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Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
So much to do! So much to see!, December 1, 2022

Several days ago, I visit IFDB and see this:

News on Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone: OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE November 22, 2022 An OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE is now available for Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, with all kinds of tips and hints and solutions and maps. - Details

I wasn’t sure if I should cry. I had thoroughly played all the games (within the game) and completed them but one. Meanwhile, I was hearing all about (Spoiler - click to show) some secret bonus game that would be unlocked by completing the first four. The words “tips,” “hints,” “solutions,” and “maps,” in this announcement immediately pulled me back to the game so I could finally play it from start to finish. It also means I can give this awesome game a review.

Overview
This was an entry in last year’s Ecto-Comp and offers quite an experience. My understanding is that people besides Ryan Veeder wrote and created stories that he then implemented into parser to be showcased in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. An anthology.

It is the first game that I have played that splices Twine with Inform/Vorple. It begins in Twine. You are a guest at Castle Balderstone and are brought to a room where four cover art photos are displayed on the screen with the games’ titles. It felt like walking into a movie theater and looking at the posters. When you click on one you “walk” to an area where the author of the story is getting ready to read the story to an audience. This transitions to the parser where you can play the game. Immersive approach!

During the gameplay a sketch of the author is included on the right side of the screen with a small bio. It helps you appreciate the amount of brain power that went into each story. Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone is the amusement park and the games set within it are the rides. It has nothing to do with amusement parks/rides but that is the analogy that came to mind.

Letavermilia
I will discuss this game first because it is the one that I could not complete without the walkthrough.

In Letavermilia you are playing as a bounty hunter tasked to hunt down a hacker who goes by, Letavermilia, the same name of a deadly plague that has run rampant across interstellar space. This is probably the most elegant space bounty hunter IF game I have played. The protagonist has worked their way up to become an “A-list bounty hunter” with high paying clients, and it shows. For one thing, the ship has been upgraded to something classier. If “space bounty hunter” does not sound like your cup of tea- think again. There is something about it that strikes a unique chord. Rather than a typical high action speed chase through space, an emphasis is placed on subtlety. If you try to examine a detail, chances are the game will have something to say about it.

We begin on Ligeia, an oceanic planet where you are vacationing. As you lounge peacefully on the hull of your fancy ship you get an urgent message to track down Letavermilia (the hacker). You are following a trail that she leaves behind. Gameplay involves decoding her messages to find the coordinates for the next planet you travel to. Before the walkthrough was published, I was stuck on (Spoiler - click to show) Zante, trying to decipher the message on the (Spoiler - click to show) etched panel. I feel like I should have been able to figure it out on my own. But I didn’t, and that’s that, I guess. Now I was able to go to the next planet. I was really excited to see what world was in store (and tired of guessing pitifully at travel coordinates). After that, I used the walkthrough on and off.

While gameplay has a narrow focus on one objective at a time, it still injects intriguing overarching story along the way. The big concern looming over everyone’s heads is Letavermilia, the plague. We get a smattering of interplanetary politics. Entire planets infected by the disease are quarantined. Meanwhile, uninfected affluent planets form an alliance called “Isolated Worlds” that cease contact with worlds outside this group.

The player is in a unique position because the PC’s bounty hunter credentials allow access to worlds that would otherwise be unavailable. I feel that the portrayal of bounty hunters in both IF and non-IF (or at least in what I’ve seen) tend to use a profile of a battered scoundrel who accepts shady contracts and walks a fine line with the law. The protagonist in Letavermilia is more privileged with glitzy clients and jobs received from entire governments.

I was not happy with the ending. No, no- It’s a fantastic ending. It’s an effective ending. I disliked it simply because it did not end how I wanted it to end. This may surprise you, but if I were to assess the ending of every story in this game and decide on the scariest, it would be this game without a doubt.

What do I mean by scary? I don’t mean spooked scary where everyone around the campfire screams because they heard a small noise out in the words. The feeling I associate with this ending is deep dread that sets in only when it is too late. You realize what just happened, quietly, without the game having to spell it out for you. (Spoiler - click to show)

Your nose is bleeding.

This bounty hunter had in the bag only to discover that the villain (who, technically, we still never meet) has been holding everything in the palm of her hand. I was rooting for the PC. If it weren’t for the villain, we would be swimming about leisurely on Ligeia. Plus, there is only one ending. In the other three games you can negotiate for happier ones.


