Heh, I’m still smiling thinking about Lair of the Clockwork God. It’s so cheeky. I love how it does everything in service of a good joke. It’s even prepared to let you get the wrong idea about something so it can pull an ‘a-ha!’ moment on you later on. I’d been planning to tell the game off for something in the review until I realised it had all been a big joke and I felt silly. What a wonderful long con. I’ve never seen a game do it, not like that, nor have I seen a game bundle a separate game, a prequel, that you won’t understand the use of until you’re about half-way through the main game. It’s inspired.
Let’s recap a bit. Lair of the Clockwork God belongs to the Ben and Dan series, not that you need to be in any way aware of it to play and enjoy this. The previous games were Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentleman, Please! from about 10 years ago. They’re point-and-click adventure games which take the piss out of everything around them and they are very funny. Lair is very much like them, except Lair has a significant new concept (in addition to being much better looking): it’s both an adventure game and a platformer.
This dual mechanic manifests in the game’s two characters, Ben and Dan – incidentally the name of the game’s two creators, Ben Ward and Dan Marshall (who you might know from The Swindle). Ben behaves like a character in an adventure game: he walks around interacting with objects and people, picking things up and combining them to make new items to solve puzzles. Dan, on the other hand, behaves like a platformer character: he runs and jumps around, pushing and pulling large crates. And of course, both Dan and Ben need to work together to overcome situations.
The world is built for both of them. There are areas clearly built for platforming, with spiky traps and laser beams to dodge, and there are areas clearly built for adventuring, with people to talk to and things to interact with. And as the game goes on, Ben can make new equipment for Dan, enabling him to do new things like double-jump, wall-jump, even run around blasting a riotously fun machine gun, which kills Ben, something he never fails to comment on when he respawns.
This platform-adventure concept works well, with Dan injecting energy and pace, and Ben providing depth and brains. What elevates it is humour. Not only do Ben and Dan mechanically represent their genres, they characterise them too. Ben is sardonic and doesn’t like the new ways of doing things, a lot like a stereotypical PC gamer, sorry PC gamers, whereas Ben is all exclamation mark positivity and millennial pumpedness for anything new. It’s a set-up which provides a never-ending stream of jokes and honestly, I don’t know how Ben Ward and Dan Marshall muster the wit to keep it funny but they do, consistently. It’s a joy to read.
But the jokes don’t stop there. The game’s setting involves re-teaching an underground supercomputer about emotions, like joy and fear and anger and so on, and doing so requires Ben and Dan to venture into worlds – constructs – created by the computer to trigger these emotions. In joy, for example, Dan finds himself in a kind of Sonic 1-1 world, running around with reckless abandon, whereas Ben finds himself with lots of people to talk to and things to interact with, all one one, walkable level. Bliss. There’s a Walking Simulator spoof, a VR spoof, digs about the real-world. The humour can be pretty outrageous, actually, but it’s all delivered in such a charmingly wide-eyed cartoon way it’s hard to resist.
Lair isn’t faultless. The adventure-platformer concept sometimes jars, especially when you go from platforming to adventuring, which can feel like someone’s pulled the handbrake as you slow from leaping around to walking back and forth trying every item on something and hoping for a solution. And sometimes those solutions take a while and the game slows to a crawl.
Catering to two kinds of games can lead to scruffiness on one or both sides too. Some of the platforming can be infuriating because of tiny margins for error, and some of the adventuring can be infuriating because interactions are unclear. And the occasional glitch exacerbates this. I ran around for a good 15 minutes trying to find my way out of a situation before I realised I’d encountered a game-halting bug and had to reload.
But overall, Lair of the Clockwork is a delight which leaves me with a warm fuzzy feeling having finished it. The talent and experience of Ben Ward and Dan Marshall beams through. It’s in the practiced delivery of the jokes, in the game’s well thought out pacing (getting the bigger stuff out of the way earlier, enabling a speedier finish), and in the many ways Ben and Dan, both creators and characters, poke fun at an industry they’ve been a part of for many years. Lair of the Clockwork God is both a fulfilling platform-adventure and loving satire all in one. I strongly recommend you play it.