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[COMP01] Belated reviews.

by Matthew Clemson

Posted 25 November 2001 to

It's official; I'm an idiot. I was utterly convinced the deadline for vote submissions was the 16th, didn't bother checking, and got a nasty shock on the day when I prepared my submissions.

So, in the end, I didn't vote. Oops.

Firstly, general comments:

I got through ten games, again; the same as last year. I think what I'm noticing is that I don't actually lose steam on the judging side of things; the problem arises when I try to write a review after playing each game, it becomes tougher and tougher to make them distinguishable from each other. The review for Best Of Three - the tenth game - never got past the first paragraph, but I wouldn't permit myself to go on without giving it fair treatment, so I ground to a halt.

I think for next year, or for the Spring Thing, if I get around to judging that, I'll reduce the review load to being brief thoughts; They're not particularly in-depth reviews, anyway, and by the extent of some others I've read these count as just 'brief thoughts' anyway :-)

As an aside, I also have a file of 'running commentaries' - basically writing down my thoughts as they happened, including any bugs I might have spotted, things which impressed me or irritated me. I sent these out to authors after I wrote each review, accompanied by the review; however, I may have missed some authors, or I may not have found some's email addresses; if any authors I neglected want them, I'll be happy to send it out.

I ought to also give a very brief mention about style; I am making no attempt to make these spoiler-free, so be warned.


1. No Time To Squeal
2. Invasion of the Angora-fetish Transvestites from the Graveyards of Jupiter
3. The Test
4. Bane of the Builders
5. Prized Possession
6. The Last Just Cause
7. You Were Doomed From The Start
8. Earth and Sky
9. Stick it to The Man
10. Best of Three (Brief; see earlier)

1. No Time To Squeal (4/10/01)
Rating: 9
You know, I've got a nagging feeling I've already played the competition winner; let's hope the rest of the crop are up to this excellent high standard. Feeling a bit like a hybrid of Photopia and Shades Of Gray, an excellent story which delights in wrong-footing the player at every turn. The readme accompanying it is also nicely unsettling, although that did cause me to think I was playing a game which would be about some sort of serial killer - true, after a fashion, but not in the way I expected - another wrong-footing!

The writing was excellent and the execution was near-flawless; I have a list of minor bugs and problems I noticed, which I have sent to the authors, but the list is extremely short. On the whole, a wonderful achievement.

Why isn't it getting full marks then? Something about it just wasn't satisfying when I beat it. I can't quite place what it was; possibly the bits of unresolved story, perhaps the metaphors being a little too deep for me to grasp (Father hitting baseball which slays some monster? The varying names when you're born? Am I trying to find meaning in nothing?), I dunno. Nevertheless, I utterly enjoyed it, and award it a hearty nine.


2. Invasion of the Angora-fetish Transvestites from the Graveyards of Jupiter (4/10/01)
Rating: 3
Well, this certainly easily wins the prize for best title in this year's comp. But is the game any good?

Unfortunately, not really. First of all, it suffers from size; the game is far too big, far too sprawling. You're dumped into a town with no idea of where to go and where to find it, and not really enough time to find out. Eventually I realised I was getting nowhere, and decided to resort to the walkthrough, only to discover that it really was that unfocussed. I resigned myself to drawing a map; by the time it was finished, I was already an hour through the play time. The game would benefit a lot from being far tighter; getting rid of the dozens of useless locations, or at least barring the player from them somehow until they are needed.

I got stuck trying to give a film to George; try as I might, he refused to take it, even after following the walkthrough to the letter, so I couldn't progress any further; I gave up with half-an-hour left on the clock. From reading the walkthrough, I could tell that I'd barely scratched the surface of the game.

I was worried at first that the music and pictures would prove intrusive; ultimately, I wasn't playing long enough to really notice whether they were or not. I should say that what I witnessed of both was of high quality, however.

It's got potential as an idea, and it looks like an interesting game from what I saw in the walkthrough - but at the moment it needs heavy ironing; it needs bugs to be eradicated, spellings to be corrected, issues with the program to be dealt with. Then, hopefully, it'll be a lot more enjoyable than it is right now. Ah, well, at least I've got a very pretty map out of it.

