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Lethe, by Thomas M. Disch and Tom Blackwell

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A fun choice-based remake of a 30+ year old parser game, February 13, 2023

You wake up naked in a hotel room and have no memory of who you are.

I should provide some context first.

Lethe is an Ink game based on a 1986 parser game called Amnesia by Thomas M. Disch. I had never heard of it prior to playing Lethe. Perhaps it crossed my vision once or twice while skimming IFDB, but nothing I could remember (that’s absolutely not a joke. I’m just telling you how it is). Lethe has its own page on IFDB. If it were not for its description, or the credits in the game, I would not have made the connection.

I am going to cut this excessively long review into two large sections. The first is my review for Lethe. The second half is about how playing it introduced me to another side of interactive fiction. I’ll stick most of that part under a spoiler tag.

Part I: Game review
Lethe. The game made with Ink. That’s what this review is about. In fact, it is one of the most exciting Ink games I’ve played so far.

Lethe stays true its theme of amnesia. In fact, the title, though different, hints at the subject. It stems from a piece of Greek mythology about a river of the same name that, when drunk, causes forgetfulness. There is also a second clever meaning to the title that is revealed near the end of the game, but that would be a major spoiler. Just know that it’s worth a shot even if you are not a huge fan of the amnesia trope.

GAMEPLAY: As I said, you wake up naked in a hotel room with total amnesia. The game takes place in New York, and you play as a male protagonist. Your only real lead at the moment is to find any clues that will hint at your identity. Slowly this will expand into a broader story.

I feel that your first playthrough is by far the best one because you are just as clueless as the protagonist. Unless you’ve played Amnesia, I suppose. Oh well. Let’s just assume you were like me. Everything intrigues you and oozes potential.

Whose knocking at the door?

What’s in this closet?

Does this window open?

WHO AM I? (And why am I naked?)

Endless questions, but the game merely provides you with a list of things you can do. The player is left to launch themselves into the unknown to find the answers. Through trial and error, you can find the optimal route to move into new areas with more clues.

For me, the main event of your clueless first playthrough is the branching gameplay structure. I always like seeing that in choice-based games. In Lethe, it creates the perception of an expanding world that just grows. First time around, it feels huge. The novelty of it all contributes to the sense of scale as you leave the hotel to explore more locations. It takes the shape of a mystery game.

While Lethe does feel a bit smaller once you’ve played it, there is plenty of incentive for replays. It is a chance to experiment with different paths or switching up the order of tasks. Try making challenges. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) play without ever getting arrested and/or killed.

Lethe is easy to play in sense that you are just clicking through links. But it is also designed well, too. Its strength is its mechanism for failure. Dead is NOT the end. It can if you want it to be, but there is no “messing” up in Lethe. The sequence also happens to be my favorite part. (Spoiler - click to show) You end up in a surreal and somewhat humorous afterlife.

You and a few thousand other naked anxious souls are standing on the bank of a misty black river, being stung by mosquitoes and bitten by large centipedes.

Charon, a character from Greek mythology who ferries deceased souls across rivers in the underworld, swings by to offer you a choice. You can stay in the afterlife or go back in time before your previous decision. Done. That’s it. Right back where you were. Even better, your environment adjusts to keep you from making the same error.

Your hotel room seems subtly different.

This was fantastic. It makes the gameplay more forgiving for when the player makes a mistake. You never need to restart. If anything, it also encourages dumb decisions such as leaving your hotel room naked, “just to see what happens.” Or (Spoiler - click to show) getting married.

STORY: Given what I’ve said, the last thing I want to do is tarnish your first playthrough with spoilers. It is better if you let the story unfold on its own. But if you insist, I will give you a rundown of what’s going on. I would consider these as mild/moderate spoilers since they can be discovered early on, I’d caution you against reading them at all until you play Lethe. (Spoiler - click to show)

Everyone at the hotel calls you John Cameron, but if you get arrested it is revealed that you are Xavier Hollings, a criminal who killed a guard and escaped a Texas prison. You go back to court and lose. Even Denise, your own wife (to which you ask yourself, “I had a wife?”), testifies against you. After you arrive at death row, she comes to visit merely to say how happy she is to be inheriting everything because apparently you are super wealthy. Hm.

As you eat your last meal, you have a moment of insight. Tidbits of info about Denise, prison, some guy named Zane, and a recalled soap product appear in your mind. Just enough to realize that you are innocent. Ultimately, the meaning is lost, and you are executed. Fortunately, this is not the end.

Once more, you are by the infernal river Styx. After a few years, Charon's boat emerges from the mist. He looks disappointed to see you.

Charon has got your back. He won’t think highly of you about it, of course.

What I just told you is only the first layer to the story. No moment in the game beat the suspense and surprise of seeing this reveal for the first time. Woah. That was my reaction. The protagonist clearly has a lot going on. The bits of info from this fiasco only serve to direct the gameplay after (Spoiler - click to show) Charon zaps you back to existence. I’ll stop the spoilers there. I’ve already told you too much.

As for my general thoughts about the story, the narrative itself was not particularly moving. Certainty, creative. It’s just that I was not drawn in by the characters or their motives. The drama was more like watching a film rather than feeling like you are the protagonist of the story.

Also, the ultimate cause of the amnesia was a bit underwhelming. I’m sorry. But at least the sprinkling of clues throughout the gameplay is combined with a dramatic reveal near the end that makes up for the lackluster parts. I cannot express this enough: The witty writing and gameplay implementation is what makes Lethe work. Otherwise, I would not award it five stars.

I think a lot of people can appreciate the writing. A favorite of mine was, “So far you're scoring zero on the Know Thyself Questionnaire.” The (Spoiler - click to show) H&R 207-7655 pay phone reference was especially clever.