This sense of dread is not a sudden event. It develops slowly through the gameplay, and you hardly even know it until it reaches the end. A trend is that (Spoiler - click to show) planet locations generally have small maps that you navigate freely and yet they manage to convey a feeling of being funneled along in a direction regardless of your choices. The anxious man who is a little too zealous about your presence (and your teeth, for some reason) as he escorts you up and down the narrow stairwell to look at the server room. The dust storm that keeps you confined to the area around your ship. The deep elevator (my favorite) that shuttles you deep underground to a concrete room. And somehow this hacker manages to leave her messages before you arrive. You are in control, but ultimately, you are not. The extent of this is not revealed until you paint yourself into a corner. Then- surprise! Down you go. That’s what makes this game scary.

Before I move on, I want to share my favorite planet, (Spoiler - click to show) Ulalume. Here, you are at a planet devoted to the nightlife. While planets are consumed by disease, partygoers continue to live extravagantly without any thought that the vast resources of the Isolated Worlds could be spent- I don’t know- coming up with a cure, maybe? Or maybe they simply want to distract themselves from it. People on this planet have a lot of ways of trying to distract themselves. You use an elevator to reach the bottom level. Its glass walls allow you to see the establishments on each floor. The farther down, the more unsettling things we see.

Now you can see through the haze. Humans are sprawled over velvet pillows, wearing expressions of vacant satisfaction.

No one cares that you are plunging deep underground in an elevator to reach a cold concrete room with a message from a hacker who borrows inspiration from a deadly plague.
Now, that’s atmosphere.

Visit Skuga Lake
Your boss went to write some articles on a little-known town but has gone missing. As her intern, you travel to the town to investigate only to be thrown into a motel closet. Seems like outsiders are unwelcome. I did not need the hints for the Visit Skuga Lake because I had already devoured back when I first found the game. I mapped that place to death. Notes, lists, you name it. I did consult the guide’s amulet/eyestone chart because it is much more organized than the table I created.

When I first played Visit Skuga Lake last year during Ecto-Comp, I remember the parser being a tad slow with my commands. It would take about half a second- just enough to be noticeable- for the game to respond. But not really a big deal. When I replayed it a few days ago the delay time was even slower. The longer I played the greater the lag. By the time I managed to (Spoiler - click to show) retrieve the key from the sleeping guard and get the boat running to reach the smaller island it was taking three full seconds for the game to respond to each command. I’m not sure why. This was not a big deal since I already knew what to do, but if this were my first ever playthrough, experimentation would be a nightmare.

This game has heaps of cool content. Every animal, landmark, and found object have important content attached to it. What I like best is how there are plenty of puzzles, but their solutions are flexible. While many puzzles are optional, pursuing them are still relevant to your objectives because they follow a similar concept. (Spoiler - click to show) You collect animal amulets and eyestones. When paired together, they give you powers- a wide variety of powers. Experimenting with them is so much fun. You do not need to find every (Spoiler - click to show) magical item, but it is a welcome task, and one that will likely prove useful later in the gameplay. Experimentation is the main attraction. I hope the lag is just an issue on my end. That aside, the story, gameplay, and characters are excellent. Lag-time or not Visit Skuga Lake is a must play if you feel like sampling the stories in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone.

Singing for Me
Definitely, my favorite in all of Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. It is meant to be played repeatedly and offers a lot of strategizing. My high score is (Spoiler - click to show) $1938. "I suppose this is adequate," said the Waldgrave. I’m still proud of it.

The protagonist is a young man returning home after college. He tells the story through humorous journal entries shaped by the player’s choices. The entries depict an oddball town that grows weirder and weirder in a way that suggests normalcy in its community. If you keep shuffling along with the town’s traditions, you get sucked right in. Next thing you know, the (Spoiler - click to show) Harvest Festival arrives. The ending is delightfully disturbing and unexpected. Even better is the redeeming ending. The game makes the player work for it, but it is fulfilling. I’d share more but I’m already starting to sound like (Spoiler - click to show) Darren.

Nyvo the Dolphin
This game gave me a lot to think about. If you happened to be standing on a tall cliff while staring at the ocean and see a dolphin equipped with a (Spoiler - click to show) prosthetic arm, a (Spoiler - click to show) grenade launcher, and some (Spoiler - click to show) foreign object in its eye, what scenario would play through your head? What explanation would emerge as you try to rationalize what you just saw? Nyvo the Dolphin has the answers. An adolescent dolphin comes across a shipwreck. Not some storybook pirate shipwreck but the wreckage of a high-tech ship carrying (Spoiler - click to show) classified military cargo. The highlight is the writing. It has a dramatic yet clinical tone as it narrates Nyvo’s encounter with (Spoiler - click to show) dangerous human technology…and how he is changed by it. It’s also in third person which makes it even more potent.

