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Michael Martin's IFComp 2005 reviews

by Michael Martin

Posted 16 November 2005 to

IFComp 2005 Reviews

Lots of dark themes this year in the comp; take some anti-angst before diving in. Also, there was a really widespread failure to maintain a consistent tone throughout the game. A vast number of games had the narrator break character severely enough to throw me out of the game. Maybe I was just hyper-picky this year, but euuuugh.

So, first the games sorted by score, and then the reviews, in the order I played them:

Unlike my scores last year, recommendable games don't necessarily all have "excellent" scores. If you didn't play all the games this comp, I do, of course, recommend anything with a score of 8 or higher (and strongly recommend the top two), but FutureGame (tm) is worth the time it demands. Furthermore, if you can forgive serious flaws in execution, both Xen: The Contest and Internal Vigilance have excellent games at their core.

Ninja II

by Paul Allen Panks

I'll actually be rather surprised if this doesn't get disqualified, as it seems to be identical to Ninja 1.02 from last year's comp, with two major differences. First, the background color is blue, not black. Second, the shrine is guarded by a fire-breathing ice dragon who's playing Spacewar on a PDP-1.

With the help of the strings utility I was able to deduce that I needed to type BEAT DRAGON to defeat the dragon and continue with a seemingly-identical retread of the first Ninja. All other synonyms for ATTACK fail, because the ice dragon breathes fire at you.

QUIT still isn't implemented.

Also, you defeat the fire-breathing ice dragon with a slash, despite the fact that you don't get the sword until after you defeat him. Fear your elite ninja skills!

Did I mention the ice dragon breathes fire?

Score: 1

Space Horror I: Prey of your Enemies

by Jerry

This was filed as a Windows game, and I suppose it is, but it really shouldn't have been one. Since the whole game is really a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story implemented with HTML, the only Windows-specific components are the fact that the installer .exe is Windows-based, and some (but not all!) of the links in the HTML it installs are absolute links instead of relative ones. Since all the content is actually all in the same directory, there's no reason for this at all; with a little hand-hacking of URLs, I ran it under Mozilla Linux just fine. Ok, so some of the media content was also in traditionally Windows formats, but mplayer could handle them. That said, if it used MPEG instead of WMV, and used relative links everywhere, and shipped as a ZIP file instead of as a Windows installer, this would be fully crossplatform.

That's the engine, though. What about the game itself?

Well, as noted, it's all static HTML, so interactivity is kind of limited. It's really a choose your own adventure, though some tricks that don't work with numbered paragraphs make some appearances as well. Even allowing for this, there's not much of a story here; your choices tend to boil down to (a) Save World, or (b) Die. Worse, there are some plot points that affect the ending, but the game doesn't keep track of them; it just asks you point-blank whether you did X, and then takes you at your word. This won't do for computer-refereed adventures. In fact, it doesn't really hold water even in numbered-paragraph games; the traditional approach is to have the reader keep a slip of paper around and make notes on it at points ("If you were instructed to write "Note F" on your sheet, go to paragraph 47; otherwise, go to paragraph 93.") This is difficult but not impossible to handle in static HTML (you may end up multiplying paragraphs), and it's pretty much mandatory.

That said, it's a reasonable enough introduction to a longer story, I suppose.

Score: 4

Jesus of Nazareth

by Paul Allen Panks

Dunric strikes again! Actually, this is easily the strongest game he's produced in some time; it looks like he may have been recycling some of the machinery from his earlier more serious games (though I haven't looked at Westfront PC, the interface looks similar to B-Venture) and so we get a more recognizable text adventure experience here.

The plot is simple enough. You are Jesus, and you're wandering around collecting treasures, er, I mean, disciples. This generally involves completing fetchquests for them first.

There's also randomized combat, for those of you who think that no holy parable can really stand up without random sequences of Jesus kicking butt. Or, in my case, getting his butt kicked by some random centurion, at which point I received the message:

*** It's Game Over, Jesus ***

As is so frequently the case with Dunric games, it's not entirely clear how serious he thinks he's being, but I found the massive incongruity between the subject matter, the rather clumsy way in which it is manifested, and the game milieu in which it has been placed incredibly amusing. Any game in which I can't keep a straight face while describing it can't truly be considered a waste of time.

Score: 4

On Optimism

by Tim Lane

This is going to be a difficult review to write. It wants to be a Work of Great Pathos and Significance, a Cri de Coeur that will Rock You To Your Very Soul. Unfortunately, it falls so far short of that mark that it's more of a cocktail napkin that has had "zOMG TEH ANGSTZ0RZ!!!11!!" scrawled on it in crayon. Black crayon.