So, a 3, I think, but I'd certainly give a bugfixed post-comp version another chance.

3. The Test (5/10/01)
Rating: 3
It's Adrift. I had a bad time with the Adrift game I played last year, so I'm pleased to report that this is somewhat better, although still not a top-rank game. It's basically a linear string of vaguely maths-or-english based puzzles, plus one or two purely adventure ones (The first three puzzles mainly); not too tough, as puzzles go, but an interesting diversion.

Spelling is on the whole poor, but the coding is reasonable; I encountered no major bugs or parser problems, although that might be because the game didn't stretch the parser much; most of the puzzles were trying a command which you get from deciphering a code, or explicitly told you what commands to use ("ring", for instance). Just once or twice I had problems (A decoded message said "say "; typing "say " didn't work, only "" alone did). Nevertheless, as I said, the parser did what I needed it to do, on the whole.

I did encounter one fatal interpreter-crashing bug, but I'm not convinced that's not the fault of the interpreter rather than the programmer (Out of stack space).

Throughout the game it adopts a conversational style in addressing the player; and throughout I was never quite sure if I liked it. Sometimes it gelled, sometimes it jarred (I didn't particularly like the response to "ring 911" on the phone, despite being British).

The hints were used at times to inform the player; for instance, how to use the calculator. This apparently carries a points penalty in Adrift, so it seemed a little unfair that the player had to make use of them.

A word must, however, be said about the familiarity of the puzzles in the game; I recognised at least two from British educational adventures (Specifically the telephone puzzle came from L, and the Robot Guards act like the Triangular Men from Martello Tower while sharing their name with the Drogo Robot Guards found in L again). I feel I ought to dock a mark for that. It might just be a coincidence, but it's an impressive one if that's so.


4. Bane of the Builders (5/10/01)
Rating: 7
This reminded me of Gateway rather a lot. Alien race who have now vanished leaving grand artifacts around the cosmos? Nevertheless, this treads new paths, but always left me with a nagging feeling that this was almost - but not quite - familiar.

The writing was good; no spelling mistakes that I noticed, although at times the scenery objects weren't always fleshed out as fully as I'd have liked. The general prose was also good, moving from lively and cheerful to overtones of doom to stark and empty, although the flow wasn't as smooth as possible, each iteration coming in stages. The coding was also good, although there were some slight slips, there was nothing major or fatal.

Puzzles were not too bad; not too difficult, not too easy. A brief mention must be made of the fact that this game has a maze, but it's mappable and not too tough; the gimmick in question in it is that the directions are given relative to you, i.e. forward, back, left, right, similar to Hunter in Darkness; this caught me out a few times while mapping, but not enough to irritate me.

My only real complaint is that the game could have been more evocative; the whole of the changing scenes after entering the city seem to be over too quickly for the player to build up any real attachment to this race; it's just all over in a flash. Perhaps a slower collapse with a few more stages would be more effective.


5. Prized Possession (6/10/01)
Rating: 7
A Crusades-era Plundered Hearts? Well, not quite, but bits of it feel a bit like they're heading that way.

The writing was excellent, although there were one or two typos and accidentally missed words. However, it keeps to the archaic style admirably, without becoming too awkward to read. Similarly, the coding was good, but there were one or two minor bugs.

It did verge on being puzzleless; playing more like a novel where certain actions released certain paragraphs of plot, while some brought the novel to an abrupt end. Here is where the most pressing problem lay; the story appeared to have holes in it unless you did the right things at the right times - and since many portions have time limits, it becomes difficult to do everything. Even after completing it some parts of the story didn't quite work until I tried some portions from the walkthrough and saw those missing paragraphs. Perhaps it would be better if certain key plot points were forced to be revealed? Or perhaps it's the player's ulterior motive to discover the entire story?

