While playing the Real Texas I kept having flashbacks of playing Links Awakening on a dilapidated Gameboy, sat out on a stool in the back of my Dad’s pharmacy after school. Like girls and dinosaurs back then, Links Awakening had manifold secrets that I desperately wanted to understand. I saw its mystery as a challenge: if I couldn’t figure out how to progress in a dungeon, I’d try every option until something clicked and a door opened, or I finally figured out what tool to use. Somehow, this didn’t fatigue me back then. I was able to overcome my stupidity with brute force persistence. There was no Google to reach for and walkthroughs weren’t being published with the Royal wedding memoir briskness we have now.
The plot starts with a voiceless Texan arriving at an English estate for a holiday. Unfortunately, the mansion is deserted – green slime covers the floor, and a pulsating portal sits in the great hall. The mansion is full of locked doors with mysterious symbols above them. It stinks of secrets. There is no way out of the mansion at this point, so the Texan steps through the portal and enters a parallel reality filled with a diverse mix of characters plucked from various eras and lifestyles. They’re trapped, just as he is, and they have problems that a competent outsider can help them with, naturally.
There is a lot of fun interacting with these characters, and I loved the variety and flavour of the quests. Helping the Bronte sisters (alternatively, three women with coincidental names); kickstarting a rap career; rescuing a teddy bear; appeasing a malevolent compost heap with radishes; following the mocking instructions of a bitter jester; and lots more. Some of these are gussied up fetch quests, yet I was always invested in their outcome, if not the process. Adding some spice to the puzzle solving is a keyword system that allows you to try whatever words you can think of on any item and in any conversation. Being a massive interactive fiction nerd, I loved this feature, though it is naturally limited. There’s also a proper inventory system and tonnes of items to wear and use—so many that I think my protagonist was wearing about three sets of clothing in the latter stages.
Cuboid slimes bound across the prairies of this un-Texas. Shipwrecked cyclopic aliens search for a way home. Chickens are smashed with a giant hammer in an underground complex. Children sleep and play with spectres hovering over their heads like grotesque party balloons. There’s a mechanic manning a garage in a town with no roads and no gasoline. Somehow this eclectic mix of characters and situations creates a cohesive feel, rather than presenting as scattershot kookiness. Screenshots don’t really do justice to how the thing looks in motion, with the jointless cuboid character models sashaying across the screen. Alongside the Zelda and Ultima comparisons, I definitely get a strong Animal Crossing by David Lynch (circa 1997) vibe.
Moving between the ‘real’ world of the mansion and that of the limbo beyond the portal becomes commonplace throughout the narrative, necessitating some backtracking. I didn’t mind this when I knew I had a purpose; the problem is that I did an awful lot of backtracking without knowing where I was meant to be going. The pace and logic of the Real Texas never clicked with me. One occasion that sticks out in my mind was spending over an hour trying interact with everything in the mansion because I simply didn’t know what to do next. Visiting the Kitty Lambda forum helped me out, yet it was depressing to realise that I would never have understood what to do on my own. I’ve read enough effusive reviews and comments to know that it has clicked with many others, though.
The combat pissed me off. I admit that, thematically, the fact that the protagonist can’t move while aiming makes some sense: gunslingers get by on the quickness of their hands and the steadiness of their aim, not dashing around. That doesn’t translate to fun, sadly. Being hit by an enemy will break the Cowboy’s draw and cause him to double over for a second, which will often give another enemy time to get another strike in without any reply from the player. Recoil causes the Cowboy to move backwards, which can provide some method of escape from swarms of enemies. Though things improve after collecting more weapons, I never engaged with the action and ran past enemies whenever I could.
I’d love to recommend the Real Texas without reservations. Something so lovingly crafted and unusual deserves recognition. Multiple layers of reality, packed with secrets and references, peopled with a vibrant set of characters, each with their own distinct way of talking, and gorgeous music all set it apart from anything else I’ve played for a long time. I should have loved getting lost in this world, instead I felt frustrated more often than I was intrigued.
I have the feeling that some spectre of gaming conscience is going to appear at my shoulder and whisper “you missed a spot”. Well, more than a spot. I’m not dedicated or clever enough to reveal all the mysteries in the Real Texas; it’d be like scrubbing down a Sumo with a toothbrush—there are crannies and folds in the structure of Kitty Lambda’s unique opus that I’ll never explore.