First posted on 26 April 2013. Last updated on 30 April 2013.
|Picture bubbles convey ideas and moods expressed by the game's characters.|
|It is a dark and stormy night.|
|Jigsaw puzzles hide important clues.|
|Keep the crabs away!|
|Shaban has a scary encounter in the jungle.|
Shaban is a short adventure game for the PC from Iranian indie developer PetaGames. It is the developer's first commercial game project. Shaban is named after the game's protagonist, a shepherd by trade. The game tells the brief story of Shaban's exploits in rescuing his kidnapped flock from the hands of an evil band of scary bandits. There is no apocalypse to avert or dark mystery to uncover—just a simple tale of a good man taking on a horde of villains for the sake of his beloved family. Indeed, you instantly realize that these sheep mean far more to Shaban than just livestock.
The story of Shaban takes place in what can be imagined as any foreign make-believe land and is introduced in a progression of comic book styled panels. They tell the story of an idyllic world in which Shaban is pictured at home, interacting lovingly with his flock of sheep. All is well until a storm rages in the evening, when an evil shadow shrouded band of hoodlums breaks into Shaban's home and steals his beloved pets from their corral. Here is where you take over as the titular character (though you also assume the role of the a sheep later in the game). Solving the first puzzle that confronts you reveals the hiding place of a lone frightened sheep, who becomes your constant travel companion for the duration of the adventure.
While the story itself is quite short—the game only takes 2-3 hours to complete—the quest to find the stolen sheep takes Shaban from his humble ramshackle home to the local village, into a jungle, and finally to an icy mountain top. It is here that the endgame eventually plays out with a final confrontation of good versus evil with the boss.
The artwork in Shaban is uniquely appealing. Cartoonish figures have a hand painted look. Detailed textures further add life and character to these 2D figures. The facial expressions are whimsical and endearing in a surreal way, beautifully conveying a myriad of emotions. The graphics are paired with pleasant music that is alternately playful and sullen. Together, they do a great job of generating empathy and warmth throughout the tale. There is an intentional lack of visual symmetry in the art styling, and it works to add an otherworldliness to the story without being distracting or disturbing.
Many of the scenes in Shaban are slightly larger than single screen size, so a scene sometimes pans when you approach the edge of the screen. Like the character models, the scenery has a slightly muted color palette, with lots of earth tones prevailing. This is understandable, since most of the scenes take place outdoors or in caves. Many of the textures have a washed-out watercolor look, while other objects are contrasted starkly with sharp edges and focus. All in all, the visuals are engaging.
Animation and ambient sound are used to good effect in Shaban. Elements such as lashing rain and flashing lightning at the beginning of story are coupled with appropriate thunder, wind, and the sheeting sound of rain. These effects have convincing impact and make exploring outdoors seem dreary and hostile. Wafting smoke, drifting snowflakes, and enveloping mist sometimes make up unobtrusive parts of the scenery. Character animations are a little stiff and jerky, but it is easy to recognize this as a design decision and thus feels appropriate in context.
There is no voice work in Shaban, except for an occasional emotional utterance (such as sobbing, laughing, or growling). The few interactions that take place between you and other characters and objects take the form of speech bubbles (or rather, picture bubbles). Clicking on a bird that has some object you want yields a bubble containing a crude picture of a fish. Clicking on the nearby river where the fish are frolicking yields another bubble with the picture of a fishing pole. Many of your objectives are gained in this way. Shaban tells a simple tale, and the choice to omit dialog allows these bubbles, the musical soundtrack, and the ambient sounds to direct the narrative in a refreshing and unique way. Pacing is good, with a lot taking place in a very short period of time. As such, you will not feel stuck often to the point of boredom or frustration.
The point-and-click interface in Shaban is simple and supports the game's mechanics very well. Inventory is tracked in a panel at the top of the screen, and when in "seek-and-find" mode, it changes to display objects you have and outlines of those yet to be found. Objects that yield clues or puzzles glitter occasionally to get your attention. This minimizes the difficulty curve greatly by leading you to the objects that need your attention to advance the current goal. Clicking around the screen draws Shaban and his sheep to the cursor. Interacting with the world is as easy as pointing and clicking.
As the game progresses, you will need to guide Shaban through a series of puzzles and object hunts while getting clues from villagers and other characters with whom you interact. You also need to play through more than a few mini-games to make your way to the final showdown and ultimate success. The mini-games are fairly simple and not intended to stump you for long.
Many of the various puzzles in Shaban offer explicit hints as well. These puzzles feel very much like those found in casual games. There are hidden object puzzles (for example, you need to find and assemble parts to build objects needed for solving the current puzzle) as well as some timed and arcade styled shooting gallery sequences. Some puzzles require you to correctly assemble jigsaw pieces to reveal a hidden clue. There are also a few "hide-and-seek" sequences that you need to complete by chasing a sheep or mouse or bird out from various hiding spots onscreen by clicking on it each time you find it. These puzzles ultimately yield the needed rewards for use in getting past the current obstacles. Many of them, including a fish catching sequence, do not provide much of a cerebral challenge. Still, as simple in principle as many are, some of these puzzles occasionally require a very keen eye and patience. Another type of puzzle is the familiar "jumbled wiring in the electric box", in which each colored wire needs to be traced into and through a loose knot of wires and connected correctly at both ends to make a circuit. Many of the "seek-and-find" puzzles require manipulation in 3D. Panning the screen causes foreground objects to pass over and obscure or reveal background objects. This mechanic works well, but revealing some objects can be tough. Sometimes, you need to pan in order to find the barest tip of a sought after object hiding behind a foreground object.
Shaban tells a surprisingly touching and endearing tale. Even after completing the game, some players will likely feel a strong desire to replay it—not to solve the missed puzzles, but to experience again the game's unique mood and whimsical atmosphere. It is difficult to decide if Shaban is a casual game dressed as an adventure game, or vice versa. Viewed as an adventure game, it certainly lacks many elements that fans of the genre typically expect. However, it is very clear that this casual adventure game hybrid does not pretend to compete with such games. The proliferation of casual game elements may well put off gamers who are looking for nuanced plots and sophisticated characters, but even those gamers looking for a light and humorous experience may expect more complexity than is found in this game. However, taken as it is, Shaban is a refreshing and engaging diversion that will not tax you and can be finished in a single sitting. You may even find the game tugging at your heart from time to time.
Shaban excels as a game that families can enjoy together. The lighthearted and touching storyline, as well as many of the straightforward adventure elements, have appeal for young and old alike. Some puzzles require dexterity and an eagle eye and therefore lend themselves well to collaboration. Other puzzles require repetition and dexterity. It is a rare game that brings these elements together in an experience that is very likely to please gamers who are looking for a wholesome, if brief, collaborative family oriented adventure game.
Aside from the likely lack of appeal to hardcore adventure gamers, the only potential knock on this game is its brevity. It is just a shame that playing Shaban is such a short experience. Still, its budget pricing is certainly not an exorbitant barrier for gamers who are seeking a quick gaming diversion. For those gamers who can appreciate this touching and whimsical game, the few quality hours of entertainment that this game delivers are well worth its price.