Dropsy Review – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Clownness

Ian Boudreau takes Dropsy out for a spin.

Trying to come up with an elevator pitch for a retro point-and-click adventure starring a leering, yellow-toothed clown would be a Herculean task, and yet someone seems to have pulled it off: Here is Dropsy, released by Devolver Digital Sept. 10.

The game is immediately reminiscent of ‘90s-era LucasArts adventures – Day of the TentacleSam & Max Hit The Road, and Full Throttle are all evoked. In it, you play the titular Dropsy, who at first glance looks like a jelly-based recreation of John Wayne Gacy. Your task, it seems, is to wander the small nearby town dispensing hugs.

It’s a creepy premise that’s reinforced as you venture forth. Despite being drawn in cheerful pinks and blues, the tiny city you trundle around in is full of sad, broken people. Most aren’t receptive to your offers of hugs at all – it seems there was a fire not long ago at Dropsy’s circus, which claimed the life of Dropsy’s acrobat mother, and people seem to strongly believe that he was at fault.

All of this – your goals, characters’ feelings, even game menus – is communicated non-verbally. The game expresses itself through brightly-colored icons and trippy animations instead of through any spoken or written language, and the player is left to interpret for himself whether this design choice represents Dropsy’s inability to read or understand language, or a clever trick to save on localization costs.

Each character in the game is a kind of puzzle – help them with whatever is making them sad, and they’ll reward Dropsy by (sometimes begrudgingly) accepting a hug. Many of these are standalone affairs, and Dropsy makes a crayon drawing of each hugee to hang on the wall by his race car bed.

Others, however, have story elements embedded in them, and as you explore the world trying to bring happiness to people, there’s an underlying darkness and sadness that gradually becomes clearer. There’s a forest that seems tainted with some kind of crystalline disease, a woman who preaches fire and brimstone in a church where the homeless endure her rants just to get sandwiches, and even the circus big-top where Dropsy lives is run down and almost completely abandoned. Dropsy himself is haunted by increasingly disturbing dreams.

The juxtaposition between these themes and the bright pastel art style is interesting, as is the one between Dropsy’s childlike wonderment and love of the world and the hard-bitten, worn cynicism of the people he meets. For Dropsy, every entity in the world is someone to show a simple, childlike love toward, but they’re unwilling to accept or reciprocate it without having some problem solved first. Dropsy is a real innocent, a modern “ugly duckling,” and as the game progressed I found myself less and less put off by his appearance and more and more sympathetic toward him.

At about five hours’ total runtime, Dropsy doesn’t wear out its welcome. The problems with the game come from the genre it’s chosen to pay homage to: some puzzles depend on inscrutable triggers in order to advance, which led to me wandering around the world aimlessly for 30 or 45 minutes until I happened to stumble upon the solution by accident.

These instances were rare though. Dropsy generally gives you a good indication of what needs to be done, and the handy in-game map usually shows you where you have yet to explore.

Mention should be made of the game’s fantastic music, composed by Chris Schlarb. There’s a wistfulness and sense of wonder to the ambient tracks that fit the game perfectly, and (perhaps in a wry nod to Metal Gear Solid V) you can find audio cassettes throughout the world with more of his creations on them.

Having played lots of the classic adventure games in the ‘90s, I find myself now completely bereft of nostalgia for them. Games, I’ve felt, have generally moved on and found better ways to impart an experience of “adventure.” But Dropsy is deftly executed and so full of genuine heart and warmth that it overcame my cold-hearted distaste for the form. It’s sweet without ever being saccharine, tells a story that disturbs without ever resorting to cynicism, and ultimately is disarmingly uplifting.

Dropsy was developed by Tendershoot and A Jolly Corpse and published by Devolver Digital. It was released Sept. 10, 2015 for PC, Mac, and Linux. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.