CRITIQUES: Lethe is excellent, but it is not flawless, either. I had two cases where the game reached a dead end where no links appeared on the screen. In other playthroughs they were not an issue. I do not know what caused the issues, only that I was experimenting with the gameplay at the time. Your chances of seeing this is low. Be assured, that once you’ve played the game, you can cruise through it quite quickly.

There are also some minor spelling mistakes, including with character names that can be noticeable. The longer changes of dialog occasionally abandon the use of quotation marks. Finally, location descriptions are shown at the top of the screen, whether it is “Hotel Room” or “Oblivion.” However, sometimes they fail to change with new locations.

PART II: Broader context (time to go on a tangent)
(Spoiler - click to show)
You can play Amnesia through a digital archive.

At least that is what it says on IFDB (that’s how unsophisticated I am). But the content written about Amnesia explained that playing it was more than just clunking yourself in front of a computer. The part of my title that says, “30+ year old parser game,” should give you a sense of where I am. As someone who rarely crawls off IFDB, a lot of this is new terrain.

Apparently, when the game was published, playing it required buying a physical copy (which is so alien to me) of the game. From my perspective, it sounds like an artifact. However, reviews expressed a different angle. People have shared fond memories of playing Amnesia. Or at least of trying play it. While I have not, it was cool learning about its origins. Hopefully I’m not awkwardly trampling over everything.

I did attempt another existing remake called Amnesia: Restored after playing Lethe. For the record, I accessed Amnesia: Restored through the entry for Amnesia on IFDB. I used the link to the game’s own website and went to the section called “PLAY GAME.” I have a reason for going on this tangent. Just hear me out.

I don’t want to dismiss the immense collaborative effort- as showcased on its website- that was put into Amnesia: Restored, but the gameplay was a rocky experience for me. It seems the objective was to replicate the parser of Amnesia into the gameplay. If that’s the case, the gameplay Amnesia must have been wild… and frustrating to play. That could also be my inexperience talking.

Thing is, you must know the specific command the game wants at a given moment, almost like I was having a conversation with someone via a script. If you use the right command, great. Otherwise, the game lets you fall on your face without any direction. It was incredibly difficult to know what command or action was required. Play it and see for yourself. (Aside from my whining, I really do think there are parts of the game that are not functioning as intended.)

This is where Lethe comes in. Turns out it can function as a rough “tutorial” (my words) for Amnesia: Restored because Lethe also stays faithful to original writing. Seriously, the choices you make in Lethe can be punched into the parser. Not precise word-by-word, but close enough. Suddenly, everything fell into place. The parser responded smoothly. I was making progress and keeping up with the metaphorical conversation. Even better, it gave me a chance to explore Amnesia: Restored and appreciate what it had to offer. And it offers a lot.

The makeshift Lethe tutorial will end once you leave the hotel because Amnesia: Restored recreates the complex city navigation puzzle in Amnesia while Lethe does not. A few city locations will still apply although Lethe cuts back on nearly all simulated New York content. To be honest, if I did not have Lethe as a reference, I would still be stumbling around in the hotel room. But I managed to get the hang of it enough to brave the city puzzle on my own.

I must hand it to Amnesia: Restored. It goes the extra mile in incorporating built-in guides and visual elements in the game’s interface that were based on original feelies and physical materials. I was really impressed by that. I did not continue playing after I passed out on the street from exhaustion and was carted away (and the save function failed on me), but I can tell you it is worth a look. While I preferred Lethe, I sincerely suggest trying Amnesia: Restored too.

There you have it. The extent of my encounters with Amnesia.

Concluding thoughts
I apologize that this review was so long.

Lethe is faithful to the Amnesia storyline, but its choice-based format still offers a different experience. It eliminates parser related technicalities such as guess-the-verb by replacing everything with links. It bypasses puzzles for (Spoiler - click to show) navigating the city streets and solving riddles at gunpoint.

The trade-off is a simplified version of a vibrant world. It can’t even touch the complexity in Amnesia. But I think it does a decent job in capturing the general concept. I would love to hear second opinions from anyone who has played both.

I completely recommend Lethe as a thrilling Ink game with lots of surprises. Even more so if you are curious about a parser classic (correct?) turned into a choice-based piece of interactive fiction.

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Rougi, by Lapin Lunaire Games

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Investigate the mysteries of a cursed ballet production, February 7, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Mystery, Twine

When I first saw Rougi, I thought it was commercial. It is not. But it is a demo.

In Rougi, the Paris Opéra Ballet is getting ready to put on Les Souliers Rouges, a controversial ballet thought to be cursed. And maybe there’s something to it. So far, it has been a string of accidents and delays. That is why you, a mere patron of the arts, have been tasked to find the truth behind the curse.

Actually, I think Les Souliers Rouges ( The Red Shoes) is an actual story with many adaptations in film, music, and other forms. Rougi happens to depict it as a ballet, which I believe has been done as well. But the version in Rougi is especially unique. The storyline is different than what I have seen (on the internet, that is), and I am curious to see its trajectory here.

The game begins with a brief intro before the PC enters the picture. We are merely the passive observer of a reception after a performance of Coppélia where ballerinas and crew members are mingling with the audience in the gallery. Two ballerinas, Élodie Sirand and Laure Bloch, are especially at the center of attention, each with their own crowd of admirers.

Élodie is the seasoned professional. The only danseuse étoile (lead ballerina, or prima ballerina) in Paris. Laure is the new, innocent talent who basks in the praise while Élodie watches her warily. At one point, Antoine de Forbin, a long-devoted patron of considerable power, informs Élodie that he must break off his relationship with her. She leaves. Angry. A young man chases after her. The scene ends.

It’s a pretty good intro. One that leaves you with questions. Both ballerinas are cast in Les Souliers Rouges, BTW. More on that later.

Rougi officially kicks off with some character creation where you decide on your name, pronouns, and social class. There are three social class (working class, bourgeois, and aristocracy) options that mildly influence the writing and character dialog. They also determine how you gain access to the Paris Opéra Ballet.

