I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream review

Last June 28th, renowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison passed away at the age of 84. Ellison is considered one of the most prolific and influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century and today we’re going to take a look at the video game adaptation of one of his most famous short-stories: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.

I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is a graphic adventure developed by The Dreamers Guild and published by Cyberdreams and Acclaim. It was originally released in 1995 for DOS and Macintosh. In 2013, it was re-released by Night Dive Studios for Windows, Macintosh and Linux. And in 2016, it was again re-released for Android and iOS.

The original short-story was published in 1967 and it quickly became one of Ellison’s most famous works, winning several awards, including the Hugo Award. And Cyberdreams, famous for their adult-themed sci-fi, fantasy and horror games, decided to adapt Ellison’s short-story into a graphic adventure game. But unlike other video game adaptations, Ellison was actively involved from the start, from co-writing the game’s script to voice AM, the game’s main antagonist.

But before we take a look at the game, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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I think I’m starting to understand the title of the game…

The original cover features a central image of Ellison himself with his mouth covered by what it looks like computer circuitry, hinting at the game’s plot. In some editions of the game, the central image was in fact a 3D mouse pad that was shipped along with the game. It’s a very eerie image that conveys oppression by technology, which is one of the game’s main themes.

But the re-released version brings a slightly different cover:

271594-harlan-ellison-i-have-no-mouth-and-i-must-scream-linux-front-coverNow, this version expands upon the computer circuitry imagery, which I personally  adore! While the red and black background in the original cover might look more menacing, the blue highlights in this one makes it look more logical and cold, which still works within the game’s context.

But enough about imagery and let’s boot this sucker, shall we?

The game’s intro doesn’t show a lot of backstory, so reading the manual before playing the game is highly recommended. The backstory is basically this: an omnipotent computer called AM, after a nuclear apocalypse (which AM might have provoked), saves the last five humans from said apocalypse, but when reaching the height of his omnipotence, AM found a great hate for Humanity and for more than 100 years, dedicates itself in torturing the last humans, preventing their deaths by torture or even old age by granting them immortality.

AM then decides to put the humans through tests and scenarios, both for its own entertainment as well to prove to itself all the failings in human nature. And it’s here that the game starts, in which you have to choose between our five protagonists: Gorrister, a former trucker with guilt-ridden suicidal tendencies; Benny, a former soldier who was the most tortured by AM to the point of being modified into an ape-like creature; Ellen, a former computer engineer with an inexplicable phobia for the colour yellow; Nimdok, an extremely old German scientist and Ted, a paranoid and vain con artist.

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The beginning of the game.

After choosing your character, AM then sends him or her to a scenario where each character must find out the objective of said scenario and fulfill it to escape. However, they must also confront their past, their fears and their own shortcomings in order to succeed in their respective scenarios. However, there are different ways to solve the puzzles and each character has the option to follow their basic instincts or learn the human qualities that evaded their past lives in order to raise their karma level.

The karma level is measured by each character’s background colour in their respective portrait, located in the bottom-left corner of the screen. It ranges from black to white, going through several colours. It gets lighter for every “good” action and darker for every “bad” action, including reading each character’s Psych Profile, which provides clues to solve the puzzles. The reason for the karma level is only revealed during the final part of the game, but believe me, it helps to try and finish each scenario with the highest possible karma.

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Gorrister’s scenario.

The screen is divided in two sections: the main section, where the action occurs and the bottom section, where the character portrait, the action menu and the inventory are located. The interface is very reminiscent of the SCUMM engine by Lucasarts, although it’s lacking some common action verbs, like “open” or “pull”. But you can use “use” for such actions.

The graphics are very detailed and quite good, although not very colourful (with some exceptions). But then again, in such a dark-themed game, a dark colour palette for most makes sense. The sprites are also quite detailed, albeit a bit small. The animation is equally good. The sound is great, be it the sound effects or the voice quality; although the voice acting ranges from great (Ellison’s AM is deliciously hammy!) to bad (I’m not a big fan of using actual children to voice kid characters); and the soundtrack, which is also quite good in providing a proper atmosphere.

