Non-Competition and Miscellaneous Reviews

Reviews are good. Given that my comp reviews are pretty short and snappy, I figure I ought to be able to write reviews for non-comp games too. We'll see how long that lasts. (I've also stuck some reviews in here for things which are technically competition games, but the competitions are small and I don't expect to see a sequel).

Highly Recommended Games

Blue Lacuna (Aaron A. Reed) Glulx:
My review of this game is available on Mark Musante's IF-Review site. Check it out!



The Dreamhold (Andrew Plotkin) Z-Machine:
My review of The Dreamhold, originally written for Mark Musante's IF-Review site, is available here.



Galatea (Emily Short [Emily Short]) Z-Machine:
Everyone says this game is brilliant. Surprisingly, that's because it is. The caveat is that it's a conversation, in a single room, with a single person. But within those confines it's magnificent. There is grace and beauty and humor and that, hrm, human connection that is so rare and so precious. Go play it, right now. Then check out Short's website about the game and see the stuff you missed.



Heroine's Mantle (Andy Phillips) Z-Machine:
My review of Heroine's Mantle, originally written for Mark Musante's IF-Review site, is available here.



Necrotic Drift (Robb Sherwin) Hugo:
I'm totally fascinated with Robb Sherwin's evolution as an IF author. The standard progression seems to be to start out with some lousy puzzles and a weak story and so-so writing and cardboard characters, and gradually the author improves to producing pretty good puzzles and slightly less cardboard characters and an occasional nifty one-liner in the writing. Robb Sherwin, on the other hand, has basically had lousy puzzles and gameplay for all his previous games, but they've still been great to play because of the high-quality writing and characters. I'm pleased to say that Necrotic Drift, while not actually having good puzzles, has definitely reached the "not annoying" stage, puzzle- and gameplay-wise, and the overall package is really quite nice.

It's interesting that Necrotic Drift also shows improvement in its writing and characterization. After playing Fallacy of Dawn, I wouldn't have believed Sherwin's writing could be change without losing its edge — I'd thought it had pretty much reached its stylistic apex. Similarly, Fallacy of Dawn introduced great characters but then didn't develop them much over the course of the game, and I was fine with that; I figured that was just how Sherwin wrote. But this game kicks through both of these assumed limitations — in Necrotic Drift Sherwin steps up and goes in. The writing gets deeper and more nuanced, the characters start, painfully, to show some evolution over the course of the game, and the storyline becomes one that starts to matter, all without losing the essential charming obscenity of Sherwin's writing.

Part of this comes out as a change in tone. Necrotic Drift, like Fallacy of Dawn, is set in the crappy, near-future but contemporary-culture-referencing, city of New Haz. Fallacy of Dawn, though, had a relatively light-hearted take on the suckitude of the city: the protagonist is basically a Shadowrun-esque character who's being kept down in the slums by the Man but that doesn't stop him from making the best of it and getting his piece. The protagonist in Necrotic Drift, on the the other hand, is in a sucky, dead-end job and lives with sucky, dead-end roomates in a sucky, dead-end house. The only bright spot is his relationship with his girlfriend and that's getting kinda rough too. And this really works. The essential lousiness of his situation makes a nice contrast with the attitude all Sherwin protagonists are required to have constantly copped: it turns the PC from just being a wise-ass to someone who's trying hard to keep it together in the only way he knows.

Anyway, then we get into the main body of the game, which is all about, well, necrotic drift and RPG references (so far Sherwin has let it be known that he's a fan of comics, old video games, and role-playing games — I'm not sure what horrific secret his next game is going to reveal, but I should point out that the title Big Eyes, Small Mouth is already taken). It is pretty good and has an ending that packs a hell of a punch. Gameplay-wise, as I said, it's not actually great — it's really, really linear and most of the puzzles are pretty basic — but it's eminently playable and doesn't get in the way of the good stuff.

Necrotic Drift, like Sherwin's other recent games, has a nice multimedia setup. I think this is the cleanest so far in terms of integration of pictures and sound into the story, but neither are strictly necessary, so I'm sorry there's no stripped-down text-only version of the game available for people who don't have the bandwidth to get the full-size version. But, seriously, don't let that stop you — this is the best game of Sherwin's so far and it looks like he's just going to keep getting better.



Recommended Games

AGON (part 1) (Private Moon Studios) Windows Exe:
My review of this is here.



All Hope Abandon (Eric Eve) TADS 3:
All Hope Abandon is an interesting game — I think it's the first IF game I've played that starts off with the PC in a boring lecture and then being transported to a magical fantasy land, but *the lecture is actually relevant to the rest of the game*. And what a lecture it is. It starts off with "minimal time for critical assessment", passes through "religionsgeschichtlichen", and plunges right on into extensive discussion of the Q Parallel. But luckily we're all experienced theological scholars, and so any explanation of — what? no? Well, yeah, it's a good thing Eve provided copious background info so that you can piece together some of what the lecture is talking about, if you're so inclined.

And you probably should be, because shortly thereafter you find a lot of the theological issues having direct relevance to your experience. At least, directly relevant in an IFfy sort of way: there's this church you explore with a symbolic mural or two you can look at, there's this woman named Hope and she's stuck in a swamp, there are a couple empty tombs which are not as empty as all that and require you to solve puzzles to get out of, and so on.

If this sounds a little confused, well, yeah, I think so. All Hope Abandon can't always seem to make up its mind whether it's an afterlife parody a la Perdition's Flames, whether it's a straight exploration-and-puzzles adventure, or whether it's literary journey filled with subtext. Not that it has to choose just one, of course, but whatever the game picks, it should be clear about what it's doing all the time, and it isn't really. The ending, in particular, is too weak to be fully satisfying story-wise, but it's not exactly a puzzly ending and doesn't quite satisfy on that account either.

Overall All Hope Abandon has quite a lot of good bits, and it's quite well done in a technical sense, but it left me wishing for more overall coherence.



The Art of Misdirection (Callico Harrison) Z-Machine:
The Art of Misdirection is vaguely reminiscent of All Roads and Slouching Towards Bedlam, which puts it in very good company. Like the latter, it has a grimy Victorian feel that slips into horror and revelation near the end; like the former, the plot is convoluted and doesn't quite make sense, although this doesn't really matter until you stop and think about it afterwards (consider: Why does David scream at you at the end of act one? Why does Eduardo leave his hat? Why do you and David bother with the spotlight trick?).

The game is divided into three acts, but the first is at least as long as the other two put together. It's also sounder, in terms of parsing and game design, than the later two acts (which is the right way to do it if you have to choose, since I'm more willing to cut a game slack once I'm interested, but ideally the whole thing will be smooth and developed). I would specifically point to much of act two as flawed in terms of game design: there's no reason to make the player try so hard to interrogate everyone in the cafe when it doesn't matter to the story, and there are numerous courses of action in the hat shop which are disallowed for no good reason (except "that's not how it happened" — so how come we have a possible alternate ending there?). The writing is good, though it drifts into the overly clever at times, which made me less forgiving of the occasional typo or missed word.

On the whole, however, The Art of Misdirection is a professionally-done game and an impressive first effort by Harrison; it is short and reasonably punchy and well worth the playing time, even though it's a pity the second half isn't as strong as the first.



Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies (Oyvind Thorsby) Z-Machine:
As you have probably noticed if you've been reading my reviews for a while, I am a big wimp as an IF player. I hate games that I can accidentally make unwinnable, games with time limits, games where I get stuck, games with puzzles that don't make sense and, generally speaking, any games that are not presented to me on a platter surrounded by a few sprigs of watercress. So you would naturally expect that I wouldn't like Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies — it's a game where the author tells you from the start that you're not supposed to save or undo, you're just supposed to try to win in one playthrough. Making this harder, you're surrounded by the enemies hinted at in the title, and you've only got a gun with a very limited number of shots.

But the thing is, despite all those things that I listed above that I dislike, there is one thing I love more than anything else in an IF game, and that is a game that knows what it is about and does it whole-heartedly. It takes balls as an IF author to go against the conventions of modern IF, and it takes skill as a designer to make something that's playable under these restrictions.

All things considered, Thorsby does a pretty good job. There's one puzzle that I, even on a replay, can't see how the player is supposed to figure out the optimal solution to, but there's just enough slack in the number of shots the PC has in their gun to force people to solve most of the puzzles but still let them kulcad their way past the ones they can't figure out. Given that there's virtually no inventory in this game and only a very few implemented commands, it's impressive that the author is able to work up so different many situations where there's a zombie coming to kill you and you have to work out how to evade or dispose of them. Probably it helps that Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies is quite short — a playthrough shouldn't take more than fifteen or twenty minutes — and written in a cheerful FPS-parody style. In any case, you'll be amused, and when you see the >AMUSING notes at the end you'll want to replay, and what more can an author shoot for?



Bantam (Eric Mayer) Alan:
This is a SmoochieComp game, but like the name suggests, it also qualifies for inclusion in the ChickenComp, and in fact also qualifies for inclusion in the IF-Arcade. That said, it's not a good IF-Arcade game, and if it didn't have the shortcut mode the game would be more annoying than it is amusing. As it is, it's a near break-even, but it does fall out slightly on the right side, so.