You’d never imagined you’d be able to enter the Palais, let alone stand in the secret wings behind its glittering halls.

You always begin with a letter invitation. For the bourgeois choice, you used your connections to weasel your way into an invitation, for the aristocracy option, you were simply invited. And if you choose the working class, you were tasked with making a delivery. Playing as different roles is fun and adds replay value.

Regardless of which social standing you choose to play in, your mission will be the same. At one point, you will meet the Director of the Opéra Ballet. He is strongly against Les Souliers Rouges but could not override the decision-making of other influential figures at the Opéra Ballet. He is a superstitious man, or at least when Les Souliers Rouges is involved. He will hardly visit the site while the ballet is in production. But he does so he could speak to you. He wants you to roll up your sleeves and investigate this “curse” before it causes (more) harm.

At heart, this is a mystery game, and there is a strong investigative feel in the gameplay. On the left side of the screen is a menu containing an inventory and a notebook section for clues. Some clues are added automatically, others only if you deem them relevant. It’s an organized system that is easy to use. The gameplay does use a higher word count, so it is helpful to have something that keeps track of vital details. The demo ends before we can make any real breakthroughs, but we still learn some neat things.

There are some dents in the polish. The only real bug hiccup that I encountered was with the achievements. When you unlock one, a message appears at the top of the screen before it is added in the achievements section. Often the game would say I earned one, but it would never be added to the list. The only achievement (besides the first two that are there following character creation) that managed to show up in the achievements section was:

(Spoiler - click to show) “Your Crown is Falling, Queen: Win Élodie's respect through an unexpected trial.”

None of the others appeared. I was hoping to see what they were. I must admit, I thought I would have to work harder to win Élodie’s respect, but no complaints.

Another error is how whenever you add something to your notebook, this happens: “There is a scrap of red satin near your foot. You surreptitiously pocket it.” If you repeatedly add a clue to the notebook, there will be no duplicate of the clue. But the PC will still pick up pieces of red satin to add in the inventory. They just keep piling up. Every time. Infinite scraps. I think that's an error. Either that or people keep leaving pieces of red satin everywhere.

Oh, and Laure is never added to the “Persons of interest” section. That’s about it.

For context, the story takes place during the Belle Époque, a period spanning from 1871-1914 in France and the European region. In the developer’s notes, the date was said to be 1895 but I’m not sure if that directly applies to the game. Either way, it’s nice that the game gives us a historical context.

In Rougi, a character named Maestro Camille Fauré (or just Camille) wrote Les Souliers Rouges. It is about a young village girl named Clara who receives red slippers that are secretly cursed by the King of Darkness who wants to claim her, etc. Its original premiere is shrouded in controversy. Spoilers ahead.

(Spoiler - click to show) Before opening night, the lead dancer casted as Clara died. Her body was found mangled by the roadside with large amounts of blood on the red ballet shoes in her bag. The production was cancelled. Years later, it was attempted again, but its production was riddled with disasters and thus scraped.

Now, for some insane reason, Camille wants to give this another shot and managed to twist the arm of those needed to permit (not that they agree) such a show. Les Souliers Rouges will be attempted one more time despite everyone's fear of its mere name. Even the Director is convinced it is cursed. He almost has a heart attack upon seeing Laure in her red dance shoes.

That’s all I know about the story through this demo. The author has a blog devoted to the development which is definitely worth a look.

I can tell you that the writing is decadent and descriptive. One of the best parts. It also theatrically captures the drama as it unfolds.

Dancers crowd around the fallen ballerina, outstretched hands fluttering from her to their mouths in the most elegant show of alarm you’ve ever seen.

We can visualize the elegant architecture and lavishly attired guests, but also “staff-only” areas that are less glamorous and maybe… not haunted. Probably not haunted. That’s the perk of the Director giving you the green light for investigating a cursed ballet production. It carries the awe of stepping from the streets into a performing arts establishment of great renown, setting a strong atmosphere.

There are plenty of interesting characters who are eventually logged as entries in your notebook. But so far, the dynamics between Élodie and Laure takes center stage. A rivalry is apparent. Élodie is the best of the best, Laure is new, one of the best, and somehow manages to be the Opéra Ballet Director’s favorite. Besides, they have completely different personas.

Laure is the bright-eyed, up-and-coming new talent. She is clearly dazzled by the high life glamour that comes with being a prominent ballerina. For her, ballet is a portal into this extravagant world. She is giddy and excitable without knowing the grimmer side of fame. As we see at the start of the game with Élodie, fame brings patrons, but patrons can easily ditch their favorites and become entranced with something new.

Élodie’s character is a sharp contrast. She has years of experience, not just in ballet but also the industry. Because of this, she is cynical, sees fakery from a mile away, and hostile towards those who waste her time (so, everyone). But she has secrets and has been burned by individuals. There is, perhaps, a genuine motive, though self-serving, to protect Laure from making the same mistakes that she did as a career ballerina because she knows too well that success attracts powerful people who call the shots.

Perhaps. Élodie strikes me as an individual who dislikes others but is not one to stand by and watch someone, especially if that someone was once her, make the worst possible mistake because of inexperience or vulnerability. Laure seems to be that someone. But it’s just a hunch, and one that may be disproven as the story develops.

Drama, drama, and more drama
It’s bad enough that Les Souliers Rouges is cursed. Now, two new developments have increased the scandal. (Spoiler - click to show) The first is that Laure is cast as the lead, Clara, instead of Élodie. The second is that rather than having a male dancer play the character of the King, Élodie will. Or maybe the King’s character is changed to female. I’m not sure. Either way, people see this as scandalous- for reasons I’m still trying to piece together- because Élodie claims Laure as a bride via the character roles. Is the gender change part bold, or is it just the rivalry between the two lead ballerinas?

Laure herself is shocked about this news but reassures those in charge that “I would do anything to become an étoile.” Anything? You can probably finish that thought. The demo ends after (Spoiler - click to show) Élodie and Laure dance in a duo piece, which only makes you want to know more of this catastrophic show. Is it really cursed?

