Discworld II: Missing Presumed ... !?

Review by Scout
February 2004

There's a saying that goes, "A child is talkative, a lively woman is loquacious, an old man in his dotage is garrulous." Having just completed Discworld II: Missing Presumed ... !?, I'm left wondering if an adjective exists to describe a really, really, really verbose adventure game that still manages to be funny, witty and profoundly entertaining. Probably not. The two are usually considered mutually exclusive. Most gamers balk at too much dialogue. They want their gameplay meat-and-potatoes simple, and I see their point, I really do. Still, with talent like Terry Pratchett and Eric Idle listed in the opening credits, perhaps it's time to set preconceptions aside and let the masters of yakkity-yak have their say.

Adapting story lines, locations and characters from several of Pratchett's Discworld novels, now-defunct Perfect Entertainment, helmed at the time by the very funny writer and director Greg Barnett, managed to develop one of the best games no one ever talks about. Released by Psygnosis in 1996, Discworld II was subtitled Missing Presumed ... !? in the UK and Mortality Bytes in the US and served as Barnett and Co.'s followup to their 1995 Discworld release.

The game starts off with a beautifully animated cutscene. Rincewind, the inept and cowardly wizard who starred in the first game, is back. He and his buddy, the ape librarian for Unseen University, are stumbling through the streets of Ankh-Morpork after a night of drunken debauchery when they happen upon a donkey cart rigged with explosives. Rincewind, always quick with a bad idea, insists on disarming the bomb.

The voice acting here, by the above-mentioned Eric Idle of Monty Python fame (he does Rincewind's dialogue in both games) is wonderful and sets the tone for the rest of the game. When the librarian ape is hesitant to agree to Rincewind's plan, the wizard quips, "It's not dangerous. It's the start of the game. They can't kill us off yet." I mention this because it's an important element of Discworld II, this self-referential thing. At one point, further on, when saddled with yet another mind-boggling complex object quest, Rincewind grumbles, "Take axe, open door, kill dragon ... why wasn't I born in the days of text adventures?" There's a lot of this throughout the game.

Rincewind's drunken meddling has an unexpected result. Though Death arrives on schedule to whisk off the victim of the coming explosion, the bony one is inadvertently caught in the premature blast and propelled offscreen in a cloud of smoke and debris. Opening credits roll over a song-and-dance number, "That's Death," written and performed by Eric Idle with an animated skeleton in top hat and cane dancing on a small stage.

From here, the game unfolds in four acts and wraps up with a short epilogue. As each act is basically a smaller game within the larger game, each with a dramatic arc of its own but connected to the whole by a single, strong plot line, I thought I'd structure my review thusly.

Act I: The Rite Stuff

As the act begins, the Arch Chancellor, head wizard of Unseen University, the wizard college in the city of Ankh-Morpork, is overseeing one of his wizard's funerals. Unfortunately, the event is derailed by the fact that the wizard corpse-to-be is still alive. Well, not alive but not dead either ... technically, that is. Dead but undead, if you get my drift. In other words, he's snuffed it properly, but his spirit won't leave his now-dead body. All because Death is AWOL. What else to do but perform the rite of AsheKent? This, of course, involves the use of certain objects, none of which the Arch Chancellor has on hand. Rincewind is summoned and given the task of gathering the required items and returning posthaste. It's not pertinent to this review what or where the objects are or what they are to be used for because the fun, i.e., the whole point, is to traipse around Ankh-Morpork, to meet interesting people and take them for everything they own in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will give up the goods. (If you must know, the needed items are three sticks, some dribbly candles, glitter dust, a vile smell, and four ccs of mouse blood. Happy now?)

If you've played the first Discworld game, you will know already what you are in for, and you will be right. And wrong. Right in that, yes, there is a lot of "fill the hat with salted corn to feed to the donkey to make it thirsty so it will drink the puddle dry and reveal the ruby that the barber wants before he will give you the scissors you need to cut the ribbon ..." Multiply that premise tenfold, bury any possible hints in acres of game world or discard clues altogether, and you more or less have the first Discworld game.