Blighted Isle (Eric Eve) TADS 3:
There was totally a time when this would have been my favorite game ever. It's the sort of game where I won the game the first time with 50/80 points, and the rest of the points are obtained locating secret passages, identifying smugglers, digging up magic swords, finding ancient artifacts and fiddling with gadgets. But — enh, I dunno. These days I am 1) old and 2) lazy and 3) picky. Because I am old I say "hmm, this plot is not that complex or that original" and because I am lazy I say "wait, I have to do all this extra work to find the cool secret things?" and because I am picky I wonder why everything on the island is in such stasis until the PC arrives.

Regardless of whether any or all of these adjectives apply to you, you will probably enjoy playing this game. The implementation is really very solid, both in terms of conversation and object interaction; there is a lot to explore (and you don't actually have to find everything) and a lot to keep busy with. You may not consider Blighted Isle the Best Game Ever but you won't regret playing it.



The Curse of DragonShrine (Mystery) ADRIFT:
This is the second game I've played by this author, and I'm pleased to say that The Curse of DragonShrine is a noticeable improvement. The game still has the same problems that Mystery Manor had — it's overdone in writing and atmosphere, and underdone in terms of gameplay — but in both respects it improves on its predecessor. Like the title suggests it's a reasonably generic fantasy setting: there's a bad guy doing bad stuff and you have to collect a couple magic thingies to stop him and break the curse. The game seems to be shooting for a sort of fantasy/gothic feel. There's a run through the woods from angry villagers and then exploration of a mysterious castle with a ghost and a dragon motif (but no actual dragons were harmed, or used, in the making of this game).

The writing moves back and forth between text-adventure standard ("You must bring the body of the last victim to the shrine and give her the potion. Read the incantation from the scroll. I must return to the lake, for I am too weak to stay. Your fate is sealed.") and atmospheric, but the author doesn't quite have a steady enough hand with the writing to make the atmospheric work ("A white figure hovers nearby, looking at you curiously. In a state of shock, you are unable to move because you have never seen such a thing in all the days of your life. She is a ghost."). I think Mystery might be better off working on writing with a scenario that doesn't require evoking emotion in the player, or at least aims for lighter-weight emotions.

It's been a while since I played Mystery Manor, but I seem to recall it having a lot of the wander-around-finding-random-items sort of puzzle. The Curse of DragonShrine has the same thing, but to a much lesser extent, and it has a few more interesting puzzles as well (the cloth rag and the getting-the-body puzzle were particularly noteworthy). Still, the game has way too many rooms which have nothing interesting in them, or just one item (you can see by the handy ADRIFT mapping system that the layout is nicely symmetrical, but that's not sufficient justification for keeping useless rooms — at least half of the rooms in this game could have been dropped and it'd have tightened up the thing considerably). Finally, the timer on the very last puzzle is a little rough. I ended up looking at a walkthrough because I thought I wasn't solving it right, when it turned out I was just not moving quite efficiently enough.

Anyway, this is a reasonable second effort. I'm not sure it would be recommendable were it not so short, but as it is it's a reasonable enjoyment return for the time invested, and a definite step up from the author's first game. I'd like to see a third. (I've been informed that the author's written a number of other games besides the two I've seen, but the point still stands, at least for the games the author's chosen to release on r*if.)



Degeneracy (Leonard Richardson) Z-Machine:
The followup game by the author of Guess The Verb!, this is a Medieval Adventure &c with the Writing just like This. It's possible that may annoy you, but I was all for it, especially since the tone was maintained through the whole game. The point of the game, though, is really the Twist, which, hrm, could have been done better. It's a cool idea, and the author does some interesting things with it, but it should have been even more extreme and noticeable, and the player should have been forced to interact with it more. As it is, it was a clever idea that doesn't exactly integrate with the rest of the game and doesn't get as much airtime as it should.



Doomed Xycanthus (Eric Mayer) ADRIFT:
This is a short fantasy game about exploring a lost city (the city in question being Xycanthus, hence the title). I spent half the time wandering through the forest that led to the city, a quarter of the time exploring the city, and a quarter of the time stuck on one particular puzzle in the city. This game has a lot of things wrong with it: the writing is uneven and for some reason Mayer thought it was a good idea to stick in quasi-humorous bits at just the moments when he should have been trying to build tension, the gameplay is enh and most puzzles aren't well-clued, and, as mentioned, the whole layout of the game is disproportionate. This last is carried even unto the geography; the city is maybe six locations while the forest is probably twice that. But somehow this game has that spark I like to see in games. Partly this is because the world, though shallowly described, is nevertheless original and intriguing. Partly it's because there are hints of elsewhere, other adventures in the past and for the future that the game does not cover but nevertheless are still just as real as the one described here. And, hmm, partly it's that the game's very smallness and incompleteness give my imagination space to fill in stuff as it wishes. This isn't a great game but it's pretty playable, and it's short enough to make that not a big time investment.



Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage (Harry Hol) Z-Machine:
This is one of those games that is eager to please and means very well. It is a science-fiction comedy that leans heavily on the premise that funny names are insta-comedy-gold. Which is true to some extent, but you can't actually do a whole game of Grunthor versus the Star-Weasels of Nepcon 6 without it becoming tiresome. Which is possibly why Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage is shorter than I was expecting — it's more like a 30-minute game than a two-hour one, which leads to the plot becoming fairly rushed and expository at the end. Anyway, it does have a few annoyances (the map is confusing, there are a lot of red herrings, it has an inventory limit for no good reason (and an especially tedious one at that)) and not all the jokes are as funny as the author thinks they are, but it's so good-spirited it is hard not to like the game. Unless you don't think the Star-Weasels of Nepcon 6 are funny.



ETO (Ian Waddell) Z-Machine:
I get the impression that ETO is Waddell's first game. There are a couple classic kinds of first games, including the kind where you wake up one day and find you've been teleported to some world much like our own only with less-well-justified puzzles, the kind that implements the author's cats, and this kind, the kind where the author has a story in their head but doesn't really know how to translate it into IF, so they create a static story and slap on a thin veneer of interactivity. The idea that Waddell has is decent — a WWII scenario that soon turns out to have a twist or two — but the implementation leaves almost no room for player input: the main things you have to do are move in the obvious direction, examine objects in the new room, and repeat. Very occasionally you have to ask someone about something, but most of the conversation occurs automatically as you wait around in a room with an NPC. The big reveal near the end is slightly iffy — it seems like the people can't possibly be doing what they want to do (or, rather, what they've done seems like it would require the information that they're attempting to research), and the first ending I found is not really justified except in a twilight-zone kinda way. Despite all this, ETO is probably worth playing since it's so short and has a reasonably interesting premise. I'm more looking forward to Waddell's next game, though, where hopefully he'll be combining another interesting idea with real interactivity.



Fail-Safe (Jon Ingold) Z-Machine:
A brief sf adventure, with a cool conceit: you're talking over the radio to somebody else on a broken spaceship telling them what to do (eg, >TURN ON THE COMPUTER). The author, annoyingly, carries this too far, to metaverbs like >SAVE/>RESTORE/>UNDO, but the game is short enough that this is a small annoyance rather than a big one (but it does still detract from the gameplay, and is one more example of why you shouldn't screw with the metaverbs). I'm not going to say much more except that this is neat and short; there are some rough bits but the size of the game prevents them from being a big deal, so go play it.



Fallacy of Dawn (Robb Sherwin) Hugo:
Here's $5; I'm taking up a collection to send Robb Sherwin to game-designer's school. They'll give him a pass on the writing courses, natch, and he can probably test out of character development, but I'm afraid he'll have to start at the bottom in the actual game design classes. But I expect with patience and hard work he'll master subjects like "not making the player repeat an action a dozen times with no feedback to solve the puzzle" and "multiple phrasings for actions: not just for other authors". Fallacy of Dawn is less buggy than Sherwin's earlier games in the most basic sense of not getting into a place where the interpreter crashes, but it's still rife with terrible game design. This is even more annoying in Fallacy of Dawn since it's so much longer than, say, Chicks Dig Jerks. Anyway, Fallacy of Dawn is a sf game with one of those future settings where the characters nevertheless all make jokes about stuff from the twentieth century. You're broke and down on your luck due to a Plot Device, and the middle section of the game is about trying to raise enough money to get the Plot Device surgically removed. Then there's an ending which is kind of lame and cliched and has some annoying guess-the-verbs. I dunno. And yet it's a good game. Partly this is because the throw-away lines are great, of course, since this is a Robb Sherwin game. I guess what makes Sherwin a good writer is his ability to capture a situation in a clever fashion, and that goes for quick character sketches as well (so it's not too surprising that Yahoweh Porn won a XYZZY this year for best individual NPC). Sherwin is not especially good at character (or plot) development, but for first impression he's spot-on. You may want a walkthrough for the beginning and ending parts of Fallacy of Dawn, but even if you use a walkthrough for the whole thing it's worth it just to read what he writes. And, who knows, another half-dozen games from now Sherwin might be doing great puzzles along with everything else.

(As a random sidenote, I played Fallacy of Dawn with Emily Short, who then wrote an IF-Review of it. So if you want to see two reviews of the same play session, now's your chance.)



Final Selection (Sam Gordon) Z-Machine:
I've finally gotten around to this one, a couple years after it won the one-room game competition and so on. And unsurprisingly, it's quite good. It is a straight-up escape-the-room game with no pretentions to be otherwise, and as such, it's composed of roughly equal parts exploration and puzzle-solving. The game actually makes this explicit by its >NOTE feature, which shows a list of all the "puzzle things" you've found by exploration (riddles, mysterious words or numbers, hints about other puzzles, etc). As the game goes on, you gradually migrate from looking around the room and interacting with its features to looking over your note list, seeing which pieces you haven't done anything with yet; it's like having a second inventory. In fact, I wouldn't have minded if the note list was even more like an inventory, like allowing me to drop items from it if I thought I was done with them, to make it more clear what clues were unused yet.