The visual design goes well with the atmosphere and subject matter. It conjures up the image of velvet, wine, and... blood? Maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions. Oh, you can also change the colour scheme for the display mode, a superficial feature (in the best way) that wins me over every time. The one I just discussed it the default is called "Nuit," which means night. The other theme is "Matinée," a show that takes place in the day. The colour scheme for Matinée is creme and light blue. The best part is that it all contributes to the concept of performing arts.

More importantly, the text is easy to read. You can also adjust it in the settings. The super fancy cursive is great for flair but having it for everything would eventually be a pain to read.

Final thoughts
I have played games about the performing arts, but this is the first based on ballet. It’s exciting and dramatic with a strong feel for mystery. I want to know the truth behind Les Souliers Rouges.

I recommend it to players interested in historical mystery games with an emphasis on the characters and story. As a mystery Twine game, it steers away from deductive puzzles and instead has the player carefully glean valuable bits of information as encounters arise. If you like the Lady Thalia series, you may enjoy Rougi but know that it is a complete change in tone and technicality.

One more thing: I'm going to be a spoiled brat for a moment. This is another polished, excellent demo that I've seen on IFDB (there are quite a few) that I would love to see continued. The author says that Rougi will be updated over the next few weeks. My understanding is that it was published about a year before it was added to IFDB. So, I am not sure when the next update will be.

I hope it continues to be developed without adding tons of pressure (that’s the last thing I want to do) for updates. If the author is reading this, just know that you have something with a lot of potential. I say that for a lot of games, but I would not say it if it weren’t true.

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Waiting for Sunrise, by Victor Selnæs Breum

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Murder mystery vs. Sunrise, January 2, 2023

The sun is below the horizon.
June 21st, 4.15am, 2020, Aalborg

This is a cryptic but interesting murder mystery game.

You are an American detective who has arrived to work at Denmark with the hope that you will encounter fewer murder cases. One night you feel like going for a walk only to find a gruesome scene: A dead body flanked a man and a woman sitting on the ground, both unresponsive of their surroundings. Looks like you have your work cut out for you.

The “crime scene” allows you to search the area, examine NPCs, and search their belongings. These provide clues about the circumstances behind the murder. After you comb through everything, the game takes to you a questionnaire that challenges you to solve the murder mystery.

To solve the case, you fill in answers for five questions about the murder. For each question you get a menu of possible answers. If you get any of them wrong the game tells you to resubmit the form. Sure, you can just guess until you find the right answers, but since they are evaluated together it is difficult to answer all five without exploring the gameplay.

Early morning brightness is setting in. The sun is still below the horizon.

There is a devious timer at the top of the screen that marks the time until sunrise. Oddly enough, it counts up to convey how much time has passed rather than how much time you have left. I think that the time restraints in this game are reasonable. It adds urgency without rushing the player. In fact, you can approach this game quite leisurely, although there is a penalty if you fail to solve the mystery before the sun rises.

Now, the timer has bugs. If you toggle between the crime scene and the question page the status of the sun automatically goes back to “The sun is below the horizon.” It does not reset the timer, only the sunrise which detracts from the timer’s potency as a time restraint on the gameplay.

There is also a case where the (Spoiler - click to show) man and the woman die twice, but the gameplay only acknowledges it the second time. Even then, this change is only seen in the questions page where it says, “Is someone still in danger? No one is in danger anymore. They are all dead,” and yet the crime scene acts as if they are still alive. It's not cohesive.

Once you correctly answer the questions the game gives a summary of what happened. As you can see, there are definite (Spoiler - click to show) cult themes right from the start. The three NPCs are (Spoiler - click to show) participating in a ritual that has not gone as smoothly as they hoped. Something about joining a deity(?) named Phoebus. Later I learned that Phoebus simply means the sun. They were extreme sun worshipers. The ritual is ultimately a suicide pact (themes on suicide are brief) conducted on the summer solstice. The goal? Not sure. Perhaps they were hoping to be transported somewhere or maybe I’m just grasping for straws. I don’t want to spoil anything else.

I was actually kind of hoping that the game would go the wild route and actually feature some (Spoiler - click to show) worldly being plotting to inhabit these three cult members. The story, setting, and strung-out NPCs reminds of That Night at Henry's Place or What Girls Do In The Dark (I recommend both) where the player comes across people (Spoiler - click to show) casually dabbling in the extraterrestrial and/or supernatural without necessarily knowing the depth they are in. In these, the protagonist becomes an outside observer who may or may not be sucked right in. That part does not occur here, but still cultivates a feeling of has everyone lost it?

Not much to say about characters since there is only the protagonist and three unresponsive NPCs, but the rationale behind the protagonist was a bit flimsy. They feel compelled to apply their expertise by solving the mystery first, when theoretically that would not be needed to call for help since all you see is a dead body and two individuals clearly having a tough time breathing and not responding to the player’s attempts to communicate with them.

You curse yourself for not bringing your phone on your walk, but decide to figure out what you can.

Only when you solve the mystery can you call for help. It makes decent sense from a gameplay standpoint as a murder mystery piece, but the logic stuck out. And as for calling for help, if this was a mere short stroll, why not go back? The setting seems to be some parking lot out in the middle of nowhere, when in fact the protagonist lives nearby.

Let’s see… Black background, white text, links in a nice shade of blue (a different shade in than the default Twine link blue). Decent formatting. Occasionally spelling issues. I’d say that’s about it.

Final thoughts
The game describes itself as a “minimal murder mystery,” and it succeeds well enough at creating a bite-sized investigative mystery piece. It was fun and intriguing. However, it is not a minimal mystery without flaws, particularly structural flaws. Gameplay concept is straightforward, but the mechanics are rough around the edges. The timer was a key component in shaping the gameplay and yet it falls apart at the seams once the player starts to dig in.

