Posted 1 May 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
A glance at the "Author" field of the IFRC E-mail elicited a heavy sigh from the reviewer. Andy Phillips. He has a considerable reputation. A reputation for games with fantastically, incredibly, impossible unsolvable puzzles. Puzzles that are beyond merely frustrating, beyond maddening, beyond even molar-crunching, teeth-gnashing, give-me-the walkthrough-already difficulty, that have an uncanny knack for hitting *everyone's* blind spots.
I had encountered Andy before. The first time was his inaugural game, Time: All Things Come To An End. I found it a charming game at first, with imaginative gadgets and landscapes, and a foreboding and desirable air of mystery. But then I found myself stuck. Badly stick. I found a walkthrough and got around my problem... then got stuck again. And again. And again. And again. And each time had to restore to an earlier save. It was a mess... there were unmotivated actions, tightly timed areas, rampant learn-by-death, objects with obscure functions, a myriad of ways to make the game unsolvable, and no way to go back to an earlier point- only forward, where you will most likely get stuck again due to an oversight earlier. I managed to get arrested and escape a jail cell, and then gave up. I saw nothing but frustration and save/restoring behind, and more of the same ahead. I tried playing with the walkthrough on hand, but had to follow it to the letter, and that was no fun. So I sent the game to the recycling bin.
Later on, there was Heist, his second game. I started on it, and at first glance, there was improvement. No more crushingly unforgiving time limits, fewer obscure puzzles, better cluing towards uses of objects, and overall very enjoyable. Then I got stuck, in uncle's apartment. No problem, I'm generally bad at puzzles. So, I grabbed the walkthrough and took a look. It was then that I got a surprise. I had missed quite a lot. Throughout the first area, I was suppossed to be looking for photographs. I hadn't. I had found one or two, and figured they were important, but there were three others I had missed. Okay, no big deal, I went back to find them. Only I couldn't. Some of the paths were closed off. I restarted, and worked my way back up to where I left off. But I had problems, again. The devices in the apartment were extrordinarily obscure, in fact downright opaque, in their functions. I figured out how to start the sub-scenerios, then realized there were exactly zero clues given on how to do THAT. I gave up. The problems were still there, just not as blatant.
Then there was Enemies. I got this just as it came out, and was apprehensive to say the least. I died a few times, then wound up stuck trying to get into my house. There was no walkthrough on file just yet, but RGIF was full of confused posters asking for hints. I was going to join them... then I looked at the number of posts, and remembered my past experiences with Andy's writing. I could see where this was going, and gave up.
And now, his latest game, Heroine's Mantle, was to be my first assignment from the Interactive Fiction Review Conspiracy. Talk about a baptism of fire...
I soon as I got the e-mail, I considered sending it back. Giving up again. But... no. Two conspirators had already done so, and the review was well past deadline. The conspiracy has a reputation to maintain. If it falls on me to do so... well, cowardly newbies don't get far in any organization. Preparing my brain for the trials ahead, I booted up WinFrotz and dived in.
And so now, having wasted a full five paragraphs on utterly pointless melodrama, let me tell you about the actual game...
The good news is, Phillips is improving. While he still has some hurdles to overcome on his quest to make less baffling games, Heroine's Mantle represents a distinct progress in his design skills.
The genre for Phillips' latest forray into epic text adventuring is superhero. Superheroine, more accurately. As a child, Lisa Flint was rescued from an assassin who had murdered her parents by a legendary, centuries-old figure of urban legend, the Crusader. Growing up orphaned, she devoted herself to seeking revenge on her parents' killer. As the game begins, she's at a Christmas party emceed by the killer in question. But Lisa never gets her hands on him, because another assassin beats her to it. This assassin also gets the best of the Crusader, who takes the fall off a twenty-five story building. And so it falls upon Lisa to take up the Staff of Justice and fight evil. Specifically, she must foil the mechanations of a criminal mastermind called The Baron by thwarting five of his underlings, one by one, then confronting the Baron himself.