The only gripe I had with the game (besides the somewhat anticlimatic ending, but what else is new in escape-the-room games) was the inventory management system. See, the author decided it was unrealistic for the player to have an unlimited inventory, and also decided it was a hassle for them to get disambiguation messages all the time. But his solution to this was to divide the room into subrooms, and have the player automatically put down items in the current subroom when their inventory gets full, and prefer items in the current subroom for disambiguation. But what this means in practice is you type >X BOOK, then do a few commands which move you to a different subroom, then type >X BOOK again, and these two commands mean two different books, without asking you to disambiguate! Especially given that the inventory management happens almost entirely automatically, this seems like a crazy design choice to me.

Anyway, I spent a whole paragraph on that one complaint but it's really pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Final Selection is a fun puzzle game, good for a couple hours on a rainy afternoon.



Finding Martin (Gayla Wennstrom) TADS 2:
My review of Finding Martin, originally written for IF-Review, is available here.



Frasse and the Peas of Kejick (Rikard Peterson) SLUDGE:
I don't usually play or review graphical games, but this one was announced by a regular r*if poster over a weekend I had some free time, so I went ahead and played it, and now here I am reviewing it.

Frasse and the Peas of Kejick is, I guess, a 3rd-person Lucas-Arts-style game. You can see the main characters (Frasse and his buddy Gurra), and can click on spots on the screen to either have them walk around or to pop up a context menu (the cursor changes for items that have context menus). I don't have much experience with graphical games, like I said, but the context menu seems pretty original — it's a view of the character's face and "hand" (Gurra doesn't have hands, so it's actually a foot), and you can click on the menu's eye, mouth, or limb. What this actually does depends on the character and object — the eye always examines the object, the mouth either talks to (always for Frasse and occasionally with Gurra) or eats the object, and the limb does a generic "use" or "take" (for Frasse), "kick" (for Gurra), or some object-specific action (climbing a rope, for instance).

This already suggests a difference between the characters, and indeed keeping the characters distinct is one of the strong points of the writing and gameplay in Frasse and the Peas of Kejick. Frasse can pick up things and is friendly and not too smart; Gurra is more intellectual and knows more about different kinds of plants and animals, and is also a better talker. Gurra actually has a topic inventory during conversations to match Frasse's normal object inventory, although this is only per-conversation and not carried across them. This distinction breaks down a little as the game gets into the last portion, unfortunately, when Frasse acquires a new conversation method of his own (a menu system instead of Gurra's ask/tell-style topic inventory).

I'm not sure if overall this multiple-action system is a win or not. It's pretty rare that looking at an object helps at all, for instance — it's usually obvious from the short name and picture what it is, and for the few cases when it's not, the description is generally something like "It's a weird thing and you have no idea what it is". Furthermore, although Frasse can talk to things (and indeed many objects have funny responses to being talked to by him) it's very rarely useful; contrariwise, Gurra's use/kick comes up very seldom (or, rather, it's always an option but very seldom has useful effects). Given all this, I think I would have gone with the more standard single-click system that does one action depending on the object type. But I got pretty proficient with the context menu and it wasn't a big loss design-wise.

The puzzles were also pretty good from a game-design perspective. I must admit that by "pretty good" I mean "not usually too hard" — I'm not very good at graphical games and usually get stuck for ages because I missed a hotspot or something, and that didn't happen here. Ok, there was one maze, but it's brute-forceable, and the few places I got stuck were mostly legit (although there were one or two rooms where it wasn't obvious that you could walk sideways off the edge of the screen).

I haven't said much about the story but I'm not sure what exactly there is to say. It's one of those plots where you're in your house and then get a quest, and have to get off the starting spot to the other spot where the quest is, and then explore there for a while, and then come back for the wrap-up. It's also one of those settings where anyone you ask to do something says "you got any money?" and when you say "no, sorry, I don't have an inventory", they say "well, ok, I'll give it to you anyway if you bring me these three ingredients". At the end of the year presumably the accountants are trying to do their taxes, and they say "Ok, let's see, this year you made three gold, five silver, a duck, a goose, three toasters and a hockey stick." It's a perfectly good story, there is a plot twist which if not super-original either at least keeps it from being totally predictable.

So, in conclusion, if you like this kind of graphical game you will almost certainly like Frasse and the Peas of Kejick, and I would recommend that you play it.



The Great Machine (Jonas Kyratzes) Z-Machine:
The Great Machine is another entry in the war-sure-is-sucky genre, following such games as Blink and Persistence of Memory. It's better than the former and not as good as the latter, although it distinguishes itself stylistically from both by being a CYOA made with Jon Ingold's Adventure Book. Anyway, I dunno. At this point it's hard to write a good game about war that just says that war is bad, that conditions are unpleasant, that it makes the soldiers callous, and that friend and foe become hard to distinguish.

What I usually want to see is something talking about what it does to specific people, who we've gotten to know as people for a bit before we see what they become in the war. Otherwise we risk something like the situation in The Great Machine, where the protagonist comes off as a bit of a whiny loser, and it's not clear that the dehumanizing effects of war are to blame for this.

The Great Machine does get points for skillful insertion of some specific details of the horrors of war, and for a few clever things with the CYOA interface. But although the writing is pretty good, the plot is predictable and extremely railroaded, the characters are only roughly drawn, and if the game wasn't very fast to play it probably wouldn't be worth the time. But it is, so hey.



Hamlet (Robin Johnson) HTML/Javascript:
This is pretty much the classic minimalist text adventure: light on descriptions and plot, no complicated puzzles, and a gently wacky tone to smooth over problems caused by the previous points. The story is loosely based on Hamlet, like you might guess, but it makes excursions to various other plays along the way. Anyway, The Tempest it ain't, but it's a fine 45-minute diversion. Note that I didn't really mention the parser here: it lacks undo, and it doesn't support 'x' for examine, but it is generally fine for the minimal demands the game makes on it. Oh, and if you want to play, it's available online. (Update: the parser's been updated, probably to the same one used by Aunts and Butlers, and now supports undo and 'x'.)



Inside Woman (Andy Phillips) Z-Machine:
Wow, Andy Phillips. I thought he'd vanished after Heroine's Mantle but evidently he was just biding his time. Now he's back and he's brought us something that is a lot like his previous games, but with a few new elements that seem worth poking at.

The basic framework of Inside Woman isn't going to surprise anyone who's familiar with any of his previous games. The PC is a hot asian female spy who runs around in fetish leather punching people while infiltrating a dystopian mega-corp in the future. You know, the usual. But then at one point in the game you run into a geeky guy whose dorm room is covered in pictures of hot asian women in black leather; you save him from a bully and then kiss him, which causes him to faint dead away. At another point you ride a motorcycle action movie simulator which is full of narration about how cheesy the plot is. And then there's the guy who hangs out in his surveillance room spying on women and turns out to have a fetish for being kicked in the nuts. People say Blue Chairs is cryptic but seriously, it's got nothing on this.

I mean, I'm really not sure how to read this. The trivial interpretation is this is Phillips making digs at his own predilections, but doing that after you've done four pretty unironic games about the same subject is a little unusual. And the rest of the game seems pretty much serious about its material, even when the material in question is, like, a big fight underwater with an assassin sextuplet, or six-hundred-foot-high gold statue that pops up and down out of the floor of a church like a jack-in-the-box. (The sextuplets, needless to say, cover the Hot Badass Babe and Group of Related Sub-bosses that Phillips' games are required to include. You will also be reassured to hear that the shocking twist ending is sufficiently shocking, at least to the PC.)

But, ok, ignore the story and let's talk about game design. One of the things that people don't generally mention about Phillips' games is how easy they mostly are. Probably they don't mention this because like ten percent of the puzzles are manifestly not easy and those overshadow the others, but in fact his games are full of lots of easy puzzles. And actually those tend to be not-fun the other way. Anyway, what I'm leading up with this is Inside Woman actually shows noticeable improvement from previous games in this regard. There are a number of puzzles which are challenging but not impossible and, while there definitely are places where you will get stuck for no good reason except the game hates you, there are fewer of those than in previous games.

I should give a particular shout-out to the cyberspace segments here. Interfacing and hacking is one of the puzzle themes in this game, and it's actually handled pretty well — it neatly ties together the beginning and end of the game, and the cyberspace puzzles are overall of pretty good quality.

Anyway, overall, fans of his style (a group which includes me) will, I think, find it mostly unchanged — like, it still feels like Phillips plots like this is a movie and to hell with the player if they can't figure out what the script says Michelle Yeoh does next. If you are up for this sort of thing and willing to wrestle with txd when you get stuck Inside Woman is a pretty good ride, though.



The Isle of the Cult (Rune Berg) TADS 2:
It's always a pleasure to play a game by a new author which is not only fun in its own right but promising of even better things to come. The Isle of the Cult doesn't aspire to anything much beyond "ok, you're on this island and you have to collect the N magic whatsits because the introduction says you do", and this is fine by me since it pulls it off pretty well. There aren't a lot of fancy descriptions or complicated puzzles here, but there's also very little fat in the game.

