Review: Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time (WiiWare)

Shark sandwich

In November of 2009, Stickmen Studios brought us Dragon Master Spell Caster, and we figured, at least, that its next game couldn't get any worse. In May of 2010, it released Kung Fu Funk for the sole purpose of proving us wrong.

But that was the distant past. We're older now. Wiser. Could Doc Clock and the Toasted Sandwich of Time turn back time for Stickmen Studios?

Doc Clock himself does indeed have the ability to rewind time for the sake of undoing his mistakes, and letting unfortunate situations play out differently. Might this game have the ability, likewise, to erase from our memories the shambling, bug-ridden wastes of Nintendo Points that came before it?

Ol' Clocky decides to build a toasted sandwich maker (rather than spend $9.99 on one at Wal-Mart) out of a toaster, a refrigerator, and a barbecue grill. Then he turns it on and his cat becomes a cactus and he builds a time machine so he can go back in time to when his cat was still a cat. And, yes, we know it sounds like we're describing to you a particularly vivid dream we had after we drank an entire pot of fondue cheese and passed out on the bathroom floor, but this is actually the plot of the game.

This introduction sequence actually illustrates nearly everything that's wrong with the writing in Toasted Sandwich of Time. It also – not entirely coincidentally – manages to highlight a great deal that's wrong with the puzzle solving and controls, but we can deal with that later.

In a game like this, the writing is paramount, and it's paramount by choice. Walls of dialogue – literal walls, as they obscure your view of the screen and often prevent progress – leap up to explain what's happening, and you'll spend as much time navigating word balloons as you will the levels. You'll have to stop walking in order to let Doc Clock and his talking bag o' tricks have some irrelevant squabble, lest you walk headlong into some fatal trap that their word balloons are obscuring.

This might be a passable quirk of the game if the dialogue were either helpful enough, or amusing. In fairness, the dialogue is often helpful, particularly in the early levels of the game, when you are learning how to use the controls, but they could have been handled much more effectively than they are here, and never are they actually funny.

We're sure that Clock and his yakkin' knapsack were meant to come across to the audience as some sort of sci-fi Abbott and Costello, but in practice they're no more entertaining or endearing than two elderly people carrying on separate arguments within earshot while you're trying to concentrate on something else.

We normally wouldn't treat the dialogue of a WiiWare game as something that carries so much weight, but this game elected to shove it so forcefully to the forefront. The nattering never stops, and these exchanges are constant, protracted and rarely funny. Here's an actual example of dialogue:

DOC: This is the perfect place for a funny joke.
MR. SACKS: You're a funny joke.

The gameplay is no better. Doc's adventures through time are presented as a series of increasingly complex - and decreasingly competent – physics puzzles, and yet the physics on display here bear little resemblance to anything we've observed in the real world. For instance, friction doesn't seem to exist, as any item of any shape slides around like a stick of butter regardless of whether you place it on a slope or a flat surface. Also, every item behaves identically to every other, meaning that a long plank of wood behaves exactly like a small cardboard box, and a slice of bread behaves exactly like (and is exactly as rigid as) a refrigerator. There's no difference in anything that you manipulate, making you feel like all you're doing is working with differently shaped hunks of wood.

Doc Clock himself is even fooled by these subpar physics; sometimes when making Doc walk up a slope that you've created, he will animate as though he's ascending a series of invisible boxes instead, grabbing and pulling himself up onto ledges that don't exist.

Controlling Doc Clock is a nightmare. He slips and slides along like he's been coated in lubricant (no, we do not want to know the details of that experiment) and can simultaneously try to climb over an object while also pushing it forward, trapping him in a continuous loop of making it partway up the object, sliding it forward, climbing partway up again, sliding it forward... and so on, until he hits a wall, or the limit of your patience.

Much of Doc's time will be spent walking left to right. Ascending and descending through the level is accomplished by using the objects around you. You can pile them up to create a staircase, ride an umbrella off a cliff in order to land safely (and we do mean "ride" – Doc stands on top of it rather than holds on to it), or lay them down to create bridges over gaps. It's just as much fun as you'd expect walking side-to-side to be, only your character is sliding around like soap in a bathtub and you're also trying to cope with awkward, unintuitive item placement.

The simple act of picking up a box and placing it elsewhere should be easy enough: we've been doing it in video games for decades, but here you need to deal with some unwieldy mechanical arm of Doc's that does the lifting and dropping for you. It seems only to work when it wants to, and will refuse to extend to its full length at times, even when there's nothing blocking it. Give it a second and try again, and it'll work just fine. We'd like to think of this as a clever comment on the unreliability of Doc's inventions, but instead it's probably just the lack of quality control at Stickmen Studios.

If you want to hold onto an item for later in the stage (always a good idea) you can store it in your endlessly annoying bookbag companion. This companion accomplishes exactly what video games managed to accomplish as far back as The Legend of Zelda, but this time it yells at you, is cumbersome to use and periodically glitches and makes your items disappear.

The items that you will need to interact with are not clearly distinguishable from the background objects or environmental obstacles, meaning you'll have to keep reaching for everything you see in the hopes that it's something you can pick up. It usually isn't, but it isn't worth having to backtrack through the level or rewind time in order to find it when you need it.

You will also need to assemble items at various points in the game, often to create new vehicles for Doc Clock to cruise around in, in order to more deeply explore the world and discover more glitches. The assembly mechanics are as simple as dragging one item to another, where they will automatically combine. You can imagine how clumsy this is, as you won't always want items to combine, and you'll then have to take the time to separate them and spread them further apart on the screen so that they don't link up. When you're dealing with this on top of slippery, frictionless physics that will send these items sliding into a bottomless pit the moment you release them, you're not in for a very fun time.

The time-rewinding mechanic is where the game should really shine, and in fairness it's quite nice to have around. But rather than leading to any interesting puzzles that make use of the quirks of time-travel and dynamic chronology, it just exists as a way to retry Doc Clock's dull, pedestrian puzzles. If you drop into a hole and land on spikes, you can rewind time to the point before you stepped into the hole and look for something with which to bridge the gap. It's a mechanism that should be full of promise, but, instead, it's just a slower, more-cumbersome respawn. To put it simply, it ain't Braid we're dealing with here.

The rewinding of time also leads to more glitches, and, as you should understand by this point, Doc Clock has no shortage of those as it is. Sometimes rewinding time will cause physics puzzles to play out differently, without there being any change in what you've done. If you're riding quickly down a slope in a vehicle, for example, and you collide with something, you may knock that something over, allowing free passage. But rewinding to a point in time before you collide, without doing anything differently, the collision may not knock it over, and you'll need to try again. Rewinding time also sometimes leads to bizarre scramblings of the vehicles you've created, as though the game doesn't remember how they were assembled, and just takes a guess, sticking components in different places, or omitting them altogether.

Our favourite glitch in the game occurred when Doc Clock was standing quietly on a piece of flat ground, between two wheels. He reached to pick up a wheel and dropped dead for no reason whatsoever. One of the wheels then rolled over him without impetus, and the two sprites duked it out for screen space, resulting in both of them slowly ascending skyward, a dead body and a wheel, jittering against each other, as the game became unresponsive and eventually froze up.

Conclusion

This is not a very good game. The physics are poor and the presentation is bland, and the only interesting mechanism in the game is squandered on simplistic puzzles that rarely make use of it, and the controls are slippery beyond forgiveness. The game is crawling with bugs, some of which are inescapably game-breaking. There's a moderately clever concept buried somewhere in here, but it isn't worth digging out.

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