Review: 80 Days31 Jul 2014 0
I am of two minds about 80 Days, and trying to find a compromise between those different points of view has been about as easy as actually circumnavigating the globe. Here is a game that I can recognize and appreciate as probably the best example of interactive fiction ever produced, but I have very little interest in sitting down and replaying it.
My dilemma is that 80 Days really doesn't do anything wrong, exactly. It drops you headlong into Verne’s classic tale of Phileas Fogg’s attempt to circle the globe in the titular amount of time in order to win a £20,000 wager. You play as Fogg’s sturdy valet, Passepartout and are in charge of deciding the route, managing your funds, and the overall well-being of your employer. The game starts with a sense of urgency to catch the first train out of London and the pace never lets up.
The game consists of 144 different cities which act as hubs for your journey. Each city offers you actions you can perform. Want to explore a bit? It may open up new routes on the map, but it will cost you precious time. Need more cash? Go to the bank, but it will take a day or so for the money to be wired across. A global map and showing you known routes and the costs and times associated with them is always at your disposal, and if you’ve planned properly (or just get lucky) a route will be ready to depart for Rome as soon as you pull into Vienna, other wise you'll have to accelerate time or occupy yourself in the city market.
One of the major activities you can perform in each city is to visit the market. Buying and selling of goods (a bolt of silk in Rangoon, a vial of poison in Yokohama) is the most time-efficient way to increase your overall funds or to find items that may protect Fogg on your journey. For example, you can purchase an inexpensive fur coat which will fortify Fogg's health on that Trans-Siberia train ride, but someone in Prague wants to give you £900 for it. What do you do? Smart arbitrage can play a crucial role in your success or failure, as your cash reserves can deplete rapidly, but it also seems like quite the crap shoot. Fogg will usually tell you where an item can be sold for a profit, but that amount can vary from hundreds to thousands of pounds.
Move to a city, find new routes, depart. On the way, make some cash and keep you boss alive. Oh, and do it all in 80 days. That’s the crunch, but it’s the fluff that really makes 80 Days shine.
In between every city and accompanying each action you select is some incredibly well-written prose, telling the stories of the people you meet and adventures you undertake as you meander about. Here you can incite a mutiny against the crown and commandeer a steamship, discover a city that walks on steam-powered legs, or gossip with smugglers in a seedy tavern. It’s these interactions that drive the story forward and make the game fun to explore. There's a vivid imagination at work behind this setting, which isn't like anything you've seen before.
So, why do I have any reservations? Why am I not zipping around the globe instead of playing Hearthstone? There’s nothing wrong with the game as it is, but there are several small factors that don’t do it for me.
Buying and selling goods between cities is, frankly, not a very rewarding experience. In fact, it’s fairly dull. Finding new routes is a brute force matter of just asking as many questions as possible -- it never feels like there's any strategy to Passepartout's conversations. Perhaps there is a subtlety to figuring out more and better routes, but after several games I didn’t see it. Just keep pounding away (conversationally, that is) and more routes will open. Certain items that you buy in markets will cause certain kinds of characters to have more conversation options, but this mechanic is mostly obscure (how do I know if this ticket inspector is "prim" or "solicitous"?) and impossible to plan ahead for.
As for keeping Fogg healthy, that can get a bit tricky. Of course, while travelling you can always attend to Fogg which acts as a heal, increasing his hit points. This comes at the opportunity cost of conversing with fellow passengers to unlock more routes, of course.
While the game-like parts of 80 days aren’t the most compelling, the story more than makes up for it. It’s great fun to see what kind of mischief you can get into (or not into) in your journey. Passepartout is a player character that you're always one step away from, observing as much as you inhabit, and he's written in a way that's both comical and insightful about 19th-century classism. The setting and modes of transport and full of surprises: submersible trains, walking cities, airships, ocean-bound steamers, hot air balloons. The politics of this Victorian world aren't quite our own, either, opening up interesting subplots about secretive guilds and corrupt satraps. It’s an exhilarating read.
And that’s really the issue. If you go into 80 Days looking for a good yarn, you’ll get it. But it feels like a ride more than a game -- I never felt like I was getting better or worse at playing 80 Days. I just had a different ride every time. But there's quite a lot to be said for that in a world where the ride might be a mechanical elephant, stalking through Madhya Pradesh with the sounds of drums echoing out from the jungle.