You mean there’s (Spoiler - click to show) more?
Finally, this was the moment I was waiting for. (Spoiler - click to show) The bonus content: a FIFTH game. Hunted , if I remember correctly. A stop and start Christmas nightmare. I think. This kid is on the run in the North Pole. When he gets caught* the gameplay switches where you are the “Bad” version of the kid. The Good and Bad version of the kid’s identity battle it out as you flip flop between two gameplay sequences. And then sometimes the parser would kick back to the Twine format where everyone is sitting in a circle to hear a story before launching into more gameplay. It was overwhelming. Cool, but overwhelming. At one point I was in a cozy house, but then that changed. The entire time I was all, “wait- stop, stop, stop. I wasn’t done yet!” I would gladly replay the entire game to revisit it if not for the lag issue I had with Visit Skuga Lake.

Nonetheless, I am so happy to have reached this point.

*Also: (Spoiler - click to show) I found a key that presumably unlocks the office door, but right before I reach it Krampus gets me. Is it possible to outrun him or is failing the whole point?

Final thoughts
A truly ambitious piece. It also defies the notion of quality over quantity, or quantity or quality. It’s a quality game, and there’s lots of it! A lot of planning and care seems to have gone into its creation. Sometimes you may find yourself coming back just to revisit one of the stories. Especially Singing for Me. There is something in it for a wide range of audiences in terms of length, technicality, and subject matter. Make sure you turn on the rainy music that the game recommends before you start playing.


Defrosted, by Riyadth

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Freezer burn horror, November 11, 2022

In the far future, climate change has done a number on planet Earth. Glaciers are melting. After a particularly large melt scientists found a strange strain of fungi with incredible resilience to extreme conditions and sentient properties. After tinkering around with genetic engineering, the military winds up with humanoid plant-based beings called Hyphaens.

Upside: They make great soldiers. Downside: Without social interaction they cannibalize each other.

Gameplay
The game starts with heavy exposition before launching into gameplay. The protagonist is desperate to secure a job after being dishonorably discharged from the military and manages to find employment as a companion for a Hyphaen. Here, character customization is cleverly woven into an application form that allows you to edit the protagonist's gender, height, and other characteristics. The gameplay then consists of preparing and traveling to meet your assigned Hyphaen.

One thing I disliked was how the protagonist makes informed decisions while the player is left in the dark. The main example is if you decide to (Spoiler - click to show) explore the mall. The protagonist automatically starts buying all this stuff that is later used to create a makeshift weapon for self-defense. A brief mention of the protagonist’s intent for buying would suffice. Something like, “hm, these substances may be useful in repelling Hyphaens,” would have been helpful for context.

Story
The turning point is a gnarly scene where (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist is being devoured by their assigned Hyphaen up arriving at the apartment. There are three endings, two bad, one good. So far, I reached (Spoiler - click to show) BAD END 1 and (Spoiler - click to show) GOOD END but not the third outcome. The good ending involves (Spoiler - click to show) fighting off the Hyphaen. It leaves the player on a bit of a cliff hanger since it just ends with the protagonist leaving, although there is the implication that the protagonist is now on the run from killing military property. I do appreciate how the author provides some additional exposition on what happened before ending it.

I spent a chunk of time trying to find a way to (Spoiler - click to show) avoid being attacked by the Hyphaen but I do not think that is possible. There are some mixed messages that I tried to decipher. The Hyphaen’s dialog after you successfully defend yourself suggests that the Hyphaen merely wanted a connection. That said, there is no kidding the fact that such a connection would result in the death of the protagonist. It was only after re-reading the concluding text about "separation-induced aggravation" that I started to hammer together an explanation.

I’m just going to take a whack at it. (Spoiler - click to show) There is some hive mind plant entity in the arctic that is connected to the Hyphaens that function as a "fungal network." This entity(s?) is referred to as Mother and Father, or at least some translation of it. An expedition went down there but was ordered to return when things started getting weird. We learn about this from one of the protagonist’s memories, but it is cut short.

Naturally, Hyphaens' central impulse is to communicate with themselves and a parent hive. But when humans decide to cultivate (or grow?) them in a civilization in a sad dome on a tundra, that living connection is lost. They still have social interactions with nearby Hyphaen and humans, but it is not the same as a hive. Without this link their mental state falls apart and aggression occurs when they socialize. Hence why the Hyphaen attacks the protagonist. Human companion programs were meant to stave off aggressive tendencies through regular mild interactions, but in this case, it was not adequate.
That scene was intense.

Visuals
The game has a stylized appearance and colour scheme that adds a nice ambience. Black text box with wide margins and rounded corners that casts a shadow against a green background. This is paired with thick white text and yellow links. Also, there are these black rectangular boxes that briefly appear at the top of the screen throughout the gameplay that say things like (Spoiler - click to show) “TERMINAL: Dome Termed,” almost as if they were achievements before vanishing (see note).