Berg clearly grasps a number of fundamental principles of puzzle design. The puzzles are always fair (albeit simple), and as far as I can tell the game can't be made unwinnable. Furthermore, for the few multi-step puzzles, the game will automatically solve them for you if you need to do them a second time. The one place the puzzle design fell down was on giving guidance for nearly-right answers. This was a little surprising given that The Isle of the Cult did a really exceptional job on a similar task, clueing which items in the room/object descriptions are significant without being blatant about it. In general, the game has only a few rooms and objects which felt unnecessary: a good start, though I hope that in Berg's next game he manages to trim it down even more. On the other hand, I hope he increases the number of objects which are reused for multiple puzzles. This game has a few reused items (one of which is quite surprising) but I'd like to see even more, along with more complicated puzzles.

Overall I was very pleased with the construction of the game world, and, especially for a first-time game, The Isle of the Cult felt like it had great beta-testing. My only real complaint with the game is the backstory. Though normally that wouldn't matter in this sort of game, this has a few hints of some bigger story that fails to quite make itself clear, leading to a somewhat ambiguous and unsatisfying ending. If you have several hours to play and are looking for a good-sized but reasonably straightforward puzzlefest, The Isle of the Cult would be a great choice.



Katana (Matt Rohde) TADS 2:
Rodhe says in his introduction "Since I'm partial to classic IF, this game definitely has an 'old school' feel", and goodness knows he's right. Unfortunately, this extends to things like shallow implementation (lots and lots of places where obvious syntaxes or verbs aren't implemented, some places where when you try one phrasing the game prints "Try this other phrasing instead" instead of just doing it for you, lots of unimplemented/unimportant scenery), somewhat enh writing (not terrible, but not brilliant either), and arbitrary puzzles (why did someone in the 17th century stick a poem in the racks so that you could solve it now? and why hasn't this been noted before? and why are all the puzzles built in the middle of a museum but not yet solved? who knows!). On the other hand, it also has that old-school breadth of plot and vision and world that is so rare today, as it hops between reality and fantasy and history with a careless abandon that is somewhat thrilling. And, hey, there is something fun about seeing a 5-unit/3-unit/make-4-units puzzle in a game, or at least fun after you stop groaning.

Anyway, um, plotwise Katana is about this Japanese samurai and there's some kind of fixing-history bit, only you're not really fixing anything, except the ending seems to suggest you are, etc, etc. It's not really made clear, but that's ok, since this is definitely the sort of game where you can get through it without figuring out exactly what's going on in the story.

In a way the best bit is the endgame, when you leap into complete fantasy and the author's imagination (or, possibly, Japanese mythology) gets free reign. Unfortunately, we also leap into the realm of puzzles where mucho ESP is required, and thank goodness there's a walkthrough is all I got to say about that.

A little bit of old-skool is appreciated now and again, certainly, and I guess I'd recommend this. But that little bit goes a fair distance, and if I play anything in this style in the near future I'm going to insist on something that doesn't make me play guess-the-exact-right-phrasing all the time.



Last Resort (Jim Aikin) Glulx:
I am basically in favor of creepy southern gothic settings, and Last Resort certainly delivers in this respect. Swamps full of icky things, creepy locals, falling-down buildings, that old fat sweaty guy sitting on the porch and leering at you — all the basics. There's more than a touch of the supernatural thrown in, which generally improves this kind of thing, although the particular supernatural choice feels like a bit of an odd fit to me.

Aikin says on his website that this is an attempt to write a serious IF piece with an actual plot, but this is probably a misleading way to describe it. Last Resort is actually a perfectly standard puzzle game of the classic type. There is, I hasten to add, nothing wrong with this at all, but what you should be expecting is the sort of setting where a character hangs out in the bathroom for five hours because you have to solve a puzzle to get them out. And while there's definitely backstory here, there's no actual story as such, beyond the classic "protagonist comes to a strange place, realizes there is something weird going on, and collects the magic whatsits to stop it" storyline which has sustained dozens of puzzle adventures in the past and will continue to sustain dozens more in the future.

So given that it's a classic puzzle adventure, I wish the puzzles were less frustrating. They're not generally bad. But they are generally badly-clued, the kind of puzzle where the solution makes sense in retrospect but there are a half-dozen other solutions that make just as much sense that aren't implemented. Sometimes there are grammar issues that contribute here (there's one puzzle, for instance, where >RAISE X and >PUSH X are the same, but >RAISE X WITH Y and >PUSH X WITH Y aren't). And sometimes the puzzle really is just bad, where it feels like the author is trying to sabotage the player for unclear purposes. There's one room that when you initially enter, lists a couple objects sitting around, and doesn't list another object that should be just as obvious as the other ones. There also are a number of time limits in the game that are really unnecessary and only serve to frustrate the player and force a restart (I can only assume Aikin put in, eg, the limited incinerator time for realism purposes, but consider the previously-mentioned character who stays in the bathroom for five hours).

Despite these gripes, I did like Last Resort. I can believe that on another day when I didn't have the free time, or didn't have the newsgroup hints to fall back on, I would have been crankier with it. But as it is I was more irritated than enraged by the problems with the game design, and the engaging setting pulled the game through to likeability.



Le Réprobateur (François Coulon) Multiple:
My review of this game is here.



Lock & Key (Adam Cadre) Glulx:
Heh. This is not unlike Dungeon Keeper or David Glasser's Textfire entry, Bad Guys, although it was apparently conceived of independently from both. But the basic premise is the same — you set up a dungeon and a goody-goody hero tries to escape from it. If you do your work well, he'll never see the light of day again. Like most of Cadre's recent stuff, Lock & Key is pretty inconsequential, but the games themselves are fun to play and the writing continues to be high-quality and consistently amusing, so hey, I'm willing to keep playing 'em.



Masters of Toasting (Leon Lin) TADS 2:
The other day I went on an expedition to Uwajimaya's to check out the Hello Kitty toasters. This is not about that kind of toaster. And there are people who, when they want toast, toss some bread in, spin the dial, casually push down the lever, and grab the toast at some later date, ready or not. This is not about those kind of people. This is about the toasting elite.

You take on the roll of a toaster repairman on the set of a battle in progress. Two trained teams of chefs are fighting it out for culinary supremacy and only one will reign supreme .. but the good guys have just had their toaster blow up on them. Is this the end? Not if you can help it.

Leon Lin is a funny guy, and he makes a funny game. This game has all the humor of Kissing the Buddha's Feet without any of the, you know, puzzles. This has the upside that you get to see a bunch of jokes with no work required. But the downside is that the game is over in, like, two minutes, so if you don't have DSL it may actually take more time to download. So, clearly, you should download all the games from the ToasterComp and this'll be just one more entry full of wacky fun.



The Mulldoon Legacy (Jon Ingold) Z-Machine:
The thing about these reviews is they're supposed to be short and not particularly in-depth, so when there is a game that's been out for a few years when I finally play it, there's the risk that somebody else will have written a full and insightful review of it already by the time I get around to playing it. And, in this case, that role is filled by Duncan Stevens' IFRC review. But that said, I will nevertheless do a short review, and if you want a more extensive treatment you can go read his.

The first point is that The Mulldoon Legacy is long. Really really long. Like, I used hints reasonably extensively, and the walkthrough to get through one large puzzle, and it took me 25 hours and over 12000 moves. Lord only knows how long it would have taken me without hints, especially given that the puzzles are generally fair, but there are, I dunno, maybe 10% that aren't, and that's enough to stump you for a long time.

This leads into the second point, which is that it's probably easiest to think of this as an old-school game with a few modern features rather than to think it's a new-school game, even a new-school puzzle game, and be disappointed by its lacks. So, ok, what are the new features? The most important is that it is almost impossible to make the game unwinnable; the few places where it is possible, you get an explicit warning so you can save your game if you like. Other than that, um, I guess you get >X and >G and those kind of abbreviations, and some of the larger-scale craft of adventure things get used (as pointed out by Carl Muckenhoupt on But besides that it's pretty much old-school all the way. So you have lots of puzzles that exist mostly to be solved, a setting that's stitched together to maximize the ability to hold puzzles, a wide-open game where there are often a dozen or more things to work on (only some of which you can solve now, and you can't tell which), puzzles where almost-right answers get rewarded with exactly nothing, etc (I know, focusing on the puzzles a lot, but that's old-school for you).

Anyway, um, The Mulldoon Legacy is a good game and worth playing. I like the layout of the house, how it melts across time and how it is so big I teleport because it takes too long to walk to the other side. But have the hints handy.



Narcolepsy (Adam Cadre) Glulx:
I can be frank and admit that I am going to recommend pretty much any game Adam writes, because he is a good enough writer to pull it off. But Narcolepsy is pretty much the bare minimum to be recommended: although it's presented as an IF game, it's really Adam hanging out making jokes for a half-hour with the player occasionally doing some work to see the next joke, or possibly it's a glorified CYOA. The latter is probably a more accurate comparison, since Narcolepsy includes the classic CYOA situation where different story paths lead to contradictory, even unrelated, situations in the same world: if you pick up the monkey in the beginning then the zoo is attacked by robots in league with a mad scientist, but if you instead go to the hat store it's actually aliens who are controlling the robots. (Part of the difficulty in reviewing Narcolepsy is that random funny examples I pick are all-too-close to the actual game plots.)