As counterpoint to that, however, it must be said that the player appears to have a great deal of freedom; admittedly, only the responses that actually progress the story do anything other than create an abrupt ending, but it's still a nice feeling.


6. The Last Just Cause (8/10/01)
Rating: 2
Scott Adams is alive and well, it would appear. A game on a self-built two-word parser with rudimentary room descriptions; yes, it looks like his legacy lives on.

Where to start? Let's start with the RPG pretensions. The game wants to play like a console RPG - you can easily tell that the coder has intended this, and he even admits it in the about text, yet it has a very rudimentary battle system, a poor range of monsters (Four, I believe; one of which is optional, and one of which is merely a tougher version of another), and very little structure; there's no clear way to heal, so if you're particularly unlucky with attacks, you've got no hope whatsoever; random elements dictating whether a player succeeds - a distinct violation of the Player's Bill Of Rights. Also the onslaught of monsters becomes very irritating, breaking the flow of the game too much.

Secondly, the puzzles are poor. The ones which aren't solved for you in the readme text (Supplying a list of vocabulary may be a bad idea; stating explicitly what you need the words for definitely is) tend to be guess-the-author's intention efforts; I'd never have solved one of them without resorting to the walkthrough.

The structure is also poor. As well as the RPG issue there's the factor that the whole area is dark, and you have a limited number of matches; some of these are lost in unavoidable ways (The first time you enter a certain location, you lose two matches; and that location is crucial. Also, one location loses you a match every time you look in there). On a similar note, one instance in which your lamp get put out seems to render it impossible to relight; a game-stopping bug. Also, there is little coherency to it; the game happily flits from a room with a computer to a room with writhing worms on the floor with little in between. It's possible that surreality was intended, but if that's the case, it's not exploited fully. A final structure problem is that the game seems packed with unnecessary rooms; there was clearly an underlying intention to make the map a certain shape, but that did cause it to be bolstered with many needless chambers.

The prose is, as I implied earlier, poor. While there are occasional highlights, a lot of the time it is not particularly descriptive of the area you're in, just settling for flat statements; there's little colour in the descriptions to flesh them out. Having said that, I was slightly pleasantly surprised by the fact that events weren't written into the room descriptions such that they recurred all the time; a rare plus point.

And finally I must concentrate on the parser. As well as the inherent problems in it being a two-word parser ("use"), it's also what it doesn't do. Nothing in the game is examinable, as far as I could tell; there's no scenery that you can investigate further, there's no depth to any of the locations. The room description - and number - are all you're getting. That's another point; only one room that I know of has an actual name; everything else has numbers. The numbers result in the whole game feeling very impersonal, particularly when they encroach into the room descriptions ("if you go to the East you won't be able to return to room 26 same way...").

Oh, yes, and there's a death with apparently no warning.


7. You Were Doomed From The Start (8/10/01)
Rating: 1
Same author as The Last Just Cause, but this game appears to predate it; you're left with the same problems as TLJC, plus some more which would have been fixed with the latter release. So, again we've got a very rudimentary parser - something which could practically be called a one-word parser, only allowing two two-word commands and them both involving the same noun. Oh, and no synonyms appear to be permitted (Except n/north, s/south); it's 'pickup' rather than the standard 'get' and 'take'. And there's no drop; in other words, you can't move objects around, only possess them or not possess them. Oh, and 'use' rears its ugly head once more.

The puzzles - if you can call them that - are for one, trivial to solve and for another, explained in full in the readme. You enter a room, the room description tells how you discover a key, you take the key. Repeat. I mean, at the very least, surely the player could have to discover the key by themselves?

The prose is average. There are again occasional spelling mistakes, but not actually that many this time; possibly because there's not all that much text for there to be mistakes in. Also, credit must again be awarded for the fact that at least the code caters for the "key discovered", "key not yet collected" and "key collected" states of a room. Once again, though, the game suffers from the disjoint nature of the rooms.

This is touted as an example work in order to demonstrate how to code a text parser in C++. However, the parser is extremely weak, and as the code stands, it could not be used to make more than the simplest games; I'm not certain it is a good example. But it is well-commented, at least.

