Last King of Africa (DS) review
"Last King of Africa is like a Best Of album that does away with all the tracks that never really worked and exist only to bolster the self-esteem of the band, keeps everything that did well enough in the singles chart to indicate the fan baseís enjoyment, then transfers it from vinyl to CD."
The DS has quickly become home to a lot of ports, and while I've been saving the inevitable comparison to the GBA for ages now, it looks like I'll have to sit on that for a little bit longer. The current in-thing for the prodder's handheld of choice has recently become point and click ports lifted across from the PC. You can see the logic behind these ports, and the DS has obvious compatibility with the genre thanks to its touch screen, but it's a relative tricky process to condense a PC title down into a handheld. Sometimes, this works (the well-realised Runaway release) and sometimes it doesn't (the buggy Ankh effort). The Last King of Africa is somewhat different: it takes a PC point-and-click game, Paradise, completely guts it of everything that didn't work the first time around, then repackages it designed specifically for the DS.
But wait, I hear you cry, crashing fingers to keyboard to record your outburst in complaint-ridden text, DS exclusive content via this genre is nothing new! I imagine some of you have already highlighted titles like Hotel Dusk in your head, and you'd be right. You'd also be wrong. The Last King of Africa still plays very much like a PC game lifted from the monitors and deposited onto your dual screens, and the reason for that is obvious; the game has been headed up by Benoit Sokal, the brain behind titles such as Amerizone and Syberia.
If you're familiar with Sokal's previous work, you'll already be ruling out the comic capering of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle (which, themselves have the rumour mill whispering about eventual ports); Last King is a tale, not a cartoon.
It's a tale of a country attacking itself from within and a worried father anxiously awaiting the arrival of his daughter, someone who he finds himself reliant upon to win the support of his country's people, but it's not one with a happy beginning. The daughter's plane crashes on the way to her destination, leaving her with amnesia and in the care of a nearby Arabian prince with designs to add her to his harem.
The alterations from Paradise are commendable; much of the bloated plot has been cut down, making the story instantly more engaging, and the clunky action segments completely dropped. The DS has been firmly kept in mind, with a prompt included, meaning that a simple push of the select key will highlight any intractable hotspots on-screen, something almost vital when pixel-hunting in such a tiny window. Compared to the majority of Sokal's work, Paradise has always been considered the black sheep, but Last King does just about everything right to help realise the game's fantastic setting while easing in new puzzles that require near-obligatory DS solutions like blowing on the mic.
Which leaves most of what's left open to glowing praise. Our amnesia-ridden lead borrows the author's name found on a book that survived the crash beside her, and spends the rest of her journey under the name Ann Smith. While not being able to draw on her memories is a disgustingly common plight, trying to trick your way out of a harem is not. Ann finds herself unable to leave the immediate vicinity of the palace without the permission of the prince, but speaking to him is an epic quest in itself. Leaving the confines of the room she wakes up in is not immediately obvious, and progression is barred until you wave at a servant girl from a nearby window. Things seem to tick along at an expected pace: you can't unlock a gate barring your way unless you barter with the servant for her key and you can't use the key until you shed enough light on the keyhole by igniting a nearby lantern.
The main challenge is finding a path that grants you an audience with the prince himself, and you soon learn that his time is very difficult to snag. Most of the girls already in the harem see you as another rival and give you the cold shoulder, leaving only the most popular girl happy to speak to you. Even if it's in an innocently patronising tone that makes it clear she's only open with you because she's so secure in her position as favourite that she doesn't see you as a threat to her status. This makes it easy to learn how she entices the Prince to keep her top of his wish list, then trick her with the promise of a pampering bath before stealing her clothes and carefully manufacturing your own bottle of her unique perfume. While she soaks in her personally-specified soapy suds, Annís already bartering for her freedom.
Itís a clever and subtle puzzle, giving you enough clues along the way to make your goal clear but, at the same time, not writing it out in crayon with huge neon lights pointing towards an obvious solution. Itís a graft to solve the foreign and utterly alien bath settings you need to configure to get your rival out of her robe so you can pinch it, and her unique perfume isnít going to make itself. The castle grounds are yours to explore while you carefully plot out ways in which you might solve these dilemmas. The gathering of items is perhaps the most important undertaking, but itís not one thatís as easy to undertake as it could have been.
Yes, Last King has the aforementioned hint system where it will highlight on-screen items with a little *twinkle*, but it can be described as spotty in places. Some items will not glitter like theyíre supposed to while some items that you cannot collect or interact with shine anyway, leaving you confused and bewildered at points. It wonít do much more than slow down people already familiar with the genre whoíll probably only employ the hot-spot seeker when up against a dead end, but it can become a hindrance should you come to lean on the system to help you out. I can think of at least once instance where it will not so much lead you to a brick wall as hurl you into one then gloat about it.
Itís a hiccup in what is otherwise a very noteworthy venture. Itís not going to turn anyone to the genre; itís a game almost custom-built with the point and click veterans in mind, but it looks after their needs lovingly. The puzzles are challenging enough to grant a glowing feeling of accomplishment when beaten, yet are rarely obtuse enough to cause game-halting frustration while the story is gripping and almost touching in places, certainly enough to drive the gamer onwards to the conclusion. I theorise that Paradise was a release that perhaps got under Benoit Sokalís skin a little when it was deemed a disappointment and met with universal indifference all around, and it shows. Last King of Africa is like a Best Of album that does away with all the tracks that never really worked and exist only to bolster the self-esteem of the band, keeps everything that did well enough in the singles chart to indicate the fan baseís enjoyment, then transfers it from vinyl to CD.
Always end your review with an awful simile, I was told at reviewing school. Best spent four hours of my life.
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