This is made even more maddening by the fact that in the endnotes we get an entirely different voice coming out of the writing, and that voice would have informed a pretty decent game. What we are actually playing, however, is an attempt at "serious writing" that has mistaken "blood, despair, and lots of big words and strained similes" for "serious writing." This is made even more jarring by the facts that the big words and strained similes tended to (a) involve geometry or pop culture, and (b) involve them incorrectly (misspelling "Sméagol" as "Smeagle"; describing a diamond as "a perfect equilateral triangle" instead of its facets as such).

The puzzles, for me, were either complete brick walls or very straightforward. As a result, after the second or third brick wall I tended to fail directly over to hints—and the correct actions were obscure enough that I never got an "I should have figured that out" out of it.

Score: 3


By Slan Xorax

If you played PTBAD3 last year, you know what to expect from PTBAD6: nothing. And, indeed, the walkthrough has one command, and it's to go in a direction that isn't listed in the opening room.

I'd like to suggest that if Mr. Xorax makes another sequel, the walkthrough should again be one command: QUIT.

Of course, PUTPBAA already did that gag.

Score: 1


by Fuyu Yuki

This is a near-future-style techno-thriller, and it's really pretty well done, with an interesting PC and subtly though nicely handled character development. The writing is always at least servicable, you always have a goal of some kind, and the interaction is mostly smooth (smoother than I've come to expect from ADRIFT games, actually, though I did get the "You can't move that" from PULL TARP when I should have said PULL TARPAULIN.) The map felt a little sparse (lots of corridors) towards the end, so I would have needed to map carefully had I had time. I didn't, but I was following the game well enough to be able to say "Now I need to go to room X", copy a bunch of move commands out of the walkthrough, and end up in room X.

The only other suggestion I'd make is that cutscenes should really be fully non-interactive. I don't like sequences where you need to repeatedly wait or examine stuff to be fed the cutscene.

This is probably the best ADRIFT game I've played.

Score: 7

The Colour Pink

by Robert Street

I always get nervous when I see .z8 games entered into the Comp; I usually assume I won't have time to finish them. But not this one! It felt like a traditional puzzle-solving sort of romp, and I worked through the puzzles and found myself solving it at about the 75 minute mark.

And then I got the puzzling little message, "You never left the Path of Daedalus." And then I flipped through the endnotes, where it explained that, as I was adventuring in an area formed at least in part by the projections from my internal state, I could jump between the "Path of Daedalus" where I was helping people out in traditional Adventurer fashion, and all was cute and fuzzy, or the nightmarish "Path of Diomedes", where I slew, tricked, or otherwise overpowered the filth that opposed me—and you'd switch between them by going against type for whatever world you happened to be in. This is really neat, and it was well handled. The only problem with it, if "problem" is even the right word, is that players are likely to follow their cues and thus stay on the path of Daedalus all the way through.

Score: 8

Waldo's Pie

by Michael Arnaud

This is the first ALAN3 game I've played. I'm not impressed with the mechanics: the game file is nearly half a megabyte, and the save files produced are in the 200kB range. This for a game that's significantly shorter than The Colour Pink. Not only that, but RESTORE and UNDO aren't turn-exact; they seem to kick one back multiple numbers of moves.

The plot is a little strange. It starts out with you taking your kids to the circus as a retired clown, but then they get kidnapped by an evil magician and you have to defeat a dragon to get the components to build a mind-destroying pie to confuse their kidnapper sufficiently for you to get your kids back. It gets Weird fast enough that I don't know if I can call it fully inconsistent, but it did feel like at least half of my concerns at any given time were either incongruous or insane.

Also, it appears that the reason I retired was because I unleashed the power of my own mind-destroying pie recipe upon myself; this seems a bit unlikely.

I also had to replay most of the game due to messing up my inventory management and being made basically unable to backtrack, nor to get myself killed.

Score: 4

Amissville II

by the Santoonie Corporation

I'm too new to the community to remember Amissville I, but I'm given to understand that it was legendarily bad. Now we have a sequel, which cheerily opens with "Keeping with Santoonie tradition, there is no walk thru. The game was written for the amusement of it's [sic] authors." However, it also included the line "Only the woods stand in your way and a herd of llamas", which was easily the best line from any sub-7 game this comp.

So, how's the game itself? Well, the map is pretty terrible. Room descriptions have only a vague correlation to the actual ways you can go. An exhaustive breadth-first search of the rooms was necessary to figure out that, despite there being three ways of getting to the town (and thus the first objective), there was only one way back. And the necessary room exit is unclued. (There are Inform routines that will check out your map and ensure that there are no accidental one-way exits and such; there must be something similar for TADS.) Also, the global layout is kind of weird; you can end up in town by going vaguely south, but in order to get back to camp from town, you end up going purely south. It's like the map is a very very small globe.

