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Dwhyld's IFComp Reviews (and associated ramblings)

by David Whyld

Posted 15 November 2005 to

First of all it's nice to see I'm not the only drifter entering the IFComp this year. Being the sole ADRIFT entry in 2003 and 2004 was pretty daunting, particularly considering ADRIFT's less than flattering reputation among the rest of the IF world (some of it with good cause, most without). At least this year I ought to have the joy of reading derogatory comments about the crappy parser in someone else's games as well as mine (only joking... :) ) And I suppose a special thanks ought to go to this year's troll, Slan Xorox, for writing his appalling mess PTBad6andoneeighth with ADRIFT. Whatever faults there are with my own game, by comparison with that sorry effort I've written a masterpiece.

So what was the Comp like as a whole? Some good games, some bad ones, a lot of in between efforts that had the potential to be good but got lost somewhere along the way: Waldo's Pie I think I would have enjoyed a lot more if it hadn't kept crashing every few minutes. Space Horrors could really have benefited from being written in an actual program and not a shaky HTML page. A New Life would have been better if I had a clue what I was supposed to be doing in it.

My favourite game in the Comp was an ADRIFT game—The Plague: Redux - that I also helped to test. I suppose the inevitable question is: do I really like this game more than anything else in the Comp? Or am I simply saying it's great because it's ADRIFT? After all, you might reason, I've used ADRIFT for years myself now and have entered an ADRIFT game in three IFComps in a row. I can hardly heap praise on my own game without someone calling me Panks, so am I heaping praise on another game written with ADRIFT purely to make my own game look better by comparison? Judge for yourself. But I suspect I won't be the only one who rates The Plague: Redux high in their lists for this year's Comp entries.

Other than that, the ADRIFT entries were kind of average. Vendetta had the makings of a better game than it was; Escape To New York was okay but could have benefited from some better NPCs. And the less said about PTBad6andoneeighth the better.

As usual, there were some truly appalling games entered in the Comp. Some were deliberate joke entries—PTBad6andoneeight and FutureGame being prime examples—but some were just... well, bad. Ninja II was every bit as bad as Ninja from the IFComp in 2004, but then as Paul Panks wrote it, I'd have been amazed if it had been any better. I didn't play his other game but does a biblical game written with a custom-made system strike me as a good idea? No thanks. Hello Sword was one game that definitely shouldn't have been entered in the Comp. While there's nothing wrong with people whose first language isn't English writing games—Beyond, after all, was great—if they don't understand enough of the language to make their games at least understandable, they're pretty much wasting their time entering the Comp in the first place. At the very least, they ought to have an English-speaking person check it through for them. Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer was another game that I could tell within the first five seconds of playing it was going to be a stinker. Please learn to spell before you try to write a game, okay?

I wonder what the author was smoking when he came up with that idea...
For "The Colour Pink" which starts with you exploring an alien planet and trying to find a missing colony, abruptly turns everything a hideous shade of pink, and then transports you to a generic fantasy land.

The hard-as-freaking-nails damsel in distress...
For "The Plague: Redux" which features vicious, ferocious, deadly, man-eating zombies... who get their asses handed to them on a plate by one girl with a metal pole.

Nice game, shame about the system... (part 1)
For "Space Horrors". Not a system as such, but a freaking HTML page which is about as buggy as a day at a bug farm with extra bugs on hand. Great game, nice idea, well written... just don't play it until the author rewrites it using a proper IF authoring system.

Nice game, shame about the system... (part 2)
For "Waldo's Pie" which I was enjoying immensely... until the program kept crashing on me and forced me to quit.

For the love of God, what were you thinking entering a game in the IFComp...
For Paul Panks. Just... because.

Realmente devo imparare l'inglese prima che scriva un gioco in esso...
For "Hello Sword" which might have been a decent game... if I had a clue what it was all about.

Guess what I'm thinking... (part 1)
For "Mix Tape" which expects me to tear pages out of a scrapbook instead of just burning the entire book; 'serve dinner' instead of 'give dinner to peter'; and put away the groceries in an invisible pantry.

Guess what I'm thinking... (part 2)
For "Neon Nirvana" which requires me to find a glass, find the bouncer's car (only, of course, I don't know it's the bouncer's car because it doesn't say so anywhere in the game), shoot his tire (why would I do that? I'm a cop for crying out loud!), smash the glass, put the glass on the ruined tire (again, why?) and then go and tell the bouncer about his car. And for my next trick, I shall successfully count the number of stars in the Milky Way.

Guess what I'm thinking... (part 2)
For "Chancellor" which carries the requirement that the player be psychic to try and figure out just the game is about.

Die, you troll...
For "PTbad6". An otherwise strong ADRIFT showing... and then this piece of crap shows up.

It's so funny you'd never believe it was an accident...
For "Cheiron", a game about doctors and hospitals. Examine the patients and you're told "you don't need to refer to the patients during this game". Ha!

... sigh...
For "FutureGame", a joke entry which was about as funny as a kick in the groin. If the author wants to find himself something more rewarding to do with his time, I'd suggest suicide would be a good place to start.

Once a thief, always a thief...
For "Escape To New York" which has a ship sinking... yet the player is still trying to swipe stuff even as he's drowning.

The game with a great name...
For "Dreary Lands" which does an excellent job of describing itself in its title.

It started bad...
For "Beyond".

... but then got better...
For "Beyond". Please, please, please, if you're going to write a good game don't give it such an awful beginning. I almost quit.

It started bad... (part 2)
For "Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer".

... and just got worse... (part 2)
For "Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer". Spelling mistakes! Grammatical errors! Crap storyline! Crap puzzles! Crap crap! And it's got a maze! All it needed was a sign saying "this game is intentionally bad" and it would be complete.

Am I missing something...?
For "Cheiron", which lots of people seem to like... except for me.

Games not reviewed for one reason or another...
"Amissville II"—Another game by the Santoonie Corporation, whose reputation for quality games is almost on a par with Malinche (i.e. completely non-existent). As last year's Santoonie entry was a complete mess, I decided to avoid this year's and play a proper game instead.

"Internal Vigilance"—meant to but ran out of time.

"Jesus Of Nazareth"—I limit myself to one Paul Panks game a year. Any more and I tend to start frothing at the mouth in sheer despair that, unbelievably, there really are people out there who still persist in writing games in some custom system that plainly doesn't work. Aside from anything else, I'd used up this week's quota of hate and vitriol reviewing his other game so I wouldn't have been able to do it justice anyway.

"Mortality"—Because I wrote it and I'm not impartial enough to write an honest review of my own game.

"A New Life"—ran out of time.

"PTBad6"—Strange as it sounds, but there are actually people out there who set out to deliberately write the worst game in the comp. Why? Beats me. (They're onto a loser anyway seeing as Panks entered the comp for the second year running...)

"Son Of A..."—ran out of time.

"Unforgotten"—ran out of time.


