LBA2 is one of the first games I ever ever ever played. It came with our first ever PC, as part of the “Family Pack” along with other classics like Need For Speed 2 and… er… I don’t remember what else. Probably classics. Family classics.
Haven’t played it for ages, of course, and certainly haven’t ever blogged more than oblique mentions of it. I played the original Little Big Adventure a while ago and found it thoroughly traumatic, but LBA2 has always had a firm place in my heart. It’s not as traumatic.
Little Big Adventure 2
Indeed, far from not being traumatic, LBA2 goes a long way to be inviting… at least in the early stages. Rather than waking up in a prison cell in a police state having nightmares, this adventure begins with a simple storm and a friend struck by lightning. Find a way to heal him and find a way to disperse the storm; it’s clean and gentle and gives you plenty of relaxed time to get to grips with the controls before chucking you into the meat of the game.
As a young boy playing LBA2 for the first time, it took what felt like weeks to work out how to progress through that straightforward beginning. As an old man playing LBA2 for at least the tenth time, beating the Tralü and clearing the storm was condensed into barely an hour.
What has struck me about LBA2 this time is how flexible it often is. We’re not talking miles of choice and consequence or optional side quests, but if you already know where you’re going you can short-circuit objectives.
Finding the Pearl of Incandescense, for example, can be done any time after you’ve got the protopack, but you won’t know you need it until you’ve found the Weather Wizard’s note… unless you choose to metagame. Finding the Pearl means tromping back to Desert Island and finding a secret cave, but since you have other business there you can grab it on the way knowing full well you’ll need it later.
There’s also an early quest stage you don’t even need to complete. You are asked to retrieve a stolen umbrella from a thief, where the reward is your next objective. However, if you, er, forget to give the umbrella back and just continue on to saving the lighthouse keeper, the world just keeps on going — Twinsen’s partner Zoe will give you the quest update of her own accord. (Interestingly, this one goes even further — you can sell the umbrella later on to the souvenir shop on Zeelich.)
It’s not a sprawling open world game but it’s open enough. When you’re looking for the school of magic, for example, Twinsen will open pretty much every conversation with any character in the world asking about it, and every one will give a unique reply. Not always a helpful one, sure, but it’s the thought that counts, and other quests will often cause random people to “inadvertently” give oblique hints to the solution.
I remarked about the original LBA that combat is a bit hit or miss, and it’s pretty much the same for LBA2. Taking damange means stumbling backwards unable to counter-attack, which with some enemies means not getting the first hit in means you get stabbed into a corner and brutaly murdered.
There is an answer this time, though, in the Protection Spell. Of course, going back to the flexibility I mentioned earlier, I’m fairly certain that the Protection Spell is completely optional — it is hidden on an island that you have to discover either by using a random telescope (that is non-obvious to reach) or winning at a fairly difficult racing challenge.
Optional in theory perhaps, but invaluable in practice. It makes you invulnerable while draining your very finite reserves of magic, so well-timed pulses of protection are required to make best use of it against groups of enemies. It doesn’t make life too easy, as beaten enemies won’t ever drop enough magic to refill you back to no-fucks-given levels, but it gives you much-needed wiggle room.
Of course the captivating environment design helps overcome occasional combat wobbles. The hilariously low polygon budget is no barrier to sumptuous locales that unfold with a fairly impressive draw distance, at least for the age of the game. The overworlds are in full 3D and probably have as many triangles in total as a single UT3 character model, but in life it’s always more about how you use your budget than how much cash you have.
The stylised nature of the world allows the overworlds to both feel large but actually be small, enough that the occasional meandering required is not too much of a chore but still offering plenty of unique landmarks to explore. There is a load of variety on Citadel Island alone, with rugged cliffs surrounding a townscape, beaches and even a little patch of forest up the top. I guess it’s a display of the same skills you need to channel for Warcraft III mapping — to use the small area to maximum effectiveness, you have to cram in as many memorable landmarks and varied places as you can but ensure it still feels coherent.
The concept of Zeelich itself also captivated the young boy who would grow up to be Rao Dao Zao. The aliens’ planet is on two levels, separated by a layer of poisonous gas, which makes from some brilliant geographical continuity — almost every island in the under-gas is the base of one of the islands above, with sneaking in from below forming a conveniently extended way to bypass above-gas defences. The number of Lego gas elevators I made…
I was also going to say that LBA2 never directly influenced my work, but it really did. I’m pretty sure I can trace my entire style of writing dialogue back to its endearing whimsicality (especially the unforgettable classic, “I’m going to take you out, and I don’t mean for a pizza!”), while Spacesuit Twinsen is the direct inspiration for every RDZ Industries soldier model I ever tried to make.
So does Little Big Adventure 2 still have a place in my heart? Damn straight.