That said, though, the world seems pretty nicely laid out. Exploring the game world (which wound up taking about 100 of my 120 minutes) felt mostly natural (as long as I didn't try to backtrack), and I enjoyed the scenery and the general travel experience. I also note with approval that unlike Delvyn and Zero, Santoonie's previous comp entries, the hunger daemon code has been disabled.

I only managed to solve two puzzles in the time allotted (recruit Baron, defeat dog.) I found the stirrup but it claimed I still needed "the a stirrup" to ride it, even when it was on the horse. This implies there are probably some event trigger issues still left.

Had the map issues been worked out so that one could more easily get back to camp by retracing one's steps, I'd have seen much more of the game, and given the scope that it intended, it would probably have been in the 5 or 6 range, depending on how it all worked out. As it stands, though, it's basically unplayable by normal means.

Score: 2


by A Hazard

This is a "fairy tale from the other side"; you're one of the Fair Folk, and you're gleefully terrorizing and pranking the humans in your realm. As such, you get a wide array of nifty powers, including the CREATE verb. It's better implemented than it was in last year's Order, but it's still too open-ended and as a result it becomes Guess The Noun on steroids. In fact, after this game, I'm just about ready to conclude that CREATE doesn't work at all, and this should be handled in a manner more akin to the Enchanter-style spells (you know everything you can create, and earn the ability to create other things by solving puzzles).

A lot of the event triggers—even the ones not involving the CREATE verb—were pretty obscure, too. I realize I'm supposed to be all fey and random, but it's hard to be random in the right way without looking at the walkthroughs.

Speaking of which, the walkthroughs and hints were horribly inadequate and arguably not even Comp-ready. Three were offered—a bare-bones walkthrough, a "scenic route", and a middle-level one. However, only the bare-bones one actually worked, and the scenic route walkthrough didn't even exist. (Note to authors: if you haven't implemented something, don't call attention to its absence. There was no need to have the scenic route option at all, and the middle road could have been called the "scenic route".) The middle road walkthrough included commands that either didn't do anything or gave "You see nothing special about the X" responses, and didn't successfully trigger the endgame. The hints got me into the endgame, but didn't get me out of the tavern in the first scene; despite its assurances that I didn't need to do anything in the tavern, there were, in fact, two things that needed doing to advance the plot.

This is immensely ambitious, but it falls well short of what it aims for, and it needs a few more rounds of polishing before it can properly shine.

Score: 5

FutureGame (tm)

by The FutureGame Corporation

Well, I suppose it had to happen. Somebody submitted "Hello World" to the Comp.

Relax, gentle reader; it's not as bad as all that. It's respectful of the player, and it does have a point of sorts to make, too. It's essentially an argument against unfailable games, and the nature of the argument would really be diminished if it weren't presented as a game.

There are even two choice points, so it's arguably interactive, sort of.

So yeah. It gets a low score, because there's no there there; but authors and aspiring authors should spend the five minutes it takes to experience FutureGame(tm). It has a lesson to impart, and the lesson is worthy.

Score: 2


by Kevin Venzke

This was by the creator of last year's Kurusu City, which was a fun little romp, but which suffered from stonewalling the player via incomplete hints. That's basically what happened this time around, too; I wound up wasting a lot of time dealing with the boring stuff in order to get to parts where I do the fun stuff.

The univeral-malfunctioning-of-everything in the modern area was annoying. The suddenly-stops-malfunctioning of some of them, without warning or explanation, was very annoying.

I ran out of time trying to find the door the mechanic's key fit.

Score: 5

Mix Tape

by Brett Witty

This is a slice-of-life story in which we watch the fiery collapse of a dysfunctional relationship. The problem with this kind of story is that we enter just as it's beginning to collapse. We only hear about the good parts in flashback, and most of what we see shows both characters at their worst.

Most of the interaction was decently done, but with nothing driving the game but the story, an inability to identify with or care about the characters is fatal.

Score: 4

The Plague (Redux)

by Cannibal

In attempting to play the first scene of this, I was dropped into an unimplemented room with no exits or descriptions. I then checked the walkthrough and it looked like I'd done everything right. I then experimented more with the intro and didn't seem to be able to do anything to avoid that room.

Score: 1


by David Whyld

This had, in a sense, much the same problem that Mix Tape did; it's mostly story, and the characters are all basically loathesome. In Mortality, this is kind of the point; it's trying to be dark and gritty, and it mostly succeeds. There are a number of places where the tone wobbles, but it's never quite fatal. It could use a few run-throughs by people more familiar with gritty and/or occult style writing, though.

It's quite a bit more interactive than Mix Tape—however, most of this interaction is of a CYOA form; your choices end up modifying a tally that determines the nature of the ending. This is kind of neat, but in terms of "game", it's really all there is, so it ends up feeling a bit slight.