1) The Plague: Redux (8)
2) Tough Beans (7)
3) Vespers (6)
4) Waldo's Pie (6)
5) Beyond (6)
6) Space Horrors (6)
7) The Colour Pink (5)
8) Distress (5)
9) Mix Tape (5)
10) Xen: The Contest (5)
11) Snatches (5)
12) Son Of A... (5)
13) Internal Vigilance (5)
14) A New Life (5)
15) Vendetta (4)
16) On Optimism (4)
17) Gilded: The Lily & The Cage (4)
18) Escape To New York (4)
19) Sabotage On The Century Cauldron (4)
20) Off The Trolley (3)
21) Neon Nirvana (3)
22) History Repeating (3)
23) Unforgotten (3)
24) Chancellor (2)
25) Dreary Lands (2)
26) Sword Of Malice (2)
27) Psyche's Lament (2)
28) Cheiron (1)
29) Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer (1)
30) FutureGame (1)
31) PTBad6 (1)
32) Ninja II (1)
33) Hello Sword (unrated)

GAME: Beyond
AUTHOR: Mondi Confinanti, Roberto Grassi, Paolo Lucchesi and Alessandro Peretti

Beyond was one of those games that starts bad and then gets better. Unfortunately, it seemed to take an age to get better and I came very close to quitting before things took a positive turn.

The beginning was weird. Too weird for my liking. A bizarre set of locations and even more bizarre characters—one called The Mad Joker whose speech certainly indicates he was well named. Following a very long and very confusing conversation with him, I was finally able to make progress to the main part of the game. Where, thankfully, things began to get better.

Beyond is a murder mystery with you as the detective assigned to solve a brutal murder at the Paradiso Hotel. There you are met by your assistant, Grassi (one of the game's writers making an appearance as an NPC!) who fills you in on the details.

There were a few niggling problems with Beyond, the main one being that none of the game's writers have English as their first language (I'm assuming, though I could be wrong) and so sometimes the text you're reading is a little strange. It's never as bad as, say, in Hello Sword where it's just about illegible and you have to read every sentence half a dozen times just to figure out what's going on, but it might have been an idea to get an English-speaking person to have proofread it before release.

Getting the hotel part of the game out of the way is harder than it at first seemed due to a requirement on the player's behalf to carry out what seemed to me like an unnecessary action. I'd been around the hotel, questioned all the suspects, examined items all over the place... and yet there didn't seem to be an option to wrap things up and move on to the next part. Strangely enough, when I checked the walkthrough for guidance, I saw that I needed to climb through a window in one of the rooms. After that, Grassi spoke to me once I reached the location where he was and I was able to finally finish this part of the game. I suppose it's possible I'd have gone and climbed through the window sooner or later anyway, but there's no reason to suggest that it's necessary and no reason after that to suggest anything in the game should change as a result.

Beyond is a large game that I'd played barely a fifth of before the two hour Comp deadline rolled around, but what bits I'd seen of it struck me as the beginnings of a very good game indeed. The incorrect phrasings due to the authors' lack of English was a tiny fault against the game but this was easily overlooked.

6 out of 10

GAME: Chancellor
AUTHOR: Kevin Venzke

This is what the hints file says about Chancellor:

CHANCELLOR is an epic adventure of legendary difficulty. Completing it is sure to cement your status as a champion adventurer in the immortal annals of adventure fame! Oh dear.

The little bit of Chancellor that I actually managed to play (all six locations of it) wasn't so much legendary difficulty as legendary bad. Okay, that's a bit harsh. It was reasonably well written. It's just that... well, I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be doing and the game didn't seem willing to give me any clue. All I'm told is that I have a task to be completed. And what might that task be? Beats me.

Maybe it involves getting the game tested more thoroughly before releasing it. This was my first command:

(Opening the reddish door)
The reddish door is locked.

Followed by:

>open door
It's already open.

(Opening the reddish door)
The reddish door is locked.

Ouch and double ouch. Annoying errors in the very first location in the game aren't a good indication that the rest of the game is ever going to live up to much, but as I didn't manage to play the rest of the game that's probably not an issue.

The only NPC around was my father who I couldn't get a meaningful response from no matter what I tried asking him. The conversation system used was the dreaded ASK NPC ABOUT SUBJECT thing as opposed to TALK TO NPC. At the best of times I find this a major pain as trying to figure out just what needs asking is a nightmare game of guess the verb. Here it was particularly bad. My father wouldn't even tell me what it was I was supposed to do and after a dozen or more tries to yield some kind of response from him, I just gave up in dismay. Attempts to kill him were likewise unsuccessful.

In other location I almost got eaten by a mountain. Yep. A mountain.

As I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be doing, there was no walkthrough, and the only hints were coded (a great way to encourage people to quit playing your game incidentally), I found myself bashing out QUIT just as soon as possible.

2 out of 10

GAME: Cheiron
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Polli & Sarah Clelland

There was an amusing bit at the start of Cheiron, a game about doctors and hospitals, when I tried to examine the patients and was told I wouldn't need to refer to them during the course of the game. Ha!

So what's Cheiron about then? Well, you're a doctor and there's a hospital and there's patients and several very bland locations to wander around. And... that's about it.

There was a game entered in the Spring Comp 2005 called Authority which featured a remarkably bland set of locations with very little storyline and even less to do. Cheiron reminded me of that game (albeit this one has some very poor graphics to complement its very poor gameplay). A game set in a hospital could potentially be an interesting - operating on patients, saving lives, etc—but if any of that occurs during this game I never came across it. Instead I just wandered around and became very bored very quickly.

I came across a number of patients but was never allowed to examine them or speak to them because I required consent first. How I was supposed to go about this I wasn't sure. There's a phone but nothing I tried with it produced any worthy results. Which pretty much summed up my time spent playing the rest of the game.

The game weighs in at a hefty 2.3 MB but the bulk of this appears to be the somewhat naff graphics that feature at the top left of the gameplay window. After looking at the first half dozen in the game, I'm curious as to why the authors even bothered. If you're going to include graphics in your game—and enough graphics to bloat the game file to 2.3 MB—at least put some decent ones in. Or was the intent of the graphics to distract attention away from the decidedly poor quality of the text?

All in all, a bland idea and poorly executed. Even on a fast broadband connection, this wasn't worth the time it took to download.

1 out of 10

GAME: The Colour Pink
AUTHOR: Robert Street

This was a strange game that actually seemed like two completely unrelated games joined together.

It begins with you arriving on an alien planet to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a colony that once lived on the planet. The colony, it seems, has gone walkabout and you, being the unfortunate chap that you are, have got to find out what happened to it.

I spent a while at the start of the game wandering around, picking things up, dropping things, and generally not making a whole lot of progress. The opening section of the game is fairly small and I'm not able to wander away from the building where the colony lived. So moving forward means persevering and... and in the game I managed to figure out what I needed to do. And then things got decidedly strangely.

I was a little bemused by the game's title to begin with. Has it got a racism slant? Is there something mysterious about the colour pink? No, it seems that, once you reach a certain part in the game, the locations you are in, and everything in them, become... well, pink. Seriously. Like everything has been daubed with pink paint.

But that's not the strangest thing about the game. What was looking like a science fiction game with a bizarre twist later on becomes a fantasy game with a bizarre twist as you leave the alien planet and the missing colony, and the general pinkness, behind and find yourself in a generic fantasy land. What has this to do with the alien planet and the missing colony? I'm guessing some kind of hallucination but I could be wrong.

The early part of The Colour Pink was difficult and I didn't manage to get very far without resorting to the excellent in-game hints, but the section set in the fantasy land is so easy it's a wonder there are any puzzles at all and the author didn't just greet you with a "well done, you've finished it!" sign the moment you first show up. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. There are puzzles and they're not ridiculously easy or so straightforward you're going to solve them all without any kind of struggle, but compare the later part of the game to the earlier part and the difference in the difficulty levels is quite bewildering.

