I have always loved stories where animals are the protagonists. Animals doing human stuff hits me right in the feels, and I am attracted to games with an anthropomorphic cast. That is why I was immediately drawn to Paws of Coal, a short prelude to an upcoming larger game called Trip the Ark Fantastic, serving as a small appetiser to the bigger main course, all cooked up by developer Gamechuck. It feels more like a demo than a complete adventure, but the love and care put into it shines through, and if you’re into text-heavy narrative games, Paws of Coal should scratch that itch while it lasts.
Deep underground, we find ourselves in a small mining community called the Burrows. Down here rabbits work the coal mines, whereas moles, badgers and other creatures are administrators and scholars. Lately a strange outbreak within the bunny population has begun spreading, and the town doctor has asked Charles, a bespectacled botanist hedgehog, to help with figuring out not only the cause but also the cure to this mysterious plague. Just like a spiky little Dr. House, you’ll need to talk to the other inhabitants of the Burrows to find out what ails the rabbits. Is it something they ate or drank? Could some external toxin be the reason? Whatever it is, it’s up to Charles to figure it out.
It quickly becomes evident that there is a larger political scheme at play behind the small glimpse we are given into the Burrows. There is turmoil and unhappiness among the workers, as they are striking due to the lack of action from management regarding the outbreak. Beyond that, we see the contours of a tyrant lion king and great social unrest, not to mention the slave-like treatment of the “vermin,” an expression used for lizards and other critters at the bottom of the societal hierarchy. Unfortunately, this bigger backdrop isn’t explored further in Paws of Coal; we see Charles getting invited to meet with the king, but the audience itself isn’t shown here. I can only imagine this is a foreshadowing to what we might see more of in the next game.
The gameplay mainly consists of two things: first you need to speak to your fellow Burrowers to obtain clues for your investigation, or read books and ledgers to seek useful information. When questioning the different characters, you’re given the choice at times to be blunt, pretend to be stupid or act sympathetic. Whichever you decide might affect the outcome of not only that one conversation, but also how your investigation will progress. You can also choose to snitch out your striking peers to the coal management, or stay loyal to their cause, resulting in potential allies or enemies on either side.
Eventually when you have gathered enough information, you need to put all your facts together and try to figure out the cause of the outbreak through a deduction function. All the information Charles gathers is collected in a journal, and by moving the clues you think are relevant to the case from the journal onto a kind of deduction board, you can link these clues to what you believe is the right conclusion.
When you have made up your mind and committed to a solution, you need to present it to the doctor for him to make his diagnosis based on your findings. There are three such deductions in the game, and their difficulty levels vary. The more evidence you have gathered, the harder it is to come to a conclusion due to the increased number of clues. The game has multiple endings, so the chance of making an incorrect diagnosis is indeed present, resulting in potentially catastrophic consequences for the rabbits.
Other than the deductive parts of the game, the gameplay itself isn’t particularly challenging. There are no puzzles to speak of, and no notable inventory collection. Besides venturing around the Burrows to find clues, most of your time will be spent reading text. There is no voice acting, so you need to bring not only your reading glasses, but your patience and concentration too. Thankfully the writing and sense of humour is brilliant, even with such a grave backdrop, making all the reading a delight.
Accompanying your detective work is truly beautiful music composed and performed in a classical orchestral style, though there aren’t many tracks. Surprisingly, they sound very adventurous and joyful overall; one is calmer and more relaxing, but others are happy and light, so although they are wonderful scores, the upbeat tunes don’t quite fit the premise of the game. You’re investigating a possibly deadly outbreak in an underground community beset by strikes and disease, so a cheerful adventure theme might not be the most suitable pick. I could definitely see it being more appropriate if Charles later exits the Burrows and continues his adventures aboveground. Another issue is that when one of the tracks finishes, there is sometimes no music for quite a long time, leaving you with only an ambient whooshing sound and other background noises.
