Brawsome's Jolly Rover, winner of the best Australian Game at this year's Freeplay independent game festival, is currently on sale for $4.99, in honour of upcoming Talk Like a Pirate Day.
At full price I'd been tossing up whether to part with my money. On sale it's an easy choice for fans of point-and-click adventure. It's a very polished independent game, with a great sense of humour. It includes a heap of truly awful puns, but I also found myself laughing a few times, and I'm not an easy target for humour.
Jolly Rover is essentially Monkey Island featuring anthropomorphic dogs. That's no bad thing, though I would have loved to see them tackle a different setting. It's also quite easy, which disappointed me but may appeal to some.
[Note: The rest of this post contains character discussion on Jolly Rover and Monkey Island. Potential minor spoilers.]
James Rover and Guybrush Threepwood are both unlikely heroes. They have a slightly childlike manner and sense of humour, making comparisons very natural. They are joke pirates, in a sense. Threepwood has his silly name and wields wit like a weapon, while Rover is quite literally a clown.
Monkey Island has naturally had a bit more time for character development, but Rover is pretty well fleshed out for the time available. What I actually find more interesting (and a little disturbing) is comparing the love interests in Jolly Rover and Monkey Island.
Monkey Island's Elaine Marley is often held up as a good example of a positive female character in games. She's a strong governor, showing kindness as well as intelligence and resourcefulness. She commonly subverts the "damsel in distress" stereotype, by finding her own way out of situations before Threepwood can come to her rescue. She is also quite definitely the dominant partner in their relationship.
Clara from Jolly Rover is also presented as strong, in that she will threaten to break Rover in half if he says or does the wrong thing. She is once again calling the shots in terms of their developing relationship. Where it falls down, though, is that she does little to earn either fear or respect.
We first meet Clara arguing with a group of man-hunting female pirates, and being determined to "have no more part in this bloody business". She's demonstrating moral strength, but she lacks any influence within the group so is left powerless.
After teaming up with Rover, I kept expecting Clara to do something to demonstrate her ability as a skilled captain. She never did. In fact, she spent most of her time standing around doing nothing. Sometimes she would even beg Rover to get them out of whatever predicament they were in. It made me quite uncomfortable, and the game could have been improved substantially for me simply by giving her something to do.
Elaine isn't strong because she can snap at Guybrush and make him jump as high as she likes. She's strong because she wields genuine power in her own right. She possesses political influence, strategic thinking, and skill in direct physical action. It isn't necessary to go quite that far – if anything Elaine may suffer from being a bit too good to be true – but I at least expected something from Clara.
Sure, you can create a passive character (of any gender) if you like, but overuse of the helpless female stereotype is not doing computer games any favours. In a game that invites such a strong level of comparison to Monkey Island it's particularly disappointing. I was silly enough to expect something more because of that.
I don't buy that the famous pirate's daughter is going to be so useless. If she's going to talk tough I want her to be able to back it up. Flitting between bossiness and helplessness, Clara is a wishy-washy mess of a character.
It was unfortunate to have such a bad taste left in my mouth after what was otherwise a worthwhile adventure game.