Score: 5

History Repeating

by Mark and Renee Choba

OK, so, first off, the core gimmick here is kind of lame; a high school science teacher has invented a time machine, and the only thing he can think of to do with it is to bring back one of his students from 20 years in the future so as to make him not screw up a report?

Like most time machines, this tends to end up really being more useful as something else Last year's All Things Devours had a "time machine" that was really more of a total conversion powerplant. History Repeating's time machine is actually an immortality device—you're sent back to your younger self's mind, so you can just perpetually live out your life.

The game itself is OK, but you have to accept that you're here to solve puzzles; most of your more adventure-y antics could have been dodged handily by waiting a few hours and then hitting a hardware store. Likewise, the final puzzle, which involves destroying an object, should have permitted a simple ATTACK or even EAT.

That said, not too bad a game.

Score: 6

Psyche's Lament

by Now We Have Faces

This was a light and silly puzzlebox sort of game; a rarity this comp. It felt quite refreshing as a result of this, and I definitely had more fun playing with it than I did with a lot of these.

As a result, it's kind of short and sweet; however, the wand needed much more significant cluing, as I basically wound up having to hit the walkthrough for every use of it.

Score: 7

Neon Nirvana

by Tony Woods

Well, it's always good to have feelies with a game. However, the writing felt a bit stilted, and so I was a bit less confident going in. (This wasn't helped by the fact that it was a .z8 file despite fitting well within .z5's size limits.) Then I was greeted by the first paragraph:

You shiver. The crisp autumn nights of October are always to blame. Tonight's the night you're undercover to take down elusive criminal Herman Walker Perron, in his nightclub, Neon Nirvana. You've got a bad feeling about this. You've only been here minutes, and already you're thoroughly annoyed with the misty air around you, the fidgeting of Agent Prost, and the underconfidence that can only come with a detective's first undercover operation. It's probably just nervousness, but in the sinister architecture of the sinister night, you know that Perron, like the Minotaur in the labyrinth, lurks somewhere inside those walls.

This is another case where an attempt at "serious" writing has gone horribly awry because the author has mistaken big words and similes for good writing. This is particularly comical in later sentences like "This is a quiet little place to have a drink or two in the outside atmosphere".

Even this attempted-intellectual tone isn't consistently maintained. A lot of the room descriptions are almost aggressively conversational, referring to "you" as the player moving the PC around like a pawn. This is much pretty fatal to any attempt to maintain the gritty police-procedural tone the plot and characters seem to want.

Speaking of which. In such a game, the narrator should never —EVER—say "w00t." Ever. Particularly not as part of a reaction to TAKE PAPER.

This doesn't even get into the problems with the game (suddenly knowing things about items you've never seen before, describing containers as empty when they aren't, total lack of reasonable alternate solutions to puzzles, a car bomb that, given where everyone else was, could only have been set by the victim, and a crackling radio unit that breaks in, referring to you as "Undercover Unit" during an infiltration...)

All in all, it needs so much work I'm not sure it can be salvaged in a recognizable form.

Score: 3


by Quintin Pan

WARNING: The first paragraph of this review is arguably a spoiler. Skip it if you want to experience the game "cleanly". The short form: Game aspect needs work; writing is mostly good; world-creation above par; theme can't be discussed without spoilers, so here we go...

You know, I'm really, really tired of unrelenting futility plots. Unforgotten is the tale of a man whose entire life is a lie, and whose every joy in life is (a) a total sham, and (b) secretly part of a sinister plot to use him as a tool for the ends of people who couldn't care less whether he lives or dies. If you can get past that, though, there's some good stuff to be had here.

The game aspects need a few more rounds of testing and enhancement, though. There are a lot of places where default responses happen where they really, really shouldn't. If my duty is mopping floors, MOP FLOOR should really work. Likewise, CLEAN FLOOR shuld give something better than "You achieve nothing by this." Likewise, when I'm taking my daughter to her birthday party, HUG DAUGHTER should not give the default "Keep your mind on the game."

Also, puzzles that are basically only solvable through attempting random actions in otherwise unremarkable rooms are Not Fun. The situation where this was necessary could have been handled by modified room and item descriptions and this would have lost nothing and been way less irritating.

This, despite the casual profanity and the spotty implementation and the random heinousness and the soul-crushing betrayals at every turn, actually is a pretty successful piece of serious writing. (Given this, the response to SCORE was incredibly jarring and had no place in this piece.) I'm not fully sure it works as science fiction, since the "special abilities" that are revealed as the story progresses don't really seem to be bound by any laws or limitations except as convenient to the plot. All the same, when I was done, I had a good idea of what had gone on and where all the characters fit in.

Score: 6

Internal Vigilance

by Simon Christiansen

I admit it; I'm a sucker for conspiracies and ominous shadowy authority figures in my modern and near-future fiction. Internal Vigilance was really designed to play in favor to my prejudices. I particularly liked that not only were all of the Ominous Bureaucracy's Men In Black assigned sunglasses for the express purpose of making them look cooler, the command WEAR SUNGLASSES gives the response "Things look darker. You get cooler."