But then the difference between the earlier part of the game and the later part is bewildering full stop. Was this written as one big game or as two smaller, completely unrelated games that the author decided, for whatever reason, to join together? I suspect the latter. While both parts of the game are good enough in their own right, they're just too different to make playing the entire thing anything less than jarring. I think I'd have preferred either a game fully set on the alien planet and the missing colony or a game in the fantasy land. The two together are just downright weird.

5 out of 10

GAME: Distress
AUTHOR: Mike Snyder

Mike Snyder entered a game in the IFComp in 2004 called Trading Punches which I liked a lot to begin with, but less and less the more I played it. In many ways, I felt the same about Distress. It takes an interesting subject matter—a spaceship crash landing on an alien world, two of the crew are injured and you have to save them, throws in a monster lurking around—and then focuses too much on the minor details and misses out on the more interesting ones. I spent way too long chasing around a sheet of vellum, tying one item to another and the like and not enough exploring what could have been a very interesting game.

In some ways I liked Distress. In others it was a frustrating game and an even more frustrating game playing experience. Frequently I would try to venture off in one direction only to be told that I had no reason to go that way yet. Yes, it's one of those games where perfectly logical commands—i.e. exploring the general layout of the land—is restricted until certain requirements have been met. While this limits the player from wandering off completely at random and ensures the games progresses in a nice, orderly manner, it's also somewhat annoying to be told you can't do something without a better rationale than "you've no reason to do that" being given. If I want to wander away from the crash site, shouldn't I be given the option to do so?

There also seem to be a number of timed events which generally annoy me. Certain things occur that halt the progression of the game until after they've occurred. Here it's a tad more annoying than usual as the WAIT command doesn't move matters on, so a good portion of my time spent with Distress was moving back and forth between a couple of locations hoping to trigger the next event. While timed events are logical, they're also annoying.

But... overall I found myself liking Distress. Frustrating bits aside, and there are more than a few, it was well written and overall interesting. I'm not sure how long I would have continued with it if there hadn't been a walkthrough accompanying it as it's also the kind of game to kill off the unwary player frequently. (And with the monster turning up and eating you being a timed event, it's one you're not going to avoid just by being in a different location when it occurs.) It also kind of irked me that game wouldn't give me any hints until I'd first typed HELP. Why? Either the author was looking for news ways to introduce annoying aspects into his game or he thinks this kind of thing is a good idea.

Overall, this is probably better than the rating I've given it but I knocked a point or two off for the frustrations.

5 out of 10

GAME: Dreary Lands
AUTHOR: Paul Lee

I'll start by saying that I didn't play this game for very long so the following review is kind of sparse on details. But then as the author didn't spend very long writing the game, I guess that's kind of appropriate.

Dreary Lands has all the hallmarks of a first work of interactive fiction by a newbie. Minimal testing, uninspired story, no kind of logic, and guess the verb through the roof. Heck, the intro even says it is a first game. Does that excuse the spelling mistakes in the intro? Not as far as I'm concerned it doesn't. Even newbies have access to spell checks.

The game starts pretty dismally: you're in a locked chamber and have to escape. Ho hum. Not come across that idea before. As it happens, getting out of the chamber is simplicity itself. There's a hot pink-coloured rod that you pick up and then, hey presto, you're dropped out of the cell into a hot pink-coloured car. Makes me kind of wonder why the game even starts you in a chamber if it's as easy as that to escape. But then as the chamber, walls, ceiling and just about everything else that you might care to try and examine can't be examined, it's perhaps just as well.

Once out of the cell, I found myself in a car. Out of the car... well, there's nothing. A large room which, apparently, doesn't have any exits. (How did the car get in?) And while OUT works fine for moving you out of the car, IN doesn't work for moving you back inside it.

That's when I gave up. Too many errors, too little testing, too little attention spent on the finer details that are what text adventures are all about. I might have been tempted to play a bit further and write a more detailed review, but then the game's ABOUT command reveals that the author doesn't think the game's up to much and he's not planning to release a better version. Why did he even release the game in the first place? Beats me.

2 out of 10

GAME: Escape To New York
AUTHOR: Richard Otter

You play the part of a thief who has stolen a priceless painting and has decided to 'escape to New York' with it. Only you've had the slight misfortune to book yourself passage on a ship that's soon due to have a rather serious encounter with an iceberg... yep, you're on the Titanic.

By far the most annoying aspect of the game for me was the way the player will often talk out loud to himself, like:

"Three days lost!" you mutter to yourself. "I could have been having a look at all those first class cabins, with all that loot waiting to be liberated!" Aside from making him come across as some overly dramatic loony, it's also kind of strange that the player is even concerned over the loot he could be 'liberating'. After all, he's just stolen a priceless painting. Why risk getting arrested when he already has all the money he'll ever need?

Although that sort of thing tends to be present throughout the rest of the game as well. Despite having a priceless painting in his possession, the player makes a point of stealing everything he can get his hands on, even though there's a cop on board the ship who's already suspicious of him. Wouldn't it have been wiser to just lie low?

The game ended suddenly for me quite a few times, and often just as I was thinking it might have been a good idea to save my position. As the default ADRIFT end game system is used, that means no quick bashing of the UNDO command to return you to the action. Annoying.

Characterisation is generally pretty poor. The NPCs never really seem believable, although it isn't helped that several of them are just referred to as 'bursar' and 'barber'. Others tend to move around the ship in a very set fashion and will often wander away partway through a conversation with you. Dialogue with them is stunted and they tend to display all the warmth of cardboard cut outs.

Escape From New York wasn't a terrible game by any means but it wasn't one I particularly warmed to, either. The woodenness of the NPCs, the frequent death of the player and similar problems prevented me enjoying it any more.

4 out of 10

GAME: FutureGame
AUTHOR: The FutureGame Corporation

A short joke of a game which seems to consist of a couple of questions after which the game ends. I'm pretty the author (who will probably remain anonymous forever if this is the kind of tripe he's capable of) intended this as an amusing little effort but it's actually more 'feeble' than 'amusing'.

"Do you want to win the game?" the game asks at one point.

"Try writing one and I'll answer that question," I reply.

One to avoid.

1 out of 10

GAME: Gilded—The Lily & The Cage
AUTHOR: A. Hazard

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Gilded, perhaps the most uninteractive interactive game I've ever played.

On the positive side of things, it was well written. On the negative side, I'd argue that it was even really 'interactive' fiction. The interactive side of things, you see, implies that the player has some sort of choice in the way the game progresses, yet the beginning of Gilded would seem to think otherwise. The game begins with you lying beneath the legs of a table at which a couple of people are talking (you, at this stage, I am assuming are some kind of animal, but the text gives the impression you're actually just a shadow). The people talk at length (and when I say 'at length' I'm adding special emphasis to the 'length' part) about treasure and you decide it would be a good idea to join them in their quest.

So does the game start then? Well...

It becomes slightly more interactive here with a series of questions fired at the player, but my answers didn't seem to steer things in a different way. Leaving the first location was still impossible so I was forced to hang around for an age while my companions chatted amongst themselves. Finally the game let me move outside, and then I got hit by another brick wall—another conversation! I was tired of the seemingly endless conversations by now so I hit 0 to end the conversation and get on with the game itself, only the game still wouldn't let me leave till I'd finished talking. The big problem here is that no matter what I typed, I just couldn't figure out a way to get the conversation started again. TALK TO [NAME] won't work, and while ASK [NAME] ABOUT [SUBJECT] yielded a few responses, none of them were at all helpful.

