Sci-fi comedy holds an important place in the canon of classic adventure games. Infocom's adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become an interactive fiction bestseller, and Sierra On-Line's Space Quest has spawned 6 popular games as a series.
A relative latecomer among sci-fi comedy adventures is The Feeble Files, released in 1997 by British developer Adventure Soft. The Feeble Files stands out for having loads of cut scenes, famous television actors providing the voices, and an Orwellian theme that makes the humor dark. Although the production values are potentially appealing, the game suffers from obtuse puzzles as well as an awkward, buggy interface and ultimately fails to deliver a rewarding gaming experience.
The game's protagonist is a green, wide-eyed alien named Feeble, who works in the Crop Circles Division of the Ministry of Galactic Uncertainty. He is a small cog in the machinery of a totalitarian, interstellar empire called the OmniCorporation, led by an enigmatic entity called the OmniBrain, whose ideology is enshrined in a book called the OmniBible. On a particularly eventful day (or cycle, as it is called in Feeble's world), Feeble accidentally damages an expensive research station and is required to report to his superior. Trouble awaits, and Feeble ultimately has to become a rebel in order to save his own skin.
The game makes a good first impression by means of a long and eventful intro sequence that is filled with funny dialog and expressive voice acting as well as graphics which look surprisingly multidimensional of a game from that era. Throughout the game, those same qualities continue to be the highlights. Few adventure games have as much cut scene materials as The Feeble Files has, and each cut scene really gives a boost to the player's level of immersion.
The cast of characters starts promisingly but turns into a mixed bag. Voiced by Robert Llewellyn (of Red Drawf fame), Feeble comes across convincingly as a disgruntled bureaucrat who wants to be a jock. Unfortunately, the game's puzzles dictate so many nonsensical actions that the protagonist loses plausibility over time. Among the other major characters, the show stealer is a helpful yet homicidal robot named SAM. Far less interesting, ultimately, is Feeble's fellow rebel and love interest, a mechanic named Delores Thatcher. She is a rather shallow "Iron Lady" (as her surname surely suggests). Many of the minor characters are funny, obsessive types with strange accents; some, however, are simply grating, with giddy, blaring voices.
The game is sparse in music, except for a few pop tunes in some of the cut scenes. Elsewhere, industrial and crowd noises constitute the sound effects, which sometimes are much too loud, drowning out the characters' voices. Alas, there is no option to control the volume.
The deficiencies in the game's controls go beyond the volume issues. The system (save/load/quit) menu is accessible only via the inventory screen, and in several of the locations the player is denied access to the inventory screen. Thus, there are stretches of the game when the player cannot even hit a quit button to exit the game.
The inventory screen itself is a multi tabbed interface with confusing labels. This screen closes itself at random, frequently. Among the tabs is an encyclopedia, where new, miscellaneous information about the game universe is incessantly dumped in no particular order. The encyclopedia entries are not alphabetized, yet new entries do not usually appear at the beginning or the end either. Regrettably, several of the game's puzzles are impossible to solve without trivia from the encyclopedia, but there are no discernable clues to tell which parts of the encyclopedia must be read or which parts can be skipped.
Beyond the inventory screen, too, the interface is awkward. Right clicking is the only way to change the active icon, and there are 4 options in the cycling selection: look, take, use/talk (which looks similar to take), or use with...; a fifth icon, walk, is not part of this cycle but is selected by left clicking on an area that is not a hotspot. However, in a particular scene in the game, the walk icon has to be used on a hotspot - a combination that the player is not likely to consider, due to the questionable interface design.
The inconvenience of the interface design is compounded by unintuitive puzzles, which force the player to experiment over and over again. Several of the puzzles even require the player to do many repetitions of the same action that seems to have no useful effect until the last try, such as switching a mechanism on and off until it breaks.
Other puzzles also lack adequate clues. For example, early in the game, before going up an elevator to see his boss, Feeble mutters that he must first put on his company jacket. He has his company jacket in his inventory, yet refuses to put it on: he wants somewhere private to change his jacket. Where? The city's back alley, its confessional booth, or its airlock, perhaps? Not sufficiently private. As it turns out, Feeble craves the privacy of a glass (ironically, see-through glass) phone booth. To get into the glass phone booth to change his jacket, Feeble is even willing to ruin the love life of the booth's current occupant and indirectly cause her to be incinerated by a droid! The chain of prerequisite actions goes on and on, and the tiresome, long chain of actions builds up to the nonsensical, poorly hinted goal of simply changing Feeble's jacket in a phone booth. The believability of Feeble's motives takes a bit of a hit here.
Pixel hunting is another frustration the player must contend with when playing this game. Some objects, like a telephone behind a counter, are not actually visible. Other objects are nearly invisible, such a small rock that is half hidden by a wooden pole, in a large scrolling scene full of other rocks.
Although inventory puzzles are the majority, there are also several pattern matching and passcode puzzles that demand a lot of experimentation too. These puzzles take place in close-up scenes, which, just like the inventory screen, tend to close unexpectedly.
The low point of the gameplay, however, is the video arcade. Here, the player must face a long series of unoriginal mini-games, each on a very limited timer. Expect to play (and lose) dozens of rounds of a memory card game, a weight balancing game, a confusing variant on Battleship, and so on. Fortunately, in-game cheat codes can be used to bypass the unpopular timed mini-games. Then, there is the claw grabber mini-game, in which the hotspots do not even line up with the graphics!
During a few parts of the game, the player takes control of SAM, the killer robot, instead of Feeble. This change of role is fun to play, yet the style of gameplay remains much the same. As SAM is usually forbidden to use his destructive powers, he consents to approach most puzzles in the circuitous way that Feeble favors.
Although some of the gameplay frustrations do not set in immediately, the game is sloppily designed and flawed overall. Despite the breadth of gameplay (the game offers 30 hours or so of play time) intended by the developer - inventory puzzles, information puzzles, timed puzzles - each puzzle type is implemented poorly. Few of the major puzzle sequences offer a breadcrumb trail of clues; instead, the end goal is unapparent and nonsensical, and none of the steps make sense until the end. The player is not only confused but also struggling with an interface full of glitches and basic omissions.
On the other hand, the humor and splashy cinematics offer some bright spots amid the disappointing gameplay. The storyline is also quite good, despite certain cliché twists and cribbing many of its basic elements (a bureaucrat becomes a dissident and falls in love with another rebel who is a mechanic) from George Orwell's novel 1984. Parody, of course, is the point.
An interesting bit of historical context to The Feeble Files is that it may be the last sci-fi comedy of the classic adventure game era. Coincidentally, The Feeble Files is released in the same year (1997) as Space Quest's cancellation. For diehard adventure game fans of the sci-fi comedy subgenre, consider The Feeble Files only for its historical interest; otherwise, if this element is an inadequate reason to settle for the game's dysfunctional gameplay, skip The Feeble Files and seek better examples of the genre.
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