You know what the structure of Heroine's Mantle reminds me of? MegaMan. You're battling puzzles with intellect instead of beserk robots with a MegaBuster, but the basic idea is the same: given a list of objectives, you choose one, and go to a specific place seeking a specific target. There you jump some minor hurdles on your way to the target in question, and finally face him in a one-on-one duel. Victorious, you choose another objective, and so on until you've accomplished them all, after which you face the archvillian.
This was a very good design choice, because it eliminates the chief problem I had with both Heist and Time: small errors accumulating over time, each hampering you a little bit later on, and leading to hint requests, walkthroughs, restarts, and ultimately paralyzing frustration with the game. But HM is segmented: each section of the game is self-contained, and any items or knowledge you need will be found within. At the end of each stage, and sometimes halfway through the stage, unnecessary items are cleaned out of your inventory.
Phillips has also managed to overcome his problem with unwinnable states. You can screw up in Heroine's Mantle, but aside from some tightly-timed segments, you'll know so immediately, usually by dying. No fear of having to go back for something you may have missed earlier.
But while these design choices minimize Andy's traditional flaws as an IF-author, they don't eliminate them entirely. I got a walkthrough early on, and consulted it frequently throughout the game. Usually, upon doing so, my reaction would be "Ah, I should have thought of that", rather then "Huh? How the hell was I suppossed to figure that out?", so it seems the puzzles are more or less logical. There is, however, a moderate amount of unfun guess-the-syntax -- in one situation "turn afterburner on" works, but not "turn afterburners on", nor "fire afterburner". There are also instances of bad or misleading cluing. If a chemical is described as "colorless", I will not expect it to be green. Nor will I immediately recognize why an altimeter's reading isn't the correct ground level (it needs to be read on the ground, not in your hands), or that the wire around an innocent victim's neck has to be turned around before the knot can be undone. And there are points when the logic is fuzzy -- why don't the crowds in the theater notice me stealing and wearing a dress left in an abandoned seat? Why didn't they notice the original occupant leaving it behind? How can a radio dish absorb deadly sound waves? How come the guns in the first area have DNA-coded triggers, yet a custom-made sniper rifle doesn't? Why does your bra have such a large carrying capacity? (Ummm...)
The plot also has a few holes.... How does the Baron plan to control the city if a plague kills off the populace? Why do the silver chain and gold bracelet, both important reminders of the past, vanish from your inventory so abruptly? (Obvious answer -- because they're no longer necessary. But it still strikes me as odd that Lisa would discard these so uncaringly.) Why is it possible to be so careless with you secret identity and still not be found out? Who in their right mind would go running around the sloped roof of a skyscraper, in the dead of winter, in their underwear? (Well, that last is more a comic scenerio, I think....)
But never mind the plot. It doesn't show up much, anyway. This is not a story game, this is a puzzle game. And though there are a number of onerus ones, there are a lot of imaginative ones, too. The keycodes to the laptop were inventively hidden, deciphering the Messiah ritual was fun, and the various boss fights are the undisputed highlight of the game -- they're fast-paced and exciting, giving the player a real sense of "thereness", and the solutions are rarely too obscure. (Though when they are... well, keep a save file.) One glaring exception is the climactic puzzle. It's far too complicated. Admittedly, I was tired by this point, but I arrived at the battlefield, looked around, fiddled with some things, found absolutely no clue what to do, consulted the walkthrough, didn't understand the solution, tried it anyway, and when it worked, blinked and thought "What in the... how on god's green earth was I suppossed to figure that out?" Honestly, I can't see how this puzzle is solvable without relying on a lot of guesswork, learning by death, or the walkthrough. Nelson said that the climactic puzzle of a game should be fairly simple. There's a reason for that -- the player gets psyched up for a big climax, and having to step back and analyze the situation for a solution yet again just kills the momentum.
When all is said and done, I think I liked Heroine's Mantle more then I disliked it. But I hesitate to reccomend it -- if you have been frustrated by Andy's earlier games, you will be frustrated here. The frustration will just be less then before. Still, on a scale from "tapping keyboard thoughtfully" to "bashing your monitor inward", HM ranks at the low middle. If you like puzzlefests, it's probably worth a try.
This article copyright © 2001, Craxton