Faced with wading my way through all those endless screens of text again to try a different conversation option next time or quitting just didn't appeal to me in the least. Hitting UNDO didn't seem to do the trick, either. So I typed QUIT instead.

I felt that Gilded might have made a better game if it had been less wordy. Seriously, there's no need to load up the screen ten times in a row at the start of the game with enough text to fill a medium sized novel. The same information that took half an hour to read through could have been conveyed to me in a few sentences, and the game would certainly have benefited from not bombarding the player with information overload at every turn. Or maybe all that mountain of text could have accompanied the game in a simple README file that could have been read, or not, at the player's choice.

Nicely written? Yes. Interactive fiction? Not from what I saw of it. I've played CYOA games where I've been given more choices about what I want to do.

5 out of 10 (3 for the interactive side of things, 7 for the writing, so 5 seems a fair score)

GAME: Hello Sword
AUTHOR: Andrea Rezzonica

Okay, maybe it's just me being nasty but people who don't understand the English language really shouldn't be writing games in it. Seriously they shouldn't. The intro to Hello Sword contained more typos and grammatical errors than I've ever read in any intro ever before; every sentence is littered with at least one. Reading it is painful. Literally painful. I was three lines into this game and wishing I'd never even started playing it. Even the little blurb that starts most Inform games was buggy:

HELLO SWORD—The journey English version of the same italian textual adventure written by Andrea Rezzonico Type INFO to enter into the menu of informations. Release 1 / Serial number 050929 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11

Capitalisation? And what pray tell does "Type INFO to enter into the menu of informations." mean?

If there's ever a way to discourage someone from playing a game, this is it. The first command I entered was QUIT and that was more than enough for me.

Please, please, please, if you're going to write a game in English learn the language first.


GAME: History Repeating
AUTHOR: Mark & Renee Choba

I wasn't really sure what to make of this game. It could have had potential but just seemed too rushed for my liking.

You start with a routine day of drudgery at the office and then, without warning, mysteriously find yourself transported back to your class in school.

Properly handled, this could have been interesting but it's been written about with all the depth of a shallow puddle. The enthusiasm, too. Strangely enough, my character doesn't even seem particularly surprised to find himself moving through time and space.

Bugs and errors abound. My teacher speaks to me yet I'm not able to speak back to them because talking out in class isn't allowed. In another location I found some chap called Mr Mitchell who couldn't be spoken to or even examined. One room has a description which advises me I can only exit via the door or the window yet GO WINDOW moves me to the nearest desk and sits me down. Trying CLIMB THROUGH WINDOW produces the helpful response that I can't even see the window! Funnily enough, when I hit upon OUT, the game told me that I had just moved out of the desk. Hmmm... I typed hints at one point and I was informed that there aren't any as the authors ran out of time to include any. After playing this game for a while, I'm pretty sure hints aren't the only thing they didn't have time to include.

I struggled to get anything done in History Repeating. Maybe that's just me being especially dim when it comes to the puzzles on offer, or maybe it's just the game being especially hard. Some of the puzzles just plain don't make any sense. I was kind of baffled when I checked the accompanying walkthrough to find that I was expected to peek through a hole in the wall, see some students sitting there and then go and tell the dean about them. How was I supposed to figure that out? Beats me.

Overall, too little time and effort has been spent on this game, the puzzles are the sort of thing you're only likely to figure out if you're either one of the authors or playing the game with the walkthrough at the side of you, and the game just doesn't appeal to me. Not terrible, but definitely not a game that should have been entered in the IFComp.

3 out of 10

GAME: Mix Tape
AUTHOR: Brett Witty

Parts of Mix Tape I really liked. Others had me tearing my hair out in frustration. It's one of those games best played with the walkthrough to one side of you because you're never going to finish it otherwise.

It's a game about a break up. You're Valentine (strange name by the way) and your boyfriend Peter has called you up to a cliff top to split up. You're going to burn a scrapbook you made of your time together and reminisce over stuff.

First the good points: it's well written. Very well written in parts. Nicely wordy without it ever seeming like you're being forced to wade through so much text your eyes begin to glaze over. Full marks for that.

But the bad points? Oh dear. The very first command in the game—and one I was even advised by the game to try—ASK PETER WHY YOU ARE HERE produced YOU SEE NO PETER WHY YOU ARE HERE HERE. The same response got me for ASK PETER WHY WE ARE HERE as well. Fortunately, this is one of those games with timed events that just tend to move on if you don't actually do anything, so after a few more attempts to elicit a response from Peter, I stood there and waited for a bit. Thankfully the game moved on.

Peter very helpfully kindles a fire for me and I try to burn my scrapbook only to be told that I don't need to burn it. Turns out that this is one of the game's many guess the command errors. The obvious commands seldom seems to work in this game, as I found to my dismay. But helped by the walkthrough, I managed to get a bit further.

The next scene involved cooking dinner for Peter. This was a fairly simple affair on the face of it as the kitchen has precisely one cookable item in it and one means of cooking it. But actually getting him to eat the meal was a different matter. Honest question: would anyone else try SERVE DINNER before GIVE DINNER TO PETER? No, didn't think so.

After that, I played the game with the walkthrough, just typing out the commands one by one. In a way this was bad because it's downright cheating, but as it allowed me to reach the end of the game without slitting my wrists in sheer frustration I consider it a reasonable thing to do.

Aside from the guess the command/verb problems, there were some other errors in Mix Tape. Some of them outright bizarre. I was told I couldn't lie on Peter's bed because I was too large for it. (What - am I a giant or something? Or is Peter a midget?) I couldn't make the bed because I don't know how to 'cook' it. Further in the game, I was advised to put my groceries in the pantry before going into the rest of the house. Which pantry? Beats me. It wasn't listed in the room description. Funnily enough, when trying to examine it the first time I'm told it's empty and that it's closed. How do I know it's empty if it's closed? (Okay, okay, I've just bought some groceries but surely I couldn't see that it was empty if it's closed?)

Frustrating bits aside, I enjoyed Mix Tape more than quite a few other games in the comp. Play it with the walkthrough to hand and it's an enjoyable game; otherwise it's just infuriating.

5 out of 10 (for forcing me to play the game with the walkthrough; +2 if the guess the verb errors and guess what the author was thinking are fixed)

GAME: Neon Nirvana
AUTHOR: Tony Woods

I didn't get very far in Neon Nirvana before resorting to the walkthrough that accompanied the game file. Why? Well... it's a bit on the impossible side.

The storyline is about a detective determined to arrest an elusive criminal by the name of Herman Walter Perron who frequents the club of the game's title. Along with your two sidekicks—Agents Prost and Sanger—you're here to bring the bad man to justice.

In theory anyway. Only the bouncer on the club's main door wouldn't let me in. I tried to arrest him but found I couldn't—apparently this would be wasting a good handcuff. Hmmm. Sounds like a bit of a copout there. If I was a detective about to bring a major criminal to justice, would I let a bouncer on the door stop me entering a club? Heck no, I'd arrest his ass and charge him for obstructing a police officer.

That was about as far as I got before I went to the walkthrough. And considering the string of commands required to actually get past the bouncer, it's a good job I did as they're hardly the sort of thing anyone is ever likely to figure out.

(Bit of a spoiler following so you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

It turns out you need to find a glass in another location, find the bouncer's car (only, of course, you don't know it's the bouncer's car because it doesn't say so anywhere in the game), shoot his tire (why would I do that? I'm a cop for crying out loud!), smash the glass, put the glass on the ruined tire (again, why?) and then go and tell the bouncer about his car. Why oh why oh why would anyone think to do all of that? Unless you're the sort of person who tries out every single thing in a text adventure just to see if you can do them, it's unlikely you'd ever figure that lot out.