I do think the strongest part is the list of questions for solving the mystery. Filling out a questionnaire in an interactive fiction game may sound boring, but in Waiting for Sunrise it is effective at creating an investigative feel by requiring the player to do some basic problem solving to advance the story. Ultimately, it is effectively atmospheric and worth your time if you are hungry for the “murder mystery” genre in a short Twine format.

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Andelmans' Yard, by Arlan Wetherminster
Cat rescue leads in a different direction, November 30, 2022

You are fourteen-year-old Kyle, a Boy Scout looking to earn a Community Service badge. Peanut the cat has run off, and this is your chance to show initiative. Time to investigate the local neighborhood.

When the game began my first impression was that a Boy Scout troop was out looking for a cat (does that occur in real-life?) which immediately creates a cool ambience. A closer look soon showed that Kyle is the only Boy Scout around. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school aged kids, are running about and talking about a kid named Max. Naturally, the player is roped into participating in Max’s plans.

I really, really, like the (Spoiler - click to show) occult twist. Yes, you heard that right. The start of the game sounds like a light, wholesome game about a youth trying to save a cat (which also sounds like fun) to earn a badge only to surprise the player with an unexpected thrill. Eerie ten-year-old Max (Spoiler - click to show) wants to hold a ritual in the groundwater tunnels. Sounds cool! Max needs three Native American artifacts for the ritual. He has one and wants you to find the other two. By now, finding the cat falls to the wayside as you pursue this new objective.

This is not a puzzle heavy game but there is a lot of exploring. The gameplay has a moderate sized map consisting of a suburban area. You will probably want to make a light map of the underground tunnels. Nothing too fancy, but you may find it helpful.

There is one bug/issue that made the game unwinnable. (UPDATE: I've received feedback that this is NOT an unwinnable state. I'm leaving this paragraph in as a formality but understand that my calling it unwinnable was an incorrect assessment on my part). (Spoiler - click to show) Max wants Clem to solder the three artifacts together. Clem follows you around for most of the gameplay. You are supposed to retrieve the hand-held generator from his garage, fill it with gas, and give it to him so he can use his solder iron. I put the game in an unwinnable state by giving him the generator before Max has all three artifacts.

He looks at you, “Give me the hand-held generator.”

I already gave it to him at the garage. I tried to take it back, but…

That seems to belong to Clem.

I restarted the game because I could see no way of soldering the artifacts together to start the ritual. CORRECTION: While Clem may still ask for the generator even after you give it to him, he will solder the artifacts together once everyone arrives.

I was expecting the story to have more focus on the protagonist’s goal of earning a badge, perhaps incorporating themes of “character building.” Maybe I am misinterpreting the process of earning a Community Service badge. Point is, Kyle obviously takes this seriously, and as a game, the idea of earning a badge takes center stage. This is the first Boy Scout PC I have played in interactive fiction, and I was excited to see where it would go. Ultimately, this part of Kyle’s identity was not showcased as much as I thought it would be.

The setting is intriguing. After snooping around you come across some newspaper clippings that outline two main controversies in the area. The first follows the development of a (Spoiler - click to show) new museum on Native American culture that has been delayed over conflicts of the museum’s focus. There is also mention of Native American artifacts being discovered while the neighborhood was being developed. The second controversy looks at a trend of (Spoiler - click to show) health issues in residents that seem to be connected to the water supply. Plans were made to re-design the water drainage system, but those plans were brought to a halt. The story focuses more on the former issue.

The storyline reminded me of an element in Anchorhead where a (semi-spoilers for Anchorhead coming right up!) (Spoiler - click to show) specific tribe- I believe it was a fictional tribe- of indigenous people who worshiped celestial entities that were of interest to the Verlac family because it was connected to a vast ritual that had been planned for generations. The player, lucky you, gets to deal with the impending doom of this ritual. Right near the center of town is a big obelisk that covers the tribe’s ancient burial ground that also seals off a hell-dimension on the other side of mortal existence. You learn about this through newspaper clippings and content from the library. It’s wild. I mean, it’s Anchorhead, obviously.

Max (Spoiler - click to show) speaks of a monster in the southernmost tunnels that had been sealed off by Native Americans. This can be unsealed with a ritual using the three artifacts. Max himself also seems to be possessed. Disturbing, but not disturbing enough to dissuade the other neighborhood kids, including Kyle, from helping. Don’t get me wrong, (Spoiler - click to show) suburban Boy Scout cat search + occult ritual hosted by a ten-year-old named Max is novel as it brushes on Anchorhead themes. My complaint is this: there is hardly any story (or gameplay) about (Spoiler - click to show) finding Peanut the cat.

Start of game: You have been tasked to find the missing cat, Peanut. You're hoping this simple mission will earn you your Community Service merit badge. You head into the woods where the cat was last seen.

We’ve seen Peanut at the start of game. She’s behind a storm tunnel grating and runs off when you open it. Onwards, you try to run and chase her. Throughout the gameplay are cues such as, “You hear the tinkling of a small bell,” and “You hear a cat meowing,” amongst NPCs’ advice to look in the tunnels! And from there on, the cat takes a back seat as the gameplay shifts to finding artifacts.

When you save your friends from the monster and win the game, Peanut decides to appear and jump into your arms. Great resolution, but I just sat there realizing how much time I wasted trying to corner the cat into one of tunnels, using the dead rat as bait (probably not as appealing to cats as I thought), and experimenting with the various exits and entrances in the tunnel maze to map out her movements. The kid doesn’t even get his badge at the end of the game!

NPCs wander independently. I always enjoy seeing this in interactive fiction because it feels more dynamic. That said, their behavior does not have much substance. When you first meet them, they introduce themselves to you which is a strong start. Then they wander around until aimlessly until you make progress towards the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual. To be fair, designing seven (plus Peanut) independent NPCs is probably not an easy task. And you will find moments where NPC behavior triggers a surprising effect, such as when they all (Spoiler - click to show) suddenly gather in the meeting room to start the ritual. That was cool.

