So Blonde is a graphic adventure written by Steve Ince, who previously worked on the Broken Sword games. I bought it off the back of a four star Adventure Gamers review as well as the fact that Ince was nominated for a writing award from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain for his work on it. I didn’t pay a whole lot for the physical copy I got online. A good thing, because the game itself isn’t very good and I can’t recommend it.
I must say that I’ve never been a big fan of the Broken Sword games. I got severely stuck in the first one at the infamous goat puzzle and parked it for several years. That puzzle was one where you had to keep trying the same thing over and over again to get past this goat that kept pucking you (cue overly-long animation)… or perhaps you needed to click on a specific part of an object that the cursor showed up as a single entity – I can’t remember and probably got it by accident when endlessly clicking about in frustration. Whatever it was, it was a crime of a puzzle seeing as most players would try the correct solution, see it doesn’t work and then never try it again. Timed puzzles do happen but this one had very tight timing. I returned to Broken Sword years later and got much further, but have never finished it. One of the things I don’t like about it is the writing. It just isn’t funny and often seems flat, awkward and just plain dull. I’m also Irish and the part in Ireland is cringe-worthy (and has that blasted goat in it!). Another thing I didn’t like about Broken Sword was that I was often in a state of stuckdom – I’d find a needed item and progress one step, only to be very quickly stuck again. It cruelly drip-feeds you stuff and drags its feet, rarely setting you free to explore. I’ve taken the second Broken Sword for a spin but will not play it seriously until I’ve finished the first one (without a guide). Of Revolution’s other adventures, I’ve briefly played Lure of the Temptress (which I didn’t like much) and finished Beneath a Steel Sky (which was okay).
So Blonde is a bit like Broken Sword. Its dialogue is pretty much always awkward and dull but the puzzles… they’re commonly plain mean in their feet-dragging, fetch-questing ways. You often have no idea what you even want to achieve. At one point in the game you’re asked to find a sacred bone. No other clues. Cue a systematic sweep of every screen on the entire island, where you do your damnedest to pick up every bone you see, using many or all of the 20+ inventory items you have on them. Most of the time your character doesn’t register any interest… but by this point in the game you should know that this doesn’t necessarily mean that these aren’t the bone you’re looking for. In this case, they aren’t. You later locate the bone on your second or third pass through all the screens when you’d practically given up. When given this quest, the main character quips that she’d prefer to look for a needle in a haystack. She’s bloody right: most of the game is like playing “Where’s Wally?”, only you’ve got to scan the whole book for him… and you’re not sure what he even looks like. Once you find him the game will set you another, similar task – one that you could have easily done while looking for the other blasted thing!
The puzzles in So Blonde are often poorly-designed and illogical. If you don’t do things in a specific order you will not succeed. There are no dead ends but you can often rule out a perfectly good solution because it didn’t work when the game wasn’t quite ready for you to try it. An example is one puzzle where you’re told you need to find replacement guitar strings. I tried taking them from the contraption they were on but it did not work. Once I’d given the character the two other things on his wish list I was then able to take the string from where I’d tried to pick it up before. There was no good reason I couldn’t do this the first time, seeing as I already needed it. There’s another puzzle where you cannot show some evidence you’ve gathered to an important person. When you try to do this nothing happens. Nothing. Not even a word to state why it’s not a good idea. The main character runs up to try and do it and then there’s no feedback of any kind. What you need to do is show the evidence to a small boy who you frankly don’t give a damn about, then show it to the important guy you know needs to see it. The small boy is hidden somewhere you probably won’t look for a while. That’s the kind of mean-spirited game design you’re up against – they’re trolling you.