However, the game suffers painfully from bad writing mechanics (comma splices, its/it's errors, etc.) and almost fatally from coding problems. Not only does the initial suspect's mother live in two different addresses at once depending on where you look, if you enter her apartment (as one optional plot-branch demands) you can end up locked in her apartment with no way out! Fortunately, this is an optional thread, so this didn't make the game uncompletable, but it still hurts a lot.

I can't recommend this as-is. But if a fixed post-comp edition is released, go play it immediately.

Score: 6

Tough Beans

by Sara Dee

Oh dear. Games revolving around Having to Get Coffee have been notoriously bad in the past. This one works out pretty well, though, since it also operates mainly as a slice of life. The character starts out as a harmless ditz, but she's capable of growth.

One particularly nice trick here is that you're faced with The Tremendously Long Line as a puzzle source. Now, this is usually a bad thing, since the obvious and civilized solution (the earlier you get in line, the earlier you get served) has to be made to be Not The Answer, and this can get contrived fast. Tough Beans solves this by ensuring that there's basically always something else you should be doing, and once you've dealt with all this, the situation has flown so far out of hand that the line is gone and you can pick up the coffee as an afterthought in a cutscene—which is really where coffee breaks belong. I noticed one gap, where a player might be inclined to just do the civilized thing, and that's the time between getting your form signed and having Derek show up.

The writing is smooth and mostly error-free; the errors that showed up looked like either copy-paste errors or cases where old text hadn't been properly deleted when it was being replaced. So it needs all its text strings run through by a decent copyeditor, and then it will be an excellent slice-of-life work.

Score: 7

A New Life

by Alexandre Owen Muñiz

Now this, on the other hand, is the first unreservedly excellent game I've played this comp. (I note in passing that it also uses the non-standard Platypus libraries for Inform, and that I wouldn't have noticed this without reading the game header. Really, that's highest praise possible for alternative systems.) It describes itself as "multilinear, from several points of view," but I think I disagree. I think it's got many stories tied up in it, and a PC who can gain some unique viewpoints, but it's still a single narrative.

Much of this narrative takes place in backstory and remembrance. This was both a strong backstory, and it was very well handled. It uses the REMEMBER verb, but this is the best implementation of it I've ever seen. The status bar cues how many topics you have relevant memories for, and the REMEMBER command gives you a set of topics to infodump on. This is pretty much ideal, because it lets you get information as you want it, lets you know when it's relevant, and there's no guess-the-syntax for information that—by hypothesis—the PC not only already knows, but actually has at the forefront of his mind.

I also need to call out the instruction manual for the magic bag as being quite seriously hilarious.

I only have a few complaints. The main one is with the claim that the game cannot be made unwinnable. I don't think this is true; in particular, the game will kill you beyond the ability of UNDO to save if you dawdle in a hazardous area while unprepared. As it turned out, I could have saved myself with the right move that one turn, but I hadn't advanced the plot to the point where the saving move had been clued. Running away should really have been permitted at that point.

Other than that—and the fact that the hero has no real compelling motivation other than curiosity to go on his adventure—this is a deep, clever, and well-thought-out game.

Score: 8


by Gregory Weir

There's not a lot to say about the writing in this game; it does what it needs to, and the plot is straightforward and decently handled. The writing is also actually well-edited, which is an astonishing rarity this comp. There are still some wobbles—particularly in auto-generated text ("a ceremonial clothing").

The coding needs some extra testing to actually look pretty on all interpreters; text mode interpreters had serious issues with the status line, and with the opening screen.

It's been said that logical sequel to a horror story should always be an action flick, as proper resources are brought to bear against whatever the horror was. Snatches handles this transition fairly well. I managed to get two of the "win" endings, and it seemed like several others would be possible.

There's less here than there was in A New Life, but it's more readily accessible. Good stuff. Just, check it on console Frotz next time, eh?

Score: 8

Phantom: caverns of the killer

by Brandon Coker

Hmm. Well, the opening text makes me immediately give up any hope of decent writing in this game, but it looks like it wants to a puzzlefest. Unfortunately, the puzzles basically fall into two categories: mazes (one maze of twisty little passages all alike, one all different; the differentness comes from different grammatical errors, so it's not entirely clear this is fully intentional), and a bunch of lady-or-tiger puzzles that could be solved with in-game clues but for which SAVE/RESTORE or UNDO-based brute force is much faster.

I feel kind of bad dismissing this as entirely pointless, because it's well-intentioned and the author clearly played and liked a lot of the older games long ago (the Infidel influence is particularly strong), but, well, there's nothing that's actually fun here. You've gotten the homages out of your system; go forth and build something new now.

