The adventure game genre has seen a resurgence in the past few years, nudging back into the main stream. With Telltale’s own brand of narrative adventure titles, coupled with remastered versions of celebrated classics like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, console adventure games aren’t as rare as they used to be. Once you’ve chewed through Broken Age and the high profile King’s Quest reboot, more than a few new fans are likely looking for a game to pick up next. Sadly, Deponia just isn’t that game.
On the surface, Deponia has a lot going for it. It’s a gorgeous game, with a colorful, lovingly crafted art-style. Opening with a twangy, self-referential song, it immediately hits that perfect tone of wit and humor. And on top of it all, a story about the population of a literal junk planet has a lot of potential. Many of the initial problems from the PC release have also been ironed out, including glitches and issues with the translation. Once you get past all of that though, all you end up with is a mechanically standard, often opaque adventure puzzler with an unabashedly intolerable main character and a strangely sexist narrative.
The game takes its name from the trash-strewn planet on which the title takes place. As the story opens, Rufus plots his escape from his junk-yard of a home planet, hoping to reach the glimmering seat of civilization, Elysium, a city floating in the sky. As any fan of the genre might expect, his journey involves more than a few crazy characters to meet, obstacles to overcome, items to find, and puzzles to solve.
Deponia originally released on PC back in 2012. Jumping to the PS4, it features a reworked interface allowing you to control the protagonist, Rufus, directly, instead of just relying on a point-and-click system. The original interface is still there, the right stick operating like a cursor, the idea being that it is an additional option instead of a restriction. Unfortunately, it ends up being a hindrance. The point-and-click cursor has the tendency to move between actions, selecting another object. When interacting with the same object multiple times, you have to continuously move the cursor back to the object you meant to interact with in the first place.
Other than that, the first thing players will notice is that the characters’ mouth animations don’t actually line up with the dialogue. In most other games this is inconsequential. But with detailed facial animations and well-handled voice acting, it is a jarring aspect of the experience to see. A German developed game, it is possible the animations line-up better in the title’s native language, but the fact mouths continue to move in full speech while the character grumbles, whispers, or groans, is worth pointing out.
When it comes to gameplay, Deponia draws all of its cues from the renowned adventure games of the 90’s. Leaving you to pick up any items you find, combine them in interesting ways, and use them to solve your way through each new hurdle that pops up, the game as a whole should feel very familiar to anyone that has dabbled in the more traditional titles of the genre before. Where the recent rebooted King’s Quest took these fundamentals and built on them, making a game that effectively straddled the line between nostalgia and modern design, Deponia just doesn’t push as far. Instead, dialogue choices don’t matter, there are no branching paths, and the interaction with the game is rooted firmly in its puzzles.
For many, that more traditional take might be preferable, but even then Deponia falters. For every puzzle that is clever and well constructed, there is another that is obtuse and frustrating. While absurd item combinations are nothing new to the adventure game genre, game design has progressed in the past 20 years to a point that gamers expect a bit more purposeful direction in puzzles. Far too often, I stumbled across answers through trial and error instead of following any actual clues or riddles.
While this does get better during the second half, as the game focuses and environments become more linear in service of the narrative, the first half of the game struggles. After a quick introduction sequence that sees Rufus try to rocket himself from Deponia, he quickly falls back to the planet, bringing a helpless Elysian woman with him. From there, you then have almost free reign in Rufus’s hometown of Kuvaq. Completely open and with very little direction, the ability to begin completing puzzles out of order derails any sense of through-line progression. Wandering around with only the vague outline of an objective in mind keeps many of the early puzzles from being as clear or satisfying they could be.
In a similar vein, Deponia also includes mini-game puzzles outside the usual, item-based fare. One in particular sees you piece back together a broken mosaic for instance. All of these mini-games are optional. At any time during the puzzle, you can press a single button, and the puzzle solves itself. An odd design choice that comes off as an attempt to circumvent the frustration the difficulty might produce, the ‘skip’ button also has the added effect of divorcing the puzzles even further from the rest of the game. They end up feeling more like annoying, but optional, roadblocks instead of meaningful parts of the journey.
It doesn’t help matters that the puzzles also suffer even more as the weak, unappealing narrative forces them to be the game’s only driving force. Before addressing the story and characters in general, its necessary to deal with the fact that Deponia has some serious issues in its portrayal and treatment of women. In Rufus’s escape from Deponia, he sees and immediately becomes infatuated with an elysian woman who he then proceeds to knock off her ship and send plummeting to the planet below, only for Rufus to follow shortly after. Not only is the woman’s name Goal, she suffers head trauma from the fall. The remainder of the game is spent first trying to claim her unconscious body from the other men in Kuvaq, and then transporting her to a meeting to use her as bargaining chip for a ride to Elysium.
Deponia even markets itself as “the craziest love story since the dawn of time.” This borders on the disturbing given the fact that Goal is unconscious for all but the final scenes of the game and Rufus still routinely refers to her as his girlfriend and even debates with other men about who gets to keep her. Rufus’s argument is that he “saved” her, and therefore she belongs to him.
Other than the unconscious, brain-damaged Goal, the only other woman in the entire game is Rufus’s ex-girlfriend, Toni. Presented as a nag who Rufus lives off of, Toni is continuously mocked and insulted. At one point, Rufus casually walks in on her in the shower, only for the door to the shower to remain open as multiple characters come through the house. At another, the solution to a puzzle is to drug Toni, and then rob her.
As uncomfortable as that is, it is all only part of the problem with Rufus himself. Clearly inspired by the likes of Monkey Island’s Guybrush Theepwood, a loveably lazy and clueless hero who causes as many problems as he solves, Rufus is an unemployed, selfish lay-about whose one goal (other than Goal, obviously!) is to finally get off the trash heap he was born into. The only problem is, he’s not lovable. At all. Imagine a selfish character like Han Solo, but without any of the charm, and if he was continually mean to Chewbacca. Rufus is genuinely unpleasant, abusive and cruel even to his friends, and manages to make it all the worse with an incessantly whiny, self-centered attitude towards everyone and everything. Simply put, viewing the world through his eyes just isn’t fun.
Had there been a change of heart in the final stretches of the game, any real growth, all of the problems with Rufus could be understood as a complicated beginning to a character’s journey. Instead, that’s not what happens, and the game ends on a cliffhanger. This is setting up the three additional Deponia games, scheduled to come to the PS4 in the coming months. But when it comes to just this game, the ending is unsatisfying, leaving Rufus’s self-absorption just as strong as ever.
Adventure games live and die based on the three pillars of their puzzles, their worlds, and their characters. While the setting of Deponia is interesting enough, the characters and puzzles simply can’t keep up their end of the bargain. While Rufus himself comes across as intolerable, the rest of the characters on Deponia are all one-note targets for Rufus’s insults, none of them ever doing anything other than populating the world. Couple that with the weaknesses in the game’s puzzles and Deponia simply doesn’t measure up.
This game was reviewed on the PS4, with a copy provided by the developer.
- Beautiful hand-drawn art-style
- Interesting initial premise
- Unlikable main character
- Unclear puzzle design
- A love story where the woman is brain-damaged and unconscious? Really?