This kind of guess the command had blunted my enthusiasm for the game and after playing for another half hour or so (most of which was spent struggling to get anywhere), I quit and decided I'd be better off trying something else instead. The guess the command issues aside, the game itself seemed reasonably okay but struggling to make any kind of progress isn't my idea of a fun game.

3 out of 10

GAME: Ninja II
AUTHOR: Paul Allen Panks (aka Dunric)

(Okay, a quick disclaimer before I start this review proper: I don't particularly like the author (Dunric or Paul Allen Panks or whatever he's calling himself), don't like his games and would probably really struggle to find a nice word to say about anything he did. So bear that in mind when you read the following review.)

Ninja was an entry in the IFComp 2004. It was, and let's not beat about the bush here, dire. Appalling. Awful. Crap. And whatever other insulting words you want to say about it. If there was a template for how not to write a text adventure, then Ninja was that template. It was, quite simply, the kind of game that a toddler could have improved upon.

Ninja II is even worse.

It has the usual flaws that bog down every one of Panks' games that I've had the misfortune to play and which, despite constant criticism for literally years from literally dozens of people, he never bothers doing anything about. "L" doesn't work, "I" doesn't work... funnily enough "X" does work. What—Panks actually listening to what somebody suggested and including an abbreviation command in his game years after everyone else? My god! Has he bothered to write a proper game this time then? And a storyline? And... But no, that would be expecting too much.

The game starts with you, as the ninja of the title, standing outside the same shrine you were standing outside in the first game. This time there's an Ancient Chinese Ice Dragon here (playing on a computer of all things) who has come to kill you. Trying to fight it results in the Dragon breathing fire on you (not very hot fire apparently as it doesn't kill you). Yawn.

I gave up with Ninja pretty soon after starting to play it, and the same fate befell Ninja II as well. It's... well, not just bad, but (I suspect) deliberately bad. It's like the author took a good long look at his first game and thought to himself "now, how can I make it worse?" Personally I'd have said making a worse game than Ninja was a physical impossibility, but Panks has pulled it off. Congratulations to him. His title of Worst Game Writer In The World looks to be secure for another year.

This might well be just a joke entry by the author, but with this author it's hard to tell when he's making a genuine effort to write a game and just messing around. It's so bad it could be a joke entry, but then again it's not much worse than his entry last year which was, to all intents and purposes, a serious entry. So I'll judge it on its own merits: it's a stinker.

Well, Mr Panks, if you're determined to prove to the world just what a terrible game writer you are, then you've certainly scored one hell of a home goal with Ninja II. Well done, it's even worse than Ninja I and that is an achievement in itself.

1 out of 10

GAME: Off The Trolley
AUTHOR: Krisztian Kaldi

Some games just don't appeal to me much and before I've been playing them for more than a few minutes, I'm yearning to try something else. Off The Trolley was one of them.

You're a trolley (bus/coach) driver who's spent his life on the trolley and is utterly fed up with it. You've decided to get 'off the trolley' in a spectacular way.

The introduction hints that the player might be able to crash into buildings with the trolley, which sounded like a lot of fun in a violent childish sort of way. Unfortunately when I tried this it didn't work. Then again, the game didn't understand the word "drive" which I thought was a bit of a failing in a game which takes place on a moving vehicle.

I spent a while trying to get to grips with the actual driving of the trolley. This appeared to consist of a button to start it and a brake to stop it. I'm guessing the trolley in question must be following a grid of some kind because there doesn't seem to be any way of steering it (actually, when I first saw the word "trolley" I assumed "supermarket trolley"), speeding it up or slowing it down. Gripping as this was, it didn't make for a particularly enthralling game playing experience so I got up and had a wander around the trolley. There wasn't much to see. A passenger charmingly referred to as "the Bum" and several other passengers who just sit around chatting. I tried engaging the Bum and the others in conversation but to no avail. I then tried beating a few of them up and ran into the usual flaw in the TADS parser which expects me to attack enemies with a weapon. My bare fists apparently aren't good enough for TADS. As I didn't have a weapon, I'm clearly not going to finish my last day on the trolley being arrested for beating up the passengers.

Making progress was awkward. The trolley was easy enough to operate but there didn't really seem to be anything to do. I could press the button and hit the brakes all I liked. I could wander around the trolley while it wasn't in motion. But that seemed to be about it. So I cheated and went to the walkthrough. I found a note about a key and a panel but when I tried to insert the first into the second I was told I couldn't. As this was the only panel I could find, my game seemed pretty much screwed.

Nice enough writing, and no typos or grammatical errors that I could see, but the game just plain didn't appeal to me.

3 out of 10

GAME: On Optimism
AUTHOR: Tim Lane

The IFComp seems to attract a few gimmick games every year and I'm never usually very fond of them. On Optimism was no exception.

It begins with the player killing himself in distress after the death of his partner and waking up in a room called 'Heart'. There's a poem here that the player can read if he's so minded and another room a short time later called 'Room Of Your Joy'.

My opinion of this game started low and dropped lower the more of it I played. In a way, I'm disappointed I didn't enjoy it more as there's a neat idea as the game's basis, but at the end of the day I just couldn't summon any kind of enthusiasm for it. As a very short game - playable in ten or twenty minutes—I might have struggled through to the bitter end just to see how it panned out, but a neat idea doesn't always make a neat game, and On Optimism was too weird for my liking.

Technically it was fairly accomplished and the writing was better than average, so I'll add a couple of points on to my overall opinion of the game to reflect this.

4 out of 10

GAME: Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer
AUTHOR: Brandon Coker

The first thing I noticed about this was the terrible introduction: typos, grammatical errors and the kind of writing I'd generally associate with someone still attending nursery school. (If the author is still in nursery school, apologies.) In fact, the very first sentence in the game reads

"Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior."

Ouch. A comma where one isn't needed. And when oh when has Egyptian been spelt like that?

But on with the game. What's it like? Well... pretty awful to be honest. Room descriptions seem to be a line or two long on average and, here's the best bit, there's a maze right near the start of the game. Oh joy! Now I'm a big fan of retro 80's text adventures but mazes are one of things I'm glad have gone out of fashion. So plunging straight into one within three moves of starting the game was never going to go down well with me. If the rest of the game had been better, I might have tried a bit harder to find enthusiasm for Phantom: Caverns Of The Killer but as the rest of the game seemed to be even worse, I just lost interest.

Spelling mistakes litter just about every location. There are also a number of irritating bugs, not the least of which being a food stall where I type EAT FOOD, and then the following two lines tell me first of all that I've taken the food and then that it isn't portable. Food not portable? Hmmm...

Overall, a pretty appalling game and one that was never in a fit state to be entered in the IFComp.

1 out of 10

GAME: The Plague: Redux
AUTHOR: Cannibal

The idea of zombies attacking the living seems a popular theme for the past few years, what with the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, a pastiche Shaun Of The Dead and then George A. Romero's (very disappointing) Land Of The Dead, and here the idea makes its way into a text adventure. With pretty impressive results, too.

You play the part of Stacie, out for the night with some of the girls, who gets caught up in all the chaos at a subway station when the undead start turning on the living. Your friends become lost and you are trapped in the subway station, weaponless. It's just you...and a horde of ravening zombies.

