The last couple of years have been rough for adventure games. Apart from a select few (Full Throttle, The Beast Within, The Riddle of Master Lu), adventure games have seemed like nothing more than a showcase for the latest technology in full-motion video or the newest Myst-like virtual world. Virgin's Toonstruck seemed likely to follow suit, overly-hyped for both its technical prowess and ingenious premise. Surprisingly, the game falls a little short on both of these promises - the animation, while admirable, isn't mind-blowing, and the story is mildly amusing at best. But what's great about Toonstruck is that neither of these drawbacks matters in the slightest; the designers have made a great game by creating an experience that is entertaining and challenging but doesn't become too frustrating or too easy.
Here's the premise, for those who haven't heard it a million times already. You control Drew Blanc (hardy har har), disgruntled animator of The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, a cartoon so vapidly sweet it makes The Care Bears look like Fritz the Cat. Through a "freak accident" (actually he just falls asleep), Blanc is sucked into the cartoon world, which is split into three territories: the happy Cutopia, the wacky Zanydu, and the evil Malevolands. Count Nefarious, overlord of the Malevolands, has created a machine called the "Malevolator," and has begun wreaking havoc on Cutopia, destroying the landscape and transforming the cheerful denizens into sinister shadows of their former selves. In order to get home, Drew must help King Hugh, the happy-faced ruler of Cutopia, build a Cutifier to change things back to how they were before.
And that's pretty much the first half of the game, in which you must find the various pieces needed to build the Cutifier. This scavenger hunt makes for some great traditional puzzle solving. At every point in the first chapter, it's clear exactly what you need to be doing. Not that Toonstruck is easy: it isn't. But the challenge comes from figuring out how to do something, and not what you need to be doing, which is an extremely refreshing change from the almost total lack of logic common in most contemporary adventure games.
It also helps that the game is funny. Drawing its humor mostly from pop-culture references, there are dogs who talk like Ross Perot and bodybuilders who talk like the "Pump-You-Up" guys from Saturday Night Live. There are some bits of original humor, such as a sinister wolf that speaks almost entirely in malapropisms ("Stick around a memento, fellas, I got a little flavor to ask you"). It's all really cute and amusing, but it's not until the end of the first half that the game gets truly hilarious. I don't want to spoil anything, but the intermission is the first time I've laughed out loud while playing a computer game in a long, long time.
The second half of Toonstruck follows a somewhat more traditional path - stuck in Nefarious' castle, you must escape and find your way home. At this point, however, the traditional adventure game conventions work. Toonstruck is such a well-crafted game it's hard not to enjoy yourself. The voice work is excellent and the story is amusing enough to get you through the slow parts. In the end, though, it's the puzzles that make the game so great, and finishing Toonstruck only made me wish there was a sequel looming on the horizon.