Plus points are the fact that there are no irritating battles in this one, it didn't take up much of my time (The second play-through took 25 seconds) and, er...

This was doomed from the start.


8. Earth and Sky (8/10/01)
Rating: 8
A superhero adventure, eh? Well, there's no denying that it's an underrepresented genre. Is this a bad game hoping to sneak by by being something you don't see often?

Thankfully not. This game is corny, it's cliched, it requires the player to totally suspend their disbelief - but it's also utterly, utterly enjoyable, well written, and plain entertaining.

The setting is pure Marvel, there's no doubt about it. From the form-fitting suits to the danger of accidents in a lab, it could almost be appearing in several panels in bold, bright colours.

There's no denying - as I said earlier - that the plot is corny. It's an introduction to the characters and the powers followed by a standard superhero Day to be Saved. However, the writing is nevertheless excellent, and in keeping with the feel of the whole piece. The programming also appeared to be good; I encountered only one very minor bug, easily worked around.

A wonderfully enjoyable experience. Do I have any complaints?

Well, it wasn't hugely challenging; I only encountered one problem which had me scratching my head for any length of time; generally I cruised through. Also solving the big (big!) problem took longer than perhaps was necessary; having to do the same action nine times seems to be pushing it, particularly when there's little difference in the responses other than the occasional randomly-generated hint that something's being effective.

Also, it felt extremely short; the sign of a good work, but at the end I was crying out for more and I'd happily have another hour of this.

Finally, it's a shame that it's just an introduction to the game, not tapping into the prospects outlined by the intro. The plot at the start falls by the wayside for the time being to give you this story instead.

But these are minor complaints. I enjoyed it immensely, and can't wait for the sequel mentioned at the end. An 8, I think.


9. Stick it to The Man (10/10/01)
Rating: 3
Ambitious. That's what this seems from the outset. A pretty promising conversation engine, some well-crafted NPCs, some pretty grittily descriptive room descriptions. Surely this is gonna be promising; isn't it?

The prose is generally of high quality; you get the impression that the characters are angry, are out to protest. The language is strong, but not implausible, and it helps to highlight some aspects of the characters' nature and bring some room descriptions more vividly to life.

A word should be said about the NPCs here; first impressions of them were excellent, all reasonably written with enough to distinguish them from each other so they don't all merge into one in your mind. This is added to by the conversation engine; working roughly like Photopia but having the conversation options always available, rather than having to be in a talk sequence to use them, resulting in a system where you can easily jump from conversation to conversation or do actions in the middle of a conversation and then rejoin it later. It's a shame this didn't seem to be exploited as much as may have been possible.

Then you get to the second section, and all hell breaks loose. Firstly, any focus the game had up to that point gets lost, and you just end up heading through scenes in the protest, with little standing out from one to another. Then an ugly bug in the conversation engine appears, offering you options that aren't relevant for the current scene. Another bug appears when a character just can't stop introducing themselves to you. Finally the really big bug rears its ugly head, and the interpreter crashes on you; I found four different commands to trigger the crash, and there might have been yet more. I tried it three times, on three different terps, on three different OSes, and it crashed on all three.

I did manage to reach an ending, after persevering for a long time, and I got the impression that this was a very abstract work, in a sense; little focus, but instead you're thrown into the situation, you bumble along, and then you pop out of the other side in an ending. The ending I found came on suddenly, and was completely unexpected; I just expected the game to shift to another location and head on. Perhaps there is a more focussed goal, but I didn't find indications of this while playing.

Ultimately, a disappointment. The bugs just end up ruling the roost, which is a shame, because in text terms, this is a pretty well-written, promising game. Had it been fully working, this looked to be shaping up for a 7; as it stands, I have to harshly reduce it.


10. Best of Three (11/10/01)
Rating: 8
I came away from this with the nagging feeling that I really ought to play Pytho's Mask; Emily was trying the 'conversation game' aspect again, and I found it very enjoyable.

This article copyright © 2001, Matthew Clemson

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