The bulk of The Plague: Redux takes place in the subway station as Stacie, the aforementioned damsel in distress, struggles to get out in one piece. Along the way, she encounters a few other survivors (including some pleasant chap who tries to rape her (not a game for kids clearly)) and, yes, zombies galore. The writing is excellent for the most part and does a good job of evoking the scene of a terrified young woman in mortal danger of being killed by zombies.

Unfortunately there are some serious errors that let things down. I found some zombies feasting on a corpse in a cubicle and options were displayed on screen to either [F] Fight or [E] Escape. Neither worked. Nor did attacking the zombies work. In fact, I wasn't able to do anything at all about the zombies, and worst still, when I typed LOOK, I was alone in the cubicle without the zombies. Worse was the fact that when I left the cubicle and re-entered, the zombies were back. This time, however, I wasn't given the option of [F] Fight or [E] Escape, but just killed them straight off with a weapon I was carrying.

Elsewhere I found a woman who had been mauled by zombies. Even though I didn't know her name, the game helpfully referred to her as Kate. After some struggling to help her, I figured out what needed doing but ran into a problem in that the game wouldn't accept my GIVE [OBJECT] TO KATE but only GIVE [OBJECT] TO WOMAN.

If there are any faults with The Plague: Redux (gameplay faults, that is, and not outright errors or bugs like those mentioned above), it's that the early parts are far too linear. The intro seems to take an age to get through and involves little more than the main character and her friends fleeing from a horde of zombies. There's also the problem that, despite zombies running around and killing people all over the place, it's possible for the player to take as long as they want in getting anywhere. And the threat of the zombies themselves is somewhat weakened by the fact that the player—a young woman armed with a metal pole - is able to kill them without too much difficulty. How has the zombie threat progressed this far if they're so easy to kill? (Then again, it never made much sense in the films that unarmed, shambling corpses who can't think for themselves could overpower soldiers armed with machine guys...)

A large portion of the game has the player wandering around the subway station trying to find some money for a bottle of water from a dispensing machine. Why? Because she's thirsty. This struck me as a pretty flimsy excuse for what is—due to the way the money is actually found in half a dozen or so different places, some of them not very obvious—a very lengthy and time consuming puzzle. I must have spent a good hour wandering around the subway station searching for a few extra coins for the water... all the time wondering just why I didn't simply go into one of the many shops scattered around the place and help myself to some. Unfortunately, the water is required for an event later in the game and without it you won't get anywhere, so it's not a case of you being able to miss it out if you don't want to.

Examining items and looking under and behind them is often a different thing entirely in this game. Something that I discovered after examining just about every item in the subway station, not finding much, and then realising I had to go over the whole place again to find what I needed. A little README file indicating that examining items was different from looking under and behind them would have been a good idea.

But the problems with the game (aside from the errors with the disappearing zombies in the cubicle) are relatively minor ones and, with a bit of perseverance, can be overcome. Overall, The Plague: Redux is a great text adventure, and certainly the best ADRIFT game I've played this year.

8 out of 10

GAME: Psyche's Lament
AUTHOR: John & Lara Sichi

I'm going out on a limb here and guessing Psyche's Lament was written by a duo who have never written a game before. Why? Well, for the simple fact that getting anything done was more painful than having teeth extracted (something I can personally attest to having visited my friend the dentist just a few days prior to writing this review). The old Inform chestnut of THAT'S NOT SOMETHING YOU NEED TO REFER TO IN THE COURSE OF THIS GAME (the system's default response when you try to examine an item the author hasn't covered a response for (i.e. just about every item in the game)) popped up on screen so many times during my first five minutes that I began to wonder if the authors were being paid to display it or something.

The storyline? Confusing. You wake up in the dark and then Aphrodite (your mother) opens some seeds before you and they drop on the floor. Hmmm... probably not the worst introduction to a game I've ever come across but it's hard to think of a worse one on the spur of the moment.

After struggling for a few minutes to get anywhere in the game, I came to the conclusion that this was either a joke entry or one just so bad it appeared to be a joke. So I went to the walkthrough. As it turned out, it wasn't a joke entry but the sheer number of non-obvious commands required to get anywhere made me wonder if the authors were secretly having a laugh at my expense. 'Cry' is a command used at one point; elsewhere I'm expected to 'zap green'—why would I think to do this? Damned if I know.

After that, sorry to say, but I lost interest. The rest of the walkthrough seemed to revolve around more non-obvious commands and as I wasn't particularly impressed with the game so far I decided it was high time to quit.

2 out of 10

GAME: Sabotage On The Century Cauldron
AUTHOR: Thomas de Graaf

I had a five minute run through this game right at the start of the Comp, didn't like it much and decided to give up with it. A while later, after playing through all the other Comp games, I came back to it.

So would I have been better off not returning to the game? Or is it a masterpiece in the making? Probably a bit of the former unfortunately.

As the title implies, you're a saboteur aboard a spaceship named The Century Cauldron. Quite why you've decided to sabotage it is something of a mystery. The walkthrough (which I found myself looking at very quickly into the game) says that examining the pictures hanging on your cabin wall reveal the reason for your sabotaging ways, but as this just shows you a photo of your dog and says you've left him behind, I wasn't too sure if I was missing something. Are you really planning to sabotage a spaceship and potentially kill all the people on board because you accidentally forgot to bring your dog along?

I quite liked the game to begin with. The layout of the ship isn't particularly inspired, and the people you meet are more caricatures than real believable people, but the game seemed to flow along nicely enough. It was only when I started trying to make progress that I became stuck. A quick glance at the walkthrough showed me why. The first main puzzle in the game—getting hold of the keycard that allows you into the lab—has one of those solutions that probably seems really inspired to the writer, but less so to the player. One of the solutions involves poisoning another crew member with an item that I wasn't even aware at the time was poison (strangely, when I tried to drink it, it didn't kill me), taking an item from him and substituting it for the keycard I need. The other solution looks to be a pretty random thing whereby if you happen to wait around in a certain location at the same time as a couple of other characters are there, they will start arguing and then will chase each other through the ship, eventually unlocking the door you need to get access to.

And I'm supposed to figure that out how exactly? Maybe I'm just getting really bad at these sorts of games but, to me, that strikes me as the kind of puzzle that I'm not, never in a million years, going to figure out.

Incidentally, I waited around in the relevant location for a while but nothing seemed to happen. Another time, I managed to be around when the two characters start arguing and I was able to chase them around the ship for 50+ moves, although I never noticed them unlock the door in question or even go anywhere near it. The chase itself was amusing but after 50+ moves of following the two around, I was pretty much near my wit's end.

For the time I spent playing Sabotage On The Century Cauldron, I quite enjoyed it (non-obvious puzzles notwithstanding), but I doubt it's a game I'll be going back to any time soon. A better indication of just why I'm trying to sabotage the ship would have been nice, as well as making it clearer just how you're supposed to go about your goal. Oh, and disabling the UNDO command is just going to annoy people. It certainly annoyed me.

4 out of 10

GAME: Snatches
AUTHOR: Gregory Weir

I wasn't too keen on Snatches to begin with. The beginning of the game seemed poorly implemented, with locations being pretty much empty and there being little to do in them. But just about at the time where I was thinking that maybe I should quit it and go find some other Comp game to play instead, it began to improve. I got snatched.

