Mudlarks is a point-and-click adventure from indie developer Cloak and Dagger Games. It freely mixes fictional European history, paranormal events, and, of course, the strangely tantalizing world of mudlarks, people who muck about the shores of the Thames in search of historical artifacts. Besides being a decent game in its own right, Mudlarks shows what a small, amateur dev team can accomplish when they focus on what matters most.
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I played Mudlarks in April of 2014. It was a bit of a diversion from my typical gaming routine, which for the prior year had consisted mostly of playing and replaying all the various BioShock titles and their assorted DLC. I heard about it by chance through a GameJolt tweet advertising it as a “world of supernatural mystery”. Whereas Infinite had been all explosive, technicolor chaos and wanton violence, Mudlarks looked quiet and contemplative. I was ready for a change of pace. This looked like a good way to relax and exhale after a year of running, gunning, and general FPS hoopla.
Gameplay in Mudlarks is simple. The player guides the protagonist, Winston, through a series of events and conversations that begins with the sudden disappearance of his friend, Vincent, and culminates in the revelation of long-hidden secrets. Along the way, players will have to avoid being quarantined by dubious scientists, attend a meeting of the local Paranormal Society, sneak into a government hall of records, and, of course, go mudlarking.
Mudlarks is minimal in many respects. The graphics are a bit old-school. Characters and items are overlaid on interlaced backgrounds in a sort of cut-and-paste collage. Animations are rough and chunky. Some game locations have just enough background music to set a somber mood. Others have nothing but ambient, environmental noise. The story is conventional. The plot offers little that hasn’t been seen a thousand times before, and none of the characters are especially deep or complex.
That might sound negative, maybe even harsh or unfair. After all, most indie developers lack the budget and other resources of triple-A studios. Also, in this case, the game was the development team’s first effort. Knowing that, shouldn’t we adjust our expectations accordingly? Shouldn’t we expect less?
Absolutely not. No game should receive an automatic “pass” in criticism and commentary because of its origins. Doing so only hinders the progress of game development. The lack of a big budget simply means indie devs have to be that much more creative and resourceful in their work. They have to aggressively pick and choose where they’ll spend their precious time and energy to avoid making something that is fundamentally broken or unplayable.
And this is where Cloak and Dagger Games got things right: Working within their constraints, the team focused on a few key elements that made for a successful, playable, enjoyable game without neglecting the basics. They wrote a cohesive story with no annoying gaps or tangents. The story plays out as a series of well-linked events that draw players forward smoothly from one objective to the next. While the locations are rendered simply, there are many of them, preventing any one place from feeling overused or stale.
Mudlarks’ minimal approach isn’t a bad thing. The graphics and animation, while plain, are clear and unobtrusive. The music and sound effectively set the mood. The story doesn’t need to be wholly original for players to enjoy seeing events unfold.
That’s not to say Mudlarks doesn’t have its warts. While the game was enjoyable on the whole, it suffered from foibles common to the genre. Finding the next viable step was sometimes a matter of exhausting every clickable item and conversation. There were a few times I knew just what I wanted to do but was stuck because I wasn’t doing things in quite the way the authors intended. Thankfully, the game is consistent enough that I could work through most of these problems without wasting much time.
If you’d like to try Mudlarks for yourself, you can download it for free at GameJolt.com.