Traditional point-and-click adventure is alive and well in The Whispered World. But that's both good and bad for Daedalic Entertainment's surreal fantasy about a sad clown and the end of the world. While the German game certainly features the captivating story and memorable characters that made classic adventures so engaging, it also boasts dozens of those old-fashioned illogical puzzles that made you want to tear out your hair and a lot of wordy dialogue that slows the action to a crawl. This is one of those experiences that does enough right in terms of storytelling to make you embrace it, but enough wrong to make you wonder why you're wasting your time.
The protagonist of this odd tale is Sadwick the Sorrowful Clown, a sad-sack kid in a jester's costume. He looks a lot like Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh's depressive donkey sidekick, with the tails of his jester's hat taking the place of long floppy ears. Sadwick is also just as down in the dumps as Eeyore but with good reason--he's the human cannonball and resident whipping boy for a small family circus. Grandpa can never remember his name. Bother Ben treats him like some kind of indentured servant and insults his artistic ambitions to write poetry or perform legitimate theater. And he's having constant nightmares about the end of the world, which in this case is a medieval fantasy land of sorts filled with magic and far-off kingdoms. The only creature that loves this clown is his pet "caterpillar" Spot, a green globular character that looks like the Shmoo from '80s Saturday morning cartoons that can similarly morph into different shapes like balls on demand. Spot lets his cuteness do the talking, remaining silent through the entire game with the exception of the odd squeak. He really serves as more of a tool that allows Sadwick to explore places he can't get into than as any sort of adventuring companion.
Most of the story centers on Sadwick's search for adventure. After spending the first few minutes of the game getting told off by his jerk of a brother and senile grandfather, he wanders into the woods and runs into a goblinlike messenger from the far-off kingdom of Corona. The king is sick and the realm may fall to a race of beings called the Asgil, so the only hope is to get a magic item called the Whispering Stone back to the castle quickly. A seer of sorts named Shana is apparently the only one who can help get the stone, but when Sadwick finds her, she goes into a trance and tells him that he is fated to destroy the world…just the kind of thing that every clinically depressed clown wants to hear. Sadwick can't bring himself to tell her this when she awakens, however, so he lies and says she actually prophesied that he would save the world. At this point, she gives him a few vague tips on how to do so and the quest begins in earnest.
Unfortunately, you feel like you've done it all before. The Whispered World may be loaded with story and atmosphere, featuring striking painted backgrounds, character animations straight out of a great cartoon, and a haunting piano/flute musical theme, but everything is overdone. Some of the charm of this dreamy fairytale is lost because there is too much dialogue. Every rock and bush comes with commentary from Sadwick, and most of the conversations go on endlessly, through what seems to be a dozen or more options in branching dialogue trees. At first, this florid script immerses you in the story. An hour or so later, listening to all of this meandering jibber-jabber builds the tedium up so much that you'll just scan the lines and click through them as quickly as possible. Voice acting quality is hit and miss, too. Some characters are very bland, while others are overwrought, and at regular intervals, a bug causes voices to go silent until you restart the game. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, because Sadwick speaks with a nasally whine (again, like Eeyore) that makes you want to smack him. Atmosphere as conveyed by the outstanding art is also a bit much because it is so detailed that items blend into backgrounds. Every locale is just crammed with great little touches, from all of the junk strewn around Sadwick's trailer to the throne room in the castle at Corona. So while it's great to just gawk at all of this art, it's not so great to have to highlight the many clickable objects on every screen with the spacebar in order to keep the game from turning into an annoying pixel hunt.
The puzzles are very derivative. This is an old-fashioned adventure, like Sierra and LucasArts used to make, where you have to pick up everything that isn't nailed down no matter how stupid it might seem. Common sense is trampled on much of the time. Sadwick just has no reason to grab some things, like his grandfather's crusty old handkerchief, yet you make him do it anyway because you know that you'll eventually be able to MacGyver some essential gadget out of even the smallest piece of refuse. Actually solving many puzzles is also virtually impossible because of the incredible leaps in logic necessary to figure things out. At one point, for instance, you need to grab some pantaloons stuck high up on a wall. You have a ladder. Simple, right? Not really. Instead of simply climbing the ladder, you have to close a door to see a mouse hole in the wall behind it, lure the mouse out with a sock, grab the mouse, and then dangle it by its tail on top of the wall above the pantaloons, where the little rodent grabs said puffy pants with his teeth. The human cannonball puzzle is even more insane, forcing you to do absurd things like make a sculpture out of tree resin, stone turtles, grandpa's dentures, and bear claws to scare your brother into dropping his objections to your stealing (another) pair of pantaloons and a red juggling ball. Your head hurts just thinking about this stuff. At least the handful or so of set piece brainteasers are involving and challenging, even if they mostly rely on old genre standards. These include sliding tiles, moving chess pieces, and mixing chemicals to make various meals and potions.
In short, The Whispered World is beautiful, yet treacherous. Although the game has many strong points in the dreamlike storyline, gorgeous painted art, and detailed script loaded with dialogue, it is too slavish an imitation of the old adventure game formula to be completely enjoyable two decades after the heyday of Sierra and LucasArts. Going retro is one thing; forcing adventurers to wrangle with pixel hunts and riddles that you have no chance of figuring out without a walk-through is something else entirely.