Neverhood's sum of parts never quite lives up to its promise.
Published by DreamWorks Interactive, whose founders include former Disney animated film honcho Jerry Katzenberg, Stephen Spielberg, and David Geffen, it is hard not to expect a certain level of widespread accessibility for young and old players alike, along the lines of that perennial mega best-seller, Myst. But as with certain unsatisfactory films such as Casino, whose actors mesmerize us, and whose locations and sets and cinematography transport us to another place and time, the plot ultimately distracts us from ever reaching total absorption. The Neverhood would have benefited from a tighter, more attainable script.