Score: 3

Off the trolley

by Krisztian Kaldi

From the title and the apparent goal, I'm a lunatic. But I like that I'm a considerate lunatic, attempting to mostly minimize casualties; indeed, the puzzles revolve around as their primary goal ensuring that nobody else is endangered by your mad scheme of destruction. (In fact, this consideration continues to hold all the way to the end, on some endings.)

There's a certain degree of weariness about standard puzzles in here too; the comment about how the wire must have fit the terminal perfectly due to their identical colors hit home nicely. Unfortunately, there are a number of very unfortunate parser wobbles. The most aggravating was that PULL BRAKE was not implemented (apparently it needed to be PUSHed, but most emergency brakes I've seen were levers that you pull), and that you cannot UNLOCK PANEL WITH KEY and must instead PUT KEY IN PANEL. TURN KEY. Furthermore, the refusal for UNLOCK PANEL WITH KEY implies that I need to find a prybar of some kind.

The endgame neither vindicates nor repudiates the main character's delusion. This was a nice touch.

Score: 5


by Mike Snyder

This is both plot-heavy and puzzly, which is kind of nice — it also includes one of the better implementations of first aid I've seen. Outside of critical actions, though, a lot of actions are unobvious or unmotivated, but necessary. This meant I had to fail over to the walkthrough a lot. The plot also kind of doesn't work on traversals that aren't winning playthroughs, because cause and effect don't end up working out right.

That's hard to avoid given the premise though, and it is in any case a well-designed and well-written piece of work.

Score: 7


by Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli

Graphically, this game is beautiful. It duplicates the old Legend Entertainment UIs pretty closely in Glulx. Unfortunately, its target audience is medical students, and if you aren't actually a medical student, this is just Aunt Nancy's Hospital. There aren't any reachable goals, and you can only wander about and explore.

There are hints, but they aren't really useful for the layman; there's a huge list of all the tests you can run and all the diagnostic questions you could conceivably ask, and then there's an answer key. There's no place in-game to put your answers in, so the game has no end condition. More critically, there's no explanation of which tests would give the indicators that would lead to the target diagnosis.

It also didn't help that I hadn't heard of three quarters of the ailments my patients had. I might just be ignorant, but this could have been a great science popularization tool. As it stands, though, it's just baffling.

Score: 4


by Mondi Confinanti

This is another beautiful Glulx game. Excellent work with the artwork, which is thematic and appropriate; also major approval for including a .z8 version for pure text.

This is an episodic, noir-y investigative detective story with a creepy but very effective frame story. The writing is almost universally excellent, though there are a few wobbles on grammar and word choice. (And even then, I might be over-reacting to "hematoma" having just played Cheiron.) My favorite conversational exchange: "I heard a second voice, before." "That's not very strange. I can usually hear sixty-seven different voices at once."

Something that isn't the game's fault, but worth noting if you're using Zag: if you use the default JVM options, Zag will run out of heapspace about halfway through. If you play over multiple sessions this doesn't happen; I must assume some kind of memory leak in Zag.

It's a great mystery, and a workable thriller. In the end, it also was my favorite game of the comp. So...

Score: 10

Son of a...

by C.S. Woodrow

The opening here doesn't really fill me with glee, and there are a lot of little annoyances. The worst was that the map exits aren't really symmetrical, especially around the tavern.

On the other hand, that's really the worst complaint I can make. The puzzles were well-designed and mostly decently integrated into the plot. The scoring system was unusual for these sorts of games, which made point awards kind of function like clues. That a neat trick too. "Oh, I got points for picking this up/going here; this must be important."

It needs a slightly better hint system; it's possible to lock yourself out of specific puzzle solutions, and so a simple walkthrough doesn't really suffice.

It's clearly a first effort, but it's a perfectly acceptable one.

Score: 6

Dreary Lands

by Paul Lee

This is also clearly a first effort, and a less acceptable one. The author knew this; the ABOUT text was a lengthy apology. Don't do this; if the game is crap, and you think so too, DON'T SUBMIT IT. Compare yourself to the games that got 5 averages in the last year's comp, and if it's not at least that good, don't waste our time.

So yeah. Problems are legion. Grammar and spelling are problematic. A set of game-critical objects (which are actually arrows) are called "which is currently burning)" when described—this despite the fact that they are not, in fact, burning. The inventory limit is too small, and there's no need for an inventory limit in the game. You can't wear the shield. The midgame, which was supposed to make sense, wound up being more incomprehensible than the intentionally surreal and incomprehensible opening (which I solved without hints, mind—the opening was not a problem).

That said, the story he wanted to tell is not a bad one, and the puzzles are, while perhaps a bit too straightforward, reasonable. (I'd move the tar somewhere else, and consider an alternate solution involving turning the stick into a torch.) If it didn't have all the serious writing and coding flaws, it'd easily be in the 6-7 range, but as it stands, it's unplayable without a walkthrough and riddled with flagrant errors.

