First posted on 30 March 2012. Last updated on 30 March 2012.
It has only been a year since the release of Pendulo Studios' The Next Big Thing, featuring the developer's trademark trappings of beautiful graphics and cel-shaded animation and storytelling liberally laced with eccentric characters and twisted humor. Yet, somehow, the busy Spanish game company has been able deliver another new adventure called Yesterday. While containing the company's familiar graphic style, Yesterday is intended to be darker than any offering to come out of the intrepid developer. The game also marks Pendulo Studios' first foray into games that focus on more mature subject matters, a definite stray out of the company's development comfort zone.
Yesterday allows the player to control each of the story's 3 main characters at some points along the the course of the game. However, the bulk of the play time is spent with the amnesiac protagonist and titular character named John Yesterday. John is an expert on satanic cults who has been recruited by the rich charity advocate and heir apparent Henry White to investigate a series of ritualistic murders being performed on homeless people. These murders appear to be tied to a long dead satanic cult that has suddenly resurfaced for reasons unknown. Along with the mutilation, all of the murder victims have the letter Y carved into one of their palms—the same marking that John also possesses but has forgotten just why. As expected with a story with an amnesiac protagonist, John begins in media res and must discover (or rather, rediscover), along with the player, the backstory behind these killings and his own ties to the satanic cult.
While Yesterday's art direction and design has much in common with Pendulo Studios' previous works, Yesterday feels generally more polished than the developer's earlier games, including The Next Big Thing. Gamers who are fans of the developer will recognize the trademark stylized, bright, cartoony graphics and quirky sense of humor, along with the unique interface design such as the interesting use of teleporting a character across the screen rather than having the player wait for a character to finish walking to the desired destination. Yet, this is where the general similarities end. Yesterday is the first game from Pendulo Studios to introduce the bottom bar inventory system—much like in classic LucasArts adventure games—but eschews the verb system generally partnered with this kind of inventory system in favor of context specific clicking. The biggest change, however, is the introduction of an in-game hint system: at any point, the player may click on a light bulb icon, which then provides a textual hint intended to get the player back on track. Unfortunately, as the hints are not of the "go here and do this" variety, some hints are so vague as to be completely unhelpful. To avoid abuse of the hint system, a recharge period of several minutes is required. This recharge can be expedited by actually attempting to solve puzzles by combining inventory items.
Yesterday is not perfect. Though not a complete pushover, the game is still easier than many of Pendulo Studios' previous games. It is also easily the shortest game from the developer that I have ever played: the entire game can be solved in just hours in a single sitting. Furthermore, for all the care taken in presenting a generally immersive environment with realistic (albeit stylized) characters, the actual facial animations—most notably those of the speaking mouths—are alarmingly sloppy. The game deliberately uses humor to offset the more gruesome and gritty parts of the story, though sometimes I question whether the game contains too much of it and if it is needed or even warranted. My biggest reservation, however, is that for all the intentions of Pendulo Studios to want to present a dark thriller, it is still a linear adventure in the end—and these opposing traits do not necessarily jive well together. Characters face death at the hands of sadistic madmen, yet a sense of immediacy is simply not present. For example, early in the game, Henry sits in front of a chess board with a gun pointed to his head and has to pick the correct chess move in order to barter for his life. If the wrong move is chosen, the player is simply given in essence a generic "no, try again" message. Any sense of danger is immediately removed, in order to fit with the overall linearity (and ease) of the story—alarming, considering the tone of the story built up prior to the encounter. Simply put, the game lacks the dynamics of actions and consequences. The very fact that the game is meant to be dark and gritty actually demands such a paradigm shift—the fact that Pendulo Studios fails to deliver is the game's biggest detriment.
Despite these shortcomings, there is still plenty to praise in Yesterday. Though I have my reservations with a few questionable accents, I feel that the voice acting is nevertheless solid throughout the game. The characters are highly stylized and given unique quirks to humanize them; however, unlike The Next Big Thing, these quirks seem to be more realistic and less random, possibly attributable to the fact that Yesterday's story is decidedly more grounded (and certainly more serious). The game's backstory is generally more fleshed out and better establishes the motivation for the game's different characters. Furthermore, Yesterday has the most appropriate use of music that I have seen from the developer, serving to set a somber, immersive mood without overpowering the dialogue or actions presented onscreen. The story is fast moving (as is appropriate for a thriller) and more focused than not, keeping the player engaged and invested throughout the game's short length. The presence of inventory based puzzles is not overwhelming, though the need to combine unlikely items to solve a puzzle still appears from time to time. In all, the game manages to achieve a balance of having puzzles that are neither too easy nor too challenging, none of which overstay their welcome.
In short, Yesterday is a welcome change from Pendulo Studios, showing that the developer is willing and able to move from its comfort zone and expand into games that deal with more mature and darker subject matters. While I look forward to the next comedy adventure, the overall execution of Yesterday makes me wonder what the next dark thriller Pendulo Studios has in store for the future.