Anyway, um, so in practice what happens is you spend a lot of time wandering around a very-lightly-implemented city waiting to stumble on the room that will make something happen. Which sucks, even when the things that happen are funny. I think Adam's theory was that since what he is interested in himself is jokes, he could save lots of time by just writing the jokes. But, like, this is the "Why watch the baseball game when the 11 o'clock news will show you the one good play?" school of thought (a school to which I personally belong, but you get the idea). If you want people to get the full experience you have to give them the set-up as well as the punchline.
(Disclaimer: I contributed a small part of the text of this game)



The Oracle (Brandon Allen) TADS 2:
Allen says this was intended as a comp release for the second ifcomp, and it's too bad it wasn't entered for that, since it probably would have been a top-ten game. It's reasonably well-written and sets a good atmosphere (and it's a semi-generic fantasy atmosphere, which is usually a safe bet), doesn't have many bugs and flows pretty smoothly. That said, given that it's not a comp release and I have a bit more time to play, I think I would have preferred a longer, more difficult game: the aforementioned smooth flow is in part a result of pretty weak puzzles which operate mostly intuitively, not deductively, and it's really quite a small game, especially if you look at only the necessary bits, not the extra bits.

In addition, the writing (though better than average) could stand to be firmed up some ("One of the most grizzled and ancient of the elders siezed your shoulder in an iron grip, his tangled, silver brow knitted in a grim glare"), and the geography pared down (there's one area that consists of no less than 45 rooms, of which maybe 8 are significant or interesting, and there are two time limits restricting your wanderings). There are a fair number of typos that would have been caught by a spell-checker ('agaist', 'siezed'), and the scoring is odd (you get points for finding treasures, despite the fact that there's really no reason why, as the PC, you'd want to be collecting them).

And then there's cool stuff like how water ties together all the rooms, but it works differently in every location, and how this place is old and shows it. I think coming after Hunter, in Darkness hurts this game, since it's frankly not as good a cave crawl, and they're both primarily about being cave crawls. But that doesn't mean this doesn't have style of its own.



The Reliques of Tolti-Aph (Graham Nelson) Z-Machine:
Kind of like a cross between Balances and Annoyotron. The worst-designed game from a major name in the last five years. This isn't to say there's no value in it — there is some fun writing and some decent puzzles — but you're going to have to hit the walkthrough a lot, and will probably want to hit Nelson a lot. I've also written up a heavy-spoilers extended game-design discussion of this game.



The Snowman Sextet (Parts 1, 2, 4, and 5) (Roger Carbol, Jess Knoch, Josh Giesbrecht, Tommy Herbert, and David Cornelson) Multiple:
This review showed up in SPAG's Jan 2006 issue. Check it out!



Stranded (Jim Bayers) TADS 2:
My review of Stranded, originally written for Mark Musante's IF-Review site, is available here.



Swineback Ridge (Eric Eve) Z-Machine:
Swineback Ridge is described as the author as "snack" size, and that seems about right — it's probably about an hour or so to play, maybe less if you don't get stuck anywhere. It's your basic generic-fantasy-themed puzzle adventure, and if you like that sort of thing you will like this. My main gripe with the game is the premise involves trying to stop a barbarian leader named The Great Pong, and he's right by this river, so I figured the solution would involve dumping a bunch of soap in. But no dice.



To Hell in a Hamper (J. J. Guest) ADRIFT:
To Hell in a Hamper is a one-room one-joke game written in ADRIFT. But, despite that lead-in, it is pretty good. The one room is the basket of a hot-air balloon, floating dangerously low and close to a volcano. The one joke is that your companion has secreted a number of increasingly-unlikely items about his person which you must relieve him of and then toss overboard in order to lighten the balloon (this is easy for the painting or the sewing kit, but getting rid of the boomerang is a bit trickier). And, I dunno, Guest carries off the concept reasonably well. Although it begins to wear thin by the end of the game the first half-dozen aggrieved comments your companion makes when you throw away his possessions are pretty funny (and then there's one last thing he's carrying which is totally brilliant).

I mentioned that it was written in ADRIFT in the lead-in, but haven't said anything about that later because generally it wasn't an issue. However, when the system did get noticed, it was generally in a negative way: ADRIFT's main strengths weren't useful given the situation (the map and command completion) and we were left with its failings (the weak parser, which occasionally had situations like not understanding "throw stick" when "throw smudging stick" worked just fine; and the overall feeling that everything in the parsing was hand-coded, which works fine most of the time but not quite at the 95% or 99% level required for a really smooth ride).

Overall To Hell in a Hamper is a pleasant few-hour diversion and comes with a walkthrough if you happen to get stuck (it is very necessary to examine everything, sometimes multiple times). The main thing I regret about it is that I didn't hear about it until it showed up on the XYZZY finalists list (or, rather, consulting google groups I see I must have heard about it back in September and not gotten around to playing it what with the comp arriving). I'm not sure, given the parser issues, that it's exactly an argument for writing in ADRIFT, but it's certainly proof that ADRIFT can be used to write a good game.



WandMaster (Robert A. Kraus) Windows Exe:
I'm not quite how to review this game. Like Heroine's Mantle, it's a game which soon becomes as much about fighting with the system and admiring the author's single-minded dedication as about, you know, playing the game. I, personally, am kind of fond of this sort of thing, in a Peter-Berman-like way. If you are not fond of it you will probably get no value out of WandMaster. The best way to explain is with a screen shot, I think. We can take the various different kinds of keys and mushrooms (and wands, of course) as read. We can pass over the Mad Dwarf and his blanket which is not interactable-with. What I mostly what to point out is the interface: this is possibly the worst-designed interface I have ever seen. For instance, to select an action, you click on one of the ones in the action window, and then click on the ACTIONS bar — you can't double-click on the action. To do an action involving two items, you click on each and then select USE COMBO — but this doesn't work unless one object is on the ground and one is in the inventory. This is pretty typical of the rest of the interface of the game.

For instance, the game provides a convenient teleporter object (the magic map) which can teleport you between rooms that have a certain marker in them. The steps to use this are: click on the map, click on the marker, click on USE COMBO, click on the action for "go to location X", click on ACTIONS, click on "get off plate", click on ACTIONS. If somebody else had designed this, the steps would be: double-click on map, double-click on location X, done. And then, as mentioned, the game is all Mad Dwarves and Elves and Brown Wands of Dispelling and stuff. Not to mention some bad refs to Elvis and LOTR. And questions about why the castle has a magic shop in it that nobody but you uses, why the bad guy has a teleporter plate inside his house that is on the public teleporter network, and so on.

The actual puzzles vary pretty wildly in quality and difficulty, and I think this is part of where the appeal is in this sort of game for me. There are a few puzzles that are trivial at the beginning, and then I'm eased into it, and by the time it gets to the ridiculous read-the-author's mind puzzles where I'm reduced to doing a string dump on the executable, there have been a few puzzles which are quite good (especially by comparison) and I can't quit now. The cliched writing and terrible interface actually add to the appeal here: the writing leads to distance from the game and experiencing it as a more direct, visceral struggle against the author, not just playing the game; the interface supports this, since just figuring out how to enter a command is a struggle and ultimately a tiny victory if you succeed.

I'm definitely not always in the mood for this kind of game. But sometimes I'm not feeling like something where I need to use deductive ability or reading comprehension, or something where I need to, hrm, trust the author or respect their design skills. WandMaster is the sort of game you can play at that point: go ahead, charge in as recklessly as you want, since it's going to turn into a messy personal struggle anyway.



The Weapon (Sean Barrett) Z-Machine:
The Weapon is a nicely done one-room sf game, with clever but generally not too difficult puzzles, and a story that starts with the feelies and unfolds to a satisfying-if-not-shocking twist at the end (but maybe only not shocking since I'm playing this so long after it was released and may have been spoiled; still, it seems at least somewhat telegraphed if you're familiar with the genre). There are a few places where the player is likely to be left wondering what to do next, but luckily there are hints to help you past these patches. The only other minor rough spot is the ending; there could have been a little more backstory explanation given to clear up the reasoning for what happens. But overall, The Weapon is pretty slick and definitely worth playing.



Within a Wreath of Dewdrops (Alphonse de l'Entaille) Z-Machine:
It's a little hard to figure out how to judge Within a Wreath of Dewdrops. It was written as an entry in the 3rd 24 Hours of Inform contest, and so it's basically one step up from a Speed-IF in terms of development time. In that context I guess it's pretty good; it's no ASCII and the Argonauts, but it's coherent, doesn't have any obvious bugs, and the enjoyment in the game comes from something more than just absurdist humor.

Still, it seems like a pity. Within a Wreath of Dewdrops has a clever concept and witty writing, but they're squeezed into a tiny game that, frankly, is not very well designed and tends to just sit there until the player figures out what to do next. The last puzzle is cute, but the earlier ones feel like — well, like they're from a Speed-IF. I think this game could use a little room to grow. Now that there's no more time limit, I'd encourage the author to reconsider the game's construction and interaction, and rewrite the game in a more natural size. Still, even in its current version, Within a Wreath of Dewdrops is amusing enough — but thank goodness for the in-game hints.



Not Recommended Games

Deephome: A Telleen Adventure (Joshua Wise) Z-Machine:
My review of this game is here.



