Explore a surreal Texan landscape and help its trapped denizens.
PC Release: June 12, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Yearning for simpler times is both a fact of life and a fact of video games. These days, indie games that label themselves as “old-school” can be found on PC game storefronts by the literal hundreds. It’s great to see that nostalgia for retro-style video games is so alive and well, but rarely are these types of games truly exceptional, and not just a shallow clone thrown together for a quick old-school buck. Luckily, The Real Texas may prove to be such an exceptional game. It embodies the best and worst that the adventure games of yore have to offer, but what makes it stand out is what makes any decent game stand out: narrative. Although The Real Texas was originally released in 2012, the focus of tonight’s review will be the Dusty Skies edition that was recently released on Steam.
The Real Texas is a top-down adventure game that takes inspiration, by the designer’s own admittance, from The Legend of Zelda and Ultima series of games. The star of The Real Texas is Sam, a true blue Texan cowboy who decides to take a break from the ranching life. His wanderlust takes him to England for a relaxing vacation at a remote chateau.
Problem is, there doesn’t seem to be anyone at the hotel when Sam arrives. After a few minutes spent bumbling around a magnificent castle, Sam finds a mysterious portal linking to another world. Of course he steps through it, as is the protocol for when one finds a giant, glowing portal, and it lands him in a surreal mirror image of his beloved homeland. Sam arrives to the town of Strange, Texas, a purgatory-esque realm where people from all over time and space live together in the prairie.
Not long after Sam’s arrival to Strange, he’s hired by a grouchy witch named Mathilda to help her return Strange’s residents to all their homes and time periods. She explains that Strange is basically purgatory, and enlists the cowboy’s aid in rescuing them all from its clutches. Two sinister figures, a shifty crime boss and a mad wizard, stand in the way of the townsfolk’s return to freedom, and only Sam, with his wild west charm and deadly aim, can restore the peace.
So begins one of the strangest, but also most charming, indie adventures in recent memory. It’s an old-school romp that combines folksy Texan culture with the conventions of fantasy RPGs. The resulting blend is both fun and fascinating, and it gives The Real Texas some novelty to stand out on in a very, very over-saturated genre. Add a decent options menu and a gorgeous synth-and-chiptune soundtrack, and The Real Texas is off to a strong start.
Players explore the world of The Real Texas from a top-down perspective, as Sam bumbles around a strange, rugged land. The world is parceled up into square patches of land that Sam can traverse through, though they require a brief transition for even adjacent panels. As Sam, players can explore everything from the gnarliest cactus stands to the houses of Strange’s residents. As with the old-school adventure games that The Real Texas seeks to emulate, players can open chests, look for keys and explore labyrinthine dungeons. Strange is rife with the cornerstones of classic RPGs, such as boss battles, hidden rooms and lots of quirky characters. Sam can equip gear found out in the prairie; always go with the robber baron outfit if possible. A top hat and tuxedo can go a long way in battle.
Dealing with bosses and beasties is usually a simple affair. Sam quickly finds a trusty Texan revolver and can use it to dispatch Wild West-style justice against Strange’s less amicable denizens. Some creatures, like evil jelly monsters reminiscent of the Chus from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker do not respond to bullets, forcing Sam to use other weaponry. Most combat situations comprise simply finding the weapon that will work best against a given type of enemy. It’s simple, but it packs just enough variety to keep players from getting complacent. Most dungeons in The Real Texas contain a mix of enemies all necessitating different solutions. Thankfully, combat in The Real Texas is not turn-based.
Although the main quest to free the residents of Strange takes center stage, Sam can embark upon side quests all over the town. Many of them factor into the main quest itself, forcing players to explore around town and see what lies beneath. Most of the world is interconnected by a big dungeon full of further surprises. Sam can also return to the decrepit English hotel, where a few additional puzzles can be found. Most puzzles stick strictly to one area or the other, but a few cross between this world and the world of Strange. The clues are usually pretty evident.
This sort of explore-a-thon is a rarity in today’s gaming landscape. Sure, there are tons of games that encourage players to explore an open world, but usually the side quests and the main quests are strictly segregated in the journal. In The Real Texas. side and main quests are thrown together in a big, messy bowl of fun. Players who prefer linearity in their games may feel overwhelmed, but The Real Texas measures out its side and main quests appropriately. One batch of side quests only becomes available after a segment of the main story has been completed, so players needn’t worry about doing dozens of quests just to get an iota of the narrative. It’s a definite throwback to older game design, and a facet sorely missing from modern game design. Skyrim, for example, makes no secret of its emphasis on the open world over a story, but the two are not combined. In The Real Texas, players are compelled to get the best of both.
