Being inspired by Jules Verne's most well-known adventure novel, Frogwares' 80 Days certainly has a literary cache that would, in theory, appeal to adventure gamers looking for a whirlwind Victorian adventure. But pedigree alone can't carry 80 Days, which takes a perfectly good premise for an adventure game and saddles it with obvious, tedious puzzles, a distractingly self-satisfied wit, and some extremely rickety technology.
The original 1872 Jules Verne story Around the World in 80 Days saw Phileas Fogg, a man of independent wealth living in late-Victorian-era London, make a wager that he could circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. It was a proper classic adventure, with Indian princesses, mistaken identities, and a lot of steam-powered transports. Rather than simply retelling that story, 80 Days uses it as a template for an all-new adventure. Set in 1899, the game follows Oliver, a young Englishman eager to avoid an arranged marriage, who takes the challenge of traveling around the world in 80 days on behalf of his eccentric inventor uncle. Along the way Oliver also has to recover the lost patents for four of Uncle Matthew's inventions.
The journey Oliver takes is sort of an abbreviated version of Phileas Fogg's. Though Oliver's journey starts in London, you don't start playing until he arrives in Cairo, and from there it's up to you to get him to Bombay, Yokohama, San Francisco, and then back to London by way of train, steamer, and airship. The game has no intention of portraying a historically accurate view of the world during the turn of the century; instead, it adopts a very pronounced steampunk aesthetic. Technological advancements that were embryonic at the time--automobiles, zeppelins, phonographs, motion pictures--are fully realized with an ornate Victorian flair in 80 Days.
The liberties taken with the story in 80 Days may disappoint those with affection for the original Jules Verne story, but this anachronistic take on the era still could have made for an engaging adventure. Unfortunately, 80 Days is more concerned with wedging in the developer's own sense of humor, which is depressingly reliant on self-aware pop-culture references. When you're not dealing with a misunderstood Count Dracula, a league of Scottish fashion designers hell-bent on spreading the popularity of the kilt, or the antagonistic son of Inspector Fix, (who hunted Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days), you're being subjected to jokes about Leonardo DiCaprio, Yoko Ono, and the developers at Frogwares themselves. The game simply isn't as funny as it thinks it is, which completely kills the story's chances to succeed even as a ridiculous farce.
The gameplay in 80 Days is a pretty by-the-numbers genre exercise. Once you arrive in a given locale, your primary goal will be to recover the patent in that city, though the path you take is never that of least resistance, and you'll inevitably find yourself sidetracked. Locating the appropriate people and locations is incredibly easy, and it's done by marking them on the minimap that lives in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, reducing much of the exploration to following directional arrows. The majority of the puzzles come down to either breaking some kind of code or manipulating some baroque piece of machinery, and they're usually quite straightforward. When the puzzles require you to acquire specific items in order to find the solution, it's usually made quite obvious, especially since the game doesn't employ many red herrings. The puzzles feel really contrived, and though 80 Days tries to shake things up by including some action and stealth elements, the controls just aren't up to the task.
The game uses a third-person perspective, rather than the typical fixed-camera perspective that is most prevalent in adventure games. By default, you can move forward and backward with the W and S keys, respectively, while using the mouse to "steer" Oliver. Oddly, the A and D keys can't be used to strafe while in motion, but rather, they can only be used to make Oliver take one step to the left or the right when standing still. Oliver's standard walking speed is maddeningly slow, though you can double-tap on the W key to run a little faster, or you can rent various forms of transport like camels, flying carpets, primitive automobiles, or a monocycle. They'll get you where you're going faster, but they all handle terribly, and the collision detection is so punishing that even if you get near a pedestrian or a piece of level geometry, you'll either come to a dead stop, or worse, bounce off the offending object and end up completely turned around.
Oliver can also jump, but jumping in a direction is awkward, making the few action sequences where you have to leap across open chasms frustrating. But even when you're not engaged in one of the few action sequences, you'll find that it's difficult to simply interact with items or other characters. The stealth elements are quite basic, usually requiring you to simply sneak around without being seen by police or security guards. But the artificial intelligence seems to have pretty incredible vision, and if you're seen it's an automatic fail. The game isn't really built for stealth, as there's no radar or even a particularly flexible camera, and the stealth elements end up coming down to memorization and blind luck.
Though there are parts of the presentation in 80 Days that are admirable, when taken in as a whole, it's a mediocre-looking game at best. The character models have a clean and detailed look to them, with mostly realistic proportions, but non-player character models are recycled liberally, and all of the animations have a stilted mechanical look. The environments feature a wealth of nice, sharp-looking textures, but overall they take on a sparse, flat look, and there are some exceptionally distracting level-of-detail problems. We tested the game on two different PCs, each of which easily exceeded the minimum system requirements, and yet the frame rate still chopped up on a regular basis.
The characters you meet have uniformly over-the-top personalities, though usually not in a particularly endearing way. Instead, the characters lean on really antiquated social stereotypes (apparently the Scottish are cheap?), and these bad characterizations are constantly enforced with lots of bad, loud voice acting. The actual dialogue seems to have been translated from another language, and poorly, as it is rife with really awkward and occasionally nonsensical phrasing. The soundtrack, however, simply leaves us dumbfounded. While the rest of the game seems intent on this kind of turn-of-the-century retro-futuristic feel, the soundtrack consists primarily of weird disco tunes and a rock instrumental that sounds suspiciously like The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian"--which makes sense when you're in Cairo, but is just confusing when it plays in Bombay, Yokohama, and San Francisco. The ambient environmental sounds aren't bad, but the overall mix is shoddy.
This is an adventure game of middling quality that is made significantly less attractive by some pretty terrible bugs. Even with the latest patch (1.01, as of this writing), the game is host to a massive memory leak that required us to reboot our PCs every one to two hours. The game will randomly and inexplicably lock up for 15-30 seconds at a time, after which it will either come back to life as if nothing happened, or simply crash. Combined with the fact that you can only save at specific checkpoints, the instability adds another layer of frustration by forcing you to run through sections of the game over again.
Even with its budget price tag, 80 Days is a hard sell, regardless of who you're selling it to. Fans of Jules Verne will either be uninterested or out-and-out offended by the game's bastardization of his original story. Adventure game fans will likely find it difficult to justify wading through the technical deficiencies just to solve some predictable and familiar puzzles. And, those who are unfamiliar with the genre will find it overly contrived.