In the bizarre world of The Next Big Thing, monster movies star actual monsters, menial jobs are performed by robots, and people say "Ayo" and "Aya" instead of "Hello" and "Good-bye" for no apparent reason. This point-and-click adventure's gorgeous visuals create a captivating alternate-reality vision of Hollywood. But its puzzles occasionally border on inscrutable, and along with a poorly implemented hint system, these impediments prevent The Next Big Thing from living up to its name.
You play as two characters: enthusiastic entertainment reporter Liz Allaire and jaded sports writer Dan Murray. While attending a gala event at monster movie factory MKO Pictures, Liz stumbles on a sinister scheme, and quickly finds herself in over her head. Dan reluctantly sets off to save her and, with her help, foil the diabolical plot. (After all, she's promised him two tickets to the big boxing match on Friday night.) You might expect a Hollywood in which creature features are produced by a monster-owned-and-operated studio to feel alien and unfamiliar, but you quickly learn that the monsters of The Next Big Thing are a lot like people. Most of them just want to be accepted in society for who they are. You meet some memorable monsters during your investigation, like the hulking Poet of Pain, who craves new and interesting ways of causing himself anguish so that he can be inspired to write poetry about it. But the mismatched journalistic duo are the stars of the show. Dan's cynical dialogue is often good for a laugh, and although Liz's penchant for uttering non sequiturs initially makes her seem just plain strange, her cheerful go-get-'em attitude eventually wins you over. A hint of romantic tension between the two very different leads makes you root for them and want to see the story through, though unfortunately, they spend very little of the game interacting, and their relationship feels underdeveloped as a result.
Unfortunately, the charms of The Next Big Thing's characters are powerless against the frustrating puzzles you must occasionally solve to advance through the story. As in so many point-and-click adventures, you move your characters around environments and pick up anything that might come in handy, from baseball bats to robot heads. You can engage other characters in conversation and combine items in your inventory with each other or use these items on things in the environment to progress. Many of the puzzles make a kind of adventure-game sense (Of course that's how you get the robot drunk!) and are just tough enough to make solving them satisfying while keeping the game from dragging to a standstill for long. And fumbling around for a little while is enjoyable, particularly when playing as Dan, thanks to his sarcastic responses to many of your off-base suggestions. But there are a few puzzles that may inspire you to bang your head against the wall in a Poet of Pain-like quest for enlightenment through agony. Even when you finally work out the solution to one of these puzzles (or just stumble upon it), the reaction it inspires is not one of success at having solved a difficult problem but of bafflement at how you were supposed to figure it out, and these moments sour the entire experience.
There are also times when your character won't take an item he or she needs until it's needed. For instance, you might have a bright idea about how to use something another character is holding in his hand, but try as you might, you can't get the character to give it to you. However, if you come back to that character after doing other things and talk to him again, your character will suddenly push harder, and the item will be yours. This means you might spend a lot of time going in circles and talking to characters you've already talked to again and again just to see if anything's changed. When you're thinking a few steps ahead, it's frustrating having to wait for your character to catch up with you.
The Next Big Thing has a hint system, but it's not a good one. To have access to it at all, you need to select the easy difficulty option when starting the game. There's no option to adjust the difficulty later, so if you play several hours into the game and then get stumped, the only way to access the hint for that situation is to restart the entire game on easy and go through the motions of playing back up to that point. Additionally, there's only one hint available for any given situation. Sometimes this hint might make your next step abundantly clear; other times, it may be too vague to be of any help.
Thanks to top-notch art design, the visuals are stunning. While the game never ties itself to any specific time period, the fashions, cars, and environments mesh to evoke the glitz and glamour of Hollywood's golden age, albeit a golden age in which monsters and robots are commonplace. The sumptuous visuals transport you to this era of class and elegance, and there are frequent scenes that wouldn't look out of place in a high-quality animated film. But despite the game's beauty, you'll wish the characters moved a bit faster; their slow walking pace will have you double-clicking your desired destination to make them instantly warp from one spot to another (as opposed to, say, running), which speeds things up but looks unnatural. And characters don't always line up properly when talking to each other; Dan sometimes looks like he's staring off into space while carrying on a conversation. The voice acting is fine; Dan sounds like a good guy at heart whose cynicism often makes him come across as a jerk, and Liz's unfettered enthusiasm serves as a great counterpoint for Dan, making it easy to buy into the idea that these two opposites are reluctantly attracted to each other.
It's too bad that a few maddening puzzles and other issues weigh down this beautiful journey to a time that never was. We're in the midst of something of an adventure game renaissance, but while its visuals wouldn't have been possible ten years ago, The Next Big Thing too often recalls the frustrating aspects of so many games from the genre's past. At $30, this is a reasonably priced adventure, and by the time you've reached the end, you'll have grown attached to its lead characters and intrigued by its world. But the experience isn't without its painful moments. The Next Big Thing has plenty of vintage Hollywood style, but it falls well short of being a classic.