I have criticism about the dialog. The game uses the “topics” command to offer a list of topics to ask other characters. I thought this was smart because it keeps the player close to relevant subject matters. The issue is that A, topics do not acknowledge the player’s progress, and B, the “topics” feature lack subjects relevant to the situation. To use an example for the first case, (Spoiler - click to show) if you ask Max about the artifacts after the ritual, he still acts as if you have not found them yet. This put a dent in the interaction.

The other concern become more apparent as the story developed. Characters were limited in their responses to these events. The topics list never expands. In Clem’s introduction he says, "'I'm Clem. I'm in charge of the reconstruction effort.'" But asking him about it (I wanted to know if this had any connection to the (Spoiler - click to show) water quality controversy) results in, "Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that." Alright, maybe I am being a stickler on this one. Still, subjects about the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual, the Andelmans’ house, and characters’ immediate surroundings are excluded from conversation. (Spoiler - click to show)

Guarding the room is a fearsome pitbull. He eyes you while growling.

Clem comes up from below.

>ask Clem about pitbull
Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that.

I was expecting some response.

Also, who are the Andelmans'? It’s in the title. First impression was when I tried to enter the basement before meeting with the NPCs in the meeting place near the start of the game.

You begin to head west when suddenly you hear a girl's voice scold you, "We don't go in there. We think it's the Andelman House."

There you go. Mystery. It creates a chilling, sinister vibe to the gameplay. A hint that there is more to this maze of storm drain tunnels than what meets the eye. Right away you think, Who are the Andelmans? Sounds like a neighborhood legend. Your curiosity is spiked because this suburban adventure just got a whole lot interesting. This never went anywhere. We explore the house, almost abandoned, if not for the (Spoiler - click to show) guard dog in the kitchen. I kept wondering what the big secret was. Turns out, I was on the wrong path. I was thinking of this in terms of character names. Andelmans' Yard is (Spoiler - click to show) apparently named after a song of the same title. I would never have known that if I had not looked up the game’s title on a hunch. The song’s lyrics details exploring tunnels and themes that are seen in the gameplay. That was the connection I was missing.

Final thoughts
This game has a good start. While character interactions could use more polish, the game has been tested and it feels like completed piece. I enjoyed the surprises. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Max’s surprises. The author does a nice job in mixing the everyday with the (Spoiler - click to show) paranormal. Even though I was expecting the gameplay to go through with its (Spoiler - click to show) original plot of searching for Peanut, I am glad that, in the end, we find her anyway. If there are any more games about Kyle trying to earn a badge, I would be interested in playing them. An enjoyable slice of life game mystery with a horror twist.

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

3 of 3 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.

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Disharmony, by Pink Soda Studios

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Whoa...Creepy., October 29, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Mystery, Horror, Twine

I am in IFComp mode right now, so please excuse this brief intermission. I also encourage you to put this on your Halloween play list. Preferably with the lights off.

The premise of Disharmony is that you and your friends live in the same country, but far enough away from each other to make daily face-to-face in-person interaction impractical. Everyone uses a messaging and streaming app called Harmony to keep in touch. However, Reina has been unresponsive to anyone’s messages. As more of your friends keep speculating about what to do next, you get a feeling that there is something more beneath the surface.

Disharmony follows the investigation-via-online-messaging trope, a trope that is usually exciting even if it you have seen it before. This game is no exception. It cultivates an investigative ambience for a story that is a mix mystery and horror elements.

A main mechanic is tracing contradictions in character dialog. It is a balance of knowing when to take things with a grain of salt, and when to pick out clues that are a solid indicator. How you respond to characters is as equally important. Here is a scenario:

If you think Character 1 seems suspicious, the game may have you discuss it with Character 2 or Character 3 for answers. But it is also possible that it has nothing to do with Character 1, that instead it is Character 2 or 3 (or neither?) who is at the root of your suspicions. You must follow closely or end up sharing the right findings with the wrong person. If a character thinks you are on to them, they will be less responsive as you try to piece everything together.

While your friends continue to talk, you notice something suspicious.
Who do you contact about it?

Sometimes characters will message you privately to share their own thoughts and suspicions, which only amplifies as the game continues. A helpful feature is how the game summarizes characters’ perspectives akin to, "[Character name] thinks that [spoiler] is being [spoiler] by-" (and so forth) when the player needs to make an important decision.

In the last half of the game the player runs in to a moral choice. This is where another (Spoiler - click to show) horror movie trend enters: The “group vote.” In these cases, everyone is eyeing each other suspiciously and, in the face of strife, decides to “vote” to either pin the blame on someone or to assign someone to complete an unsavory task for the benefit of the group. Something like that happens in Disharmony.

By now, some creepypasta themes are also introduced. (Spoiler - click to show) Reina claims to be trapped somewhere called, “Never,” and one of the NPCs goes diving into the internet to search for an explanation. They find a secluded article that matches the content in Reina’s messages, and the solution in the article- you know what? Play the game. But expect to make a tough moral decision regarding one of the NPCs. It will keep you busy for a while.

I am not going to hash out the ins and outs of the endings because they will be 150% more enjoyable if you experience them for yourself. But I still want to share some findings. This is where I caution you to play the game before you read this section of my review. It is so easy to click on the spoiler tag to see what’s underneath, but the spoilers here will dampen the thrill of reaching your first ending.
(Spoiler - click to show)
I found out who was responsible for Reina's disappearance, but when the ritual (spoilers, I warned you) was complete, Reina was not returned while the person responsible was returned instead. In the next playthrough the same happened except the person responsible did not return. Finally, I managed to get Reina back at the expense of the person responsible. And then much later I managed to bring them both back. Win? Not really.