The Ebb and Flow of the Tide (Peter Nepstad) TADS 2:
The Ebb and Flow of the Tide is the second Lord Dunsany adaptation by Peter Nepstad, and I admit I'm still at something of a loss for where he's going. This game seems even less like a candidate for adaptation than the previous one — here the protagonist is a dead body, unable to take any active actions, and the vast majority of the game is played with three commands. Unsurprisingly it's the sort of game where you find the right command, advance the plot a step and see some text, then start looking for the next command. It's true that the premise is that you're a spirit tormented by the tedium of existence and seeking eternal rest, and in some sense hunting for command after command to try to get to the end of the game captures this accurately, but I'm not sure I buy that this is fun.



The House (Owen Parish) TADS 2:
The help text says that this was designed mostly as a practice game, and so it feels a little unfair to critique it as if it's a real game. Still, since The House was presented as a game to be played I went ahead and played it, and now I'm writing a review. And after an intro like that, you shouldn't be too surprised when I say it's a pretty standard my-first-practice-game, albeit with a little more technical expertise and a few more bugs than are typical. The premise is that you wake up in a house, which you immediately (somehow) realize is the scary house down the block in which strange things are rumored to happen — you must escape! Looking around the room, you quickly deduce you've fallen down the chimney into the room. Initial escape attempts are foiled by the fact that the chimney isn't implemented as an object and the fireplace can't be entered, but, perservering, you find the front door (locked) and another mysterious door (locked, with no less than three locks). This latter one looks more promising, since IF games always involve collecting multiple instances of some kind of item, and the hunt for keys is on.

And that's about the level the game stays at. The puzzles are generally not that hard, although there are places where syntax is an issue (getting the keypad safe open; typing on the computer) that betray a need for beta-testing. Similarly, the writing is utilitarian with a few errors ("coherance", "curiousity", it's/its confusion) and a tendency to describe rooms as being uninteresting or non-descript. This last is a fairly tricky problem to solve: generally it's done by a combination of eliminating unnecessary rooms — and indeed, The House had some rooms that could have been deleted or compressed — and writing better descriptions (Savoir Faire being one of the classic examples of good descriptions of mostly-empty rooms). Overall the thing could have used more beta-testing: I found a lot of unimplemented objects or object actions, and a few bugs (trying to sleep, for instance). Actually, since this is a practice game, I expect it didn't get any beta-testing. So, like, that's something else to practice.

There are a few bright spots in The House. The maze puzzle was cute, as was getting the robot working, and the writing had a few funny bits although on the whole the comedy could have used sharpening up and toning down. The House is too rough overall to recommend, but it does show promise; it'll be good to see what Parish's next game looks like.



The Jewel of Knowledge (Francesco Bova) Z-Machine:
Capsule summary: fine writing and good, even inspired, sense of place, but regrettably they fail to make up for the somewhat trite plot, weak characterization, unclued puzzles, and very disagreeable philosophical underpinnings. Also, it has a maze.

The initial moves of a game are the most crucial: whatever impressions a player gets in that period are likely to influence the whole rest of the game. Unfortunately, the primary sensation I got from my first few turns (or, to be more exact, the first hundred turns) of The Jewel of Knowledge was frustration. In order to get past the introduction, one has to perform a number of specific actions. The game hints at what to do, but only in vague detail, and because there is no reward for near- correct actions it took me a very long time before I stumbled onto the right thing to do. And even then, I was not sure of what had caused me to go on, a serious error in game design.

Once into the main part of the game, things improved, but the problems in the initial scene continued to haunt the game until its conclusion. Before getting back to those, I should touch on the good points of the game, because this is the best game for scenery I have played in quite some time. A Windhall-style dungeon crawl (although much smaller), set in a network of caves far beneath the earth's surface, The Jewel of Knowledge does an excellent job of bringing out the strange and beautiful features found underground. And as long as the author stuck to designing scenery, the writing in the game was very high quality.

However, when the author attempted to move into any sort of real human characterization, the level of the writing dropped severely. The first seriously jarring incident is the death of Jacob — although obviously this is supposed to be a big deal for the protagonist, Jacob being his best friend and all, I myself had not spent nearly enough time talking to Jacob to care about him. Being told we are friends does not do much to make me feel that we actually are, so the big scene fizzles.

This continued throughout the game: almost every time the topic of the jewel was mentioned, the author found it necessary to add a line about "but all your sacrifices are worth it, right?", then fails to give any kind of real analysis of the question, or even acknowledgment that the question might be worth seriously discussing. Thankfully, this did not intrude into the rest of the story very much until the end scene (more on that later).

Unfortunately, I had difficulties with the rest of the plot also. Like the author says, this is a classic dungeon-delve, and so I'm perfectly willing to accept the game having, for example, dragons. But even in a high fantasy game, I don't think it's unfair to ask that all the parts make sense in the context of the world. Once you explore around a bit, it soon becomes obvious that humans lived here before. But there is no obvious way for them to have gotten here. Various creatures are living in improbable places they could neither get into or out of, which also raises the question of how they eat. There is one room that was once a human-occupied room and is now sealed on all four sides; I suppose one of the walls could have been added after the people left the room, but why? And how? Again, this being magical, I'm willing to accept strange things, but I want to know why they are how they are (and "to make the puzzle work" is not useful). And speaking of improbable geography, one of the dragons' lair seems designed to trap it, with no other purpose. I would think after several centuries, the dragon would have been able to arrange things better.

The puzzles could also use some work. I do not think many of them were unreasonable as such, but just as in the first scene, there never seem to be clues for almost-right solutions. Worse yet, significant objects are often found among a group of related things, all the others giving the equivalent of "that's not important" when you try and do something with them. The result is that the player is discouraged and frustrated even when the solution is found. The maze is probably the most unfair, as opposed to just unclued, puzzle in the game, being an intentional guess-the-verb puzzle that makes no sense outside a game context.

Coding-wise, I only found one minor bug (having to do with the geyser) besides the mentioned problem with the moon salt, but I did notice the large number of library-default responses, even in cases when standard responses were unreasonable.

My first reaction after finishing this game was to actively discourage people from playing it, purely because of how much I disliked the last scene, but in retrospect that seems a little extreme. After the end of the review I've put a more in-depth discussion of the flaws of the end of the game, but there are a number of worthwhile elements in the game despite these. Like I said, I thought it did a nice job describing the setting, and the writing, while somewhat gaudy, was appropriate for an epic-feel game like this. If the author maintains his current level of writing, makes an effort to expand and better-clue puzzles, and avoids the moralizing until he is skillful enough to handle it right, I think his next game will be well worth playing. But this game, as it stands, is too flawed to be recommendable.

I have a bit more to say about the ending, but I'll put it at the end to avoid spoilers.



The Journey of the King (Peter Nepstad) TADS 2:
Hmm, see, the thing is I am in fact a Lord Dunsany fan, so I'm not sure why I didn't really care for this adaptation of one of his stories. I think the problem is that the sort of Dunsany I am a fan of is The Hoard of the Gibbelins, and sort Nepstad is adapting here is considerably longer and more rambly. There is definitely a lot of analysis yet to be done on what sort of work makes a good source for an adaptation. From looking at this game, I suspect it's important to have one with a protagonist who does something, and where there aren't huge chunks of narration.

The Journey of the King has mixed results here; the protagonist does do something occasionally in the story, but compared to the amount of text we see dumped from the people he talks to, the actions are pretty small and simple. I assume the source material is mostly to blame for this. It certainly must be to blame for the wordy old-style writing which reads well in small doses but quickly glazes eyes in larger ones.

So, I dunno, I applaud the experiment here, but I don't think this is an enticing adaptation.



The Last Hour (Roberto Grassi) ADRIFT:
The Last Hour has some similarities with the last thing I reviewed, Solitary, in that they're both one-room games with a potentially-interesting idea poorly executed. Unfortunately, The Last Hour's flaws are so severe that the game is almost unplayable. To start off with, Grassi should have had a native English speaker help him edit the text of the game. It's not impossible to understand, but it seriously distracts attention from the story when I'm having to puzzle out the phrasing. The Last Hour also has issues both in terms of not implementing enough objects and not supporting enough actions (I never worked out the right syntax to catch the mouse, for instance, and though it's supposedly possible to talk to the guy in the next cell I never found the command). This problem is worse in this case because it's a one-room game, so the implementation needs to be deeper than usual to make up for the lack of scope.

But these are just side-notes to the most fundamental problem, which is this: The Last Hour is a game about being confined. You're in a cell and never get out. There's nothing really to explore in the cell. You can't change the plot or affect it in any way. You can do a game on this premise (cf Rameses), but there has to be motion in the character arena, then, and this game doesn't even have that. There's one twist, it's telegraphed early on, and the player character is so unsympathetic we don't care. The twist itself is so black-and-white and the revelation is given so melodramatically that I found it impossible to be moved or even really startled by it*. I'm not going to say it's impossible to do a good game on this premise but The Last Hour isn't close to being it. I think Grassi's style would work much better on something larger scale and less Serious; I'd suggest he aim that way for his next game.

* Emily Short had a bit about this in her review of Natalie that suggested that Italian IF may just have different genre conventions with respect to presenting emotional content — if you find those conventions less weird than I do you may appreciate this game more.