Score: 3

Escape to New York

by Richard Otter

This is an extensive, and pretty well done, caper in which one is attempting to get stolen goods to America on board a fairly ill-fated passenger liner. Most of the fun in the game involves committing additional theft along the way, although I note that this seems kind of silly when succeeding at the primary goal would have me set for life.

The writing is mostly good; grammar errors are restricted to run-on sentences and the odd comma splice. It also surrounds words with single quotes to emphasize them, which is really what italics are for.

ADRIFT's non-parser gets in the way a lot more in this game than it did in the other entries; it mistook "cigar case" for "cigar", and some sentence-structure issues showed up with a vengeance:


Donald Goodson doesn't seem interested in the letter.


Donald grabs the letter and says "Thanks." He hands you a ruby and then goes out onto the Boat Deck.

If a system is supposed to be easy for novice programmers to use, this kind of thing shouldn't even be possible.

The setting is very large, but the map that came with the game helped a lot. This was a nicely staged adventure.

Score: 7

Hello sword: the Journey

by Andrea Rezzonico

From the ABOUT menu:

I'm not very familiar with the English language, but in spite of this I want to realize an English version of my game, to allow you English players to play with "Hello sword"... I'm absolutely acquainted with the great number of errors and incomprehensible expressions that crowded this adventure (by the way, I ask you to signal them to me), but I hope you at least appreciate the huge effort I made for you.

I could almost just end the review right there; I should note, though, that the errors here are so legion and so deep-seated that it isn't a matter of sending corrections, but a matter of having a native speaker rewrite each and every sentence. As an example of just how much change is required, here's another quote from the instructions:

However the level, don't worry: in this adventure you are a greenhorns and you'll cast only spells for greenhorns; it's opportune instead to underline that the mana points are rechargeable (even if slowly, so or you utilize it with prudence or you have to wait a lot of time before resuming to cast another spells) and that's advisable don't impart any commands while you're pronouncing magic wordings, otherwise your concentration will be interrupted.

This could perhaps become:

Disregard spell levels; in this adventure, you're a novice sorceror and as such will only cast novice spells. Mana points recharge with time, but rather slowly. Use magic sparingly or you'll have to wait a long time before you can cast again. Attempting to take other actions while casting a spell will break your concentration, disrupting the spell.

As you can see, the changes here are sufficiently vast that any editor is going to effectively become a co-author.

The game often pauses to wait for you to press a key; it does this with great frequency, and often in the middle of sentences. I can't really approve of this technique.

Playing the game itself involves either straightforward actions, exhausting conversation trees, or entering precisely phrased, uncued commands. As a result, the only parts that are even remotely playable are the parts where you aren't really doing anything.

Score: 2

Sabotage on the Century Cauldron

by Thomas de Graaff

Your initial goal here is to do millions of dollars of damage and put hundreds of lives, including your own, at risk, so that you may rescue your dog. This is not a game that has a very serious attitude towards anyone's life, including yours; it also attempts slapstick at various points.

The plot here could, in theory, be salvaged, and there are some puzzles that might be usable too. However, about half the code is missing. There's a button that, when you push it, gives you the response "THIS IS WHERE THE BUTTON ACTUALLY DOES WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO DO." Then there's this:


Hey, you're talking to me, an ordinary computer! I have learnt that a desk has a drawer which can be opened, so please don't confuse me by trying to open the desk itself.

Yes, I know it sounds silly as hell, but you have no choice but to comply with my demands, because nobody or nothing is more stubborn than a computer!

Please don't blame the computer for your own programming laziness, please. I don't know the precise number for TADS, but in Inform, making OPEN DESK transform itself into OPEN DRAWER is one line of code with four words in it.

On the things I liked: There was an actual backstory. NPCs do things on their own (this was good and bad; the bad came from the fact that no attempt was made to ensure that the PC wouldn't get unavoidably trapped—implementing a HIDE verb might solve that neatly). The "reverse grue" effect; if an area is full of monsters, sticking a giant beacon on yourself in the form of a flashlight is not the best idea.

The flaws in the plot can be summed up by the following line from the walkthrough, edited to remove spoilers: "Of course, you are not supposed think X, but the story won't evolve unless you do X."

For this to be a game that isn't an insult to the player, it needs to, at minimum, have its objects implemented properly, have the inane asides the player removed, and have its plot streamlined or cued so that the game will advance properly without having to consult a walkthrough.

Score: 3


by Jason Devlin

This is a fiendishly clever game. It looks, on the surface, to be mostly puzzleless; a tale of a hopeless monastery falling to the plague, and of the Father's attempt to keep things together. The coding and the writing are both excellent and there's not a lot to say about them. In fact, if at all possible, if you haven't played it yet, do so before reading the rest of this review. Some of the things I want to complain about may be considered spoilers.