Cover art is weird, terrifying, but cool. I assume that’s a Hyphaen?

Final thoughts
At first, I was not sure if I liked this game. I felt that the game was too short (though by no means incomplete) and that it left me with too many questions. But during my first playthrough I glossed over the large amount of exposition and backstory that the gameplay provides. When I went back to absorb the details, the story became more potent.

While I would have gladly played Defrosted if it were longer, I do think it is reasonable in length to keep players from being burned out. Its length is best described as compact. A lot of thoughtfulness has been put into this game and I am curious to see the author’s future work.

NOTE: Just as I was finishing this review my usual unobservant self suddenly made a big discovery. There is an arrow button at the top left corner of the screen (I know, it’s obvious) that opens to a menu with some useful features.

It has a dictionary of terms that are updated throughout the gameplay, and stat levels for the player’s strength and pheromone levels. The popup boxes that I mentioned earlier are meant to inform you that new terms have been added to the dictionary. I cannot believe I missed that.


Something Blue, by E. Joyce

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A short horror story via mail, November 9, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: ECTOCOMP, Twine, Horror

The protagonist of Something Blue is Helen, a young woman recently married to an affluent man named Henry Compton. Great match. The story is told through letters that she writes to her sister Anne. But each letter gradually reveals a sinister truth.

Gameplay
Gameplay is simple enough. For each of Helen’s letters you choose several passages by clicking on a link that cycles through your options. There are three options per passage, and options seem to feature three different tones:

(1) Helen assumes the best of her husband and never speculates about suspicious things.
(2) Helen admits that she is not enjoying being married and that her husband gets super touchy about certain topics but otherwise plays ball. For a while, at least.
(3) Helen is sure that that something weird and explainable is going on. This last one sits on a fence between working yourself into imaging things and knowing Exactly What You Saw.

I was half expecting, half hoping that the player could determine Helen’s actions based on your choices while writing her letter. If Helen writes to Anne that she will (Spoiler - click to show) explore the attic when Henry leaves, she will explore the attic. If she opts to stay out of it, she stays out of it. Instead, it she goes to the (Spoiler - click to show) attic every time, and honestly, I cannot fault her for that. Ultimately my issue is that gameplay choices seem superficial when finding the possible outcomes for the story. I would mix and match choices to see how it shaped the gameplay, but it ended up being rather linear.

Story
Helen is told she get go wherever she wants in the house except (Spoiler - click to show) the attic. I will just rip off the band-aid. (Spoiler - click to show) Helen sneaks into the attic and discovers the dead bodies of Henry’s previous six wives. Her final letter to Anne shares her findings. The game ends with Helen’s husband sending a letter to Anne with bad news. He explains that Helen’s previous letter surely must have been the result of a high fever that gave her delusions that her husband had murdered his former wives. Haha. No, the player is not going to buy into that too easily.

I found the ending to be ambiguous. We know he is trying to cover his tracks. We do not know if Helen tried to run away or asked him about what she saw. I am assuming that at some point he figured out that she explored the attic. The implications of this are disturbing but we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger. Is she dead? He offers to allow Anne and her parents to come visit, so I take it that she is still alive. But if gameplay has any merit, she will probably end up like the other wives. Implied horror can work tremendously, but Something Blue ends a bit too soon for the story to click.

Henry’s writing about a fever feels like the default ending, but there is an alternate ending that ends in a similar fashion. If you choose gameplay prompts that seem a little, for the lack of a better word, “hysterical,” Henry writes that she was sent to a sanatorium instead. Historically, the notion of hysteria been used as a way of diagnosing women, which opens a can of worms about sexism and other issues. But it appears that Henry is going to use that to his advantage. Like the other ending, things are a little ambiguous about the outcome. Is he really sending her to a sanatorium or is he just going to kill her in the attic?


In case you are curious, the game’s title is based off a wedding rhyme that says, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." Each part of the rhyme details something the bride should wear while tying the knot to ensure certain blessings throughout the marriage. The "something blue" is meant to defend against evil superstition but (Spoiler - click to show) having a husband who chops up his wives also counts. If Helen followed the rhyme at all, it clearly failed. Especially with "something blue." The sad thing too is that her first letter in the game suggests that she married at her parents’ insistence. She probably had little say on not just who she married, but also on how she was married.

Visuals
The visuals only tinker with basic effects but they are effectively polished. The text is on a yellowish-white square against a dark blue background with matching links. It draws attention to the colour in the game’s title. I thought it was a nice look.