Now, I am giving the game four stars instead of five because of its weak ending. This is not me wishing for a happy fairytale where everyone wins. Instead, I did not like how dismissive the game was when the player fulfills the objective of returning Reina.

If you fail, the game informs you that, “Reina is offline,” and then everyone glumly logs off. The screen then says, "The events of the night have left everyone shaken and disturbed. Your friends begin to sign off, no doubt to report the circumstances, or contact one another in some way, or sit and process what has happened." Makes sense. Now, when I first succeeded, this is what I got:

Reina is online.

Check Harmony.

Presumably the goal of checking Harmony is to have a chit chat with Reina about her disappearance, right? No, the game still wraps up the same way, first with everyone logging off, and second with the game giving you the exact message that you get when you fail. Is everyone seriously going to log off after successfully bringing her back? Now, she is online and probably wondering where everyone went. No one acknowledges the victory of saving her. If a group chat with Reina is not possible, I was hoping that the player could at least have a private chat with her. Instead, you can only log off.

The game puts so much effort into creating a complex and choice-sensitive gameplay experience only to reduce it to a generalized outcome that ignores the player’s choices. To be clear, there are multiple endings in the sense where a major decision that you make at the end is evaluated and then weighed to determine your success in bringing back Reina. But the ending text and the NPCs’ behavior stays the same regardless.

Anyway, that is my take on the story. I am not entirely convinced that I found the ultimate best ending, but I do know what else it could be. Despite my feelings about the endings, it still makes me want to revisit it (and I have). It is an excellent game.

Zero, Amelia, Jae, and Ravi are the NCPs whom you interact with to figure out what happened to Reina. As the game moves on you get a sense of their relationships with each other. It is not necessarily a tight group where everyone are close pals, but there is a general sense of familiarity. Of course, this dynamic takes on new forms as the mystery grows.

Disharmony has simple but stylized look. It uses a dark grey background with lightly coloured text. The author does not try to replicate a chat room look with message bubbles or interface. The only indicator are the colour-coded character names and the occasional @ symbol, which works perfectly well. Fancy chat room designs in Twine games are awesome, but this game shows that a basic look is just as effective at conveying the idea of chat space. Also: The cover art is pretty.

The game’s use of delayed pauses is spot on. I have seen so many Twine games that overuse pauses to point where the suspenseful/dramatic effect is canceled out since everything seems to be drawing (pause) out (pause) the (you get the idea) suspense. Plus, it slows progress. Disharmony uses them whenever Reina sends messages which builds suspense because there is a feeling of anticipation as she slowly doles out shards of information about her circumstances. (Spoiler - click to show) A creepy moment is when she suddenly floods the screen with messages.

Final thoughts
Disharmony is creepier than I thought it would be, and I had a lot of fun. The tropes were nicely done. A mystery conducted through chat messaging paired with horror movie character group dynamics. There is some creepypasta thrown in as well. This is all combined with an intriguing storyline, consistent pacing, and a mix of NPC personalities.

I especially liked its investigative nature of the gameplay. (Spoiler - click to show) Winning is not a simple matter of identifying a culprit. It involves identifying a culprit and then going the extra mile so that Reina is brought back. Even though I have (Spoiler - click to show) mixed feelings about the rather lackluster winning ending, reaching it still felt rewarding. There is still the possibility that I missed some things. For this game, it is quite possible. I highly recommend this game to anyone in the mood for a horror Twine game.

(Actually, (Spoiler - click to show) the only trope that made me roll my eyes a little was how everyone’s phones die when they consider calling emergency services. Then again, it functions fine enough.)

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The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Seemingly gone, name forgotten. But maybe there’s hope., October 2, 2022

You are contacted by a man, Mr. Lane, who explains that his wife is missing. For some reason, no one can remember her name. With more questions than answers, you set out to explore the couple’s house to find a seemingly nameless woman.

Note: Obviously, the player already knows the woman’s name. Miriam Lane. It is in the game’s title. Because of this I will openly use her name in this review without tagging it as a spoiler. But uncovering her name in the game to reach the protagonist’s objective requires some work.

This is a longer Twine game. It feels like there are two halves of gameplay. The first is to (Spoiler - click to show) find Miriam while the second is to revive her to the waking world.

In the first half, the player searches the house for abnormal clues to build an understanding about Miriam's living situation. For the most part, this uses a “you can look but not touch” philosophy as you explore. The main mechanic is to use a list of thoughts that are automatically assembled and testing them in areas that seem relevant. It did feel, at times, a bit stagnant when you lose track of where you should look for clues. You end up going over the list for every possible location until you find something that sticks. A strong point (see below) is that it at least keeps track of which prompts you have already used.

Choose a thought:
Light and shadow is acting strangely. / tried
This is unnaturally aged or faded. / tried
There's something here that I can't see.

At the bottom of the screen is a progress bar that measures your “awareness” level. Once the bar is full, (Spoiler - click to show) you discover that she is lying on the bedroom bed in a somewhat comatose state. However, you can only see her silhouette. Your job is not over yet.

The second half of the gameplay is about (Spoiler - click to show) reviving her identity through personal mementos found in the house and recovering her name. Here, the game gives you more freedom to interact with objects. It retains some of the function from the first half, but its application of mechanics is narrowed down. You focus on (Spoiler - click to show) finding meaningful objects. However, the wrong objects can detract from Miriam’s recovery. Things that seem helpful may cause the opposite effect. I found this part to be more challenging to complete but more immersive in its story.

Generally, the puzzles were interesting and creative. My favorite was the flower puzzle where you (Spoiler - click to show) read about flowers and match their descriptions in the flower bed to locate them. It faintly reminded me of Ghosts Within which has themes about flowers and their symbolism. It too features a puzzle involving a guidebook. Another great thing about this game is that uses free range of movement that lets you explore the house and fiddle about with objects within, sharing some attributes with a parser format. Great example of a puzzle-oriented Twine game.