The puzzles, however, can be quite hard (especially in the final part) with a lot of pixel-hunting and backtracking. In fact, for almost every puzzle solved, you need to backtrack to previous screens to look for new objects, situations or characters to interact in order to move the story along. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to use a walkthrough several times, especially at the end, since reading the Psych Profile for clues lowers the karma level.

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I wasn’t kidding when I said there was a lot of symbolism in this game!

But I do like the freedom given to the nature of your characters, because your karma level influences the type of ending you can get, ranging from terrible (the canon ending in the original short-story) to the best ending. All of this gives the game some replay value, something that’s quite rare in graphic adventures.

But for me, the best part of the game is the story and the characterisation. Due to the nature of graphic adventures, Ellison had the opportunity to expand all the characters’ backstories and the story’s themes, not just adding extra endings. The story is quite dark and bleak, exploring themes of human nature and condition, especially redemption, mixed with a lot of symbolism and ethical dilemmas. And apart from the best ending, the endings can also be very dark and depressive. You won’t find any comedy or humour whatsoever throughout the game (although the violence isn’t as gory as I expected).

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“Walk like an Egyptian…”

Also, the characters were substantially changed from the original short-story and given a deeper characterisation, making them really fleshed out when you find out their backstory. Of course, there was a little controversy when Benny’s backstory was also drastically changed, but there are still some hints of the original characterisation here and there when playing his scenario.

In conclusion, I Have No Mouth… isn’t a perfect graphic adventure from a puzzle solving perspective, but the premise, the story, the themes and the characters more than tip the balance to its favour. Regardless to say that I recommend it, although it might be hard for newcomers to the genre.

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No, this isn’t King’s Quest, not even close…

I Have No Mouth… was very acclaimed by most critics, even winning some awards, but it sold poorly. Most of its success come in more recent years, becoming a cult classic and increasing Ellison’s fame as a writer, although he personally prefered to stick to writing short-stories, novellas and screenplays.

You can buy it here on GOG.com, here on Steam, here on Google Play or here on the Apple Store for iPhone and iPad. Both the GOG and Steam versions come bundled with the original short-story in PDF format and the game’s soundtrack.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this review dedicated to the memory of Harlan Ellison. Next time, we’ll take a look at a more upbeat game. Till then, be good and keep on playing.

Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal DOS review

The culmination of 10 years of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally arrived at the cinemas with Avengers: Infinity War. And to celebrate such occasion, let’s take a look at the only game released for PC featuring the Avenger that started the MCU: Iron Man (and some other character from Valiant Comics)! I’m talking about Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal.

And yes, I know that Capcom made two games based on The Infinity Gauntlet comic (which inspired the Infinity War movie): Marvel Super Heroes for Arcade and Marvel Super Heroes in War of the Gems for the SNES/Super Nintendo. But those games were never released on the PC, so they won’t be featured here at Retro Freak Reviews (but they’re awesome BTW!).

Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal (what’s with Marvel-licensed games and long titles?!) is an action game developed by Realtime Associates and published by Acclaim. It was originally released in 1996 for DOS, Game Boy, Game Gear, Playstation and Saturn.

Due to the success of the MCU, everybody and their dog knows who Iron Man is, but unless you’re a big Valiant Comics fan, you might not know who X-O Manowar is. He’s basically an ancient viking who was abducted by aliens, got his hands on an experimental alien armor (called X-O), used it to come back to Earth, but due to time dilation, he came back to modern times. So he became a reluctant superhero while fighting aliens and other supervillains. I love you Tony, but a viking wearing an alien armor it’s just about as cool as it gets.

But before looking at the game, let’s look at the cover:

112457-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-front-coverThis cover looks a bit weird in my opinion. Here we have Iron Man and X-O Manowar looking menacing in a typical superhero pose, but what makes the image weird is the background perspective. It looks like both heroes are standing on the side of a building with two other characters behind them (and apparently also behind the glass window where they’re standing on). But then I noticed that the heroes are actually flying towards the two female characters and the background is actually the reflection of said window (still a very confusing perspective).

