Reviews by Joey Acrimonious

IFComp 2020

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Quintessence, by Andrea M. Pawley

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Neat Idea, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

So, first of all, the cursor is a sauropod. Possibly a brachiosaurus? This fact alone is worth a star.

Quintessence brings a nice combination of physics and whimsy. It asks the player to think a bit about the nature of such lofty subjects as cosmology, consciousness, and agency; but it does so in the context of a lighthearted, cat-centric reality. Definitely an imaginative piece.

Apart from aforementioned sauropod, the graphic elements include pleasant images of the cosmos. What's less pleasant, however, is the fact that the text tends to fade into the busy backgrounds. Even with black outlining, I found that the text was often a strain to read.

The most intriguing thing here, in my view, is the idea of embodying the universe, its rules, and its destiny in conscious entities: the cat and the particle (and its permutations). This allows Quintessence to inject an element of pathos into what would otherwise be cold, impersonal aspects of reality. Neat. But I feel that it didn't run as far with this idea as it could have, and a deeper dive into the psychological and (for lack of a better word) interpersonal aspects of the characters' existence would have made this game into a more compelling mythology.


The Call of Innsmouth, by Tripper McCarthy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great Flavor, Hasty Pacing, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Right from the outset, The Call of Innsmouth builds itself upon a strong aesthetic foundation. The style of the prose and the parlance of the characters just screams “pulpy noir set in the 1920s.” This, combined with a darkly atmospheric visual presentation, makes for a game that oozes an instantly-recognizeable flavor. About 15 seconds in, I was absolutely hyped to go gumshoeing across Lovecraft Country, slowly uncovering unsettling hints of more sinister happenings behind a seemingly-mundane missing person case.

Except… that’s not quite how it goes.

Generally, I reckon that preserving a sense of mystery throughout the bulk of the story is crucial to the appeal of a piece of detective fiction. Ditto for a played-straight Lovecraftian work. But The Call of Innsmouth goes in the other direction, laying out quite a bit of blunt exposition early-on, so that the entire mystery is explained fairly clearly, even well before the climax. And I do mean explained - in most cases, you as the player aren’t making deductions or trying to weigh evidence to figure out what’s going on. Nor is there much room for ambiguity. You just get told everything directly, either by other characters who are happy to volunteer everything they know in a few major info-dumps, or by the internal monologue of a protagonist who can sometimes be exceptionally quick at jumping to conclusions.

This, I think, is a detriment to an otherwise well-written story. I would have preferred the underlying horrors to be revealed more slowly and gradually, with more opportunities for the player to apply their own logic to the course of the investigation.

That aside, I did enjoy many of the more action-oriented scenes in the latter half of the game. Many of the choices at that point are hazardous, with plenty of opportunities for insta-death, but they didn’t feel arbitrary. On the contrary, these choices reward the player for paying attention to the current situation and applying a bit of logic or intuition to it - for example, realizing that you need to take a hostage because you are unlikely to defeat/outrun your foes otherwise. That’s great. But why aren’t there more opportunities for the player to use their brain like this in the earlier, more investigative sequences of the game? As it is, there are very few points during the investigative phase where the player’s choices matter at all.

Overall, strong writing, has the right vibe, but could have done a better job at making me feel like a detective.


Big Trouble in Little Dino Park, by Seth Paxton, Rachel Aubertin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Should Have Spent 60 Days, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park puts the player in the shoes of an ennui-afflicted young person working a menial job - until you are thrust into a struggle for survival.

Apart from a few typos, I found the writing enjoyably witty, with some amusing riffs on the little (and not-so-little) absurdities of life. The introductory part of the game, which situates the protagonist in the vacuous world of commercial dinosaur exhibition only to plunge it all into chaos, showcases some of its best writing and does a great job of setting the tone quickly and concisely.

The game’s weak point is in how it executes its choice structure. The thing is, there’s a certain finicky path to victory. Once you’ve felt out that path, then you can work deliberately toward a couple of clear goals, and make a couple of decisions that have some moral/emotional weight to them. Good stuff. But until you’ve stumbled across just the right event to set you on that path, the choices mostly consist of pressing random stuff and hoping it doesn’t get you killed, with little apparent tactical or emotional reason to choose one option over another (except perhaps the knowledge of what got you killed last time). This phase of the game, I think, doesn’t play well to the strengths of the choice-based format, which is at its strongest when each choice comes with a sense of gravitas and agency.

