If there’s one thing we love here over at The Elite Institute, it’s indie developers taking a risk at making something completely different. Sure, they often use gameplay elements seen elsewhere, but normally they still feel completely fresh. Once Upon a Jester is one such game.
With the promise of creating your own bespoke theatre shows so that you can win over the crowds, it’s one of those games that are a perfect fit for the site.
Let’s see if this one is worth a laugh, or whether it should be pelted with rotten tomatoes.
Many thanks to Crunching Koalas for the review code.
THE JESTER LIFE
The game opens with our unlikely heroes midway through an argument about a stolen cashmere scarf. They’re friends, but they’re also miscreants and ne’er-do-wells too. Their argument is cut short by a conveniently close announcement on a nearby theatre stage: the Princess is hosting a competition that will grant the winners access for a special Royal Performance. Given that the palace is also the location of a ludicrously large and valuable gem, it’s a temptation that’s too much for Jester and his Sock Puppet friend to resist – and so they set out to create their own shows across the land with the hope of winning this coveted prize… and having an opportunity to steal a massive diamond, of course.
JESTER ‘NOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
One thing that’s clear from the start is just how much charm and whimsy this game exudes. The world and the characters within are all crafted in a vaguely nonsensical way, with events that occur in and out of the plays having an equal air of ridiculousness. Sure, you might craft a story whereby the prince defeats the dragon by romancing it, but then you’ll come across a witch that turns people into piñatas so it’s hard to tell whether or not the content of the plays are unrealistic to the inhabitants of this bizarre world.
Speaking of plays, as the focal gameplay point, you’ll be required to make a poster advertising the play you want to do and perform it in front of a crowd. The poster is essentially unimportant with you throwing a bunch of acquired stickers together until you reach the minimum requirement, but the plays require a little more careful planning. Each night, the audience’s taste will shift so you need to make sure to have a quick wander around the town beforehand to look for clues that will help you. Some are quite obtuse, but then you’ll see stuff like a heart with a cross through it and easily realise that they’re not into romantic stuff.
As for the performances themselves, you pick and perform one of your available plays and have to occasionally choose a dialogue option that will change the plotline ever so slightly. Each choice links to a particular genre, so the key is to pick stuff that the crowd will like and avoid stuff that they don’t. Every so often you’ll also need to do some kind of QTE to proceed the story, and interestingly the plotline can shift should you fail one.
The main draw of the plays, however, are the silly scenarios and excellent dialogue and songs. Whilst occasionally it can try a little too hard and be a little bit cringe-inducing, on the whole it’s surprisingly well done and will keep you engaged – at least for a little while.
FOR JESTER OR FOR WORSE
As charming as all that presentation is though, there’s no escaping that there’s not much of an actual game contained within. Each day has you performing the same basic gameplay loop, and the tiny size of the towns means there’s little to do other than have a cursory glance at people’s conversations. As for the QTEs, they all tend to be rather similar and sometimes can be a little bit unclear as to whether you need to press, hammer, or hold the button. Playing instruments proved particularly troublesome as people always seemed to comment on how bad my playing was; however, it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the intended response.
The worst issue is that the game only really has three shows to choose from, with one extra acting as the finale of the game. In order to obtain the fifteen bouquets needed, you’re likely to be playing four performances per town (unless you can get three perfect ones, that is!). As such, you’ll be playing the same performances again and again and again in order to get up to the target amount. Whilst the storyline of your play does branch out based on your choices, they don’t shift enough to prevent them from wearing out their’ welcome very quickly. The game does attempt to alleviate this with the occasional change in formula, such as an excellent set-piece that occurs during your trip through a haunted wood – but even these use the same tired gameplay mechanics. Having some more gameplay mechanics or some more shows to choose would have gone a long way to stave off the repetition.
At the end of the day, it’s the amusing performances and catchy songs that are going to sell you Once Upon a Jester. Not the repetitive gameplay, not the unlockable stickers, but simply the sheer charm of the main protagonists and the cute shows that they do. If the trailer sold you on the concept, you may very well have a good time with the game – if not, then the gameplay probably won’t do much to win you over.