At the end of the game (unless you lost prematurely), you are (Spoiler - click to show) presented with some sentences about her life. Some words in these sentences consist of links that you click on to change them. The goal is to use what you learned from the gameplay to piece together her life. There are multiple endings. (Spoiler - click to show) You do not have to get the answers right 100% to reach a positive ending but every word change has an impact.

As the game progressed it becomes clearer that the (Spoiler - click to show) story is not so much about finding a missing person in the literal sense but recovering a personality that had fallen to the wayside. The game does not end when you find her. It ends when you learn her name and affirm the things she loves. The name is the focal point. And with that comes identity.

There is not too much about the protagonist, Jane. The player can identify themselves as an investigator, researcher, or someone who just wants to help, but Jane is given only a few characteristics, although the game is in first person. She seems to have an affinity for, if not paranormal, the bizarre and unexplainable. I thought that she was going to have more of an occult-oriented profession, but the game only dips its toes this subject. It keeps things subtle which carries its own charm.

There are few NPCs. Only (Spoiler - click to show) Mr. Lane. Miriam as well, but she is unresponsive for most of the game. We learn about her through her home. You nitpick at everything. It is almost like using a lens and zooming in. You examine the sewing room, then the cork board on the wall, and if you look closer there is the (Spoiler - click to show) hidden bird sketch. That bird sketch is a possession with fond memories but it, just like Miriam’s interests, have been overshadowed by obligations in her life.

The game sticks to a black and white colour scheme. Black background, white text, and snazzy black and white graphics. Each location has its own artwork, many having more than one. All of this creates a surreal feel. It does mingle with other visual effects such as a change of font for handwriting without diverting from this theme.

Design wise, the game strives to be user friendly. It has links at the bottom of the page that, when clicked on, result in popup boxes containing the player’s thoughts, inventory, and notes. This was nice since you do not have to flip to a different screen every time you feel like viewing this content. For a Twine game with lots of puzzles this was extremely helpful.

Final thoughts
I have been a huge fan of Abigail Corfman's games for a while. The complexity possible in a Twine game seem to be elevated to the next level whenever I play her games. The Absence of Miriam Lane still has the familiar features found in her work. Free range of movement, unique and stylized use of puzzles (such as the flower puzzle), and a complex character-oriented story.

Based on what I have seen, I think this game will do well in the Comp. Speaking of which… this is the first game I have played for this Comp, and I am thrilled! Have you ever been in an art class where the teacher shows you a rainbow of bright and colourful craft paper that look so appealing you do not know which one to pick first? That is how I feel right now.

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The Black Phone, by Oreolek
A choice-based mystery in an apartment setting, September 13, 2022

This is a short mystery game where you search someone’s apartment in their absence for a black phone.

There is a brief intro that is a bit confusing. I will summarize it here to provide some context. It is the dead of night in the apartment. Peter, a possibly a doorman or attendant, hears a stranger loudly ringing at the entrance. This stranger is named Ronald and is the PC for the gameplay. Ronald manages to sneak into the apartment of Anastasia Kozlowa who happens to be away on a trip. By the time the door to the apartment closes, Ronald is already inside. Peter decides to wait in the hallway. That is the intro.

The story is in omniscient third person because it covers the thoughts of both Peter and Ronald. However, Ronald is the only playable character. The gameplay begins in the living room. From there, the player has free range of movement to visit each room and search the items within. Most choice-based games with free range of movement tend to be Twine games (I have a recommended list about it if you want to know more), so it was nice to see this implemented in a different format.

Ultimately there is only one puzzle which is to (Spoiler - click to show) unlock the box containing the phone. The significance of the phone is unclear. It seems to have something to do with Leonard Yakovlev, a painter whose name crops up throughout the game. Everything else is either atmosphere or hints on the (Spoiler - click to show) box’s combination.

Story + Characters
Ronald somehow already knows that (Spoiler - click to show) the phone will be in a box in the bedroom. Some parts of his thoughts and mannerisms suggest that he is an acquaintance of Anastasia, or even a friend. But at other times he feels more like a stalker or someone who only knows her at a distance. She is an exotic dancer and the game hints that she is big enough of a celebrity to be covered in the tabloids. This provides some explanation as to how he knows about mundane things like the clothes that she often wears, but something tells me that he knows her through more than just following the tabloids. Ronald absolutely refuses to search through Anastasia’s lingerie or bathroom out of respect for her privacy. Would a stalker do this? It is hard to say. Ronald remains a mystery throughout the game.

The only criticism I have about this game is the ending comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. When you (Spoiler - click to show) leave the apartment, Ronald turns on the phone. Immediately the phone starts emitting the sound of screeching monkeys. He then spots a body on the ground (Peter, perhaps?). Then the game says, "A QUANTUM MAGICAL SMART PHONE FIESTA." Ronald leaves, and the game ends. This confusion is why I am giving this game four stars rather than five. The gameplay is excellent, and the story is intriguing, but the ending leaves you blinking at the screen in confusion. The only correlations that I can think of is the (Spoiler - click to show) letter on the kitchen table that mentions something about “Quantum audio,” and the bedroom wardrobe is filled with portable audio players. But I do not get the connection. If anyone else does, I would like to know.

It plays and looks like an Ink game. If I did not know otherwise, I would have thought it was made with Ink. Instead, it is a combination between Undum and Raconteur, both of which are formats that I am less familiar with, especially Raconteur.

The screen is a dark navy blue that runs a bit lighter at the bottom of the screen. This small contrast adds some depth to the background. The title of a room's location is listed in large text in the lower left hand of the screen. Beneath it are listed the other locations you can visit in the apartment. The text is clean and crisp, and I did not find any spelling errors.

Final thoughts
This was a short and refreshing game. It felt like a gem when I stumbled across it on IFDB, and it did not disappoint. The confusing ending knocked it down a few points but everything else was consistent. It does not take long to play and is a good choice if you are looking for a mystery game.

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