I hope the authors will keep at it and give us more games in the future. With a different and more refined game design that more fully takes advantage of its engine’s strengths, their compelling writing could shine even brighter.


Saint Simon's Saw, by Samuel Thomson

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Kinda Brilliant, Kinda Bad, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Saint Simon’s Saw is a digitized tarot reading, except instead of traditional tarot cards, it has its own proprietary deck, drawing upon eclectic influences. Crucially, in addition to the ultimate reading of a hand, each card has an easily-accessible in-game explanation, which is where the bulk of the writing is to be found.

The tone of the work is singular and fascinating. It’s an interactive fortune-telling experience, but with the soul of an undergrad’s hastily-written essay, fuelled by coffee and Wikipedia summaries of post-structuralist screeds. There are inconsistently-styled citations of scholars like Jo Freeman and Paulo Freire, but no bibliography… and the citations themselves are basically frivolous, as if they’ve been inserted solely for the sake of name-dropping or because some professor demanded that there needed to be x number of citations. There are points where hugely creative and insightful ideas are touched upon, but these are counterbalanced by vague discursions, obscurantist writing, and nonsensical metaphors. There’s also a ton of misspellings and grammatical errors (including inconsistency over whether the work is titled Saint Simon’s Saw or Saint-Simon’s Saw), which altogether give the impression of something that may have been translated from French into English. And it’s all packed into a smooth-running executable with some lovely illustrations.

To an extent, I’m not sure what to make of this, because I’m profoundly unsure where it falls on the scale of sincerity versus irony. As far as I’m concerned, this could be an ambitious but flawed attempt at something sublime; or a straight-up joke; or anywhere in-between. This quality makes Saint Simon’s Saw perplexing and mystifying.

But this confusion plays into the strange enjoyment I got from the experience. The thing is, it works well enough as both an earnest piece and an ironic one. There’s enough thought-provoking content to grab my interest in spite of all the rough bits. But there’s also enough rough bits to make me laugh in spite of the thought-provoking parts.


The Eleusinian Miseries, by Mike Russo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Real Knee-Slapper, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Among theoreticians of humour, there are those who suppose that funniness is best explained by what they call the incongruous juxtaposition theory, which, when you get right down to it, holds basically that it is funny when incongruous things are juxtaposed, though perhaps the astute reader will have divined as much. By that measure, it is remarkable that this Russo chap has, with scant experience or prior renown in the venerable art of interactive fiction authorship, produced perhaps one of the more humourous – which is to say, incongruous – entries in IFComp 2020.

The Eleusinian Miseries ostensibly saddles one with a spot of work that needs doing. The activities soon devolve, however, into fast times of the particularly fuddled variety, as the main players get more-or-less sloshed, cut it across the Attican idyll, and commit mayhem upon stony unmentionables. As a rule, you see, one expects to encounter a – and not to imply any condescension, mind you, as we all stash it up once in a blue moon, and reasonably so, given the strictures and stressors of life being what they are – but, returning to the point, one expects to encounter a rather coarse register in association with this sort of blotto bacchanal (not to give the impression that this is in any way directly associated with rites pertaining directly to Bacchus, since it is clearly acknowledged that the initiations at Eleusis are in praise of an entirely different set of deities, but I digress). Yet many a satyr would be outmatched by the refined parlance, both of the revelers themselves, and of the narrator who details their debauchery. And therein lies (or is it lays?) the crux of this incongruity wheeze – in pairing a particular strain of elevated and idiosyncratic diction with what is, quite frankly, an evening of shenanigans befitting any sophomore. Quite amusing, that.

But, wait a tic, for what, upon first reflection, appears to be an incongruity, is, a second consideration informs me, actually a complete congruity as well. The revelries of the game, you see, are lush to the point of excess – extravagant to the point of criminality. The language employed in descriptions thereof is similarly turgid enough to test the strictures of good taste. Upon realizing just how apropos the style is to the substance in this respect, I was as surprised and delighted as one who, attempting to wrangle a mutt, catches a purebred Chow-Chow’s teeth to the face.

I say, astute reader, do you know what this means? This Russo chap, when planning this subtle work, inserted even more incongruity than could reasonably have been anticipated, for not only must we consider the incongruity as previously discussed, but also the incongruity of that incongruity with the aforementioned congruity. If the incongruity taken at face value is quite amusing, then this revelation, surely, is a real knee-slapper.