Not so in the sequel.

In Discworld II, there are lots of verbal hints and at times some downright hand-holding. The result: Puzzles that delight and entertain instead of simply torment. Of course, this assumes that, like every good adventurer, you'll steal everything that isn't nailed down and will religiously click on said item once it's in inventory. Do that and you'll receive a witty description and complementary hint.

One final word on the first Discworld, and then I promise to shut up. It was brain-numbingly hard, far and away the most difficult adventure game I have ever played. Part of this was because of the tortured, twisted illogic required to solve the puzzles, and part due to the lack of coherent in-game clues needed to solve said puzzles. Even one of the developers admitted as much in a 1997 Usenet post and indicated that had Perfect Entertainment not already wrapped the voice work, they would have indeed added dialogued hints in an attempt to balance the game. In my book, there is nothing classier than an outfit that sees its mistakes and admits them. Even better would have been to do something about them, but, hey, you can't have everything.

Luckily, these lessons had been learned when it came time to make Discworld II. The developers delivered an easier game with fair and balanced puzzles and hints scattered liberally about. In fact, other than a single low-level UHS hint, I didn't once have to resort to a walkthrough. And even then it was only because I overlooked part of a room. Be sure to exhaustively explore the edges of your screen when you come upon a new area, and you should be fine. If you are reading this and thinking the first Discworld game sounds like your cup of tea, what can I say? Go beat yourself on the head with a hammer. You'll get approximately the same results with a thousandth of the effort.

Act II: Come Die with Me

After Rincewind gathers the required articles and after the rite of AsheKent is performed, Death appears before the gathered wizards. They state their case, asking that he return, but to their surprise he has a problem with that. A really big problem. See, Death is tired of the scythe and the robe, tired of being the heavy. All he wants is to lay on the beach, wear hats with corks dangling from the brim and drink fancy cocktails. With that he disappears back to wherever he was hiding. Rincewind (who else?) is dispatched to bring Death back. After more object quests, Rincewind tracks Death down and makes his argument. Death agrees to return but only if Rincewind can arrange to get his poll numbers up. Rincewind immediately comes up with a plan to remake Death's image, which necessitates drafting "Cut Me Own Throat" Dibbler, the sleazy, slimy salesman from Discworld I, to assist. Dibbler, big surprise, asks for three items, and so off Rincewind goes, ranging from squalid Ankh-Morpork to exotic Djelibeybi, from the kingdom of the Elven Queen to Bonedead Beach and back.

As I crisscrossed the game world, hunting and gathering, I was struck by how easily I fell into the rhythm of the game, how fluidly I moved from puzzle to puzzle, drawn along by the unfolding story. It was a perfect balance. When confronted with the task of speeding up time a millionfold, I knew just what I had to do. When I needed to fool a coroner in order to get a death certificate, I saw all the steps in a single "aha" moment. This game is a prime example of how puzzle and story should each reinforce the other, and for that reason alone it serves as a precursor to and model of the way adventure games are being made today—simpler puzzles, more story. Regardless of what you think of the trend, it seems to be the way things are developing, and Discworld II was doing this back in the mid-90s. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking or stunningly creative in the puzzle design, and neither was the story anything to write home about. The thing here was the dynamic between the two. This was where the brainpower and the sweat were expended, and the results were worth the effort.

The graphics were just as superlative. My best guess is that, at the very least, the cutscenes were farmed out to an animation house. The colors are rich and saturated, the figures sharp and crisp. Watching a swarm of bees rise from a hive and buzz across the extreme foreground, tiny beads of sweat breaking out on their beaks, or the bitchy Elf Queen regally slouched on her throne, her hair rippling like golden wheat, or Death's niece Susan in her little pink dress on her swing set in Death's back yard, you'd think this was a Disney animated feature.