I only really have two complaints, and they're part of the game design. The first is the use of box quotes. This is clever, but the cleverness isn't apparent until too late. They have three purposes—setting the mood, representing the PC's mental instability (which other characters remark on later), and representing the PC's darker urges and temptations. The problem is, these latter two purposes aren't properly explained until far too late in the game, if at all. And at that point, the player has already forgotten about the quotes.

Second, there is a certain action that is heavily prompted that will lock the player out of the "Good" ending—and under most circumstances the nature of the player's error will be explained in great detail in the endgame. This is a fantastic piece of game design. The part that's not so great is that very similar actions are mandatory in order to win at all on the "Good" ending, and—despite the fact that the game insists it's not being a theological treatise—it does give a bit of an impression that it's not fully playing by its own rules.

These are only quibbles, though. Vespers is one of the gems of the comp.

Score: 9

Xen: The Contest

by Xentor

This is another game, like Internal Vigilance, that has the potential for excellence but doesn't reach it due to serious flaws. They're less coding flaws and more design flaws this time, but that doesn't make them irreparable.

The plot is kind of split-personality by design; about half the game is micro-detailed play of college life, which is about as much fun as it sounds (which is to say, not very). The other half is bits of weirdness that blow up into a full-scale science fiction plot. I can't say that the first half should be eliminated in favor of more development of the second, because a major theme is the unpleasant position of the PC in having the SF plot forced upon him against his will. Without the "mundane life" to compare against, this doesn't work.

The writing ranges from servicable to good, and the coding is mostly acceptable. I can't wear my backpack or open my wallet, and the contents of my wallet (which are important for dealing with daily life) don't directly show up in my inventory, but those are about the only complaints I can make at the low level.

At the higher level, the emphasis is wrong on the two plots. Most of the actual interaction is in the mundane section, and this required a great deal of mapmaking, consulting, and careful reading just to go through my daily life. This is OK for the "first day at school" part, but much of this should probably have been handled via cutscenes or single commands later. (BUY LUNCH would have been nice, as would GO TO [building].) After all, mundanity isn't much fun, especially when there's also an epic plot to deal with.

Most of the science-fiction plot was handled through extremely long cutscenes, many of which were conversations. I recognize that a certain degree of plot railroading is necessary here (especially since one of the themes is that you're being manipulated by events and beings beyond your ken), but, at minimum, these sequences should turn into conversation menus to keep the player involved.

On the other hand, some sections that were interactive arguably should have been forced-command or cutscenes—I'm thinking in particular of the parts where the PC panics or otherwise goes nuts.

This isn't a great game as it is, though I think it could easily become one. However, it's still good enough on its own to be worth checking out.

Score: 6

The Sword of Malice

by Anthony Panuccio

This is a fairly generic fantasy adventure in which one seeks to forge Soul Edge, er, that is, the Sword of Malice, to turn the tide in a generic war between two generic ancient adversaries.

This is, perhaps, not entirely fair, since there was enough worldbuilding done for me to be irritated by the PC's nation, the Sekoniun. Unlike their rivals the Altari, I think the problem I had with them is that their names are actually too close to English—I'd have preferred an Anglicized "Sekonian" for the adjective, with "Sekonians" as the plural. It should also always be capitalized, even as an adjective, since it is being loaned into English here. From a consistent-history standpoint it might also be good to have the Altari and the Sekoniun share facets of their language, since, if I read the backstory aright, the two nations are ethnically pretty closely related.

I liked the potions (and would have liked to have been able to take a bunch with me, or at least interact with them individually), and the intended puzzle mix was well-chosen as well. Multiple solutions are implemented too, which is nice.

Many of the puzzles need a bit more work to truly be up to snuff, however. (This is ignoring the fact that there are many places where you can trip up and lock yourself out of getting treasures that you need to win; I think that's intentional.)

First and most blatantly, getting the Power of the Sekoniun shouldn't require the command that it does. Not only is the command uncued, the reply to the command indicates that the result seems to be triggered by physical contact, and as such it should probably be triggered by SEARCHing it as well. Worse, LOOKing UNDER it gives a reply indicating that you lift the object in question, and this it doesn't produce the effect either. That really makes no sense. Since the Power is necessary to get all the backstory and have full motion through the story, it should be easier to trigger it.

The other problem is with the columns/lights puzzle; it needs to be made a bit more complex to pose any challenge. As it stands I solved it by accident merely by collecting the information as to what the buttons did, which I must admit wasn't very satisfying.

This isn't even trying to be a great game, but it's not bad, and with just a bit more polish it would be quite solid indeed.

Score: 5

This article copyright © 2005, Michael Martin

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