Dropsy was far better than I anticipated. I think it was that it didn’t just go for easy weird-territory, “scary clown” bits or rely overmuch on rando amoral webforum humor; I think Dropsy earns the player’s sympathies very quickly. Probably during the first time he attempts to hug someone and they reject him… there’s this little deflated animation he does. To give this some context, hugging is Dropsy’s only distinct “action verb”, in the classic LucasArts sense, apart from his generic interaction clicks. So right away it’s pretty obvious and cleverly communicated that this sort of thing means a lot to him. He’s got a lot of immediately appealing animations, like little dances and reactions that communicate a very childish joy that’s very different from our shared cultural image of clowns as jaded, depressing old men who are most likely also serial killers. These animations, and the rest of the art, are great.
It’s a charming story, but also a pretty somber one, with some ridiculous developments that had me actually barking out laughter in shock. Though none of the characters have dialogue in audio or in text form, you learn more about the backgrounds and personalities of characters through little pictographic symbols of items, actions, and moods in their speech bubbles. Writing still exists on signs and notes, only written in a Fez or La-Mulanese-like character substitution alphabet, and players can optionally figure those out for a little more lore and understanding (and I did, because I never seem to get tired of those cipher puzzles), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was not really meant to signify a foreign alphabet for once but instead Dropsy’s illiteracy warping the appearances of letters into something familiar, but mostly unrecognizable. I don’t mean to get carried away here, but these things are fun to think about.
The music is fantastic, too–even putting aside the diverse collectible cassette tapes, it’d be a completely different game without the jazz and other funky music playing around the island. There’s a town theme that puts my head in the same kind of place as the intro/outro to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, which is an incredibly pleasing direction to go in, if you ask me. (And I think the instrumentation tends to change depending on the in-game day-night cycle, too.) My only complaint here, which reminds me of a big gripe I had with EO4, is that these tracks get interrupted on you too frequently. Transitions definitely could’ve been handled better–maybe only changing tracks when you used a bed, went indoors, or otherwise switched areas by more significant means, like taking a boat out to the smaller island nearby. We can’t all be Monkey Island 2, but having an occasional buffer map where one track plays out (or fades back in if you choose to double back) would’ve worked wonders. Or just planning the allocations a little more: you spend an average of about two seconds on the hospital exterior, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only screen where this track plays.
The gameplay could use a little polishing. Before I get into that, I think there are some well-conceived puzzles, and a few instances of great hinting, despite the challenge the devs imposed on themselves in not being able to make their hero talk to himself out loud about the various objects he’s holding (or for others to talk, when he’s shoving his things in their faces). A Dropsy hint, for example, is flipping channels on the TV and seeing a chef dropping garlic into a tomato stew. I much prefer seeing that on the TV while I’ve got a stew half-done, and thinking “I better find some garlic,” to seeing the garlic first and thinking “I don’t know what this is for, but my cursor arbitrarily changes when I hover over it, so I damn well better start figuring out how to touch it.”
But I wasn’t a fan of the modularity of the puzzles. The Steam store description extols the “open-endedness” of it but what it’s essentially doing is having a bunch of puzzles that don’t affect your overall progress apart from maybe removing a red herring from your inventory, at best. In Dropsy, most puzzles are sidequests, and each sidequest ends in a hug. If you want the “all the hugs” achievement, you gotta do them, and anyway it’s the game’s content, so you want to, for sure. But you know that feeling in puzzle/adventure games where you’ve been stuck everywhere for a while and you’re running back through the earlier maps trying to find a loose end… and then something clicks for you, and you’ve suddenly made progress, only to find out that your solution didn’t give you a new inventory item or change the world’s state in any way? Maybe because you need to do 3 modular puzzles together before you can advance, like assembling three parts of a disguise before using it? It feels like breaking through a wall only to find a second wall a foot behind it, so you have to go right back to combing through those maps again as if you hadn’t found anything. And that’s virtually every puzzle in Dropsy. You have to stick close to the main questline until you’ve gathered all three pets and have unlocked quick travel, or you’ll be making things really hard on yourself.
I did manage to beat the game without doing any annoying pixel-hunts for objects, which is fabulous, but I wasn’t able to reach 100% on the sidequests that way. Apart from inanimate objects I never considered hugging–I only ever thought to hug people (and some anthropomorphized stuff, like the robots and the tree with the face on it)–I notably missed a collectible statue piece that required pixel-hunting with the dog as the active character (to find it, I googled its location after finishing the game first without it). Normally the animal stuff seems pretty well signposted; little mouse footprints leading up to the crawlspace the mouse can get into, and things of that nature. The dog actually likes to run over and sniff at things that are (or later will be) of significance, which I thought was another cool hint mechanic and was something I paid a lot of attention to, but I never saw it happen for that missing statue piece. Could’ve been either my oversight or the developer’s.
Oh, and one last nitpick: some of the red herrings are quite rude. I spent a while near the endgame hopelessly using a coin on half of all the objects and people I could think of, trying to figure out what it was used for, only to google it and learn that there were four coins hidden and you only needed two (so even with that third, I’d still missed one). Same thing happened again with a second bone item. I like the idea of reducing pixel-hunting by having multiple places where the key item can be found, but it would have been nicer to just make the other two hidden coins and the other bone vanish from the world when I picked up what I needed. Those extras can drive someone crazy when they’re playing blind. At least the hubcap in Day of the Tentacle made itself clear that it was a joke item.