(Full disclosure: I helped playtest this game.)
A short coming-of-age vignette, evocative and touching. The connection to the song it's based on is tenuous: it ignores the lyrics and is more about the mood of the song and the fact that the band Mecca Normal comes from Vancouver, which is where the game is set. You've just graduated from high school, and it's one of the last chances to hang out with your best friend Jane before she goes off to college.
I found a few things particularly interesting about this game:
1. The game starts out with a texting conversation, with abbreviations and smileys as you'd expect. But later in the game, there are face-to-face conversations, and (Spoiler - click to show)they also have abbreviations and smileys. At first I found it jarring, because they're not actually saying "lol colon parenthesis", but it's a clever observation that the game itself is text, so it's reasonable to use smileys for the same reason that they're used in texting: as a quick way to express an emotion without having to explicitly write out that the character is feeling or expressing the emotion. And it also points out that, for people who grow up with texting, the line between texting and face-to-face communication is pretty blurry, and texting can feel just as natural as face-to-face.
2. The second scene involves looking for change in your dad's car. In order to find enough change, (Spoiler - click to show)you have to examine and search a bunch of places that aren't mentioned in the description. You could call this a "guess the noun" problem, but it's actually more like an information puzzle, where you have to imagine yourself in a car and think of where you might search. Most of the things you can think of are implemented and do in fact contain change, but you need to find a whole bunch of places before you can collect enough change to move on in the game. It's like having to guess all the answers for a category in Family Feud, and I enjoyed this mini-game much more than I was expecting to. I suppose this would be unplayable if you've never been in a car before, though.
3. Once you make it to your destination, you can talk to Jane for a while via ASK/TELL for a whole bunch of topics. (Spoiler - click to show)Similar to the car scene, you have to imagine what sort of things you would ask Jane about, although most of them are explicitly prompted by previous conversations. When you get around to asking her about her music, she plays you a song on her guitar, and asks the PC to help her finish some lyrics. You the player don't actually have to supply lyrics; the PC does it for you, based loosely on which topics you had chosen to discuss with Jane. This is fairly subtle and probably not apparent unless you replay the scene multiple times, but even if you don't notice the mechanism, it provides a satisfyingly apt conclusion to your conversation. I found this a pretty interesting alternative to asking the player to choose lyrics explicitly: instead, you've already been unwittingly making this choice by choosing what topics to discuss.
4. The PC's relationship to Jane is interesting: (Spoiler - click to show)the PC's gender is never identified, and it's left unclear whether the PC has romantic feelings for Jane or not. If you try to kiss Jane, the game says "That'd be weird. It's not like that between the two of you," which is still ambiguous: either you're simply not interested, or you've never expressed your feelings before and now's not the time. You can decide in your head which way to read the story, and the game won't contradict you.
5. The game does a pretty good job of keeping the mechanics in line with the theme: what you're mainly doing is searching, remembering (Spoiler - click to show)what's in your dad's car (a slightly confusing and unfamiliar place), and thinking of things to talk about with your best friend. These all evoke that awkward, uncertain time between high school and college where you're trying to figure out who you are, what you're going to do with your life, and how your relationship with your friends will change. You don't end up discovering any big revelations or coming to any big conclusions, much like life for most of us.
This game starts with the admonition "If you intend to write a review or discuss it with others, I suggest you play through it exactly once." Well, I helped playtest this game, so I played through it several times, and I'm going to use that knowledge in this review. Sorry about that.
To be honest I'm not really sure what's intended by this instruction. You can go in one of two directions from the start room, and when you come back, the other direction is no longer available; this means that you're only going to see roughly half the game in each playthrough. I guess the idea is to emphasize the PC's inability to rescue all of the artifacts and memories from the island before it sinks into the water, and perhaps to put players in the position of reunited refugees, comparing disparate remnants from the land they were forced to leave. It's interesting to contrast this with Captain Verdeterre's Plunder, which explicitly encourages multiple replays to get a high score by finding the best subset of things that can be rescued from the sinking ship.
Anyway, as far as I noticed, the two halves are not appreciably different from each other. Both involve picking through the ruins of a decadent polytheistic society, learning about the baroque and often grotesque practices of the worshippers of the various gods. The intro also announces that the game "is a purely exploratory piece", though this is not quite true either: there are a few simple puzzles involving finding a light source, and your score is kept based on how many memories you find, based on examining various features and objects. A nice touch is that once you've found most of the memories, the SCORE command includes hints for finding the remaining memories.
One somewhat peculiar feature is that the story is told in the third person, past tense. This is introduced at the start by "As a girl, she...", indicating that the rest of the playthrough represents the PC's memories of escaping the sinking island in the distant past. It's interesting how this simple device, explaining why the game doesn't use second-person present as usual for parser IF, makes the rest of the text sound a little more natural, compared to a game like A Long Drink where the use of past tense is not explained. There are a few places where the text slips into present tense, e.g. the description of the lantern; here I must personally apologize, because while I caught many of these slips in playtesting, I see now that I missed that one and probably some others. (It's surprisingly easy not to notice these slips!) On the other hand, even most of the error messages are (perhaps automatically?) cast in third-person past tense, which can be a bit jarring, e.g. "She couldn't go that way" whenever you try to go in a direction that has no exit, or "She wasn't feeling especially drowsy" when you try to SLEEP. I suppose you could imagine her recalling a moment of confusion or reflection during her journey, but this is a bit of a stretch.
Overall, the mood is melancholy with some bitterness, but also somewhat dispassionate in recounting the facts of life in this ornate religion. It's a good match with the mood of the song that the game is based on, which insistently asks "What'cha gonna do when the land goes under the water?" almost as a taunt or an accusation, as if you were the cause of the flood that you should have seen coming and now you're doomed. The line "can't go swimming to a big whale's mouth" hints at blame that might be placed on religion in not preparing worshippers for the practical reality of the disaster. It's hard not to read this (both the song and the game) as an allegory for a certain other looming no-longer-deniable calamity...