The title refers to the game's strange habit of jumping from one seemingly unrelated scene to another, often also seemingly unrelated. What triggers the move from one part to another is never really clear - it happened after I started the car in one scene—although maybe the problem was that, once I realised Snatches was a game of many parts, I tended to try and get through the many parts as quickly as possible in the hope that I might get an explanation at the end of the game. Unfortunately not. The game ended with me even more confused than when I started playing it.

I ran into a strange error right at the start of the game which I wasn't sure was an error on the author's part or a strange flaw in the Inform program. Trying to open the door revealed to me that it was locked, yet when I attempted to go north through it I unlocked and opened it. Why does going north open the door for me yet the more obvious command—OPEN DOOR—not work?

Snatches is a series of very small games all joined together, although an explanation for each part is never really made clear. I moved from the first part (after struggling with some guess the verb issues in that START CAR was required instead of DRIVE CAR) to the second, and then from the second to the third, and so on, without really understanding what was going on. Some of the parts seemed to refer to other parts, although what the connection between them was I wasn't entirely sure. Most of the parts were so short that little more than a few minutes work was required to finish them off, yet quite often I would leave that part of the game and never be sure just whether I had achieved anything in it or not. Some, in fact, were even shorter than that. One I managed to complete by moving in a compass direction right off, and then I was snatched and taken somewhere else.

But while it was a confusing game that didn't make any kind of sense to me whatsoever, Snatches was still fairly interesting to play. Trying to fathom out what was going on, and wondering over just what kind of creature the shadow that popped up from time to time was, passed an hour or more pleasantly enough. I couldn't say I really liked the game overall but there was enough about it to make to me feel it was one of the few in the IFComp 2005 actually worth playing. I just wish I had a clue what it was all about.

5 out of 10

GAME: Space Horror

Ah, good old CYOA. I've always been especially fond of these sort of games, (heck, I've even written a few myself) so when I saw what this one, I eagerly tried it.

Getting the thing to work was a pain to begin with. The game installed to my Program Files directory but I decided I'd sooner have it in My Documents because that's where most of my programs are. Bad mistake. The way the game is set up, it won't work if it's anywhere but the Program Files. So I had to copy it all back. Sigh.

Did it work then? Kind of. I wasn't sure which of the 152 objects in the game file I was supposed to click on to actually start the game, so I tried "Space Horror I" and completely missed the introduction. Several clicks later and I found the right one.

On with the game...

Aliens have landed! Yep, it's one of those games which pits you, the hapless average guy, against a ravening horde of space aliens hell bent on conquering the world.

I liked Space Horror for the most part. The storyline was kind of uninspired, not to mention unrealistic as hell, but I still enjoyed reading it and following my character through to the many various endings. I wasn't too keen on the way it was set up, though. Clicking the links at the end of the page seemed more troublesome than, say, typing a number or a letter would have been. Then there were the annoying errors when the screen kept flickering from time to time - pretty distracting when you're trying to read something on it. A time or two, I even clicked on a link, the screen refreshed a few times, and then I found myself back at the start of the game again. I'm sure I hadn't died, and hadn't accidentally clicked the wrong link, so clearly there are a few bugs in this that need ironing out. The delay between clicking on some of the links and being taken to relevant section was annoying as well. The game was tested with IE6 but I use Firefox so maybe that's where the problem lies.

Space Horror isn't a large game. It's split into just 124 sections, of which at least half don't have any kind of option at the end of them, just a link to click to take you to another section. It's easily playable in two hours, though, and maybe that was the intention.

Despite enjoying the game, I quit before the two hours were up. Why? Too many bugs, too much tedious waiting to be sent to the correct section, too much screen flickering. I'd like to see everything this game has to offer, but only if it's in the form of a game written with a proper IF authoring system.

6 out of 10 for the game itself (about 2 out of 10 for the errors)

GAME: The Sword Of Malice
AUTHOR: Anthony Panuccio

I've never been a big fan of intros to games that try to cram a huge amount of history into a few short paragraphs. Either tell the back history in a more interesting way or spend a while longer doing it. Here we have the entire history of your race—the Sekoniun—and their thousand year war against their bitter enemies—the Altari. The Sekoniun elders, it transpires, have discovered ancient texts that have told them how to create the ultimate weapon that will defeat the Altari forever. All they have to do is build it. How do they go about this? Organise a crack team of elite soldiers to gather the necessary pieces of the weapon together? Nah. Just get one helpless chap (i.e. you) to get all the pieces on your own. After all, it's the only the fate of your entire race hanging in the balance so it'd be overkill to send more than one person, right? And then you go and get yourself captured and thrown in a cell.

A cell that's pretty hard to escape from as the command listed in the walkthrough—PULL CHAINS—doesn't do anything. (PULL CHAIN, however, does work.) Some guess the verb with the chains and the bars in the door didn't help either. TIE CHAINS TO BARS won't work but PULL BARS WITH CHAIN will.

Does a bad start to a game equal a bad game? Not necessarily, but it did here. Once out of my cell, I wandered through a considerable amount of very empty, very dull locations. Most are a line or two in length and lack any kind of depth. Most, also, lack exits displayed in the text so most of my time seemed to be trying an exit at random, being told I couldn't go that way, and then trying another. Needless to say, it wasn't long before I was banging out the QUIT command with the belief that this game was a long way away from being ready to be submitted to the IFComp.

2 out of 10

GAME: Tough Beans
AUTHOR: Sara Dee

Although the storyline—which was basically about a woman called Wendy who discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her—didn't appeal to me much, I really enjoyed Tough Beans and felt it was one of the strongest games in the Comp. It certainly made a refreshing change to play a game that was actually well written, pretty bug-free and not littered with more spelling mistakes than I could shake a stick at. Coming as it did after half a dozen such games, Tough Beans made for a welcome game indeed.

After the strange beginning, the game begins properly with you getting ready for work and entertaining the possibility that your boyfriend, Derek, might well not be as faithful as you'd like to think.

Not the most riveting start to a game I've ever played, but nicely written and the main character seems a believable one. But then Tough Beans isn't one of those games that focuses on larger issues like saving the world or finding hidden treasure. It's a game set in the real world and deals with real issues. And is all the better for it.

I didn't discover any outright bugs while playing Tough Beans but there were a small oddities that popped up from time to time. Upon trying to smell the stain I discovered on the shirt, I was asked which stain I meant—small or large. The strange thing is that the description for both is identical. Why the need for two stains if they're both identical?

The difficulty factor is set just right for the most part, although I struggled to get the puzzle with the dog sorted out. A little on the non-obvious side? Yes, a little. Other than that, there seemed to be a slight reluctance to let the player make progress on their own and the game was constantly herding me along a very set path. I wasn't able to leave the first location until a certain amount of time had passed, even though I'd done everything that was required in there. But I managed to reach the end of the game without running into anything I wasn't able to figure out. And all within the two hour requirement for the Comp as well.

All in all, Tough Beans is an impressive first game and certainly bodes well for the future.

7 out of 10

GAME: Vendetta
AUTHOR: James Hall

In Vendetta, you play the part of Jem Bitter, a genetically enhanced 'super soldier' and soon to be decorated for your part in preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear device in the heart of London.

On the face of it, that all sounds like a pretty interesting back story for a game, but, for one reason or another, it didn't impress me anywhere near as much as I thought it should. As I made my way through the game, my character, despite the genetic enhancements, didn't really do anything very 'super soldier'. Does he have special abilities that set him aside from his fellow man? If so, I never seemed able to make use of any of them, aside from during cut scenes where control of the game is taken out of my hands.