Having played The Eleusinian Miseries to three different conclusions – being a glutton for punishment – I am deeply impressed by its wit. This whole “Wodehouse” wheeze is a bit of a stumper to me, I never having gone in for it, but even I can see that the writing is impressive. And while the credits acknowledge five beta-testers, the technical ease-of-parser-use gives the impression of perhaps one and one-half times that number!

To conclude, with perhaps a lesser degree of fanfare than is warranted, because I really must be off to peruse recipes for kykeon, The Eleusinian Miseries is a fine achievement and well-deserving of a playthrough.


Deus Ex Ceviche, by Tom Lento, Chandler Groover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
I Got Schooled, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

There were many ambitious entries in the IFComp 2020. This is the only one I’ve played that goes so far as to stake out a new aesthetic school of its own. The bizarre, alien world of Deus Ex Ceviche is inextricably steeped in the unmistakable flavor of this so-called Piscespunk: a marriage of artificial life and marine biology, here examined at the intersection of religion and for-profit enterprise.

The whole experience is packaged with a visually-stunning backdrop of netted fish, rendered with distinctive colors and bold lines that evoke a vague impression of stained glass and its tracery, bringing an ecclesiastical flavor to the table. Against this, the game’s interactive elements are rendered in pixel art that adds a palpable artificiality. The visual design elements of this game are thoughtfully-constructed and I cannot overstate how well they work together to sell the radical new Piscespunk concept.

Gameplay consists of putting disks in slots and seeing what happens, with each input yielding a narrative description of a resulting event, plus a change in your resources (of which a certain amount must be collected for victory). Both the story and the mechanics come off as weird, surreal, and possibly confusing at first. Why is the GUI gooey? How exactly does brine accumulate as a result of accidentally censoring important passages in the holy text? Nothing makes sense according to the logic of reality as we know it.

But much of the pleasure of playing Deus Ex Ceviche is in keeping at it, gradually discovering that this world has an internal logic of its own, according to which everything makes perfect sense. Trial and error (and the advice of a helpful goldfish) will reveal that the strange results of disk-insertion are in fact quite predictable, and one can easily achieve a desired outcome.

Meanwhile, as one becomes more acquainted with the setting and its characters, the weird language and inexplicable causal relationships of the story’s events will gradually decode themselves into something that’s actually quite coherent.

The travails of the faithful as they struggle to perform their duties in the face of a malfunctioning temple apparatus; the underdog tale of an obsolete abbess seeking to fulfil her duties while painfully aware of her own shortcomings; the desperate hope of the congregants to find some kind of comfort or meaning in a corrupt, pay-to-pray religion. From these poignant beginnings, the Section B-2 Temple will spiral into a crescendo of mounting tension, as constructed systems transcend their intended purposes. All aspects of reality - social, ontological, and architectural - will be revolutionized by one’s apotheosis, and one’s faithful will experience the terrible ecstasy of union with one’s divinity. It’s all on display in a series of rich, evocative vignettes. There’s real, human emotion here. It’s the kind of stuff that could be described in terms of heartbeats, smiles, and tears… if it weren’t already described in terms of databanks, replacement fingers, and salt instead.

If that doesn’t already have you hooked, then frankly, I don’t understand you. Just know that my meager review cannot possibly do justice to the raw power and majesty of Deus Ex Ceviche. Without a doubt among the most unique and memorable games of the comp, it definitely deserves a playthrough (or five).


The Cave, by Neil Aitken

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cool Concept, Not As Exciting As I'd Expected, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

In a classic setup, The Cave thrusts the player into a cave network to explore. But it quickly becomes apparent that mapping out the inscrutable and shifting web of rooms in search of the exit is neither possible nor necessary. This isn’t about the destination - it’s about the journey, as your character is defined by the choices they make along the way, dealing with challenges or opportunities in one way or another.

This is a cool concept, but the decisions I had to make soon started to feel a bit more mundane than I’d have liked. There’s not a lot of emotional weight behind most of what I encountered. Do you search the ashes or just keep going? Do you cross the stream or go around? Decisions like these do indeed reveal something about the person who makes them, but not enough for me to feel fully invested in a game that’s supposed to be about a journey of self-discovery.

