Posted 9 January 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
The following review is written under the auspices of the Happy Fun IF Discussion Group, run by Marnie Parker, Stephen Granade, and myself. We deeply resent the inconsiderate and malicious characterization of our group as a "conspiracy" and intend to pursue all available legal remedies should we learn of any such references in the future. You certainly cannot learn anything about our group at http://www.textfire.com/conspiracy, because we are not responsible for that site or for any of the representations found there. Nor can you find any of our reviews at http://interactfiction.about.com/library/review/usenet/blusenetreviews.htm, which appears to have archived the demented ravings of some ne'er-do-well plotters. In the future, please have some consideration rather than applying misleading and unfair labels.
TITLE: Mulldoon Legacy
AUTHOR: Jon Ingold
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD)
VERSION: Release 6
Okay, I'm not sure we need Glulx's memory-extending capabilities after all. Not if the Z-machine as it presently stands can produce something as large as Mulldoon Legacy, which is easily the biggest IF game I've ever played. (Much bigger, amount-of-puzzles-wise, than Anchorhead, Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, or Varicella, to take three examples of games that recently pushed the Z-code size envelope.) Granted, Mulldoon Legacy doesn't weigh itself down with a lot of NPCs, so there's a clear difference in priorities there, but still--I have difficulty conveying exactly how huge this thing is. (I suppose I could sit down with a transcript and count the puzzles, but that's not much fun.) The initial premise is familiar--explore your grandfather's museum so that you can get your legacy--but it gives rise to a highly convoluted story.
Part of the reason that it's huge is that it's full of puzzles--this is, in every way, a puzzle-fest. Moreover, a lot of the puzzles are quite difficult, sufficiently so that you shouldn't expect this to take less than several weeks (unless you have a telepathic connection to the author or are relying heavily on a walkthrough). The length and complexity of the game adds to the difficulty, in fact, since you may be required to connect one puzzle with an earlier event that you might have encountered several weeks before, or with an object that you haven't touched in a month. Similarly, you accumulate quite a few objects by the end of the game, meaning that (a) it's easy to lose track of some in the shuffle and (b) it's easy to overlook the connection between the latest puzzle and one of the objects in your archive.
That brings up another point, however, namely that the puzzles in Mulldoon generally don't boil down to apply-the-object. (There are quite a few keys and locked doors, but there are creative twists associated with those.) Some of them are set pieces--they could have been wrenched out of the code and plunked down in another puzzle-fest--but many turn on applying knowledge in relatively subtle ways, and even the set pieces are creative. There's an entertaining variant on the Zork III Royal Puzzle, for example, and another scene involving the manipulation of a marble maze that's done in a surprisingly novel way. They come from a variety of genres, too--there's a cryptic crossword clue that's key to one puzzle, a chemistry problem of sorts that features in another, and a math/logic problem of sorts at another point. There are a few old chestnuts, to be sure; you assemble the ingredients for a potion over the course of the game, and collect a set of four related objects as well. But there's enough of the game that doesn't depend on those old chestnuts to make it bearable for the IF veteran.
The puzzles themselves--well, a lot of them are hard, and some of them are unfairly hard. Not all, but some--sometimes because they require intuitive leaps that simply don't come naturally, and sometimes because they assume that you're picturing something the way the author is, which ain't necessarily so. (One of the latter moments, unfortunately, comes very near the beginning of the game.) I'd like to recommend Mulldoon Legacy as a game for the puzzle fan to plow through without help, but I can't honestly do that, because there are a few puzzles whose logic is unclear to me even now. In other words, if you don't keep a walkthrough handy, you're liable to bog down, and when you give in and check the solution and find something completely unexpected, you're liable to lose faith in the game. Again, though, they're not all bad, and most of them are good enough to be worth spending some time on before you move on.
Adding to the difficulty is the design: the layout is, for the most part, highly wide, so it's easy to get into a position where you have a lot of problems but only have the equipment to solve a few of them. Worse, it's not always clear when an object or room offers more possibilities in the puzzle department (though this is only occasionally a problem). It's relatively difficult most of the time to make the game unwinnable--and usually, when you do, it's obvious--but making any progress at all is at times quite a struggle.
These are all standard problems in a puzzlefest, but I think Mulldoon deserves a spot a notch above your average puzzlefest because of the depth and complexity of the story. I wouldn't say it's a chin-strokingly profound story, but there's a lot of it and it's tied into most of what goes on in the game, a few set-piece puzzles aside. Moreover, the nature of the puzzles is often such that they reward attention to the progress of the plot--or, rather, you may find yourself lost if you regard the story as mere background. Some aspects of the story, to be sure, have been done; there's a time-travel angle, for instance, a very familiar trope (one moment comes as something of an homage to Sorcerer) and the framing story seems to owe more than a little bit to Curses. But some of the plot elements really are pretty novel, and the various pieces manage to come out of the blender in reasonably surprising ways. (Part of it may be that there's so much in the game--there are some familiar aspects of the plot that manage to be surprising because they're juxtaposed with familiar elements from entirely different genres.) It's also worth noting that the design is pretty good, even if not especially forgiving--I don't think it's possible to run into events or puzzles out of order (no small feat in something this large), and the pace of the plot development follows the pace of the puzzle-solving in a reasonably natural way.
Mulldoon Legacy doesn't appear to have the most vivid setting initially--you're wandering around an old museum looking for your grandfather. But one of the whimsical charms of the game is the way that it keeps pouring more and more incongruous things into that setting--while occasionally transporting you out of the setting, of course; it's my belief that the author intended to try to make the player lose track of what's within the primary setting and what's outside it. The game spends a while teetering on the edge between explore-a-wacky-museum and something between fantasy and sci-fi (before eventually toppling full-bore into the latter), and while it's teetering, the author milks the confounding-expectations game for all it's worth. Not all that notable if you've had the genre bait-and-switch done to you before, perhaps, but still fun if you like having your head messed with.
As with most puzzlefests, whether Mulldoon Legacy works is primarily in the eye of the beholder: if you find the puzzles challenging but fair, then it'll work, but I can't say confidently that it will or won't work for any given player. It does occur to me, though, that this is a throwback to the days when people expected IF to keep them busy for weeks at a time, and likely didn't have four or five other freeware releases competing for their attention. That is, you're expected to give an event your attention, enough attention that you can recall it (at least, the general contours) hundreds or even thousands of moves later. Likewise, when there's a plot development, the game isn't going to connect all the dots each time; it's expected that you'll recognize key people and events. Granted, '80s-era IF wasn't this large (excepting, perhaps, Acheton, which I haven't played), but it's the same general feeling: finishing the game takes a real commitment. If you plan to finish Mulldoon Legacy, prepare either to make a similar commitment or to consult the walkthrough more than occasionally.
While Mulldoon is at heart more puzzlefest than story, it does a better-than-average job of integrating its puzzles with its plot and of making the latter more than a token effort, and arguably it's notable simply for those accomplishments. If you're not a fan of puzzlefests, you may not get much out of this, but it's a well-put-together game nonetheless.
This article copyright © 2001, Duncan Stevens