Final thoughts
This was one of the first games I played for this year’s EctoComp, and I fun reading the story. Definitely a horror game. It could have been more fleshed-out, but it is still a quality piece suitable for a few rounds. If you like interactive fiction with gameplay that exclusively takes place through letters that you modify, consider Something Blue.


MARTYR ME, by Charm Cochran

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
If you are going to kill me, at least do a good job, November 8, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Twine, Horror, ECTOCOMP

This is an EctoComp game. Had I not known that when I first saw the swirly bleeding-heart cover art, I would have guessed that I was about to play a twisted Valentine's Day game. Actually, it could probably double for Halloween (why am I still talking about Halloween?) and Valentine's Day if you are in the mood for horror. Potentially versatile option.

Anyway, MARTYR ME is a candid game about a murderer- a serial killer- dicing up a victim. You play as the murderer, but the narration is second person as told from the victim's perspective (Technically, the dialog is made up in the PC's mind, but they pretend that they are being addressed directly). I am not even sure if the victim is still alive. The start of the game sort of gives the impression that they are already dead, and that the murderer is merely playing around with a corpse.

The pivotal choice you make at the start of the game is whether you want to take your time or jump right in. The goal is to perform a ritual to martyr the victim by carrying out specific “steps” while butchering them. It is almost humorous at how offended the murder victim is if you decide to rush through this process. How dare you cleave me like that? Make it pretty. I know this sounds morbid- I mean, a game about gory murder embodies that concept perfectly- but the author presents it with a concise concept and consistent tone.

As a Twine game the visuals only dabble with a colour scheme, but it looks nice. It uses a pink not-quite-red background that later changes to shades of red and fuchsia. This is paired with white text, and pink/dark red links. The player is not sure if the colour makes them think of blood or candy. Or punch.

Reading my review will probably make you think, “!?!?!?? What is this game?” Well, it pulls the subject matter off better than you would expect. Yes, it is gory, and you may or may not like it. But it is also a horror game and a submission to EctoComp, of which it fairs quite nicely.

(It sometimes has faint vibes from PaperBlurt's The Urge, but much shorter and with a different storyline and gameplay POV. Don’t let that scare you away.)


You Are a Zombie Yelp Reviewer, by Geoffrey Golden

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Undercooked, November 7, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Ink, Horror, ECTOCOMP

You are a zombie reviewing a meal.

I was not anticipating an undead connoisseur penning comprehensive reviews after sampling a smorgasbord of brains. Based on the words “Yelp Reviewer” I figured that the game would put the player in the role of someone who wants to write an earnest review about their dining experience, the catch being that they are a zombie eating brains. But above all I was expecting the game to take things a little more seriously.

Instead, the game opts for an ALL-CAPS approach to everything. Zombies are not going to be the most eloquent of review writers (although the PC is obviously tech-savvy enough to use a smartphone and an app) but having, "SO ME STUMBLE AROUND LOOKING FOR BRAINS" the entire time felt like it was trying to get the player to laugh.

Nor does it really “review” brains. It barely feels like a Yelp review. My guess is that the author wanted to include some backstory, which is great, but ends up cramming it into the zombie’s review to the point where it becomes a ramble of how the man was slaughtered. Critiquing the quality of the brains occurs in the last choice in the gameplay. It reminds me of Yelp reviews of restaurants that focus on how they found the place rather than their experience inside of it.

I must say, the title of the game is pretty cool. Yelp reviewing + Zombie is a creative idea that drew me in. The final product, however, did not sell. Geoffrey Golden is a talented author. If you have played Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, you can see his knack for humor and novel ideas, and I encourage you to do so. But You Are a Zombie Yelp Reviewer is a clever concept that needs more development for it to be palatable.


The Good Ghost, by Sarah Willson, Kirk Damato

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An outstanding short story that conveys much emotion, November 6, 2022

This is such a gem.

You a ghost. A friendly, benevolent one. No one can see you or acknowledge your presence, but that does not deter you from wanting to help. The game takes place in the house of a small family. Even though your own identity is foggy, you have a strong desire to protect them.

As a ghost you try to prevent disasters, preferably so that the occupants of the house never realize that there was any chance of disaster to begin with. It is a lighthearted game, but one that ponders the balance of everyday events that can lead to (Spoiler - click to show) household disasters. To borrow its words, "a domino effect." This game is never judgmental, nor does it strive to teach a moral. Instead, it portrays a sensitive protagonist who looks at daily life through the unique advantage of a ghost. Contemplative.