Metroid (Oldstench) TADS 2:*.int-fiction&hl=en&lr=&safe=off&scoring=relevance&as_drrb=quick&as_qdr=&as_mind=15&as_minm=8&as_miny=2000&as_maxd=9&as_maxm=4&as_maxy=2001&rnum=2&seld=916339376&ic=1



Solitary (Kahlan) Z-Machine:
Enh, I dunno. Solitary is about an 18-year-old college student who writes about being sad, and I suspect this is also a fairly accurate description of the game's author. I'm not really in a great position to poke fun at this, since I too was 18 lo these many years ago, and I too sinned and wrote poetry. But, right, the thing that was true then and is still true now is this: you can have feelings that are real and true and right, but that doesn't mean that you've necessarily done a good job putting them into a piece of art for other people to look at. And when they look at the art, they don't see your original feelings, only what you put down, so if that's not great, the art won't be great. And Solitary isn't great.

Kahlan's goal was explicitly to create a puzzleless story-biased one-room game. Which is fine. The trick, then, is how to set the atmosphere and cue the reminiscences in a natural way. Unfortunately Solitary punts on both these points: the latter is handled by having the hint system tell you to do >THINK ABOUT X (this command doesn't appear anywhere else in the game as far as I know), and the former is handled, well, like in the description of the vase of flowers:

It's a glass vase of flowers, artfully decorated, but the flowers are wilted and tired, perhaps a week old. They were roses, when you could recognize them, but now, they are just red spheres, soon to become just dust, like your true love. Your heart shudders again as you read the tag attached. Something inside you just wants to cry out, and never live again.
(Ow, my heartstrings.)

I've skimmed over the grammatical issues, the weird gameplay decisions, and the bugs (most glaringly, >QUIT is remapped to >JUMP, and then a few places are missing rtrues and so on), but probably you can get the idea just from the quoted passage above. Overall, Solitary is like the poetry I wrote when I was 18 — deeply meaningful to the author, a necessary step in learning to write, and shouldn't really have been shown to anyone else.

(The good news here is people get better; I'm sure Kahlan's next game will tone it down and liven it up and be a much better play all around. There is some potential here, even if the execution was pretty much a wash.)



SmoochieComp (comp page)

1981 (A.D. McMlxxxi [Adam Cadre]) Z-Machine:
This is a 9:05-type Adam game, not a Varicella-type one. Adam said it was written in just a couple days and it feels a bit sloppy; but it takes like fifteen minutes and has a wacky take on the SmoochieComp theme, so hey, it's worth playing.



August (Matt Fendahleen) Z-Machine:
This is really quite a good and original fantasy world, given that it's high-fantasy (which I don't care much for) and not very well thought out. If you even mildly tolerate high-fantasy worlds it's probably worth playing with this, despite the flaws in the implementation and the setting, because it's got something cool goin' on.



Dead of Winter (Christina Pagniacci [Gunther Schmidl]) Z-Machine:
This is somewhat similar to August, in that it's a SmoochieComp game that introduces a new fantasy world and doesn't quite fill it out enough to make it workable. August is a bit more successful in its attempt: partly this is because the actual game plot is less ambitious (a party, rather than a Heroic Quest) so when that isn't quite filled out it doesn't fall as flat; but partly it's because of the fact that August has a grand vision that carries you (and the author) through to the end, whereas Dead of Winter has several good ideas which don't quite connect together and leave the story ultimately feeling confused rather than just underdeveloped.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Nothing More, Nothing Less (Gilles Duchesne) Hugo:
Hmm. This is the second game-about-my-apartment in recent times that's actually interesting to play. Unlike Shade, this isn't really a good game — the puzzles are taken directly from real-life household emergencies like overflowing toilets and not any more interesting than you'd expect from that, the writing is so-so (at least partly excusable because the author isn't a native English speaker, but that doesn't make the prose any better), and Duchesne tries for a calm-but-meaningful ending and really doesn't have the skill to pull it off (but then, neither did Plotkin in Spider & Web, so at least he's in good company). But what kept the game interesting for me was the strong authorial voice. The PC keeps up a running stream of commentary directed at the player, and, purposely or not, it gives a really captivating glimpse of the personality of the PC (and, one is forced to assume, the author). This carries over to the hint system, which, confusingly, involves talking to the author and his girlfriend (as characters in the game) and having them tell you about how the PC and his his girlfriend aren't quite the same as them. But presumably the NPC-version of the author isn't quite the same as the actual author, so it all gets confusing and self-reflexive. Anyway, um, the authorial voice might grate on you from turn one, or it might be interesting. I thought it was interesting.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Pytho's Mask (Emily Short [Emily Short]) Z-Machine:
You can see Pytho's Mask is by the author of Galatea and Metamorphoses: things are implemented down to the last detail, despite the game's relatively small size in terms of number of rooms; the conversation system is huge and really quite thorough given the time period for implementation; and I need hardly tell you that there are multiple endings. The feel, though, is totally different from either of the previous two games. This was designed for SmoochieComp and as such is a swashbuckling romance in a fantasy world, complete with mysterious figures, dancing, plotting, and sword-swinging. This game never precisely veers into the brilliant the way Galatea sometimes does; on the other hand, it hits "very good" almost constantly, and it hardly seems fair to ask for more (I do, of course, but it's not fair of me).

Even if you can't stand swashbuckling fantasy romances, there are a couple things that you should look at Pytho's Mask for. First off, the conversation system is brilliant. It is absolutely the best system I have ever seen in any IF game, and I encourage everyone who wants a complex conversation system to think about stealing it. On a related note, the NPCs are worth checking out. They, like, do stuff: not as much as you'd really want, but they disappear and reappear and start conversations with you of their own accord and really get close to feeling like they have their own agendas. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a good start. Finally, it has a swordfight, and it feels like an actual movie-style swordfight, not an IF puzzle.

I do, of course, have a few gripes about the game. The conversation system is pretty thorough but definitely not complete, and it is possible to "wander off the edge" of a conversation and not be able to restart any discussion thread. The plot is not quite paced right at the end: the climax is purely predicated on player action, which leads to losing the sense of urgency right before it's supposed to start rising. Oh, and there's one puzzle that could be clued better.

These are fairly minor drawbacks, though. The game as it stands is great; with these fixed or resolved it'll be even better. I'm not sure if I'd advise you to wait until they're fixed so you get the best possible experience the first time, or if you should just play right this minute, because it really is that good. Either way you'll be happy.
(Disclaimer: I was an alpha-tester for this game and fairly intimately involved in the development)



Second Honeymoon (Roger Ostrander) Z-Machine:
This, hrm, just wasn't very good. I think the real problem is it's a so-so old-school puzzle-solving game with a thinly-grafted romance premise (ie, get packed up so you can go). This was the sort of thing you got a lot in the olden days of IF: at the beginning of the game you get told to do some stuff, then you do it, then the game's over, and the plot never intrudes into the actual playing. I dunno. It doesn't do much for me now, and there's some bugs and stuff in the game besides.



Sparrow's Song (J.D. Berry) Z-Machine:
My policy on fantasy games is specific but very firm: no beholders. Not even friendly ones that live in the basement. My policy on game design is also firm: no making the player do arbitrary actions, and especially do not make them do arbitrary actions multiple times to see a successful result. Also, the conversation system seems to be an experiment that doesn't really work out. Nevertheless, this has some cool bits in it and it's fairly short; it's not the best of the SmoochieComp games but it's not terrible either.



The Tale of the Kissing Bandit (Cary Valentino [J. Robinson Wheeler]) Z-Machine:
Hee. Hee hee. Hee hee hee hee hee. Man, this game rules so much I can't even begin to describe it. It is about a kissing bandit. You can do >TWIRL MOUSTACHE. You have magic shoes. Need I say more?



Voices (Aris Katsaris) Z-Machine:
This is another good twist on the SmoochieComp theme — this time it's a more, hmm, religious passion. Katsaris mentioned on the newsgroup that this was partly in response to Jarod's Journey; it's a better stab at a game about faith but it's still not quite there. It comes off like the sort of thing Neil Gaiman would write: the perspective is someone who's interested in the subject academically and even symbolically, but doesn't feel it.



SwashComp (comp page)

The Legend of Lady Magaidh (Daniel Freas) TADS 2:
This game is marginally longer than a speed-if; that might not even be true, but it seems like it has just enough stuff in it to have taken longer than two hours to write. The stuff that is there is swashbuckly, for what that's worth.



Sea Captains (Lyssa Pen) Z-Machine:
Sea Captains is about the right length for a brief swashbuckly excursion, but it ends up breaking up into a few mostly-unrelated portions which make it feel like a somewhat disorganized whole. It starts off with a hint that it's going to be about a nanny's fantasy life (pirate fantasies, of course, not what you were thinking), but then shifts a little confusingly into the persona of one of the nanny's charges. But it's not about her fantasies either, it's about some actual historical pirates, who aren't related except by their gender. This is clearly intended to make a point for the framing story with the nanny, but the game never actually makes this clear — I wasn't sure if that was because it was supposed to be obvious or if it's just authorial carelessness. Anyway, the pair of scenes were interesting but not actually all that swashbuckly; they don't quite give enough background to let you know what's going on, and then suddenly jump to the historical summary. I think the framing story was the best part of this game, with more-developed characters and a better-described setting: maybe pirates should have invaded the playground instead.



