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Indie Game of the Week 326: Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit

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Adventure games have gone through many evolutions since the Indie market more or less completely took them over from the apathetic AAA industry, but the old point-and-clicks still have their proponents, myself included. Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit initially felt like one of those tourist information type games—where a country with very limited representation in the video game industry makes a game about its own culture to stand out—but after getting a little further into it Crowns and Pawns has proven to be a delightful throwback to a certain era of the point-and-click genre. In particular, it feels beholden to the Broken Sword series and its combination of globe-trotting archeological thriller intrigue, obtuse puzzles, and wise-ass sense of humor. The effect is not too dissimilar to the knowing, comedic homages Pendulo Studios tends to make, such as the Runaway trilogy or The Next Big Thing, but if anything Crowns and Pawns is even more tongue-in-cheek about its genre trappings.

Crowns and Pawns sees Milda, a struggling young professional living in Chicago, receive a notary missive about her deceased grandfather leaving her his house back in the old country of Lithuania. Upon reaching Vilnius and discovering that someone had ransacked her grandpa's home it becomes clear that he was part of a conspiracy involving the KGB, an ancestral treasure of the Lithuanian people, possible psychic powers granted by said artifact, and Milda's estranged father whom she hasn't seen since she was a child. The game is loosely structured in what first appears to be a non-linear fashion as you track down keys that might reveal the final resting place of this artifact, but is more guided by circumstance: for instance, finding a major clue just triggered the next step in an unrelated puzzle chain at the point of the playthrough I'm at presently, and since I've no other leads I guess I'm investigating this new development. Puzzles tend to be the usual mix of inventory management and talking to the right people about the right topics, with your local friend Joris always ready to give you a reminder of your current task. You also have your smartphone at hand, which in addition to letting you communicate with NPCs remotely can also be used to track information and link notes together if there's something they have in common. This note combination tech has thrown me a few times; there are occasions where you need to use it to fill gaps in an investigation before it can proceed, but you can also receive important clues if you just go in there every once and a while and see if anything matches up.

This is how you know this game knows its historical roots well, for better or worse. I got all this shit after like ten minutes of playing. I bet I never even use half of it. Ahhh, that's the stuff.
This is how you know this game knows its historical roots well, for better or worse. I got all this shit after like ten minutes of playing. I bet I never even use half of it. Ahhh, that's the stuff.

The game looks sharp, using a combination of stylized 3D polygonal models for characters and some attractive background art that keeps itself as close to minimalistic as is viable to not confuse the player with too many details. It also has the usual suite of modern adventure game quality-of-life touches, like a double-click warp for screen transitions—that is, if you double-click an exit you just immediately move to the next screen rather than wait for the walking animation to get you there, though it doesn't work with non-transition hotspots—and there's two buttons for highlighting every hotspot in the area, one of which is the mouse wheel, so that's handy. I kinda consider those two to be bare minimum these days, but I'm always happy to see a developer savvy enough about its audience and what they want to include such features.

Conversely, there's no real hint system (Joris reminding you of your current goal is as close as you're going to get) but some puzzles are better foreshadowed than others. For instance, the librarian's cat is called "Fortuna"—even if you didn't pick up on the hint that the cat's all about tuna, the librarian will straight up tell you once you reach the part of the game where cajoling the cat becomes necessary. Others are real odd: there's a bottle of sacramental wine you need to steal back from a homeless guy by basically turning a regular bottle into holy wine by filling it with holy water and trading it for the real one. However, the bum takes one whiff of this makeshift sacramental wine and declares it too watered down; to convince him, you need to take your invisible ink that you found hours ago and add that to the wine too. I only found out by adding it to the wine out of desperation, since it was the only other liquid I was carrying, but in retrospect I'm not sure how that worked as a solution. It's the nature of any adventure game, Crowns and Pawns included, to give you softballs one moment—the stuff you've figured out even before you've found the items needed to resolve it—and then toss your way some of those messed-up Winnie the Pooh Home Run Derby-ass throws that turn invisible mid-air or warp through space-time that you have no rational chance of connecting with.

Yeah, what gives? I did the thing now give me the thing. Have you never appeared in an adventure game before, Father?
Yeah, what gives? I did the thing now give me the thing. Have you never appeared in an adventure game before, Father?

On the whole, though, I've been enjoying Crowns and Pawns's thriller mystery pace, its nods to the genre with understated meta jokes and moments of insouciant mischief (why visit Europe if you can't be an Ugly American every chance you get?), little quirks like being able to change your protagonist's appearance and wardrobe (and it even factors into an early puzzle), a player-determined choice of career for Milda that also factors into a few puzzles, a clean visual style with some decent voice acting, and a level of puzzle difficulty which is occasionally bewildering but not yet something I haven't been able to muddle through with enough time, patience, and feverish clicking (after pointing first, naturally). You'd think after playing like a hundred of these I'd be a little more attuned to the logic processes behind the puzzles this genre tends to exhibit, but I suppose every point-and-click game is subtly insane in its own unique way. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to take a day trip to Belarus to meet with an informant who knew my father by bullshitting my way on board a hockey fan club's coach somehow. Better get to summoning my inner-Bakalar...

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Post-Playthrough Edit: Well, that was an abrupt ending, but I'll say the game remained intriguing and quippy right up to its conclusion. I honestly didn't run into any more tricky puzzles after the hockey game I mentioned—which honestly felt trial-and-error-y, but maybe that's because I'm an idiot that wasn't tracking what they were saying about lines and pairs—and the rest of the game was smooth sailing. You never can predict how these games will go difficulty-wise. Anyway, they left it on a semi-cliffhanger (let's say some pertinent information was left unsaid) so I guess they might do some sequels. I'll look forward to them; this was a pretty slick comedic adventure all-told, up there with the likes of The Book of Unwritten Tales series from King Art Games.

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