The Neverhood Preview

Dreamwork's fantastic adventure mixes the art of claymation with easy going gameplay

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Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim, is back on the scene with a totally original, very weird, hysterically funny - and heavily thumbprinted - puzzle/adventure game with wit, guts, humor ... and clay. Lots and lots of clay. Three tons of clay, in fact - that's how much went into the construction of the sets, devices, and characters populating The Neverhood. Every structure and creature you'll encounter in this Play-Doh universe is hand-modeled, presented in over 50,000 frames of digitized stop-motion animation. Players take the role of Klaymen, a goofy but sincere-looking transmorph somewhere between a humanoid duck and the aforementioned annelid. Indeed, Klaymen shows much outward evidence of his exalted Earthworm Jim ancestry - the unusual head, the quirky mannerisms, and the predeliction for prize-bull freakouts when faced with extreme personal danger - but he's definitely an all-new hero and his own man. Or whatever.

When the game begins, Klaymen wakes up on the floor of one of the many clay-modeled environments; you, the player, don't have the foggiest idea who he is, where to go, or what his goal is. This lack of purpose, in fact, is the ultimate point of this game. Scattered throughout The Neverhood (for such the world is called) are video-log diskettes; when completely collected and played in the proper sequence, they present the general overview of The Neverhood's huge cosmological back story, which in complexity and thoroughness is right up there with the Old Testament. (There's a hall of history in here, with wall upon wall upon wall of hand-scrawled lore and who-begat-whoms; if you decide to explore it in depth, you'd better get comfortable, ‘cause you'll be there a while.)

Luckily, gamers who just want to commence with the puzzlin' can dive right in. The game's interface is beauty itself; there isn't one. The screen is uncluttered with anything like scores, meters, or other electroimpedimentia, allowing full view of the stunningly intricate clay environments. (While you're playing it's interesting and a little awe-inspiring to keep reminding yourself that somebody made all this stuff with their hands.) Movement and manipulation of objects are single-click operations - if you need an inventory item (which you've been carrying around in your chest), one click on the device you intend to use it on will suffice; more detailed puzzles yield an automatic full-screen zoom. The puzzles found within The Neverhood start off simple enough, but even the veteran puzzle gamer will find plenty to do.

The earthy medium of the game's creatures and contents facilitates really oddball humor, both within the active-play environments (I purposely let poor Klaymen got thwomped to the ground by a spring-loaded fist five times in a row just for the sheer merry hell of it) and in the cinematic clips scattered throughout the game, shotgunned with visual references to Saturday morning cartoons (one, ahem, in particular), martial-arts flicks, and other boat anchors of slacker culture. The Neverhood is original, it's funny, and it caters to both deep-story gamers and get-to-it puzzle solvers. And thanks to the healing nature of a clay physique, every time you get your head smashed by a towering monstrosity, you just grow a new one and figure out a better way.

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