This is a Twine game. Not only does it look nice, but the gameplay is smooth. The player moves freely throughout rooms to explore the contents. For choice-based games I like to call this as free range of movement, but the effect is more subtle in The Good Ghost. Lazy and casual, yet attentive. There is a thoughtfulness in your surroundings that encourage you to find the nooks and tiny details that usually go unobserved by the family in the house.

Now, this is not a puzzle game. Instead, it features small objectives, such as (Spoiler - click to show) finding a wedding ring, that are solved by going to the right room and carefully observing. This shifts the flow, so the game then leads you to the next scene. Everything is so fluid and organized!

The Good Ghost shines in every department, but the story tops it all. It is broken into several acts that documents the family over a lifetime. Seeing this process was incredibly grounding. As for the ending, it is the sublime moment of realization at the end that makes this game so emotionally powerful. I do not want to spoil the ending but know that it clicked perfectly. (Spoiler - click to show) So that's why the cat dislikes me... It was beautiful.

Excellent, excellent work. I highly recommend this game to anyone.


The Trials and Tribulation of Edward Harcourt, by manonamora and MelS

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
It’s a [spoiler]?, November 5, 2022

An old acquaintance named Edward Harcourt writes an unexpected and peculiar letter to you stating that he inherited a title to his family’s estate, and requests that you visit right away. This is a mystery game takes place in Scotland in the early 1920s.

Character creation comes first in this game. Not only does the player get to customize their character’s name, gender, and appearance, but they also decide on the protagonist’s history with Edward Harcourt and their past relationship with him before he appears in the game. There are quite a few possibilities, as indicated with a (Spoiler - click to show) dream sequence soon after you arrive.

Reflecting on the nature of your relationship with Edward, you find yourself thinking back to when you first met him…

The only plot element that the game gives us is Edward Harcourt’s reason for seeking out the protagonist for help. We learn that his (Spoiler - click to show) mother has been suffering from a mysterious form of insanity, and that he has been trying to find a cure for it. He thinks that the solution may lie through occultism which he has been studying to understand his mother’s ravings, but his only real lead is a cryptic letter from his uncle about exploring a castle. He wants the protagonist to help investigate.

So far, you navigate this mystery by snooping around and interviewing people (if they are willing to talk to you). As you investigate there may be clues that light up in the text. If you click on them more information is added to your nifty journal that summarizes your findings. This feature cultivates a detective vibe while also being incredibly useful.

The spoiler in the title of my review is that this game (Spoiler - click to show) is a demo. I did not realize that until it ended. It was sort of like biting into a chocolate bunny during Easter only to find that it is hollow, not solid chocolate like you thought. But there is an upside to this. Demo or not, this really is an excellent game. I hope the authors continue to develop it. So far, the game starts with a prologue and ends about halfway through chapter two. You arrive at the castle late at night and go on an excursion to town the next day.

Even as (Spoiler - click to show) a demo there is plenty of replay value while exploring the town, particularly with what you wear and where you visit first. So far, the gameplay follows the narrative of the outsider protagonist eager to get to work and start digging through the ancient history of a town where people are, at best, wary of you. You may pick up some Anchorhead vibes here or there.

The man bangs his hands on the table. His eyes are full of fury. Cognitive dissonance can be a real (Spoiler - click to show) bitch.

Clothing is important because it affects how people respond to you poking around. Are you a rich snob? A vagrant? Those are snap judgements that everyone makes, but it is interesting to compare these reactions among separate playthroughs. You already are the odd one out by being an outsider. It does not take much to make it worse (although sometimes, that is how you get the best answers).

The other replay factor is where you visit. There is a pub, church, harbor, and stores. You can visit two before the game (Spoiler - click to show) calls it a day and ends. But visiting the store first provides a different experience than if you visit it second. Same goes for the other locations. You can learn a lot from mixing and matching where you go. (Spoiler - click to show) The demo is not meant to played once. If you are interested in the story, you can find much more of it through replay. I recommend saving the game before you go exploring.

The game already has nice visuals. There is a stylish menu section on the left side of the screen. Some of the headers are writing in cursive (thankfully, not the gameplay text), and decorative swirls are also added. The screen is black aside from journal entries which are stylized to give the appearance of flipping through a physical journal. It all worked together to create an effective ambience.

In conclusion, The Trials and Tribulations of Edward Harcourt is an intriguing story with a lot of work put into it. When I went to play it, I was not expecting to see, (Spoiler - click to show) "You have reached the end of this demo. We hope you’ve enjoyed it!" I wish there was more, and I hope there will be. But did I enjoy it? Yes, I absolutely did.


Escape from Hell, by Nils Fagerburg

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An excellent escape game from the depths of the underworld, November 5, 2022

Here's another EctoComp (or should I say ECTOCOMP?) review.

