What does the title ‘Summertime Madness’ say to you? We get images of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, perhaps chucking a beachball around. What it probably doesn’t invoke in you is World War II, a pact with the devil, and a surrealist puzzle adventure that spends most of its time in the dark. We expected to have some happy-go-lucky times with Summertime Madness, and we very much didn’t.
Summertime Madness kicks off with a title card of ‘Prague, 1945’, which was our first hint that this wasn’t going to be a sunny adventure in Great Yarmouth. It centres on a painter, creating beautiful landscapes like a Czech Bob Ross to drown out his awareness of falling bombs and impending doom. While he’s painting, an old gent in a top hat and twirly moustache materialises and offers him a deal: the painter can live inside his own paintings, as long as he finds an exit before midnight. Fail to return before that time, and he’ll be stuck.
We’d have passed, frankly, but the painter bites his hand off. So, he’s handed a pocket watch and gets catapulted into one of his own paintings which is, admittedly – and at first – set in the summertime. What follows is a kind of bitesize Myst or Unfinished Swan, with puzzling set pieces that chain together in quick succession.
The first challenge is to escape a moored ship, where levers open doors and shut them, so you have to pull them in the right sequence to escape. It’s a strong example of the many puzzles that follow. After each puzzle sequence you step through a wooden door, where you confront one of your inner demons which has manifested as a giant statue. Complete a puzzle associated with that, and you’re returned to the first island, which acts like a hub for other constructions – a lighthouse, a What Remains of Edith Finch-style building – that you enter to continue the puzzle pattern.
On the way, there’s the odd collectible to unearth, from butterflies, fireflies and musical instruments, each of which ties to an achievement. All while the soundtrack soars and the vistas dazzle, doused in moody atmospherics that attempt to stick in your memory.
Summertime Madness, for all of its indie-darling box-ticking, is – unfortunately – not all that great. It should have been a home-run, but it pulls all of its shots.
Take its story. There are hints throughout Summertime Madness of lost loves. The doors have women’s names on, and you can see graffiti left behind from some of the painter’s amours. But Summertime Madness prepares up these heartstrings, ready for them to be plucked, and then loses interest. It walks away from the opportunity, distracted by another dazzling sunset. You sense that the scenarios relate to the painter’s state of mind, but the themes are so lightly brushed that they wash right off. Nothing echoes back to the pact with the old man in the opening, and the result is that any story momentum is lost. You’re struggling to follow a thread that would have kept the events interesting.
Then there are the puzzles. To be more specific, Summertime Madness is actually a number of mazes, punctuated with puzzles. But while it loves a labyrinth, it struggles to find a way to make them fun. There are three significant mazes here, dominating the runtime, but the descriptions of them sound like B-rate Snow White dwarves. They’re, in turn, Disorienting, Convoluted and Tiresome.
Take the maze that props up the middle of the game: the ‘Convoluted’ one. It situates you in an abandoned city, where you need to pass through three Gates to get to a staircase to the top of the world. Sounds simple enough. But the city is dotted with dozens of levers, and each one opens a door and shuts one. But knowing what they have opened or shut is near-impossible. A cutaway video tries to make it clear, but you’re staring at the same walls and arches trying to comprehend where they might be. Maps are posted on walls, but they’re useless, and a hint system vaguely wafts at an answer without giving you anything useful. To compound the misery, you also have two realities to toy around in. Flip an hourglass and you convert everything to night-time, where gates and paths are different, and the levers do something else entirely. It’s a mental map that’s impossible for a human mind to comprehend. Mercifully, there is a Youtube video with countless ‘Thank you!” comments attached.
The other mazes test your patience in different ways. There’s one that’s just inexcusably dull and long. You can see where you need to get, as these are spirit staircases that sprawl into the distance, but it left us plum tuckered. Another is Escher-like in its surrealism, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a satisfying maze. All you can do is keep walking in the hope that you end up somewhere new.
This is Summertime Madness’s prevailing problem. Too often, it mistakes an endless series of left and right turns as a ‘puzzle’, when – in reality – it’s just a labour to complete. Some puzzles do shine: there’s a cracker with a spiraling corridor, and the opening ship puzzle is tactile and tightly constructed. But they are vastly outweighed by the tedious labyrinths that go on and on and on.
Summertime Madness is a beauty, there’s no doubting that. It bewitches you with sunkissed moments and some surrealist cutaway moments, like a whale that swims past you at the summit of a lighthouse. But these are garlands on a forgettable little game, one that gets lost in its own mazes and can’t find a way of generating feeling, fun or meaning. One for only the fiercest Myst fans.
You can buy Summertime Madness from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S