To Jaipur by Hover-car: A hands-on preview of 80 Days

By Owen Faraday 09 Jun 2014 0
All aboard. All aboard.

After raising the bar for interactive fiction games with last year's truly remarkable Sorcery!, it would have been a reasonably clever bet to expect Cambridge-based Inkle to take down the pace a little and churn out a few safe, low-effort punts that tread the path blazed by their last game.

That bet would have been lost to the rake. There is nothing safe or timid about Inkle's next game 80 Days, coming to iOS this summer. It's not even content to pick up the bar from Sorcery! and raise it a little further -- it stuffs the bar into a cannon and shoots it at the moon.

80 Days is an interactive fiction gamebook based loosely on Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. As in the novel, the subject is a race around the world going eastward from and returning to London in the 1870s, but Inkle's game largely departs company from Verne's work at that point.

What gear you've got in your suitcases can change the effects of a trip. What gear you've got in your suitcases can change the effects of a trip.

This is not an 1872 that Verne would recognise, but it's one that he would have delighted in. The Victorian world of 80 Days is powered by extraordinary technology: mechanical men and amphibious trains serve the cities of Europe and steam-driven mechanical elephants and serpents carry passengers through the jungles of the Southern hemisphere.

I suppose the modern convention would be to call this "steampunk" but there's nothing punk about it: despite the ahistorical technologies and alternate casting of the Great Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary are in ascendance) this is still the 1870s, with all of the class-consciousness and surface gentility that that entails.

Playing as the manservant of Verne's protagonist Phileas Fogg, you buy and sell useful items in city markets and explore back-alleys and speak with locals to uncover new routes between cities that may shave precious time off of your journey. Having a box of snuff to hand might get a train guard on the Siberian Express to tell you what she knows about links between Yokohama and San Francisco, and having a set of linen summerwear will make a trek across the Arabian Desert more bearable for Mr Fogg, whose health you have to maintain throughout the journey.

The sun never sets on Inkle's imagination. The sun never sets on Inkle's imagination.

You manage the trip's funds, buying passage from city to city on the routes you discover and occasionally negotiating earlier departures with a well-placed bribe. If you arrive in Baku too late for the twice-a-week train to Astrakhan, you can chance it on the open road in a Bozek car or backtrack to Turkey where there are more connections. Inkle have made an enormous game world with over a hundred cities and its difficult to imagine ever taking the same trip even if you were trying to.

This is a tumultuous time in history, where the reigns of monarchs are falling like ripe mangoes and writer Meg Jayanth's story captures the period perfectly, even with the sci-fi trappings it's dressed up in. The fantastical technology of Europe is in the hands of the mysterious Artifacer's Guild, who have a tense relationship with the governments of some of Europe's countries. As in our timeline, colonies are starting to resist their imperial masters and anarchic unrest bubbles up in Western cities.

Everywhere you go there are story trailheads you can elect to follow or not, some having dramatic effects on the world of 80 Days and a couple that mirror important plot points from Verne's novel. Many of those stories are marginalia that you can safely bypass if you want to do less reading and more exploration, but it would be a shame to leave Jayanth's imaginative and frequently surprising story unread. Using Fogg's valet Passepartout as the player character is a stroke of genius, because his lack of social standing gives you latitude to play as a retiring gentleman or a more brazen character, and you frequently find yourself in situations where you're in doubt as to the "appropriate" response. It's canny and engaging writing.

Having the right item in your pocket can change the way a conversation goes. Having the right item in your pocket can change the way a conversation goes.

The massively-multiplayer aspect of 80 Days that Inkle hinted to us about in May is both less and more than what I'd expected. As you make your way from city to city you'll see other players on their own travels in real time. To my disappointment, this doesn't seem to have any sort of direct gameplay impact but it does make the world feel that much more alive when you see an airship on the Thessaloniki-to-Cairo run and know that there's a real person behind that voyage.

Even in the pre-release state in which I've seen it, 80 Days is one of the most extraordinarily memorable and unique games I've played in years. I would go so far as to say that I prefer it to Sorcery!, which is no small feat. If you like interactive fiction then this game should be at the very top of your personal hitlist, and if you don't like interactive fiction then I suspect this is the game that will make you a fan of the genre.

80 Days is out this summer for iOS.
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