In So Blonde you tirelessly fetch things for and carry out menial tasks in service to an island of lazy, imbecilic and ungrateful slackers. They’re layabouts who stay stock still in the same spot almost all the time. Until you need them. Then it’s time for you to scan every single screen in the game, playing “Where’s Wally?” again. You get that sinking feeling as soon as the last person you did something for lets you know they can’t actually help you… but they know who can. That person will do a legger. You can talk to everyone in the hope that the game will let you ask someone where they’ve gone… but often it doesn’t. There are rarely conversation options to ask people who you know should know where the person you want to find is. Why on earth would you ask someone who should know such a thing when you can wander around every screen in the game until you find them yourself? In act four there’s a point where you need to find an old lady to ask her something. She’s been in the bar the whole act… but by the time you get there she’s legged it. After searching every screen for her I eventually found her outside the bar, tiny and partially obscured by some scenery. Perhaps this one was my fault… but why did they move her at all? Why did they put her on a screen so zoomed out that she was tiny and place her behind something else? Why couldn’t you ask the barman, who she’d been conversing with, where she’d gone? You tell her the new development and she tells you to ask somebody else for help. He won’t even talk to you so you’ve got to go back and get an object and show it to him. Then he tells you that he can’t help you… but someone else can. The other guy tells you that he can’t help you… but… yeah… someone else can. The place where the last guy lives has been guarded by an unseen dog for the whole game… but now, for absolutely no reason, that dog has vanished. Once you do some more silly things to find a specific branch in a swamp full of branches you can ask the final link in this chain of annoyance what needs to be done. He gives you a list of five things that you need. Or, says that he’s given you a list – nothing appears in your inventory so you’d better write them down. One of those items is a flower. You can’t just pull it from the ground because the game’s so bloody contrary – you’ve got to cut it with a knife you’ll always have at that point. Why the extra step, then? You make that knife because you cannot hold a sharp sea shell in your hand while you cut things… so you wedge it into some bamboo (with nothing to hold it there). How does that even work as a knife?!? The shell on its own would be better. Another item you need is some hair. It’s the only hair you’ve seen in the game (I remembered where I’d seen it!) but you don’t know it’s what you need yet. How do you find this out? I had no idea. What happened was that I scanned every screen in the game until I bumped into a character who had moved to one of the screens I was least likely to revisit. He then told me, completely by chance and with no prompting, that it was the right hair! Another thing you need is a piece of a tree. You can’t pick that up from the scene within the tree where there’s loads of tree all around you – you’ve got to pixel-hunt for a piece of it outside. A piece that is literally invisible – there’s a text label, but not even one pixel to suggest where you might find it. To work out that you even need a bit of the tree you’re told that you should ask some ghosts… but you can’t ask your quest-giver how to summon these ghosts (even though you already know they’ve disappeared) until you’ve wandered all the way over to the screen where you saw them disappear. When you run back and ask he sends you to the guy who sent you to him in the first place! This kind of unnecessary and forced back-tracking plagues the game.
Some other assorted “quests”:
* You need to clean an item to make it shiny. There are loads of streams and other water sources where you could do this but you need to show the item to a hidden-away character who no longer speaks to you and get him to do it.
* You need a bucket. There are two perfectly good ones on a beach, but that’s too easy. What you really need to do is find a broken bucket and repair it by placing a large hat inside. Really.
One of the main characters in So Blonde is a bimbo. If it was the main character, the impossibly stereotypical spoilt, rich, blonde, US teenage girl called Sunny Blonde, then perhaps all the pissing about you do in the game would make a tiny amount of sense. The bimbo is a himbo, however. You get to control this witless, spineless twit a couple of times and he often says absolutely nothing when asked to examine something. It’s no feedback or some nervous wailing at being asked to think. Sometimes when you examine something as Twit, Sunny (who isn’t even on the screen) describes it for you. It’s as if the game was barely playtested, which is a real laugh considering the designers really should have known just how much fine-tooth combing of every piece of scenery in the game’s world you’d have to do to succeed. More commonly, while playing as Sunny, trying to take something from a screen where its guard has departed… triggers the same warning from the now-definitely-not-there individual. So Blonde is a game where you commonly get outrageously out-of-date or mismatching descriptions of items. Fix a shower and later get a description stating that it still needs fixing… when there’s hot water running out of it! The game doesn’t even bother keeping up with its own developments or expect you to be turning the whole island upside-down every time it asks you to find something. There are plenty of spelling errors and translation issues. I’m not quite sure why – even though it’s a French game the writer was English.
So Blonde begins with Sunny, our impossibly stereotyped US teen, washed up on a beach after falling into the sea from her cruise liner. She initially assumes that the unspoilt island she finds herself on is a theme resort where authenticity has been taken to the extreme. For the rest of the game certain descriptions will imply she still thinks she’s in a resort – even after she has discovered this is not the case. It’s not because she’s stupid, it’s because of the lack of care from the developers. Sunny herself is initially incredibly annoying. Deliberately the worst spoilt brat teenager imaginable. “Not such a dumb blonde, after all!”, she’ll sometimes proclaim after achieving something commendable. She’s not – Sunny is actually really smart. There’s too much of a leap between where her character starts from and where she finishes. From the beginning of the game I was wondering what sort of rare and wonderful writing could convincingly perform such a transformation… but it never materialises. By the end you’ll be reasonably happy running around as Sherlock Sunny, putting the lazy, imbecilic islanders to shame with her brilliance and work ethic. She’s the only likable character in the game. The only one fleshed out to any degree and almost the only one whose voice acting doesn’t sound stupid (other than the lady pirate captain who sounds a little like Jaheira from Baldur’s Gate). Throughout the game the supporting cast talks in often-disjointed automaton-speak – both in scripting and acting… but Sunny can be amusing. At times she can be a destructive little scamp like the Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island 2. I actually laughed reasonably early on when something I was trying to do (involving explosives and property destruction) actually worked. Wasn’t expecting that!
