I hate roaches. I mean, no one particularly enjoys them, but my fear and loathing of those creepy-crawlies is of the deep-seated, wake-up-screaming-in-the-middle-of-the-night variety. Think about it; these things can live up to month without their heads. What’s not to hate? Hence my surprise at actually enjoying myself playing Kobold Games’ roach-eriffic adventure game, Journey of a Roach. Although its storytelling is on the clumsy side, it does what many of us would have deemed impossible — it transforms one of our most-hated pests into a sympathetic hero.
An old joke says that roaches are the only things bound to survive a nuclear war and Journey of a Roach starts there. Roach buddies Jim and Bud are living in a grim, rubble-filled world completely devoid of human (or any other) life when they discover a single flower. They set out to share it with their friends but unfortunately, Jim and Bud aren’t the brightest bulbs and immediately get into trouble. It turns out, roaches aren’t the only bugs who survived the Apocalypse; others made it too, and within this human-free world, these species are bent on showing all the other bugs who’s boss.
Though the game starts with two heroes, Jim quickly becomes the arthropod of the hour. You’d think it would be hard to look at and control a roach, but Kobold’s character design makes it fairly easy. Jim’s upright stance and googly eyes make him more like a grasshopper or Dr. Moreau-like cross between a bug and a Simpsons character than a cockroach. With all the “ick” factor removed, you can forget about what Jim is and focus on what Jim does.
Kobold’s inspired approach to game design is to leverage the cockroach’s ability to climb on any surface. Journey of a Roach takes place in a subterranean world full of bunkers, caves and sewer tunnels, and Jim’s wall-climbing skills expand the game’s puzzle-design options considerably. If an area’s floor is blocked by sewage or rubble, Jim merely scuttles up the wall and passes said obstacle by crawling along the ceiling. This same strategy can be used to fetch high-up items, get around locked doors and activate inconveniently placed machinery. It’s clever, so long as the shifting camera doesn’t make you hurl. For some reason, Kobold decided to re-orient the camera with every plane change, and the effect can become truly stomach-churning. If you can withstand the wooziness though, you’re in for some unusual fun.
Journey of a Roach is full of quirky characters, idiosyncratic music, and off-center objectives. (One involving an overworked spider mama comes immediately to mind.) Even better, its puzzles are clever and mostly make sense. Mostly. In a bid to avoid translating text into multiple languages, Kobold employs a method of communication that depends on still images and mime. When Jim “talks” to various characters, bubbles with simple drawings in them appear above their heads, indicating what it is they want. Sometimes these drawings make sense, sometimes they don’t. When the latter happens, it pretty frustrating trying to figure out what you’re meant to do next.
Similar problems dog the game’s static, comic-style cutscenes. It’s not easy using still images to convey narrative, and Journey of a Roach proves this with its somewhat muddled story sequences. Having watched every single cutscene (some more than once), I gather there was a faction of army ants hiding in a bunker who were bullying the other bugs and being controlled by a cult leader of some sort. There was also a lazy rasta bug, a bunch of bugs playing cards, and a showgirl bug who only wanted to boogie… Yeah. I still don’t know what the hell was going on.
Anyway, even with this mime-induced mess to contend with, there was still plenty to enjoy about Journey of a Roach. Its music is a definite highlight, from the warped vinyl lullaby of the spider nursery, to the surreal mish-mash of noises found in the sewers. Its graphics too are worth mention. Simply rendered in flat tones and heavy outlines, they’re both funny and colorful. Combine great sound and fun graphics with inventive puzzle design and you’ve got a decent counterweight for the game’s serious narrative flaws.
Journey of a Roach is worth your time, as long as you don’t get hung up on the game’s bigger picture. The search for coherence is likely to be repaid by disappointment due to confusing cutscenes, opaque character communication and meandering progression. If however, you focus on the game as a strange collection of fresh ideas, it’ll reward you with several hours of unexpectedly good entertainment.