You wouldn’t think a game about sudden death and guilt would take in a frat party, a rock concert and a wedding, would you? Never mind one featuring ghosts, zombies and animated skeletons. Then again, The Wardrobe, from Italian indie developer C.I.N.I.C. Games, is anything but typical. Calling it a comedy horror is almost beside the point: that’s just scaffolding for its real mission to squeeze in as much pop culture and as many oddball characters as possible before the whole thing explodes. Not to mention a gossamer-thin thread about self-acceptance and coming to terms with a bad situation. It also includes a bunch of headscratching puzzles and some nonsensical humour, but that can’t put a damper on the game’s abundant, fizzing creativeness.
Plums. Sweet, succulent purple fruit or dealers of death? For poor Skinny, they’re the latter. Not that he knew that when he sat down with his friend Ronald for a picnic on a beautiful summer’s day. One bite was all it took for anaphylaxis to set in, Skinny to fall dead on the grass and Ronald to run screaming in panic, never to speak again. A tragedy, but death was not the end as a new spark was instilled in Skinny’s body and he arose, reborn as a walking skeleton and sent to live in the coffin… errr, wardrobe in Ronald’s bedroom. (Seriously, it’s an easy mistake to make. Who has a six-sided wardrobe with a skull on top?)
Anyway, Fate still has plans for Skinny. In killing his friend, however unintentionally, Ronald has committed a mortal sin and will be damned for all eternity unless he confesses his sin to somebody within five years. Which could be a bit tricky, given that he hasn’t said a word to anyone since the incident and his five years are nearly up. As Skinny, it falls to you to get through to Ronald, let him know that the accident wasn’t his fault and save his immortal soul. Of course, the morning you finally pluck up the courage to deal with the problem would have to be the one when Ronald and his family pack up and move, leaving you behind!
If all this sounds a bit melodramatic and emotional, it really isn’t. In fact, for all the horror window-dressing, it’s more of a farce, albeit one with dark overtones at times. Skinny’s more given to making sarcastic fourth wall-breaking comments about your performance than dwelling on his situation. As with so many quest stories, it’s more about the journey than the destination – and what a bizarre, eclectic journey it is.
To give you some idea, the game opens with a talking squirrel before landing you in a bathroom with a bloody chainsaw in the shower, a skateboard for a toilet roll holder and a bearskin rug on the floor. A rug that can also talk, is in love with the rubber duck and is just hoping for a better view in the new house. Skinny’s world is chock full of eccentric characters, from the ex-con crocodile in the sewer below to a magical, metalhead dragon and a junkyard foreman with a thing for black magic.
On top of that, it’s also packed with pop culture references, to games, films, books and pretty much anything you can think of, all thrown together seemingly at random. Again, to give you just an example, at one point Skinny wanders into a frat house party to find Frank from Donnie Darko hanging out with The Matrix‘s Morpheus, watching half of Daft Punk strutting his stuff on a Mondrian-themed dancefloor to the beat of an alien DJ. In the next room, he finds the Ghostbusters, along with the bride of Frankenstein, the Flying Dutchman hanging from the ceiling fan and Jesus and Judas playing beer pong. Next to a fridge with a roasted Angry Bird inside and Tetris fridge magnets on the outside. I’m not sure the developers could have shoehorned more in if they’d tried, and there are bound to be plenty I’ve missed. There are so many, in fact, that even a Death Star, crashed on a hillside outside of town, doesn’t merit comment.
All this is presented with gorgeous cartoon graphics, crisply hand-drawn in HD and packed with little details, like the pictures on the walls (Skinny-themed takes on classic paintings) and the glorious collection of bric-a-brac (who doesn’t want a mounted T. Rex head in a fedora in their basement bar?) From the cracks in the walls to the grain in the wooden floors and all the little ambient animations, it’s clear that a lot of love and care has gone into each screen. As you might expect by now, the locations you visit are nicely varied, starting in Ronald’s old house and heading on, via a junkyard, to a meteor impact crater (with trolls and a barbeque), a mystic’s treehouse, a beach (with its own time machine and alien landing pod), and a horrorbilly concert in the local cemetery.
The music doesn’t stand out as much (though the concert and frat party tunes are pretty catchy). Instead, it does a good job of staying in the background and keeping the mood upbeat with a mix of perky, small-band cafe jazz melodies (just in case you were tempted to take any of this too seriously) and more atmospheric film score-style pieces (to inject a little light creepiness here and there). The voice work is also top-notch: from the dopey stoner removal guy to a prissy gay zombie and a meathead football player, each character has a distinctive tone. Skinny himself varies between being polite and well-brought-up (to most of the people he meets) to world-weary and sarcastic (when he’s addressing you).