Everything about this game is charming: the premise (you are a doll who has been enchanted to protect a child of a wealthy magician couple), the setting (the garden estate of said magician couple, populated by various whimsically magical plants), the writing ("The memory rattles like an impervious bumble bee trapped inside a closed book."), and the puzzles, which involve learning about the magical plants and figuring out how to tame them and use them to your advantage. The backstory told through found memories is rather more sinister, however: a ghost story that gives an extra dimension of moral ambiguity to the characters. It also feels a bit like a murder mystery, where you have to put together the clues to identify the villain and motive.
I had trouble with two of the puzzles: one I eventually managed to figure out after some wild guesses about how to use (Spoiler - click to show)the diamondbane-- it seemed like I needed to plant it near the glass wall of the greenhouse, or else use it to scratch the glass somehow, but in fact you had to THROW it at the glass to crack it; the other I had to consult the hints for, but in retrospect it was totally fair and clever to (Spoiler - click to show)reuse the clippers to cut out the cover of the book. Unfortunately the hints file is rather spoilery; it seems formatted so as to be implemented as a hint menu where you can choose to reveal one at a time, but it's just a text file so it's hard to avoid seeing more than you want. Hopefully a post-comp release will implement the hints properly in-game.
I managed to win the game on my first playthrough without having solved one of the puzzles; I'm not sure if this was intentional. If it were, I would have expected the endings to be different whether you (Spoiler - click to show)destroyed the statue or not, where solving this optional puzzle would give you a more satisfying and final epilogue. I was slightly spoiled about this puzzle from the hints file; otherwise I'm not sure I would have thought to (Spoiler - click to show)examine the mansion, since it's physically distant rather than being an object in the room.
I like how the game incorporates the band name as well as the song lyrics. Another nice touch is how (Spoiler - click to show)the child is either Klaus or Klara, determined randomly when you start; this led to a funny moment of confusion when I read Emily Short's review and she mentioned that the child was a girl when he was clearly a boy in my playthrough.
I appreciate the sentiment that led to the existence of this game, and it has some nice hard-sf imagery and sense-of-wonder, but the prose is clunky and needs proofreading, the puzzles are tedious old chestnuts, the parser is barebones and finicky, and the skeumorphic character-at-a-time display gets frustratingly slower as you play (although saving and refreshing the page will make it faster again without losing your place). I managed to finish the game (endings 1, 3, and 4; ending 2 is just a subset of 4), and I'm tempted to give it two stars just because it is finishable, but ultimately this is not worth your time. At best I'd recommend reading a transcript, but the game doesn't support transcribing so maybe just read the source code?
Very short but polished and evocative with a decent emotional heft. The one puzzle was difficult but fair, and I felt clever when I solved it without hints. And the end notes managed to convince me that the game did incorporate all 8 songs: no mean feat!
An interesting sketch of a story told through inspecting the memories of two characters, but I couldn't quite make sense of what conclusions we were supposed to draw. Also there's basically no choices in this game, except for one that prevents you from seeing half of the text.
Interesting idea, but I'd like to have seen it fleshed out a bit more. I appreciate the variety of alternate endings, though.
I enjoyed this as a word puzzle, but the IF game wrapper didn't add much and in fact made it a little more awkward.
Caveat: I still haven't finished this game... Right now I am close to being stuck, but I have not yet looked at the hints.
The setting is somewhat hackneyed but appealing to me: a dystopian future surveillance state, where the PC is part of a secret rebellion and receives instructions to help him escape. The world is pretty detailed, though there's not much backstory that I've noticed so far.
The puzzles are mostly technological, involving microchips and soldering irons and radio transmitters and microwave ovens... Many of the puzzles have involved some satisfying aha!-moments, and so far they've all been pretty fair, but it's possible that I may change my mind after reading hints for stuff I'm stuck on.
There are a few NPCs, though interaction with them is fairly limited (as far as I've seen). They are mostly one-dimensional, though not particularly stereotyped.
The writing is nothing extraordinary, but it paints a solid picture of life in this world, with some snarky references to issues in our current time (typical for these sorts of stories). There are also several links to various pieces of fiction on the web that the author has written; those have generally been somewhat interesting but not really my thing, but they're also not at all required to solve the game (again, as far as I've seen...).
The implementation and description is rather sparse, though it's quite a large game so it's not that surprising; if the author is interested in releasing new editions, I would recommend a few more passes at filling in some of the gaps, and also perhaps reducing the size of the map: there seems to be a few too many rooms that don't contain anything interesting. In particular, it can be a bit tedious to get from one end of the map to the other (especially when that involves having to take the train), which seems to be required a number of times in order to collect items to solve puzzles in the necessary order. Maybe just some shortcut commands would help there, though.
Overall, I've enjoyed playing Valley of Steel, and I am curious to find out both how to solve the puzzles I'm stuck on and how the story continues. The sparseness is the main thing keeping me from giving this 5 stars.
As a Firefly fan, I enjoyed the writing and the references, and I don't usually enjoy fanfic at all. The puzzles were easy for the group (Club Floyd) but may be a bit trickier for solo play. But they were fair, forgiving, and made sense (although mostly of the "decide which object you have is the one you need to use" variety). The game was very linear with lots of sitting back and watching the story play out, but I didn't mind because the writing was good and the story was entertaining-- felt like a typical light-hearted episode of the show. There were a few minor bugs (we played Release 2) but they didn't get in the way of the game, just some rough edges showing. I'm very curious to know who wrote this and whether they're planning another Firefly game!