A review of Strange Telephone (PC)

I already hinted that I’d review this in a recent post, and here it is: Strange Telephone, a 2D exploration game created by solo developer yuta/HZ3 Software out of Japan.  Strange Telephone was first released in 2017, but it was recently updated and expanded with a few new features and endings.  This version 2.0.1 is my first experience with the game, and true to its title, it was a strange one.

Strange Telephone doesn’t bother explaining much to the player upfront; after a couple of instructional screens about the mechanics of the game it simply starts, with the protagonist Jill waking up in a weird void in front of a giant door that won’t open.  At first, Jill seems stuck here, but lucky for her she has a friend: a flying telephone named Graham who can transport Jill to various worlds that correspond to six-digit numbers.  Most of these worlds contain residents and objects that Jill can interact with, though a few of them pose serious dangers to her.  The object of the game is essentially to solve a bunch of puzzles using items you can find, receive, or create for the purpose of opening that giant door and getting back to your own world.

A friendly ghost gives Jill a very obvious clue to get her started on her quest

If this game seems familiar, that might be because it bears a strong resemblance to another game I reviewed some time back: Dreaming Sarah.  Both are 2D exploration games featuring a pony-tailed girl who is teleported through bizarre dream-like worlds.  They even start in exactly the same way, with Sarah/Jill waking up and finding herself in a strange place.  It’s no coincidence that they’re so similar, though: both developers outright say that they were inspired by Yume Nikki.  The Yume Nikki influence is just as obvious here as it was in Dreaming Sarah: many of the objects and characters Jill runs into during her travels through the extradimensional phone book look like they came out of a dream and occasionally out of a nightmare, and some of the puzzles involve just the kind of dream logic that Yume Nikki and its descendants like to use.

Tell me this fucking thing didn’t come from a nightmare

However, none of that’s to say that Strange Telephone is a copy of Yume Nikki.  Just like Dreaming Sarah, this game uses that inspiration to create something new.  The biggest difference between Strange Telephone and other games like it is how it implements its exploration element.  Instead of having several large worlds to explore, Jill has over a million small worlds that are only a couple of screens wide each.  Walking left or right off of the edge teleports her to the next world over, which will probably be completely different from the one she just left.

The in-game dialing pad

Of course, there aren’t really over a million worlds.  There are more like a dozen or so with a bunch of variations in their residents, objects, and backgrounds.  Fortunately, you can get a device early on that lets you see what sort of world you’re about to enter when you punch in a number but before you dial, saving you a lot of time trying out random numbers.  This is an absolute necessity, in fact, because the game expects you to figure out more or less on your own where to bring each item and how to use it when you get there to advance.  It drops subtle hints sometimes, but that’s about it.  So, for example, knowing how you can trigger the moon rabbit event and where to find the moon rabbit when he shows up is important, because it’s required to see every event and ending in the game.

He needs fuel to get home.  This is why you fill your tank all the way to F before a long trip

Jill’s explorations are complicated by the fact that as she explores the phone worlds, distortion in her connection increases (measured by the circle at the top left) and when it’s full, something happens that disrupts her journey.  So you constantly have to let Jill duck out of the phone worlds back into the central “core” area to start again.  This isn’t a huge problem, though; each world is small enough that you should have enough time to do what you have to do to get the plot moving along.  The game also gives you a book you can use to save specific numbers so you can return to interact with the characters/objects there without having to randomly punch in numbers to find them again.

And yeah, there really is a plot here, even if it’s not that obvious.  Strange Telephone takes the Yume Nikki approach in showing a lot but refusing to tell a damn thing, so you have to piece every bit of information the game gives you together on your own.  Part of that process is getting every ending and finding every secret in the game, which is basically what you’ll be doing anyway as you experiment with different item/character/object combinations in the phone worlds.

Okay Jill, just start throwing shit in the pot and see what happens

If I sound frustrated with that, though, I’m not, because it’s part of what made Strange Telephone interesting.  Jill doesn’t bother giving any exposition, Graham doesn’t talk at all, and most of the other characters you meet in the phone worlds are also mute, even the ones that interact with you.  But I like these games that don’t spell everything out for you and let you roam around and figure things out on your own.  I don’t mind the cryptic story, either, because it fits with the surreal atmosphere of the game.  Strange Telephone does have some sense to it, though it’s still up for debate what some of the endings mean for Jill.  I guess this is where fan theories come in to fill the gap.  Yume Nikki has a ton of them, so it would make sense for Strange Telephone to have some too.

That said, the surreal atmosphere can’t explain away every bit of weirdness in this game.  There are a few things you have to do to beat Strange Telephone that just don’t make any logical sense.  I hit a wall a few times in my explorations and ended up having to shove different objects into a few characters’ hands to see if they’d do anything with said objects to make a new object or to advance my progress somehow.  Most of the solutions to the puzzles in Strange Telephone can be worked out with logic, but a few feel a bit too bizarre and random to be satisfying.

New contractual demand: every game I play from now on must have at least one (1) hot demon girl in it

Still, on balance Strange Telephone was a good enough time for me to recommend it.  The character designs are imaginative, the atmosphere is nice and otherworldly, the background music fits and enhances that atmosphere, and the exploration and experimentation with items drew me in.  I like games that do something different and execute that something well, and Strange Telephone is just such a game.

Since I’m stuck with this dumb rating system I created, I’ll say Strange Telephone gets a 5, which has basically come to mean “it wasn’t amazing or life-changing, but I liked it.”  The two or three hours of Yume Nikki-esque surreal dream logic weirdness I got out of the experience was worth the five dollars I paid for it on Steam.  If you loved Yume Nikki, in other words, Strange Telephone is worth checking out.

4 thoughts on “A review of Strange Telephone (PC)

  1. Shoving items into characters, to see what works, takes me back my Point n Click Adventure days. Can’t blame the developer for making most of the worlds similar. A million locations for a five buck game would be a bit much.

    • Yeah, the game has enough variation to make it interesting anyway. And unlike some of those point and click games, at least this one lets you freely experiment without having to obsessively save, because you can’t render it unwinnable by doing the wrong thing. Those Sierra developers were assholes.

  2. Some works can pull off the cryptic, opaque story deal a lot better than others. I would probably make a pretty bad one, myself, so my opinion on it may only go so far, but I think it comes down to the tone of the work and how the plot fits into it, as well as getting just the right amount of consistent detail to give the sense of the larger story at work without making it explicit. Sounds like Strange Telephone hit it right on the button.

    • I’d say it did. And I agree that it would be difficult to write an opaque story like this one without the right tone and perspective. The mystery of Strange Telephone’s story and its weird game mechanics make it work in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.