Now, I called 80 Days “puzzle-light”. And I stand by that: this is not a game about figuring things out or coming to realizations that transform your understanding of your situation, unless it’s a realization about how to reach point B from point A. When there’s an epiphany to be had, some NPC will have it for you. Nonetheless, it is possible to get stuck and have no idea what to do next. I’ve gotten temporarily stuck twice so far. Just not in ways that the designers intended.
My first sticking-point was the one that ended my efforts with the game back in 2006. It turned out to be entirely due to the game being finnicky about mantling (pulling yourself up onto a chest-high block or wall with your arms). You do it by pressing the space bar, which is the jump button, but you have to be just the right distance from the thing you’re mantling onto, and perfectly square with it, or you just jump in place. The game is just as fussy when it comes to climbing ladders, but at least a ladder is obviously climbable, which encourages one to keep trying, whereas it’s not obvious at first that mantling is possible at all. So when I encountered the first place where it was necessary — in a ruined Egyptian tomb, which is kind of appropriate, considering what a Tomb Raider-ish move it is — I gave up trying too soon. This time around, I was more determined to get through the game.
The second was on the dirigible I took from Cairo to Bombay, which turned out to be a lengthy chapter in its own right, and in some ways more satisfying than the Cairo chapter: the smaller space to explore makes for a tighter design and a better sense of place, and the glimpses of the ground below, hazy with distance, are handled very well. At one point, a rare bird called a “zeron”, exotic but ungainly, gets stuck in the rigging, and Oliver has to climb out onto the superstructure to free it. Now, the main vessel’s gondola has long struts extending from either side, on which mini-blimps are docked like dinghies. One of these mini-blimps was in my way, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get past it. After spending far too much time stuck there, I finally looked online for hints, only to find that no one else seemed to even regard it as a problem. Even then, I thought there must be some trick I was missing until I found a video playthrough in which the player just crouched and crawled under the thing, just like I had been trying but failing to do. Fortunately, the mere act of alt-tabbing out of the game to google for help seemed to somehow jar something loose, and I was able to continue from that point. (I’ve gone back and retried this, and it doesn’t work consistently. But it works a great deal better than not doing it.)
After getting through a part where you spent a lot of time stuck, the natural next step is to reload the last checkpoint and go through it again, but do it quickly this time. After all, the game has a time limit, and a day/night cycle and on-screen clock to constantly remind you of it. At least, it does if you choose to play it that way; you get a choice of three levels of difficulty at the beginning, and the time limit is waived in the easiest one. The manual suggests playing in this mode “if you want to peacefully explore the world”, which is normally how I like to play adventure games, but it just seems wrong here. This is a game that’s named after its time limit. There’s a whole major mechanic involving an energy meter that you can replenish by resting (which costs time) or eating food (which costs money), and easy mode bypasses that entirely. This is clearly not how this game is supposed to be played.
But then again, look at how I’m playing it instead: reverting to saves in order to do things more optimally, hoarding time the way I’d hoard ammo in a different game. This can’t be the way the game is supposed to be played either. The time limit is there to be raced against, not brute-forced away. One of the more colorful user interface features is a track that lets you compare your progress to Phileas Fogg’s, showing both your progress and his on the current day of the voyage. It’s a little weird if interpreted literally, because Fogg’s progress was different from yours. How do you compare your progress at rescuing the Zeron to Fogg’s progress doing nothing of the kind? But the real meaning of the track is clear: Fogg made it in 80 days, so as long as your token isn’t lagging behind his, you’re progressing fast enough. I should probably take that to heart.