Minigame Minicomp

The Adventurer (Josh Vanderhoof) HTML/Javascript:
The natural geek reaction when confronted with the minigame contest is to say "hey, I should write a larger game and compress it, and then submit something that automatically uncompresses itself and thereby I'll sneak in a larger game, ha ha." Then, if you're me, your next natural reaction is to forget about it, because that sounds like too much work. But Vanderhoof went ahead and did it, in javascript yet, so props for that. The adventure itself is mildly amusing but fairly forgettable, although additional props for writing a decent parser in javascript. Hrm, unless this is that javascript z-machine interpreter. I would decompress it and find out, but that sounds like too much work.



Hamilton Hall (Cedric Knight) Z-Machine:
The game with the largest feel in the minigame minicomp, both in terms of number of rooms (thanks to a Hunter, in Darkness-style maze generator) and in terms of plot (thanks to having a plot). Unfortunately, as the author says, it's fairly speedIF-like, which partly means that the plot isn't entirely clear, and I found it impossible to get through the game without heavy reliance on the walkthrough. Still, I thought this was the most interesting of the games in this comp.



Insider Information (John Graeme Bichard) Z-Machine:
Each of the three games in the minigame minicomp has a technical trick; actually, this one has two, since it contains its own source code and still makes it comfortably under 50k, and was written by a home-grown zcode compiler. The game itself is reminiscent of a scene from Dunnet and fairly straightforward, but hey, minicomp.



Commodore 32 Minicomp (comp page)

Amusement Park (Algol) Z-Machine:
Amusement Park is the largest and most elaborate game in this comp Commodore 32 comp and it definitely deserves some technical praise for that, but unfortunately the actual writing and gameplay aren't very good, even allowing for the limitations of the C32 size. The premise, you will be surprised to hear, is that you're wandering around an amusement park, and almost every puzzle consists of getting a ride working (sometimes all that is required is flipping a switch), riding it, and having the game tell you how nostalgic it makes you. But it doesn't, you know, make you feel nostalgic, it just tells you that you are. Repeat ten times. I appreciate the effort the author put into designing all the different rides, but I think the time would have been better spent making a few good ones instead of lots of bland ones.



Downtown Train (Owen Lockett) Z-Machine:
I can't recommend Downtown Train in general, but in the context of it being a C32 comp entry I guess I can recommend it. The deal is that it consists of one big puzzle (a little like the flash game Grow), which takes a good while to solve due to needing a fair amount of trial and error. The problem is that the C32 limitations make the gameplay pretty lousy — no undo, no referring to items solely by their adjectives — and the writing in Downtown Train isn't interesting enough to provide that much reward for the trial and error. But besides that the game is fine: the puzzle's reasonably good, there's a feeling of accomplishment when you solve it, and the last bit is a nice touch. As it were.



Endgame (Samuel T. Denton) Z-Machine:
Endgame is the most conventional of the comp entries in the sense that it disguises its size limitations by going with a premise that allows a one-room game with few objects. This works pretty well, and it ends up coming off as the least artificially sparse of any of the games in the comp. The only time I really bumped into size limitations was one major parser confusion (an error message saying a command was ambiguous, but not providing enough details to explain what I had to do to resolve it). Anyway, the game itself is a fine totally-generic fantasy story with an ok puzzle or two.



Paparazzi (EV) Z-Machine:
Even for an entry in the Commodore 32 comp Paparazzi is pretty bad. There's no real clues for the conversation items you need to ask about, the game doesn't properly handle asking about them multiple times and so on. As a minor point the author appears to not be a native English speaker and could probably have stood to have someone proofread Paparazzi, but, like, that would have involved the game getting beta-testing, which clearly didn't happen.



Turning Point (Robert Rafgon) Z-Machine:
I guess this is one of the few entries from this comp that I can actually recommend to someone playing games outside the comp, but it's still pretty borderline. Turning Point is a fairly standard sf game with a semi-serious premise (there's a war and you're the bodyguard of the captain of the only ship who can win the day for the home team) but then all the actual bits are pretty silly (the captain regressed to childhood and put in a slide in place of the stairs; everything has seemingly randomly-generated names like "Valkon", "jemk", and "trhos"; the monster is defeated by some Red-Dwarf-esque antics), and I'm not quite sure how to take it. It has a few puzzles which are perfectly fine for this small a game and is basically unobjectionable, except for the (common to this comp) limitations imposed by using a much less powerful Inform library in order to conform to the size limit (so no undo, no multiple commands per line, etc).



Zombies! (Chris Cenotti) Z-Machine:
I'm pretty sure Zombies! is intended partly as some kind of DOOM parody, given the flaming barrel and all the crates lying around. Toss in a B-movie zombies-attack premise and awkward writing to produce, well, an only so-so game. I think one problem is that the PC is given a pistol and a bat and a chainsaw but the actual opportunities for violence are pretty minimal. There should be a lot more things to slam or shoot or slice if you really want to capture the feel of the genre. The whole experience is made worse by a pretty rough parser: there are missing synonyms, hard-to-guess phrasings, and so on. In the context of the comp Zombies! is worth taking a look at, but not really beyond that.



Lotech Comp 2005 (comp page)

Dog Show (Mrs. Drallos' Fourth Grade PACE class at Wattles Elementary School) Z-Machine:
Like all the entries in the Lotech Comp, Dog Show is a choose-your-own-adventure style game. Like a number of other entries over the years, it's written with Adventure Book. Unlike any of the other entries, or indeed any other IF game I can think of, Dog Show is credited to the efforts of an entire class of fourth-graders. I'm a little surprised they managed to pull this off at all, let alone create something that is really pretty stylistically uniform and works as an integrated whole.

The premise of the game, like you might guess from the title, is you're a kid attending a dog show. Gameplay consists of going around to watch the different exhibits and presentations at the show. I don't know how they designed it, but it seems like this would work pretty well for a class project — you could design the basic map and then assign different people areas of the show to write. Most exhibits seem to only consist of one "page" and description, but a few have a slightly more complicated structure (eg, you see a dog and then can choose to pet the dog), and I see the authors have grasped the traditional CYOA model well enough to stick in a few choices that kill the player. The descriptions do a good job of setting a consistent light-hearted mood, and never let you forget that you're thrilled to be at the dog show.

The one suggestion I'd make for a future game is to add some kind of plot structure. Dog Show offers pretty much total freedom to walk around; you can't close off any branches of the tree, and the only ways to end (that I found) are to hit one of the two death endings or to quit. This is interesting, and I'm sure easier to design, but in general it makes a more satisfying game if there's some kind of plot, even if it's fairly simple.

Anyway, on the whole I found Dog Show to be a fun little romp, and not long; it's worth the time to check it out.



EnvComp (comp page)

Dead Like Ants (C.E.J. Pacian) Z-Machine:
I think of CEJ Pacian as specializing in casual IF games, and this is no exception; previously we've seen a casual conversation game and a casual puzzle game, and here we have a casual exploration game, the sort of thing you could play in twenty minutes (plus another few minutes after reading the AMUSING). It looks like a puzzle game at first glance but it's not really — the puzzles are trivial enough that clearly they're there to guide your exploration rather than be the point of the game. I wouldn't have minded the game being longer, but there's enough here to be satisfying. From the comp perspective it's a good setting and we get to explore it a bit, so I think it's a win there too. Really, the only thing I don't get is the title — isn't it waving the flag too blatantly?



La Seine (Derek Sutcliffe) Z-Machine:
Normally I am not big on "my first IF game" but this is pretty good-hearted and was apparently written partly to ensure there were at least two entries in EnvComp, so I can't really dislike it. On the other hand, I do feel like the game's a little undeveloped, even for its small size. It's got an interesting premise (which isn't obvious at first, although you will probably figure it out before the game tells you), but the author doesn't really do much with it — none of the puzzles except the last depend on it, for instance. So overall, good choice of setting, but for a comp like this I was hoping the author would do more with it.



AbilityComp (comp page)

Prison Break (Parham Doustdar) JACL:
(This was my review for AbilityComp)
Argh, I hate to gripe about this game since it's by a first-time author and it's in an unusual language and it's in this comp that I want to encourage. But the thing is, look, the comp is supposed to be about a PC with unusual abilities, and so I want to see a game where the PC uses unusual abilities. In this game the PC *has* unusual abilities, but they hardly ever *use* them. Partly this is because the game is really short, and partly this is because it's not really puzzle-oriented. There's basically two puzzles and they're both pretty much spelled out for you, so the amount of time you spend fiddling with your abilities is small. All that said, there is a cool premise and backstory here that I wanted to see more of, and the PC's relationship definitely had some potential. But as an entry in this comp, I have really mixed feelings about the game.



The Ending of The Jewel of Knowledge
As far I can tell, there are two possible endings. Ending number one is you pick up the jewel, turn evil, find out you were an idiot, and die. Ending number two is you go home, lie, and live happily ever after having accomplished nothing. Neither of these makes me want to have played the game. Both of these would be better handled by putting a note in the intro that says "Type >QUIT now and save yourself some typing". It is possible to carry this kind of ending off — I'm not trying to argue that it isn't. But it's difficult, and it requires a much more skillfully designed backstory than this game has.

Adding to the frustration here is that these are not the only obvious two endings. Another one would be "check the pedestal for traps, take the jewel carefully, touch the mirror, go home". Another one would be "destroy the jewel, touch the mirror, go home". Another one would be "accidentally touch the mirror and go home, then come back and get the jewel now that you know the way." There are so many other possibilities, it's incredibly annoying to be ham-handedly forced into a choice between two bad alternatives.

And that's all. For other IF-related things, including many more reviews, you can go to my main IF page.