Next to the music, another lovely aspect of the game is its visual presentation. Growing up loving hand-drawn cartoons and classic Disney movies, my heart always skips a beat when I see graphics like the ones in Paws of Coal. At the risk of showing my age, the art style reminds me of my favourite animated films and classic cartoons like The Animals of Farthing Wood or The Secret of NIMH, if such names should rustle up long-forgotten memories. There isn’t much variety in the environments, but the characters are absolutely adorable, and while you read conversations or book passages, they display cute little details such as wiggling tails or tapping paws.
Steering Charles through the Burrows is done by either clicking your mouse where you want him to go, or with WASD or the arrows on the keyboard. If you want him to move faster, holding Shift will make him roll around like a spiny little ball. There is no mouse-only equivalent for quicker movement, but the keyboard controls can be a bit awkward at times. Sometimes Charles rolled ahead even after I let go of the keys, and when I wanted him to move up or down stairs, it took a couple of tries before he rolled in the direction I wished.
Navigating dialogue can also be a bit cumbersome. Using the mouse, you must click on whichever option you want, Charles repeats it, and then you must click specifically on “continue” for each line. If you use the keyboard, you can press a number for each dialogue option, and then another key to go on. With all the extra clicking in precise spots, I found there wasn’t really a natural flow to the conversation, and it got even more tedious when I was backtracking to see if there was any information I hadn’t learned yet, since there’s no intuitive way of knowing if all options have been exhausted already.
Speaking of cumbersome, unfortunately Paws of Coal is rather buggy. At one point I got stuck in a location and couldn’t exit through the door, and the only solution was to load a previous game. The game crashed quite a few times on me as well, but fortunately it seemed to autosave where I was almost every time. I do want to credit Gamechuck for their updates though; it seems like they are aware of these issues, and have been implementing bug fixes steadily since launch.
We don’t learn much about the characters in Paws of Coal, as neither our botanically endowed protagonist nor the rest of the cast are given much attention or backstory. Charles’s strained relationship with his father is briefly touched on, but nothing more is mentioned about his family or history, and the same goes for the rest of the animals in the Burrows. I would have loved to see more of Jeffrey, the sassy gossip mole who runs the supply store, or Jimmy, the elevator operator rabbit whose vocabulary is bigger than his demeanour suggests. However, the other characters take a back seat to Charles’s noble cause, as they are only instrumental to his quest for information.
I spent around three hours solving the mystery of the Burrows outbreak, but I read pretty quickly, so for slower readers I reckon the game would take a bit longer as a result. After delivering the final diagnosis to the doctor, the game ends, and you are presented with the outcomes of your choices in text form, both good and bad. Seeing the consequences of your actions, you might be inclined to replay the game to discover other possible outcomes, and to see which other paths you could have taken. The ending I got was mostly satisfactory, as I managed to figure out the correct reason for the outbreak, but there were certain story paths I wished would have gone differently.
As a big fan of not only animal adventures but the Sherlock Holmes games as well, I really loved the detective work and deductions, not to mention the outstanding writing of Paws of Coal. There’s no real gameplay aside from that, so if lots of reading isn’t what you want to spend your time doing in a game, then I recommend sitting this one out. However, if text-based narrative games are your thing, this game should hit the spot. It is beautifully designed, and despite being very short, I generally had a fun time playing it, although it’s clearly just a little taste of what we might expect from a larger future game and not a complete course by itself. If they manage to iron out the kinks and bugs, I am very excited to see what more Gamechuck has in store for Trip the Ark Fantastic.
Paws of Coal is a cute and fun little animal detective mystery, featuring some intriguing deduction puzzles and a whole lot of brilliant writing to read, though it is difficult to overlook the fact that it is just a prelude to a larger adventure and not a complete game on its own.
- Beautiful hand-drawn graphics with charming characters
- Intriguing story and premise
- Top-notch writing
- Deduction puzzles are interesting and challenging
- Quite buggy even after several patch updates
- Finicky dialogue and navigation controls
- Beautiful music doesn’t really suit the premise
- Fairly short and not a complete game in its own right
Aurora played Paws of Coal on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.