Despite a bit of background for the main character given at the start of the game, it's quite a while later before you actually find out what Vendetta is all about. To begin with, I wandered around, solved a few puzzles, found a suitcase, took a taxi ride, met my girlfriend and attended a restaurant with her... but it was only when I got kidnapped, after I'd been playing the game for close on two hours, that I discovered what the whole thing was about. I can't help thinking that it might have been a better idea to have cut the first part of the game out altogether and just start it with the kidnapping as that's the point at which the game really seems to start. (Then again, I helped test the game and the idea didn't occur to me until now...)

There seemed to be a lot of waiting around in Vendetta. Too much for my liking. This isn't a terrible thing in itself, if done in moderation, but quite a few times I seemed to be required to wait around in certain locations for something to happen without any real indication that anything was going to happen. Then again, none of the time-based puzzles like this presented me with any real problems because, in the early part of the game where they hit the hardest, there's not much room to explore and before long you're going to find yourself wandering around the same set of locations again and again simply because you've exhausted every other option. Inevitably, you'll most likely stumble on the solution through sheer persistence.

At other times, Vendetta becomes very non-interactive (if that's even a phrase. If not, you probably understand what I mean.) There is huge amounts of information to be relayed to the player, and whenever this information is being relayed, the game seems to pretty much lock up. You're generally stuck in a location with no way out and, irrespective of what you do, the game progresses on its own without any intervention on your part. Now I've done this sort of thing in a few of my games so I probably shouldn't be the one complaining over it, but when faced with one screen after another of text, none of which is avoidable, my eyes begin to glaze over and I tend to just skim through it to get the gist of it. It also isn't helped by the fact that a lot of the information relayed to you in this way isn't really that interesting. It might have been better as a series of questions that could be asked, instead of just being delivered to you over several screens of text.

There are also times when Vendetta goes into 'auto pilot' mode. You know the thing. Your character creeps along a corridor and then, without you doing anything, he just rushes along and does something completely unexpected. Here it's a guard you attack. It might have been nice to be given the choice of deciding whether you wanted to attack the guard, and not just have the game do it for you.

Vendetta is a big game with a huge amount of rooms, a good number of which could have been cut out of the game and it wouldn't have suffered for their loss. The latter part of the game takes place at the Falcon Lithoid, a gigantic complex on many floors that contains vast amounts of rooms. Most of which are either empty or as good as empty. The Falcon Lithoid is surrounded by a dozen or more empty locations with nothing to do, all of which are pretty similar in appearance, and don't really seem to serve any purpose other than to make the Lithoid seem even bigger. Was that the aim? If this was the 80's, when more locations = better game, I could understand it but it seems kind of strange having so many locations in a game these days, particularly when the majority of them don't really seem to serve any purpose.

In the end, I felt that Vendetta was an okay-ish game that came close to being good but missed out in quite a few different areas. A lot of effort has been expended on it, but the overall storyline just isn't that interesting. Jem Bitter is presented as a super soldier yet never gets the opportunity to use his super soldier abilities. I can't help but feel that the 'terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb in the heart of London' would have made a better idea for a game than the one presented here.

A missed opportunity.

4 out of 10

GAME: Vespers
AUTHOR: Jason Devlin

I wasn't too sure about Vespers to begin with. A game about monks that starts with a quote from the bible? Hmmm... not my cup of tea to be honest. But I played it for a while longer just to see if it managed to capture my interest...

... and got hooked.

Vespers is a murder mystery. You are the high priest of a monastery, close to a village named Rovato where a deadly plague has infested the populace. You've closed the gates of the monastery to the dead and dying in the hopes of saving yourself and your fellows monks... but to no avail as the plague has reached you all the same. The game begins with all of the monastery's monks beginning to show signs of the plague. The future looks bleak.

The murder mystery side of things comes about before long, with the monks at the monastery turning on each other. Have they been driven mad by the plague? Or is something more sinister at work?

It took me a while to get anywhere in Vespers due to the game being the kind that has a series of staged events that each have to be reached before the next one goes ahead. So a lot of time was spent wandering from location to location until I hit upon the correct series of events required to trigger the next event... and so on. But once things start moving, Vespers turns into a very interesting game indeed.

The only aspect of the game I didn't like, and one which annoyed me more and more the longer I played it, were the frequent pop-up windows in the middle of the screen containing biblical quotes. I'm not sure if these were supposed to add depth to the game (if so, they didn't succeed) or provide clues (which they didn't) or there they were for some other reason. Whatever the reason for their appearance, they annoyed me with the way they would often appear right over the text I was trying to read which meant bashing return a few times to shift the text up the screen a bit and allow me to read it. I'm assuming this is some kind of flaw in the Inform program and not the game, but it was still a pain.

I felt some parts of Vespers were a little unfair. There's a scene whereby you can be murdered in your sleep if you don't take precautions before going to sleep to protect yourself from this sort of thing. Only you don't know before you go to sleep that you might risk being murdered so it's only after you've been murdered and started the game again that you know to take the precautions the next time. (Of course, I just hit UNDO and took the relevant precautions but that's neither here nor there.)

I liked the author's entry in the IFComp 2004 but I think Vespers is a better game overall than Sting Of The Wasp and will certainly be one of the top three games in the IFComp 2005.

7 out of 10

GAME: Xen: The Contest
AUTHOR: Xentor

Guess the verb hit this game. And hit it hard. One of the first locations I found myself in was the cafeteria where I was advised to get some food. Unfortunately upon trying GET FOOD I was advised that "the food isn't important". I tried examining a few of the things I could see but as it happened I couldn't see any of them as the author hadn't bothered including a description for them. BUY FOOD didn't work. Nor did BUY BURGER or PURCHASE BURGER. By the time I finally resorted to the walkthrough and saw that ASK CHEF FOR BURGER was required, I was half convinced this was some kind of cleverly hidden joke entry. After that, thankfully, the game got quite a bit better.

There were a few things I liked about the game: the room descriptions were lengthy and nicely written and the style of writing was certainly okay. But my enthusiasm waned a bit whenever I tried to examine some of the scenery and found I couldn't. Most of the items described in any given room description can't be examined, which left me with the impression that this game had either been written by someone in a great hurry or someone who hadn't bothered testing it afterwards. Or maybe both. Oh, and the description of the bookstore displays the description of the bookstore clerk. The store itself doesn't even have a description.

For a while I just wandered around the game and saw what there was to do. Which didn't seem to be a whole lot. With the majority of items mentioned in room descriptions being of the non-examinable sort, that left me with not much to do as the game isn't one of those with huge amounts of activity packed into each location.

In the end, and as time was pressing, I went to the walkthrough. It advised me to try something I'd already tried once: knocking on Kevin's door. The response I'd got to begin with was that he wasn't in, so I'd figured I needed to do something else first. Which led me to one of the game's main flaws: guessing what's in the author's head. It turns out Kevin doesn't show up in his room until a couple of other completely unrelated events have taken place - buying some books and meeting your roommate and his friends. I suppose it's possible you could hit upon this by sheer luck, but I always prefer puzzles that actually make sense and can be figured out if you take the time to do so.

I didn't play much more of the game afternoon that as I was rapidly approaching the two hour deadline for Comp games, but while the game had a certain charm to it, the subject matter so far hadn't interested me a whole lot. Maybe there's more to it than simply starting your first day at university but, if so, it might have been an idea to begin the game with this rather than simply eating a burger, buying books and finding out your roommate's a bit of a thug.

5 out of 10

This article copyright © 2005, David Whyld

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