There’s a strong element of randomness to the game, with both events and room-connections being (at least partially) randomized. I fear that the RNG may have given me the short end of the stick during my playthrough. The blurb promises lost treasures, forgotten ruins, and ancient magic, but I didn’t encounter any of those things except for a single spell that I never got the opportunity to use. Instead, despite my attempts to try new options in the hope of reaching new areas, I just kept winding up in the same handful of rooms/situations… mostly involving searching ashes and crossing streams. I might return to the game and search for the juicier bits at some point, but perhaps the RNG would have benefitted from a bit more scaffolding to ensure that each playthrough has more variety to it.

Overall, a winning concept that I think would benefit from some tweaking to draw out some more depth and variety.


Quest for the Sword of Justice, by Damon L. Wakes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Irony So Thick, You Could Cut It With a Sword, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Quest for the Sword of Justice is a surprising little game that subverted my expectations at every turn. Although, maybe that's just because I haven't played enough self-aware RPGs.

Right off the bat, as an RPGMaker game, it wasn’t what I expected to see in IFComp at all. But then, it also cheerfully ignores many of the salient features of its own engine, eschewing the traditional RPG experience in favor of something a bit different. The thing is, (Spoiler - click to show)the game comes with all the trappings you'd expect: skills/attributes, an XP system, an inventory system, etc., all seemingly included with combat in mind. But there isn't any combat and all that stuff is pure window-dressing. By subverting the expected mechanics of an RPG, Quest for the Sword of Justice cleverly weaves an element of parody into the structure of the game itself.

This is employed in service to the overarching story, which also is basically a comic endeavor. The author does a great job of setting up certain expectations with apparent seriousness, only to proceed to smash those expectations into tiny bits for humorous effect.

It’s a short game and a light read, but I found it successful in (what I think is) its main goal of being good for a laugh or two. There are at least a couple different endings to find, and both of the ones I got were amusing.


The Eidolon's Escape, by Mark Clarke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Good Execution, But Excellent Idea, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The Eidolon’s Escape is a nice, solid choice-based game that puts the player in the role of an incorporeal entity seeking to escape confinement.

The protagonist itself is one of the main draws of the game. Everything is seen and interpreted through the (figurative) eyes of the somewhat misanthropic Eidolon, and it’s written convincingly. The protagonist has an idiosyncratic way of viewing the world, taking a non-human’s view toward human behavior that varies between analytical/opportunistic and judgmental/repulsed. Its unique perspective is palpable at every turn, lending a strong and distinctive narrative flavor throughout.

The design of the choices and branching is, for me, a mixed bag. There are many choices that look like they’re calling for the player to make an inductive leap, levering the Eidolon’s limited insights on human psychology to choose the most effective way to manipulate other characters. And that works very well and feels quite satisfying - as long as the illusion is preserved. But on repeated playthroughs, I found that most of these choices don’t have any importance to the direction of the story, actually serving only to punctuate events and change some flavor text. In many cases, if you select the “wrong” choice, the game will just correct it for you (i.e. that didn’t work, so now you’re doing the other thing instead), the exception being a few landmines where the wrong choice leads to an immediate game-over.

By creating the illusion of important choices to engage the player through at least the first playthrough, the author probably made a judicious use of time and effort, and that’s cool. But I feel that the whole thing would have been more powerful, especially on repeated playthroughs, if there were more choices with actual gameplay consequences other than the occasional possibility of insta-loss.

There are a handful of more-important choices stacked at the end of the game, leaving us with a branching structure that’s less of a tree and more of a spork.

One of the endings makes clear the conceptual underpinnings of the action: (Spoiler - click to show)that the Mage is holding the Eidolon against its will because it is a metaphysical remnant of the Mage’s dead loved one, and the Mage desperately wants the Eidolon to identify with this person even though the Eidolon does not. This is an outstanding concept which intrigues me immensely. It has huge emotional gravity and lots of potential to be interpreted in a metaphorical light.

But I wish that the game had done more to explore and develop this awesome concept. As is, it’s all explicated in a few short paragraphs right at an ending, where the player no longer has any ability to respond in-character. There’s a bit of foreshadowing near the start (which can be easily missed), but that’s about it. I feel that, had this weighty relationship been developed in richer detail and been more present throughout the experience, it would have taken the story from good to excellent.


The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle, by B F Lindsay

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing Mild About It, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Wow. What a journey. The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle is witty and crude, sage and sophomoric, beautifully authentic and laughably schlocky, all rolled into one epic deluge of mystery, passion, and adolescent angst that absolutely oozes old-school cool.

