Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: horror, paranormal, minigame, urban legend, cryptology, NPCs, random, combat, comedy, science fiction, myth
A feckless loser, likeable but kind of awful, has his life even further ruined by the intrusion of an SF/F trope. He joins up with a group of yet-more-awful guys and an cute girl or two; together they navigate a grody, nocturnal Americana fever-dream, overcome obstacles through randomised combat, and squabble interminably; a extensive range of graphics and atmospheric music rounds the experience out. Scatology, sass and geekery abound. If you've enjoyed previous Robb Sherwin games, then, this is a safe bet.
In Cryptozookeeper the subject is aliens and cryptids; the result is something that feels like The X-Files cross-bred with Pokemon, with an all-slacker cast. A lot of things don't make sense, and the general feeling is of a partial hallucination; wisecracking is juxtaposed with graphic horror, the plot develops tangled corners that you don't need to keep track of, and gameplay alternates between drifting easily along while expostulation happens, and being stuck in a frustrating corner with a skewy puzzle just beyond your grasp. And it's always night. And characters point out, repeatedly, the many aspects of the story that make no sense. It's a very particular kind of surreal.
At Cryptozookeeper's heart is a mini-game in which you create cryptids by combining DNA that you've collected, then battle them in an underground animal-fighting ring, in order to level them up to face a final challenge. The design is such that collecting all the DNA and discovering all the cryptids is optional. Combat is old-schoolish and random, but handled automatically and quickly; your main decisions are about gaining stats. On the other hand, you'll do a very great deal of it, it involves few strategic decisions, and it's not very clear how much is enough; players who dislike grinding may grit their teeth.
Thorough implementation is often talked about as a sine qua non of IF authorship, but it comes at a high cost. Sherwin puts as much effort, care and love into his games as anybody making IF, and does extensive testing; but robust implementation comes fairly low on his list. (Save often.) Among his higher priorities, it seems, is long-arc story. Cryptozookeeper is sometimes buggy or cumbersome, and often sparse and linear -- but it's also large and brim-full of content.
For much of the game you have three or four NPCs in tow, but you can talk to them rarely and on very limited topics. Despite this, they feel more developed than many NPCs with ten times their conversation topics -- Robb writes very well, the images help, and you have time to get to know them. (Too, you're constantly sniping at one another; the silences feel, appropriately, like irate sulking.)
Like most Sherwin games, this is basically about how the world is dark and horrible but even the most abject can be redeemed; it manages the difficult task of making both the darkness and the light seem genuine.
Related reviews: paranormal, conspiracy, large, romance, dating sim, gender
I first played this in IF Comp 2002, and didn't get very far; I was running on an unsupported Mac interpreter. It placed sixth of thirty-eight -- which, looking back, seems to be roughly the line between the games of some enduring quality and the those that were unremarkable or deeply flawed. And it remains one of the more popular ADRIFT games, so I thought it might be worth revisiting.
The basic premise is that a shadowy agency is trying to kidnap or control a number of psychokinetic girls; more or less at random, they ask the PC for help and proceed to become entirely reliant on him. The main aim is to pick a girl, then develop your relationship score to a high enough level to get a special ending.
As everybody else has stated, it's conspicuously sexist, in a genre-derived, uninteresting way. Further, it's in denial about it: the hero is portrayed as chastely chivalrous and pointedly contrasted against "real" sexists and perverts, while rhapsodising over the sweet submissive innocence of childlike girls. This worldview is not an unfortunate flaw: it's foundational. Inhabiting a particular representation of gender is the central purpose of the game, and considerably less attention is paid to the evil-institutional-conspiracy / paranormal-powers plot.
Romance is portrayed in a decidedly unromantic way, as a matter of dispensing gifts, assistance and compliments while not hitting on other girls (if it might be noticed). It's romance stripped of the complicated social intangibles; though never turning into porn, it's definitely running on porn-logic. If it actually acknowledged that it was D/s lifestyle fetish, it'd be rather less unnerving.
The writing is going for a sort of charmingly-awkward effect, the sort of not-quite-fluent style you often get with second-language writers or patchy translations. It doesn't always sustain this, frequently dropping into Generic IF Bland. Other anime-derived stuff -- overuse of ellipsis in dialogue, busy upbeat music, template characters and settings -- is likely to annoy anybody not already enamoured with the form.
Gameplay wobbles between linearity and go-everywhere-to-see-if-anything's-changed, although this is largely a conscious design decision; the plot's streamlining is sacrificed at various points to allow for lots of optional content. On the other hand, the map tends to be designed with an eye to its effect on pacing the first time you run through, to the detriment of re-exploration, and there's a narrow inventory limit. Conversation is rather stunted; when it breaks into multiple-choice menus, it's often a matter of one Good Choice and several bad ones that end the conversation.
If you can get past all this, it has a number of things to offer: it's quite long and has considerable replay value. It may appeal if you like games which involve hunting out optional content, of which there is a great deal. Its use of multimedia is genre-appropriate and executed with skill, and for a game of its size, particularly in ADRIFT, it has a more than respectable level of polish. But this is like saying that GTA has really immersive world design, if you can just get past the violence and reckless driving. Slow pacing and lots of optional content is fine if you enjoy the basic texture of the world; if the world makes your skin crawl, it becomes a liability.
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