Hans Christian Anderson: The Ugly Prince Duckling Review

From a relatively unknown Danish developer comes a delightful new game based on the tales of Hans Christian Anderson. Rather than portraying any single HCA tale, The Ugly Prince Duckling combines elements of several -- The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Chimneysweep and the Shepherdess, and The Ugly Duckling, to name a few. The game reflects the whimsical nature of these tales using unique graphic renderings and animations, supportive sound tracks, colorful artwork, and entertaining characterizations.

The format of the game also adds to its whimsical nature. The time: 1819; the place: Copenhagen, Denmark, home of Hans Christian Anderson. In a moment of creative genius, the game begins with Hans sitting in a puppet theater, writing his tale and narrating each of the major section transitions while puppets representing some of the characters in the game walk across the stage behind him. The game is played using a third-person point-and-click interface, and HCA is also the main character in the game -- the one controlled by the player. All of the elements of a good fairy tale can be found in The Ugly Prince Duckling: a beautiful (and naive) princess, her somewhat bumbling father-king, the nefarious Councilor Dunkeldorff, and a wonderful combination of characters, all living in fear of the evil Master of Darkness. Naturally, it is Hans' goal to defeat the Master of Darkness, and save the princess and the kingdom.

The first thing one notices when playing TUPD is the artwork. The characters -- all drawn as excellent cartoon-style caricatures -- are rendered as high-quality 3D images. The background artwork suits a fairy tale story quite well, with predominantly bright and vibrant colors. (The water effects alone are worth seeing.) It is clear from the outset that TUPD is primarily a story, surrounded by the standard elements of an adventure game -- exploring, talking with other characters, interacting with objects, collecting an inventory, and solving various puzzles along the way. But the story prevails over the rest.

The game is directed to an all-encompassing audience (with an "E" rating), and should find its greatest devotees in young people. The emphasis on story line creates a linearity that might seem detrimental to seasoned adventure gamers; but it is entirely appropriate in light of the anticipated audience of younger gamers.

As HCA progresses through the game, the puzzles he encounters are mostly inventory-style puzzles -- and frequently involve acquiescing to another character's request: "Help me with this", "Find such-and-such and bring it to me," "Take this to so-and-so." The inventory typically remains small, as most items are used shortly after they are picked up. (In some cases, "finding" an item to be used somewhere entails almost no exploration at all, as the item is immediately at hand.)

There are a number of other distinct "pluses" in the game. In addition to the rich, bright scenery, the character animations are quite good. The individual characters are caricatured with a good deal of humor. The owner of the local playhouse is corpulent and effeminate; the policeman is blustery and brash; the tailor could easily pass for Pinnochio's Gepetto; the shepherdess couldn't possibly be more "Little Bo Peep"-ish; the hunchbacked old crone practices witchcraft over her cauldron. And all of the character voicings are entirely appropriate for the characters that they represent.

The soundtrack is mostly a pastoral background track, including well-known semi-classical and classical themes, as well as much original music. At moments of danger or peril, however, it can take quite a turn -- and sweep the user up in its emotion. I found the musical accompaniment to the game to be one of the better tracks I've heard, and entirely supportive of the various settings.

While there are times of peril for HCA, each life-threatening situation simply terminates the current scene, and places him back to a point prior to the endangerment, allowing the player a "do-over". This is in keeping with -- and most appropriate for -- the "family friendly" focus and rating of the game.

One thing I found quite odd is that during game play HCA never speaks. During the interludes between major sections (in the puppet theater), he does speak to the audience. However, in all of his "dialogues" with the characters in the game, only the other characters speak; Hans is completely silent. I never was able to determine why the developers chose this paradigm, as it made no sense at all.

As good as TUPD is, there were some setbacks and shortcomings, as well. The most prevalent, on my own system, was the repeated game crashes that I experienced every time I played. With the help of the developer's technical support team, I tried a variety of changes to my system, in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the crashes. But while I was able to occasionally limit them, I was never able to eliminate them entirely. This made game saving a regular experience, as I soon tired of replaying entire sections of the game due to the crashes.

Navigation also presented some unusual problems. As mentioned above, the game uses a third-person point-and-click interface. However, HCA can also be moved using the arrow keys, although in a more limited manner. As a result, it is usually desirable to use the mouse to move him through scenes. But unlike other similar third-person perspectives, where characters move fluidly (and intelligently) around obstacles in their path, HCA is not always able to navigate around obstacles -- people, doorways, furniture, etc. Rather than walking around obstacles, he will often get "hung up" on something, and sometimes cannot be extricated using the mouse. At these times, resorting to the arrow keys would typically "unstick" him, and allow him to continue on. But that meant a lot of "back and forth" between the mouse and the arrow keys -- something that should have been unnecessary, with a better navigation engine.

While most of the game is fairly simple -- the puzzles are usually obvious, and the things that HCA needs to do are typically quite clear -- there are occasional times when the "next step" is not intuitively obvious. And since the story line drives the action, the game becomes quite linear -- even to the point of "bottlenecking" at those times when the next step is unclear or non-intuitive. A few more hints in Hans' journal, or some additional dialogue from the other characters, would have made for a smoother progression at those points.

The game also appears to be a tremendous resource hog. While the minimum hardware requirements are not that demanding (and my own system exceeded them considerably), things like scene changes, or moving from one major section to another, resulted in incredibly long delays -- especially given that the entire game installs on the hard drive, and does not require the CDs to play. It was not uncommon for a scene change to take in excess of 30 seconds, which breaks up the continuity of the story and emphasizes that it's just a computer game.

TUPD provided just the right amount of game play (about 15 hours) -- long enough to keep me pleasantly occupied, yet not so long that I got bored with it. Given the target audience, that should be about right.

Anyone looking for a whimsical fairy tale of a game, suitable for the entire family, won't be disappointed with the excellent implementation of The Ugly Prince Duckling. The strengths of the game readily outweighed some of the minor annoyances. We can only hope that Guppyworks will continue their good work, and improve on the few shortcomings in TUPD, to bring us another HCA tale in the not-too-distant future.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.