This is a story about adolescence, and every aspect of the game sells that fact. You have to literally navigate a byzantine, absurd educational institution for arbitrary reasons decreed by an antagonistic adult. Your character is continually preoccupied with carnal thirst at times both appropriate and not (but mostly not), finding sources of arousal in pretty much any interaction with the opposite sex, of which there are plenty. There are at least three different pizzas in the game, each of which serves a crucial mechanical purpose. Everything sucks, but your street-smarts and disregard for the rules are exactly what you need to navigate this sucky world and accomplish some good deeds - fulfilling the hackneyed destiny of the male savior and winning the gratitude of a bunch of young women in distress. Obviously. It’s brilliant at times; it’s bizarre at times; it’s as if the entire fabric of reality in this universe has been warped according to the world-view and desires of an adolescent boy. And that’s definitely entirely deliberate.

Our point-of-view character Tom is at the center of everything here, and his distinctive voice is woven into the whole experience of the game through his endless cynical commentaries and self-absorbed digressions. As a character, he’s compelling in the sense that he feels like an actual, complex human being. Sometimes he’s capable of great sensitivity and insight, showing genuine understanding of the feelings and goals of those around him. Other times, he’s an inconsiderate brat. And as these different aspects of his personality come up during the story, they make sense. He has verisimilitude. I can easily believe that Tom is an actual young man on the verge of adulthood - someone who is mature in some ways and at some times, but who still has a lot to learn.

I was especially amused by the way his deliciously blasé attitude carries over into the game world - for example, through the existence of objects with names like “crappy snack machine” and “uninteresting stuff.”

In terms of implementation, the game is excellent. The parser works smoothly. I encountered no serious bugs nor mechanical struggles. The puzzles are mostly excellent as well - they’re cleverly-designed, with a unique and awesome mix of insight into the real-world applications of miscellaneous things and total disregard for using them as intended. Some are challenging, most are fair and can be solved with a bit of logic once you get into the classic adventure game mindset (i.e. that it’s okay to screw things up and leave a trail of destruction in your wake, taking and levering every possible tool in an inexorable drive toward your goal). But there were a small handful that just threw me for a loop, leading me to resort to the walkthrough only to find that the solution was some arbitrary-seeming action whose utility couldn’t possibly be understood until after having done it - I would have appreciated a more obvious hint, for example, that (Spoiler - click to show)sitting on a certain chair (as opposed to examining or searching) will reveal a hidden item.

Story-wise, I feel that the game is somewhat front-loaded. As I first met some of the other major characters and engaged in a few early puzzles, I was hooked! They, like Tom, were complex and compelling. Interacting with them exposed motivations and emotions that I could believe. The situation that unfolded might have been far-fetched, but the people felt real, and their personalities started to shine through with a slow-simmering richness. I was hungry to interact more with them and learn more about them.

Yet I felt that the climax and epilogue in particular did not fully live up to the strength of those earlier interactions. By this point, the flavor of authentic teenage interpersonal drama had gone out the window in favor of a kind of campy, totally unbelievable depiction of (Spoiler - click to show)the trauma of physical abuse and kidnapping, where several young women who have been captured and imprisoned by a maniac, and who are in immediate danger, just calmly flirt with our intrepid protagonist from their underground prison cells. I’m still not sure whether I want to read this as dark humor or just plain distasteful. Either way, the verisimilitude I’d adored had evaporated.

After this, I’d at least hoped for a strong emotional payoff - an exploration of how the characters ultimately grew and changed as a result of the pivotal events. It materializes… partially. The arc between Allison and her father comes to a satisfying closure. But as for most of the other major NPCs, the epilogue tells us what they go on to do, but it doesn’t show us where they stand on an emotional level. Tom himself seems to come away with a slightly greater sensitivity toward the needs of others (particularly their need for space and boundaries). And that’s awesome. I just wish the ending had hit home a little harder.

The author's postmortem on the Intfiction forum is a fascinating read and it helped me appreciate the game on a new level, as a symbolic piece. Definitely recommend that.

Anyway, Tom Trundle has its flaws and its awkward moments, but I can't deny that it's a hugely memorable experience that left an outsized impression on me. It's not perfect. I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could, but with IFDB's rating system being what it is, guess I'll have to round up.

And just one more thing. It involves a spoiler so huge that I sincerely recommend not clicking on it unless you’ve completed the game for yourself:

(Spoiler - click to show)Why isn’t Darth Vader your father?!



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