This review contains some mild spoilers for situations which may arise in the game.
This 2014 indie title which received a number of awards and mainstream press attention is based on the Jules Verne novel Around The World In Eighty Days. Maybe I should say “inspired by” as it takes the concept and main characters, but by offering the player so many alternative routes and plots it is very much its own story.
For example, there’s steampunk. No, wait, come back, it’s alright! There are a number of Guild of Artificers sub-plots and characters, but very little off-the-peg bronze and brown involved. I’m largely clueless about where and why something sits in the *punk taxonomy but 80 Days feels much closer to the dieselpunk grease and grit of Dishonored for all that it’s set in the Victorian era. This impression is accentuated by the high contrast black and white images of the various exotic mechanical methods of transport. Indeed, I got the sense that the designers chose to up the technology level as a way of providing greater narrative and gameplay variety, rather than for straightforwardly aesthetic reasons. Rest assured however that you can still catch the Orient Express or a steam-ship to Hong Kong alongside more outré options.
It’s available on iOS, Android, OSX or Windows, I played the latter version. This definitely shows the signs of being originally developed for mobiles/tablets, but I don’t have any significant complaints about the minimal interface.
The game is primarily text-based, taking a form halfway between a last-decade Flash dating sim and a hypertext game developed in Twine. Clicking on options is the order of the day. You play Passepartout, valet to Phileas Fogg and are responsible for planning each next step of the journey, maintaining Fogg‘s wellbeing and managing finances through simple inventory trading.
The game creates urgency by having time always passing, minutes ticking away like seconds, except when reading/choosing your next option. This means situations arise where you’re trying to quickly drag and drop items at the market in order to have enough money to catch your next train, dirigible or walking city which leaves imminently. I have never cursed my terrible touchpad skillz so much.
Challenge-wise the game is fairly easy. I managed a 70-day circumnavigation on my first attempt, although subsequent playthroughs have provided different, greater complications, some through my making alternate choices and as also a result of the eight different seed values which dictate subplots and item availability.
If you go past the 80-day deadline then the game (and Fogg!) expect you to continue playing until you finally get back to London. This proved quite frustrating when I’d managed to dramatically run out of funds halfway across the Pacific and had to wait days for the bank to authorise a loan, then more days to catch the next ship which I again had insufficient funds for. In fairness there is a Restart Game option for those sort of near no-win situations which I’d chosen not to use because I was determined to get back, having been dragged off-course through no fault of my own. Be prepared!
The game prevents you from taking journeys which would prove too taxing for Fogg to tolerate. Death is possible however, as I discovered on one cruelly-truncated attempt when setting out in a different direction than usual.
Although there are many opportunities for Passepartout to branch out and adventure briefly on his own, your employer Fogg‘s Stiff Upper Lip character informs much of the gameplay and the tone. Keeping him regularly groomed helps maintain his health for arduous journeys yet comes at the expense of an opportunity to interact with your travelling companions, perhaps learning of new routes or dangers. The picture of Fogg in the bottom-right corner of the screen gives regular canned updates and admonishments. One of my favourite moments in the game happened after a journey where we were called upon to assist with a birth. At the next stopping point, Fogg spontaneously exclaims “It was a girl, Passepartout! A girl!” in a complete break from the reserve on show throughout the rest of the game.
The game is full of unexpected nuggets like that, nods and winks to some of Verne‘s other famous works are present, as well as the opportunity to interact with the occasional historical figure. These are infrequent enough to come as a surprise or a reward, rather than something commonplace. There’s some understated humour there too. Everyone you meet is doing something or going somewhere, living their lives rather than standing around merely waiting to spout “You should go north” over and over JRPG-style.
Keeping record of your journey is possible through a screencap button (which is where this article’s “postcard” images come from). On completion you’re given a newspaper headline with a brief summary of your journey, as well as some basic stats such as money, time taken and relations with Fogg. As a roguelike fan I was surprised and disappointed to see that there were no bones files or similar to allow better tracking and comparison between journeys.
There are other minor flaws as well. Whilst you have a lot of freedom over your route, the game seems to funnel you through a few particular locations if not vigorously avoided. Of course, finding (or being made to find) alternative routes is half the fun of playing. Indeed, when viewing the globe to proceed on your journey other players’ travels are sometimes highlighted which helps suggest alternative methods of travel to hunt for and adds to the sense of a race against time.
The alternate history setting is used to good effect, this creators interview with Rock Paper Shotgun states they wanted to think “what would steampunk be like if it wasn’t so obsessed with the British Empire“. The answer their game provides is a more evenly-distributed “future”, overtly so across lines of gender and nation. Social unrest is a recurring theme too, often arising from the devices of the Artificers or how that technology is perceived.
80 Days is a great game, perhaps best enjoyed in doses. There’s nothing tiresome or arduous about the quantity or pacing of the text, so don’t let the more verbose images above put you off. Although the game does save your progress (no backsies, no reloading, btw) I found myself unable fully step away until I’d completed my current journey, yet satisfied enough to not want to immediately start a new one. A little like reading a short novel for the evening. Recommended!
We’ll fly on the white wings of the wind!