Although The Real Texas has a lot of decently made content, its adherence to old-school video game orthodoxy leaves something to be desired. Many of the quest clues in The Real Texas can feel frustratingly obtuse, both in terms of spoken dialogue and in looking around the physical world. Clues given out by characters can be far too vague, like when Sam has to help a group of small children release ghosts that are following them around. No one likes to waste hours clicking everything and trying every combination of items, but The Real Texas inadvertently provides the opportunity far too often.
The other issue at play with finding the way forward is that in-game objects can be too well-hidden, or too vague. There’s one segment toward the beginning of the game where Sam has to find radishes to feed an angry jelly monster, but the diary explaining the radishes’ location looks nothing like a book in the actual game. It takes far too much pixel-hunting and random clicking to find some of the items Sam needs to progress. That element of game design is certainly yet another throwback to the old school, but it’s a throwback that was abandoned by modern game design for very good reason.
Despite the clunk of its clue-hunting, The Real Texas has some excellent bits of narrative for gamers willing to go the extra mile. Every character in this game, even the little girl who can barely talk, has multiple facets to their personality. Each person in Strange has a lot more personality than their penny-pressed aesthetic would suggest. The dialogue is believable and well-written; everyone has an authentic voice, and a backstory that can be explored simply by looking around the town. Most characters factor into the main and side quests, of course, but the strength of the dialogue writing also aids The Real Texas‘s cute, folksy atmosphere.
The character dimension of The Real Texas that is less noteworthy, is that the game can’t decide if it’s a text adventure or not. As yet another emulation of game design gone by, players can type phrases into the dialogue panel to elicit certain responses from non-player characters. For example, typing “help” in a conversation box with a mechanic might prompt that guy to give out a tool needed for the next mission. The problem is that The Real Texas does not implement this system with all of its characters. Some characters require the player to type a phrase of interest, other times that phrase is already presented as a topic of conversation. There’s no clear reason why some characters are text adventure-based and others are conversation-based, but this can make it easy to forget trying one or the other when Sam’s getting nowhere. It’s a bit frustrating, to say the least.
The main quest that Sam embarks upon in The Real Texas builds upon all of this rather well. It borrows themes and elements from most every emotion. There’s a bit of sadness, a bit of humor, a bit of life. As stated at the beginning of the article, the blend of rural Texas and fantasy RPG themes is a winning combination. It’s humorous to see a cowboy wielding a magic wand, just as it’s humorous to listen as a witch tells Sam where to pick up a revolver. The two go together remarkably well.
The narrative itself isn’t anything that fans of old-school RPG games haven’t seen before. There’s an epic quest to help a population of people rid themselves of a curious evil. Strange isn’t evil, per se, but the town conceals a lot of pain beneath the surface, and The Real Texas does a good job at bringing that out in subtle ways. It can be a frustrating process to actually reach some of those tidbits, but they are engrossing. They certainly make for one of the most memorable lite RPGs to have been released thus far in 2016.
The Real Texas will not be everyone’s cup of tea. A fair number of players will be turned off by the game’s utter lack of direction, and the attention to detail needed while scouring every inch of the town for clues and items. The aforementioned ambivalence between text input and selected conversation options is also a glaring design flaw. The Real Texas is a beautiful game, but in its quest to emulate the adventure games of days gone by, it exhibits many of the best and worst traits of that genre in that time period.
At the same time, though, perhaps the frustrations of The Real Texas are less an indictment of the genre and more an indication of modern game design. Games these days are typically so guided, so linear, that players can forget how to explore and be free when confronted with an older game. The Real Texas unashamedly reminds modern gamers of this idea, to just go on a random adventure and watch as the pieces of the story fall into place instead of along a rail track of quest log entries. Gamers who yearn for that type of game design, that type of narrative structure, will absolutely love this game.
The Real Texas is available for digital download through a few platforms, but the Dusty Skies edition recently released on Steam and GOG includes a newly made DLC called Cellpop Goes Out At Night. It’s a nice addition to the main game, albeit being set in an entirely different time and place, and it’s rendered in the same engine used to make The Real Texas. Any gamer tired of short, linear romps will want to get this game and have a strange Texan odyssey of their own. It can be obtuse, and it can be withholding, but The Real Texas‘s strong writing and subtle self-confidence make it a great little game.
You can buy The Real Texas here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.