Escape from Hell is about the escape efforts of Zgarblurg, a demon spirit who got caught pulling a prank on Lucifer and was sentenced to inhabit the body of a zombie and count paperwork. But gradually, Zgarblurg has been regaining strength, perhaps enough strength to escape both hell and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Gameplay
As a spirit, you possess NPCs to travel and interact with characters and your surroundings. There are six total, and each have a specialized skill centered around a verb that can be applied to certain puzzles. For example, the zombie counts things, the succubus smooches, and the golem shoves heavy objects. The main mechanic is to possess these characters to use their abilities to your advantage. I also found two solutions for two puzzles in the game, which was nice.

While it is not obvious right away, the overarching goal is to (Spoiler - click to show) indispose the demon princes so that you can escape through the mineshaft. Otherwise, they will intercept you to keep you from leaving. The solution for each (Spoiler - click to show) prince (I never thought of Beelzebub as a prince, but maybe I am behind on the times) were creative and inventive, especially since they involve using their own vices against them. In total, it is a longer game. I completed it in about two hours.

I am a big fan of Fagerburg's games which can be cryptic, but in good way. These games use creative gameplay mechanics that are streamlined for discovery and experimentation. In Dessert Island, for instance, puzzles feature a magical spatula with pre-prepared spells, but knowing how to fully use it requires some work. While Dessert Island, I feel, is a little more technical than the author’s other games, they all feature strong setting, story, characters, and other attributes that engage the player and motivate them to investigate methods of problem solving, even in the face of a daunting puzzle. Plus, the author also strives to make things user-friendly so that technical puzzles are enjoyable to solve.

Escape from Hell is not a particularly cryptic (if at all) game, but some puzzles will take longer to crack than others. For me, (Spoiler - click to show) it was learning how to cut the golden threads in the courtyard via food offerings. First, it was about discovering the mechanic of food offerings, and then it became a matter of making the right ones in the proper order. It took a while, but rather than being frustrating it was fun and felt rewarding once I solved it. The author has always seemed to have “signature” puzzles, ones that are creative with a distinct style.

In terms of user-friendliness, one of the best features is its built-in map consisting of a grid at the corner of the screen that expands as you explore. If you hover over a box, it lists the location title along with any characters in the room. Characters are also indicated by dots which is helpful since some move independently. You can also click on a location to have your character travel there automatically, room by room. By the end of the game, you will have a 7x7 grid of locations. For a puzzle-oriented game, this was extremely helpful.

Story
The game focuses more on puzzles rather than story, and there is not much else to add other than that Zgarblurg stepped on the toes of the wrong prince. And I do not think it needs any more than that for it to stand on its own because the focus is on exploring the landscape and interacting with (sorry, possessing) people for your own gains.

The bureaucratic monotony paperwork-hell in hell is reminiscent of Perdition's Flames, a TADS game about discovering the mundanities to be experienced after you die. Escape from Hell only touches on those themes lightly at the start of the game (such as the Infernal Cubicle), but they are still a humorous component in the game.

(I am not sure where to put this so I will just list it under “story.”) There are some fun easter eggs with the (Spoiler - click to show) cubicle forms. They list people who are destined to go to the underworld when they die. The catch is that these people are characters from other games. If you look closely, in the corner of each form is a reference number that you can use to confirm the game on IFDB. None of this has any purpose in the gameplay but I still had fun looking for games that I recognized.

Visual/Design
This game is a parser/choice-based hybrid. It looks like any of the author's parser games but instead of typing on your keyboard you click on links and buttons. The action buttons change depending on what actions are available based on your character and location. Everything is easy to use, and you can carry out commands at the same pace of a parser game. I also liked the appearance of the game. It has a purple background, white text, pink text for dialog, and pink links.

Final thoughts
Escape from Hell is another fun game by Nils Fagerburg. Great for Halloween or, quite frankly, any time of the year. It is a creative puzzlefest with technical but well-clued puzzles amid humorous characters. If you have played the author’s other games before, you will recognize the trademark qualities in Escape from Hell, and I recommend it to everyone.


Buggy, by Mathbrush

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Quite a ride, November 1, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Inform, ECTOCOMP

For the spirit of Halloween, I have to review at least one EctoComp game.

Buggy is about a relatively featureless PC riding on a rickety buggy with a brother named Everett (nicknamed “Ever”) as they try to escape from some unspecified pursuers.

In this game, if there are no bugs, you are doing something wrong. In fact, the PC’s brother will call you out on it. The gameplay begins on the buggy and ends when you crash.