So Blonde may be a bit like the bad bits of Broken Sword with a lot of its own failings thrown in… but it’s also not unlike some of the Monkey Island games in ways. Sometimes, when you’re on a roll it actually feels like a mediocre-to-decent adventure game. That’s before it drags you down again. It’s a very, very long adventure but it would have been much better if a lot shorter, with less fetching, less back-tracking across screens you’ve seen umpteen times and without the cynically game-lengthening design. If it was short and easy it could have been recommendable. As it is, Sunny isn’t enough like scampish Threepwood mark two and is more often like dry, argumentative Threepwood from Curse of Monkey Island… but without the flashes of semi-hidden irony.
While these comparisons with Threepwood are far too generous, the Monkey Islands are an obvious inspiration – there’s even a portrait of the Demon Pirate Le Chuck from Monkey Island 3 hanging on the wall in the bar, complete with animated, fiery beard. The art style is often quite similar to this chapter of the series and a night scene lit by colourful lanterns is also reminiscent of Curse. You can sink a distant ship with a cannon just like in the first Monkey Island. So Blonde is full of references to other adventure games, particularly Lucasarts ones. Max the rabbit and Manuel Calavera are present and there are numerous references to Indiana Jones. Broken Sword gets a nod too, with George Stobbart’s face appearing on a carpet along with the titular sword. References to popular (and not-so-popular culture) come thick and fast: there’s an X-Wing sinking in a swamp as well as a quip about Yoda lifting stones; a skeleton of Jar Jar Binks; a dead main character from Fallout; the (dead) Knights Who Say Ni and dead parrot from Monty Python; a flux capacitor and Back to the Future clock tower; references to World of Warcraft; possible references to the RPG Exile/Avernum (“escape from the pit”); an Atari 2600 games console; the Marx brothers; the French RATP trains. Several actors are referred to by first name: Johnnie Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), Tom Cruise (Cocktail), Marilyn Munroe… the game really heaps them on. The problem is that such references are just thrown at you in an obvious and witless way. They’re not funny. Merely mentioning other, better games and media doesn’t make this one smart. To have a good idea is one thing but to realise and implement it successfully is something else entirely.
The game’s hand-drawn graphics are often lovely. Unfortunately, its characters are all poorly-realised and stiffly-animated 3d models. In certain cutscenes the story unfolds using comic-book-style panels where the characters are hand-drawn and they look great (Beneath a Steel Sky used this more extensively and successfully). The credits list many more 3d artists than 2d ones and this is a real waste of resources and a shame. Why bother taking more time to produce inferior graphics? A fully-2d game could have potentially had a lot more character. If you’re going to do something do it right. Music does the job. Can be nice but is rarely inspired. I really liked the brief intro and credits tunes, though.
In summary, there’s no way I can recommend this game. I’ve listed quite a few of its flaws but the only really important one is the deliberately infuriating puzzle design with so much forced back-tracking across screens you’ve seen a million times. The game world is small enough but the game is very long since it repeatedly forces you to traipse back and forth, searching for people and items. To make things worse, loading times are a joke, with no caching evident, even on screens you’ve recently visited. To be blunt, So Blonde is a failure as an adventure game because it hates you and holds you in contempt. It’s a shame it isn’t a much better game but it isn’t. When reviewing adventure games I think it’s important to refrain from using guides. Otherwise, you might miss out on all the frustration and think a game like this is actually worth a go. I started playing this one over two years ago. It’s been parked many times since. I’ve occasionally enjoyed playing but it’s mainly been a slow, painful and utterly frustrating, miserable slog. I’m glad it’s over and Sunny probably is too, even though by game end she’s still in the same predicament she started in. Helping the island’s ingrates got her nothing – not even a stinking t-shirt!