Mention a rubber chicken to a certain segment of society and they will immediately ask if there’s a pulley in the middle of it. If you don’t get that reference then chances are you’re not much of a connoisseur of the adventure game genre and its near defining classic The Secret of Monkey Island. If that’s the case, you might enjoy Jack Keane 2: The Fire Within. Die-hard adventure game fans, however, may want to steer clear.
On paper, Fire Within has a reasonable amount going for it. The graphics look very nice, the story’s got a fairly promising premise and the English translation (the game is originally German) has been voiced by a host of proper actors. Unfortunately, pretty much all that potential is squandered in the final game.
Let’s start with the story. Set in 1899, you play as Jack Keane, an Indiana Jones-esque British adventurer who starts off the story in a Chinese prison. Not only is Jack trying to escape, but his partner in crime, American gun-toting cowgirl Amanda, is outside the prison waiting to help. Controlling by turns Jack and Amanda, you guide Jack out of prison and across the globe in a daring adventure to collect the parts of a special amulet that used to belong to the African shaman who is Jack’s cell-mate. (Chinese prisons were filled with English adventurers and African shamans in the late 19th century, honestly).
While I admire the story’s scope, it falls down in a number of areas. First is that there’s a heavy reliance on dream sequences, which, whatever the medium, are almost always something of a narrative cop-out. These dream sequences contain lots of obviously tailored items (like treasure chests containing powerful vacuums) that make the puzzles within especially unchallenging.
Moreso than many other genres, adventure games require interesting and endearing characters. Unfortunately, Jack Keane is no Guybrush Threepwood. He’s not that funny or charming and is a bit too wooden to be truly endearing. Amanda is initially a fairly strong character, but she quickly gets bogged down in a love quadrangle, which often reduces her to one half of a bitch-off with rival Eve. There are also odd moments when the game has to make complete idiots of its characters to drive the plot or puzzles – a tedious spin on that cliché old river crossing puzzle in particular – which does nothing for their likeability.
Controlling Jack and co is a weird compromise between traditional point and click and more practical 3D platforming controls. You can either guide Jack with WASD keyboard controls, or an ungainly mouse option, where you click and hold in the direction you want them to move (rather than just clicking their destination). The really weird element Fire Within throws in though is the ability to jump, which brings in minor platforming elements. It seems rather pointless really and, if you leave the run toggle on, gets annoyingly unwieldy to control. There’s also an element of combat added to the mix, as Jack gets drawn into a string of fist-fights. These require you to select the appropriate defence to your opponents attack on a time limit and then attack back with something they can’t counter. It’s an interesting notion, but feels very underdeveloped and is a long way off something like Insult Swordfighting or Full Throttle’s excellent motorcycle combat.
At the core of the game, of course, are the puzzles. Now, I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been playing a lot of adventure games lately (and I do mean a lot) but I breezed through most of Fire Within. I don’t say this to brag (well, maybe a little) but most of the puzzles proved to be pretty simplistic and workmanlike. There was only a couple of moments when I got truly stuck – that addictively frustrating element of any adventure game, that has you resisting the temptation to run to GameFAQs like a wuss – and those turned out to be because I’d been unable to see something in the environment (even with the game’s “highlight all items” feature). Unfortunately, Fire Within doesn’t contain any kind of hint system, which is a pretty poor showing for 2013. That might sound like an odd complaint given I had little trouble with the puzzles, but when you do get stuck in an adventure game, it’s nice to be able to get a subtle hint from the game than resorting to a walkthrough just telling you what to do.
Visually, Fire Within is superficially quite good. The character models are nice and stylish (even if the low cleavage on all the female characters is a bit groan-inducing male-gaze heavy), while the environments are generally bright and bold (once you whack the gamma up a bit). However, this is all undermined by some fairly shoddy animation work. Most characters barely move their mouths to speak and actions more complex than stretching out an arm are often fudged badly. At one point Amanda fired her gun while it was still strapped to her back.
The camera direction is the real problem though. While you’re moving about, it’s fine, panning along helpfully for the most part. But when you get a little cut-scene or just stop to talk to someone, it’s as though the camera’s been given to the work experience kid to hold. Characters frequently aren’t framed in shot properly (if at all) while they talk; the camera gets lost trying to work out who to look at, so does dizzying spins; it cuts between shots for every new line of dialogue, even if the same person is talking. It’s distractingly poor work that kneecaps the good elements of the game completely.
Conversations have many other problems as well. Although Fire Within is occasionally really quite funny, a lot of its dialogue is perfunctory at best, frequently banal and on the whole it’s quite pedestrian. There are some really dodgy lines that the cast clearly don’t seem to know what to do with and other instances where the line reading doesn’t at all match the situation.
On top of this, developer Deck 13 doesn’t quite seem to have grasped the concept of dialogue options and trees, either. Talk to a character and you’ll often be presented with two or four options for things to say. But rather than these being either different avenues of conversation or inconsequential choices of remark, they’re different stages of the same topic of conversation. Select the last one and you’ll often get the conclusion of a discussion you haven’t had. It’s the illusion of choice where in reality you’re plodding through a prescribed script.
You do get real choices at times, of course, as some of these are puzzles in their own right. However, choose the wrong answer to a question and you’ll usually have to go right back to the top of talking to that character to try again, rather than just cutting to the chase. It’s incredibly tedious.
These audio-visual problems are compounded by some really poor sound editing. Although the options menu provides a mixer with individual levels for music, dialogue and effects, there are several moments where, no matter your settings, the music drowns out the dialogue. Dialogue is often also drowned out, infuriatingly, by other dialogue. There are several locations in the game where other characters talk to themselves and each other while you go about your business, which is nice as ambient noise. But whereas even an early 90s LucasArts game would stop the background dialogue when you have the main character make an observation, Fire Within doesn’t, so Jack’s (or Amanada’s) remarks are next to impossible to hear over the inane, highly repetitive musings of the supporting cast. The only solution is to put on the subtitles, but you’re then left with competing subtitle tracks. This even happens in cut-scenes, where characters (seemingly unintentionally) talk all over each other, producing a confusing mess.
I really wanted to like Jack Keane 2 and there are enjoyable elements, but unless you’ve got the patience of a man who queues up five days in advance for gig tickets he could buy over the internet, you’re unlikely to stick around to see enough of them. If you’ve never played an adventure game before, this could serve as a suitably gentle, but frustratingly flawed, introduction to the genre. However, if you’re the kind of person who mentally refers to all the things in your pocket as your ‘inventory’, there’s little here worth your time.