If you make an error, such as, "lookj" (a command typo I make when typing quickly) we see that everything destabilizes, to Everett’s horror. The buggy goes out of control. Errors also consist of verbs that are not implemented, although more often than not Everett will interject a reference about said verb.

"Oh my heavens it's another error," whispers Everett. There's a large crack. The buggy jolts. Everett starts swearing but then switches to praying when he sees you watching.

Endings provide suggestions on other verbs to try, and through this you will learn how to win the game. Super short, excellent length if you want to play a game standing up.

The only story content that I could see was how the protagonist is grieving for someone named Lenore and killed a demon. I am not sure if the two are related. The description of the sky was a potent indicator of their feelings. I was not expecting to be able to (Spoiler - click to show) take the clouds or moon. I did the all-encompassing "take all" only to get "moon: The sinister clouds are in the way." That made me laugh. Still, I feel for them.

It is an amusing experience if you are familiar with simple parser commands, and, arguably, flat-out hilarious if you are not. Either way, approach this game with a grain of salt and you will have a fun time.


Zombie Blast 2023, by Sam Ursu

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A creative choice-based zombie combat game, September 2, 2022

The zombie apocalypse came and killed your parents. Then it killed your spouse. The only person left is your baby. Using a shack as shelter you will fight tooth and nail to keep the zombies at bay. Hopefully the two of you will survive the night.

Gameplay
This is an incredibly creative use of ChoiceScript. Currently it is the first one that I have encountered where the player has free range of movement to roam around with north, south, east, and west directions. Rather than presenting the player with list of story options such as "Choose to defend the baby" or "Ambush the zombies from the north" the game has the player actively fight the zombies each step of the way. It instead uses “Go north,” “East some food,” or “Fire shotgun” options that require the player to strategize as they defend against each zombie that approaches the house. While the player cannot examine individual things in each area they can scavenge for supplies, rest, or eat. This is such a unique gameplay approach for this story format.

There are four rooms in the house, one room (randomly chosen) containing the baby. The gameplay’s core objective is to protect the baby from the zombies. You go from room to room killing zombies with an axe or shotgun before they can shuffle to the baby’s crib. There is a stats page that tells lists your energy levels, inventory, and number of zombies remaining in the wave. The player "Levels Up" after defeating each wave of zombies. Between each wave you can scavenge for shotgun shells and cans of food. I had fun coordinating these different aspects of gameplay.

There is no way of saving the game nor are there checkpoints that let you return to the previous level. It would have been helpful if these features were available because the gameplay can become repetitive. My initial strategy (Spoiler - click to show) was to shoot zombies when they were three to two steps outside of the house and axe those that entered the house or were right outside the window. I found it helpful that the game alerts the player to the number of steps a zombie has before it enters the house. Each time I cleared a room I would immediately return to the baby’s room to see if any zombies snuck in.

At one point I ran out of energy and could no longer move to other rooms. I also had no food. The only thing I could do was rest. My strategy was to wait in the baby’s room and simply wait for the zombies to come to me. This allowed me to alternate between attacking a zombie with the axe and resting. This was so effective that I continued to do this even when my energy levels were no longer an issue.


Story
The story is your standard zombie apocalypse narrative about a nondescript virus turning people into zombies which results in survivors having to constantly fend off wave of zombie attacks. This familiar storyline in zombie games does not necessarily need too many details to feel like a finished piece, especially if you enjoy the classic elements of the genre but it certainly does not hurt when authors choose to incorporate a more complex story. Zombie Blast 2023 sticks to the basics which is just fine.

The only story is about the protagonist’s desire to protect their baby after losing everyone else. The entire gameplay spans over one night. Once you (Spoiler - click to show) complete Level 9 the game declares that you made it to morning and awards you the “Survive the night” achievement worth 25 points. The game then asks if you want to continue playing or just to end it right there. I believe that this achievement means that you have “won” the game. It definitely felt like an achievement!

Visuals
This is a nicely stylized ChoiceScript game. The top portion for the story text is light orange while the menu choices are shown in black with an orange border. All of this is set against a black background. I liked this look because the colours make it stand out from other ChoiceScript games that I have played. ChoiceScript games are something that can be enjoyed with or without fancy visual effects, but it is always fun to see when authors experiment. The game also uses fun icons to illustrate player choices such as a cereal bowl next to the “Eat some food” option. It adds just a little bit of pizzazz without being distracting.

Final thoughts
This game is a great concept with some novel features but has characteristics that might frustrate players, particularly not being able to save or return to checkpoints. But at the same note it is incredibly entertaining and gives the player a chance to strategize. I recommend Zombie Blast 2023 if you are interested in the zombie genre, looking for gameplay with combat, or curious to see a creative application of ChoiceScript.



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