The first act of Unusual Findings is Stand By Me. The second is The Terminator, and the last act is The Goonies. It’s fair to say that if you cut Unusual Findings then it bleeds the ‘80s. That’s nothing special on its own – every other TV series or pop act is doing much the same thing – but there are few that manage to do it with as much glee as Unusual Findings.
Unusual Findings is a point and click adventure, which – if we’re being snooty about these things – had the largest proportion of its golden age in the ‘90s. But the genre gives developers Epic Llama Games ample room to squash in as many references, jokes and general thematic parallels to ‘80s pop culture as possible. You’re going to be bouncing between them like a pinball.
The story begins with an alien crash-landing into a suburban neighborhood. Nobody’s paying attention apart from a group of three kids, Vinny, Nick and Tony, who investigate and come across a ‘Strider’: an eight-foot terror with three marbles for eyes. It shoots lasers from said marbles, turning its opponents into ash confetti. The aim for the friends is to trap it not once, but three times simultaneously, with a bear-trap, hole and net – mainly because they can’t agree on the best trap of the three.
This epic quest serves as the first of three-and-a-half acts, each a heel-turn away from the last. Enemies become friends, greedy corporations do greedy corporation things, and the three friends find themselves traveling further and further into a hole they can’t get out of. Somehow, the plot manages to be wholly derivative, while also offering enough self-referential winks and genuinely surprising moments to lift it above shameless parody. Unusual Findings is a rollicking good time.
As a console-based point-and-click, the controls and gameplay are a little rickety. You can choose to control Unusual Findings with a cursor, tapping up on the d-pad to get a quick glimpse of everything in an area that is interactive, and then choosing whether to Look, Use or Talk To them. The other option is to jab the right-stick in a given direction and the cursor will snap to the next area of interest.
Including both control methods is generous, and you will likely find one that best suits you. But they are still prone to issues. While they help with interaction, for example, they don’t aid movement, and getting around the game is more onerous than it needs to be. The camera is quite low and flat to the action, which can mean that there are objects, objects everywhere, and not a space to click. Finding a clear spot to simply move onward is strangely difficult, and we found ourselves occasionally scanning the sky for a white rather than context-sensitive red cursor to keep moving on.
Equally, it’s impossible to cancel out of some dialogue, leaving you accidentally wading through the same chat that you saw a moment ago. A large number of solutions lie in dialogue, sometimes within dialogue trees that you’ve already explored, so the unskippable dialogue really does grate.
But on the whole, Unusual Findings is that rarest of beasts: a graphic adventure that feels like it was made for console. The three verbs are enough to intuitively solve 99% of the puzzles (I will save you frustration now: to blow on a NES cartridge, you need to TALK to the thing), the cursor never feels slow or clumsy, and a number of fast-travel world maps make navigation tight as a drum. You can simply select a location and go there, and – once there – you can double-tap A to travel across the scene at speed.
A graphic adventure lives or dies by its puzzles and logic, and Unusual Findings gets a solid B+. We loved the echoes of other graphic adventures – there are two Day of the Tentacle nods that we could spot, one involving something fantastic on a ceiling – and knowledge of them helped to act as clues for us. Heaven knows whether the same will be true for people who haven’t played it. The game is extremely forthcoming with hints, as the three boys give clues to puzzles that come incredibly close to breaking the fourth wall. And generally, the puzzles are exactly what you’d want: outlandish and new, but with a logical thread tying them together.
What lets Unusual Findings down a little (but only dropping it to that B+) are difficulty spikes and the odd shopping list structure.
If we were to place Unusual Findings on a spectrum of graphic adventure difficulty, it would be over to the ‘fiendish’ end. We played it before guides were available on the interwebs, which is a good yardstick for puzzle difficulty, and we found ourselves stuck without hope more than once. What makes it painful is that we got the general shape of the solution right, but we just hadn’t talked to someone in the right way, or hadn’t traveled to the full extent of a game screen. There’s also the spectre of bugs: we hit a game-breaker in the last act when characters simply wouldn’t offer a dialogue option that we should have received.
All three acts use a shopping list as a crutch, too. It began to feel like a formula, when the rest of Unusual Findings was freewheeling and inventive. A character would deliver some exposition vomit, and suddenly we’d be chasing three macguffins that would solve the situation. There’s so much talent behind this game that it would have been easy, surely, to tighten up, and feel less like we were checking items off a list.
It’s hard not to see the flaws of Unusual Findings. But like rewatching ‘80s movie classics, there’s so much momentum, charm and ludicrous moments that they all become a tad moot. Once you’ve exploded an alien with a super-magnet, or irradiated an entire sewer system, the minor logic and control inconveniences disappear into the rear view.
Unusual Findings is distilled ‘80s, served up as a point-and-click adventure, and it’s as rad as it sounds.
You can buy Unusual Findings from the Xbox Store