Posted 10 July 2005 to rec.games.int-fiction
Interactive fiction used to be about finding lost treasure or battling monsters in dark dungeons or saving the world from terrible evil. How times have changed. The Fire Tower is about a hiker.
I'd be lying if I said I don't have fond nostalgia for the text adventures of old. The storylines might have been corny, they might not have made much sense, and the mazes which populated a lot of the games could make even a sane man tear his hair out in frustration, but I always felt like none of that really mattered and what was important was that the games themselves had interesting storylines. A game where you play a hiker just doesn't really compare to a quest to save the world. Save the world and you feel like you've achieved something major. Finish your hike...? Well, it's just not the same thing.
But that aside, what's The Fire Tower like as a game? Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of actual gameplay here. There are no puzzles to solve, no items that play a role (you start carrying several but they aren't required for anything and seem to be there because it's expected that the player is going to be carrying something), and precious little storyline. There are no ways to die or fail the game that I found, although I think I read in another review that you can die if you're especially unlucky. I guess this must have been my lucky day. Very little happens to enliven things.
Is it all bad then? No, far from it. It's actually quite refreshing to just wander from location to location without anything to really do in them. The writing is way above average and while I've never been fond of hiking before today (too much like hard work for my liking), I might give it a try after this. Unfortunately where I live there tends to be a lack of beautiful scenery so maybe I'm better off reading about it on a computer screen as opposed to experiencing it first hand.
To say the game is called The Fire Tower, the fire tower itself doesn't really play any major part in the proceedings. I expected some kind of revelation when I reached it, or for the game to take some abrupt turn and become a bit more interesting, or... something. Instead, I reached the fire tower, went inside, didn't find a whole lot and left. Expecting something to happen if I tried moving away from the tower, I did that. Only to find that once I had left the vicinity of the tower, I wasn't able to return. So my hike up to the fire tower seemed pretty anti-climactic. All that was left afterwards was for me to hike back down and the game ended.
I played the game through a few more times to see if I'd missed anything on my first play, but aside from wandering slightly off the beaten path at one point, I think I had seen pretty much all the game had to offer.
A bit disappointing then? In some ways: yes. In others: no. For the time I spent playing it - it didn't take much more than fifteen minutes from start to finish - it was interesting enough to hold my attention, although that was partly because I kept thinking "there has to be more to it than simply wandering from place to place" and right up to the last bit, I was expecting some kind of puzzle to spring itself upon me. When it didn't, and then the game ended, I was left with the feeling that while it had held my interest for fifteen minutes, it wouldn't have kept me glued to the screen for much longer.
Puzzle filled games have never been my cup of tea. Mainly, I readily admit, because I'm terrible at puzzles and can't figure them out half the time. Even the easy ones, I generally don't have the patience for and when I faced with one puzzle after another, the urge to just quit and play something else becomes overwhelming. But then I've never been a fan of puzzle free games either. Just wandering around with precious little to do isn't especially interesting and while the setting doesn't really allow for the placement of oodles of puzzles, I'm sure a few could have been worked into the mix without too much effort. Maybe the fire tower could be locked and I need to find a way inside. Maybe a path is blocked and I have to find an alternative route, perhaps using a log to cross a river. Maybe when I meet the bear, I have to use my wits to get past it instead of the game just moving me past it without me being required to do anything.
But no puzzles. And a very short game. Subsequent plays didn't reveal anything hidden that I hadn't discovered on my first play and after reaching the ending for the third time, I decided that enough was enough. While okay in its own right, The Fire Tower just isn't interesting enough to keep me coming back for further plays.
Bugs it's pretty free of. I encountered a few annoyances but nothing that really put me off the game. In one location there's a woodpecker but you can't listen to it by referring to it as "woodpecker" but instead "bird". A few other times, I'd stop for a rest during my hike and trying to move in a direction afterwards would hit me with a message saying I couldn't do that while I was on the ground. The first time I saw this it confused me a bit because I wasn't really sure what it was telling me. Yes, I was on the ground. Why was moving in a direction a problem? It wasn't till I realised that I was sitting down and needed to stand up first before I was able to actually go anywhere. Towards the end of the game, I game across a locked gate. Just as I was about to cry out "a puzzle at last!" I realised it wasn't a puzzle at all as there's no way of opening it. Oh well. However, the text informs me that I don't need to open it as I can walk around it to the northeast. Only I can't. It's northwest I need to go.
The major annoyance, as far as I was concerned anyway, was that once you go in one direction, you can't go back. I guess this might be believable in the sense that the locations are often spaced far apart - you're hiking several miles after all - but it made me feel that I was missing out on significant portions of the game by going one way when I should have gone another and once I'd gone that way there was no backtracking. Aside from that, the game also has the tendency to prevent you going in directions you might want to go in and instead steers you along a very set path. So while you have the illusion of being able to wander pretty much wherever you want, the reality is that you're restricted in where you can go.
If you've half an hour to spare, give The Fire Tower a try. It doesn't break new ground and the storyline isn't anything special, but it's nicely written and the scenery is stunning. Me, I think I'm off to stumble through a few tunnels in retro games and smite me a monster or three.
5 out of 10
This article copyright © 2005, David Whyld