And the back cover adds to the confusion, even though it makes more sense:

112458-iron-man-x-o-manowar-in-heavy-metal-dos-back-coverIn here, it looks like the females switched places with the heroes and are now standing in front of a window (which is reflecting the heroes this time). The perspective in this image is a lot better than in the other image, that’s for sure. The two females pictured above are Mistress Crescendo from Vaillant and Titania from Marvel. Mistress Crescendo is one of the main villains in the game, which justifies her presence here but Titania isn’t (she only appears once as a boss), although one might assume that she’s a main villain, based on this image alone.

But as always, it’s time to boot this sucker:

I found the intro very lacklustre (although rocking a hell of a theme music) but to find out the backstory, one has to read the manual, which has a rather good comic to explain all of it: Mistress Crescendo and Baron Zemo (not a traditional Iron Man villain by the way) joined forces to try and reform the Cosmic Cube (imagine a Macguffin and a Deus-Ex Machina combined into one) with the goal of using it to take over, not the world, but TWO worlds instead (Marvel and Vaillant). A pretty standard backstory for a superhero game, but it serves the game adequately.

A small disclaimer: I have only played the single-player mode. I have no idea how’s the co-op mode.

You choose between Iron Man or X-O Manowar and have to go through several levels and face down several villains from both comic universes. You go through 7 areas divided in about 3 levels for each area with most of them with a boss (always a supervillain from the comics) at the end of each level. Both heroes control more or less the same; with a melee attack (two for Iron Man and a energy sword attack for X-O), a range attack, a recharge attack that spends one weapon bar and temporary flight (by pressing jump twice). Although both characters move at the same speed, X-O has a little more trouble dodging attacks because he’s bigger (but he can block attacks).

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“I AM IRON MAN!”

Surprisingly, the melee attacks are more powerful than the range attacks, even after fully upgrading them. But at full power, you can even get a seeking attack that automatically targets the nearest enemy, which can be very useful. However, if you lose a life, you’ll also lose one upgrade. The armor bar (which is basically the life bar) doesn’t replenishes between levels, but at least, you keep any upgrades you caught previously. There’s also boost upgrades that extends the flight period, which can be used to reach high platforms or simply fly above dangerous areas (or enemies).

And although you can only move in four directions, there’s a background plane from which enemies can came from but luckily both heroes have an attack that targets specifically the background. You can even blow up background objects to get upgrades and health items.

And speaking about the levels, they’re probably the best part of the game. With great graphics, good design (although the later levels can be a bit labyrinthic), good variation of enemies and no time limits (except for one awful boss battle). And although the game’s in 2D, there’s a pseudo 3D perspective as you move along and even a zoom effect during the boss battles (although it tends to pixelate the bigger enemies when zooming in). The levels can be a bit small, but there are so many of them, that the game is quite lengthy.

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And the boss battles are in their vast majority great. With challenging and not too frustrating bosses (except for the one I mentioned before).

But unfortunately there’s also some drawbacks: the sound effects are okay and the soundtrack is actually quite good (for a game titled Heavy Metal), but the music themes are short and on a continuous loop, which can become a bit grating after awhile. But for me the worst part are the controls (which are both bad, whether you’re using a keyboard or gamepad, although I recommend the latter) and the animation, which is too slow for most of the game. It only speeds up when the screen’s empty. And for such a fast-paced action game, these two elements’ quality should be above all else.

And it’s due to these two elements that Heavy Metal is one of the hardest action games I ever played on a PC. Bad controls and slow gameplay make this game unnecessarily tough, even in the easiest setting.

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Playing with X-O Manowar

So in conclusion, I don’t consider Heavy Metal a terrible game, even with its drawbacks. Yes, the controls could be better and the animation more fluid, but the graphics and level design are good. If you’re a comics fan (especially of these  two characters), you might want to give it a shot, but there are better action games out there.

I haven’t played any other versions, but the Playstation version seems faster and more fluid in comparison with the DOS version. And apparently there’s also an entire mini-series that tells the story of the game (probably where the comic in the manual comes from), but I also haven’t read it.

So, are you excited to see Avengers: Infinity War? I know I am! And I know these two reviews weren’t very positive, but the next review is from an action title that was requested a few months ago by a watcher from my Twitch channel. And I promise it’s a much better game than these two last. Until then, keep on playing!