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: random, old-school, fantasy, magic system, magic, combat, heroic fantasy, rpg, how not to do it
The protagonist is an underdog in a murderous struggle for succession. The action takes place in a sealed castle, with four towers around a central hub area and a throne-room to the north. Dying many times is to be expected before winning, and (Spoiler - click to show)nasty things lurk in the basement. Unlike Varicella, however, the antagonists of Magocracy are autonomous and unpredictable, and must be overcome through random RPG combat. Rather than the elaborate choreography of Varicella, then, you'd expect more strategic decisions, made up of cost-benefit judgments rather than the gradual uncovering of the One True Path. Sadly, Magocracy retains much of what's annoying about the gradual-uncovering approach, abandons most of what's fun about narrative IF, and brings in a host of new problems with its RPG elements.
The main problem with Magocracy is that, in terms of the immediate experience it delivers, it's really boring. The fantasy world is transparently made up of cheap knock-offs of Earth cultures and lifeless genre tropes. The writing is pedestrian, the setting bland; the PC has no personality to speak of. There's no sense of drama: moments that should be big dramatic reveals mostly leave you scratching your head. This is particularly bad because the general pattern of play is to try things out, get killed trying them, and hopefully learn a little bit with each death. It's a style of design that desperately needs to offer the player some sustenance to keep them going: and very little effort is spent on this.
The game's central conceit -- that you're the hopeless underdog who somehow has to find a way to triumph over the world's most powerful mages -- is used to justify some odd behaviour, like enemies who totally ignore you (they don't see you as a threat, or don't want to kill a helpless bystander). But among these high-powered mages there are also characters who will flee in terror the moment you attack them with a flimsy conjured staff. The general feeling is that Magocracy isn't really interested in narrative, even a narrative that's mostly about combat.
The hopeless-newbie conceit also reflects the player's learning curve. In Kerkerkruip, a great deal of effort was spent on making sure that the player had some idea of the general structure within which your strategic choices would operate. By the time you've died once in Kerkerkruip you should have a pretty good grasp of the general pattern of play. Magocracy does spend some time on explaining its mechanics, but getting a sense of strategy is much more slow and tedious. In this respect it fails because it's designed too much like conventional IF; you have to spend a lot of time on mapping and searching for hidden things before you can even really start to strategise. The author seems aware that this is a problem, and has included a number of items to compensate; but all of these are, likewise, rather hard to find.
IF that makes heavy use of randomisation, such as RPG-like combat, struggles with whether to allow UNDO. There are various approaches to dealing with this -- preserve a random seed, allow UNDO contextually -- but Rheaume's approach is to say that UNDO isn't cheating, then design the game to be so filled with death, randomness and near-unwinnable states that UNDO is essential to survive. But cheating isn't the most worrisome cost of UNDO; heavy use of it is, I think, inherently disruptive to the play experience.
Magocracy is not a slight work, and some of my dislike for it is because my priorities are so very unlike the author's. It might appeal to the type of gamer who requires no motivation whatsoever to solve a tough puzzle, other than the fact that it's tough. But even as a pure-RPG-combat exercise, it doesn't instill a huge amount of confidence. The hints file suggests 'find a better weapon straight away by looking under the kitchen table'; but this replaces a weapon with 1d4+1 damage with a 1d6 one, which gives you precisely the same mean damage. There are minor bugs like the arrival of creatures in darkness being reported as if it were light, and monsters being awarded points for kills (presumably they're not eligible for the crown). Only one tester is credited -- which would be too few even if the game was less experimental. Given that the overall design of the game has some questionable choices, small but glaring errors do not dispose one to trust the author. And for a game in which success is slow in coming, the author badly needs that trust.
There's not much feeling of unity or distinctive vision, either in mechanics or content; the magic system, for instance, is a grab-bag that doesn't operate, or even follow names, in any consistent manner. >CONJURE is different from >SUMMON for no particular reason; the light spell is a Crazy Magic Word but everything else is normal verbs. The maze monsters are cameos from other works, not members of the world. (A standard approach in roguelikes, Eamon and some MUDs, but it needs a little more work to be effective in narrative IF.)
CRPG-like IF continues to be a popular aspiration, particularly among new authors, and I certainly don't want to suggest that it's a doomed exercise. It's not difficult to imagine the basic premise of Magocracy rendered as a much more enjoyable game. But mixing IF with other game styles is a tough task, and highly risky to undertake as one's first IF game. (Even veteran authors can end up producing something pretty underwhelming.) A good feeling for the design strengths of both forms is crucial; the ability to smooth over the join with strong writing is a huge asset. Without either, dedication and diligence are unlikely to count for very much.
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