Act III: The Grim Rincewind

In Rincewind's universe, no good deed goes unpunished. His plan has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and now Death is at the top of everyone's A list. And like any nouveau celeb, he intends to take full advantage, partying like there's no tomorrow. Poor Rincewind is left with no choice but to go to Death's estate and take up the mantle until Mr. D decides to return. Henry, Death's butler, is not impressed and insists that Rincewind prove he can fill Death's shoes.

This part of the game takes place in a single location comprised of three areas: Death's house, Death's stable and Death's garden. And it was here that an underlying theme of the game surfaced in full force, that of mirroring. I mentioned at the outset of the review that there was a self-referential tone to Discworld II. It was made in the mid-90s, when irony ruled. In hindsight, it all seems a little self-indulgent, but at the time it was important to a lot of people, including, apparently, the good folks at Perfect Entertainment. In this game, Barnett, and possibly through him, Pratchett, held up a mirror to the player, to the game and to the whole concept of what an adventure game is. Here's a sample.

Rincewind: "Collect a babe, a jingle and some novelties. I don't suppose you'd consider collecting them yourself?"

Dibbler: "No, mate. What sort of fool would waste his valuable leisure time voluntarily going off on annoying little quests set by stupid and ungrateful people, eh?"

Rincewind: "Ha. Ha. Ha. Yes! He'd have to be some sort of idiot, wouldn't he?"

The obvious joke, of course, is that adventure gamers are a rather masochistic lot. The not-so-obvious joke is that the annoying little quests are not annoying at all but the very heart, the very meat of the game.

This self-mockery was funny enough in its own right, but then in the third act Barnett and his team did something entirely novel, something that deepened and enriched the entire game for me. You are required to almost exactly duplicate a puzzle from the first act, except instead of being in Unseen University you are now in Death's garden. Otherwise, everything is identical, both the methodology and outcome. As in the light of day, so in the dark of night. As in life, so in death. Or something like that. There was a lot of this twisting and turning around the game on itself. Even the epilogue turned a well-loved movie trope on its head, not exactly mirroring it but inverting it. Active minds at work here is what I'm getting at, and that makes for a good game, regardless of the seemingly endless chatter.

Act IV: Till Death Do Us Part

This is where my bright idea about a review in four acts breaks down, as I really can't reveal much more of the plot without doing the game and the reader a disservice. Suffice it to say, after delivering four-fifths of a perfect game, in the very short Act IV and the even shorter epilogue, Perfect Entertainment lost their focus and stumbled, slapping on a hurried, tacked-on ending. In fact, this game could have easily been structured in three acts and would have, I suspect, benefitted from the cutting.

There were a few other problems, nothing seriously damning. I experienced an error message once and had to reboot, but otherwise the game ran smoothly. I played in DOS 7.0 under Windows 95 on an older computer with an overly slow CD-ROM player, and because of that I had to copy quite a few graphics files to my hard drive, but that was my fault. Newer CD-ROM drives should do just fine. There are both Windows and DOS installs, so you have your choice. I played it in DOS, and other than the above-mentioned bug, I had no problems. I did read about a patch that was required for the Windows version.

Despite the stumble at the end, as Discworld II wound down, I was smiling and nodding and wishing there were more games like this. It was sly and satirical, dry and witty, gorgeous, smart and fun. I loved the constant banter, finding it by turns eloquent, penetrating and crass but never boring. I never felt I was being condescended to or hoodwinked or offered up the same old, same old in a slightly new version. It's classic point-and-click 2D, no dying, cartoony adventure gaming with lots of funny-looking guys in pointy hats. What more could you want? The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Perfect Entertainment
Publisher: Psygnosis
Release Date: 1996 (PC); 1997 (PS)

Available for: DOS PlayStation Windows

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System Requirements

486 DX4-100 or better
DOS 5.0 or Windows 95 and DirectX 3 or higher
SVGA card with 512 KB or more RAM
16 MB RAM (Win95), 8 MB (DOS)
4X CD-ROM drive

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