Reviews by Mike Russo

ParserComp 2021

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The Time Machine, by Bill Maya

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Time after time, September 2, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(Note: this is a review of the ParserComp version of The Time Machine — there’s now an updated version available at the link).

The Time Machine by Bill Maya is an Inform follow-up to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a confusing state of affairs that highlights the challenges of writing an unplanned sequel. If the initial work was conceived of as part of a series, that’s an easy enough situation – presumably there are enough hanging plot threads and unresolved conflicts lying about to let you to whip up a plausible plot. But where a story’s been resolved, the protagonist’s journey completed, where is there to go? Sure, a Hamlet sequel would have to be a spin-off, given that everyone north of Horatio in the dramatis personae snuffs it before the final curtain, but even murder-light fare runs into this problem: count ourselves lucky we’ve been spared such enormities as 2 Secret 2 Garden, or Catch 23 (actually, there is a sequel to Catch 22. It’s not great!)

The author’s solution to the dilemma is elegantly done in the present case: there’s a switch of protagonists, from the time machine’s inventor to his friend and lawyer (like, the friend is a lawyer), and the task at hand is to prove Wells’s rantings about Eloi, Morlocks, &c. shouldn’t get him hauled off to a late-Victorian sanitarium by retracing his travels through time. It’s a good setup, allowing the player to re-experience the highlights of the novel without forcing you to go through the remembered steps of a familiar story.

Sadly, the game still requires the player to adhere to a script, though this isn’t always communicated well. My first full playthrough ended in an unwinnable state because immediately upon activating the time machine and finding myself in the Edenic surroundings Wells had related before being hauled off in an ambulance, my first instinct was to return to safety and tell the censorious alienist he’d gotten it all wrong. But when I got back to 1890 and related my wild story, the doctor only listened, “with an accepting look on his face.” That was admirably open-minded of him after he’d stuffed Wells into a strait-jacket for telling much the same story, but that was as far as things went – and since the fuse on the machine burned out after that trip, there was no opportunity to return and bring back more definitive proof. In fairness, the game does signpost that he’s looking for a particular piece of physical evidence – a flower to match the unique petal Wells had shown him right before the game opened – but it would have been polite to fire off a losing ending to bring the story to a close, rather than leaving it to peter out.

Being on rails wouldn’t be so bad if the story the game was out to tell was a gripping one, but despite solid prose, the plot is sadly rather pedestrian. First, most of the game’s playtime is spent in the present day, trying to get into Wells’ workshop and get the machine up and running by solving a few desultory puzzles. Once in the far future, you can explore a single two-location building and have a brief interaction with some Eloi, but it’s all functional at best, and only recapitulates more exciting incidents from the book. If you want to explore off the beaten path and solve a mildly-annoying guess the verb puzzle (to get through a rusty grate, (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE GRATE will work but PULL GRATE and BREAK GRATE won’t), you can have a run-in with Morlocks, but it’s likewise abbreviated and completely optional.

The puzzles are fine, though with the exception of the first (figuring out where Wells’s workshop key has gotten to, which requires a bit of deduction) they’re very straightforward – putting a machine part in a machine, showing an interesting object to an interested NPC, that sort of thing. I had more trouble with them than was probably warranted, though, because there are some infelicities in the implementation. Prior to the nobody-cares-about-your-time-travel-story restart, I’d actually already had to restart because I’d put a watch down on a desk – after being prompted to do so by an NPC – but then was told “it’s hardly portable” when I attempted to retrieve it. And when I grew frustrated at my inability to find the workshop key and considered resorting to violence, BREAK WINDOW WITH POKER just elicited an empty command prompt, with no acknowledgment or rejection of the command. And there are a good number of typos throughout (including a missing period in the opening sequence).

I still had a good time with the game, because the writing is solid, the premise enjoyable, and the setting a pleasant place to spend time (well, modulo the tunnels where blind inbred cannibals live, I suppose). But it felt quite dry, and I was left wanting a little more there there – a little more interactivity, a little more story, a little more puzzling, just something more to create emotional engagement and make The Time Machine feel like a real sequel and not just a retread.

The Faeries Of Haelstowne, by Christopher Merriner

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Immersive and lovely, July 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I was a beta tester on this one, and as the below review will hopefully quickly make clear, you might want to take my opinion with an even bigger grain of salt than usual).

There are some things that as soon as you encounter them, you realize that they’re for you (where by you I mean one, though I certainly hope that you, the person reading this review, have found some of these things for yourself!) Ideally you fall head-over-heels without losing the ability to understand why others might not be as into this thing as you are – it isn’t so much a matter of retaining a critical perspective, because of course you have none, but of preventing yourself from becoming a spittle-flecked evangelist, a John the Baptist who won’t take no for an answer until some kindly dancer-with-veils sticks your head on a plate. Look, the metaphor’s getting away from me: all I’m trying to say is that I have hopefully gotten to the point in life where I understand that e.g. some people think early Tori Amos is overly precious, or can’t stand the way Tristram Shandy never gets to the point. I can walk my brain along the paths that lead to those conclusions, and through force of intellection sometimes even see that the complaints proceed from real flaws in the works at issue. But none of this can shake my unbreakable adoration for these things that feel like someone made them just for me.

I have to confess that I haven’t fully replayed The Faeries of Haelstowne since I tested it a month or so back. Partially this is because it’s a very big game, and after the past week-and-a-bit of playing and reviewing, I really need to get back to my IFComp work-in-progress. Partially this is because the thought of having to solve the darkroom puzzle again intimidates me. But mostly it’s because I enjoyed my first playthrough so so much that it’d feel ungrateful to replay it, like I was asking for even more joy than it had already given me.

I can recite the issues a player might have with the game chapter and verse: it’s so big it can be hard to get and stay oriented; the Adventuron parser struggles to keep up with this ambitious a level of detail and interactivity; the Merrie Olde English milieu is twee and more literary than historical; it’s hard to figure out how to make immediate progress on the missing-vicar case the policeman protagonist is notionally investigating, so progression requires solving seemingly-unrelated problems just because they’re there; and the puzzles require a precision that can veer into pixelbitchery (I know the author did yeoman’s work smoothing out issues since I did my testing, but from a quick glance at the forum traffic and comment threads, it seems like some of these issues remain). It’s not too hard for me to imagine the review that gives it a right old kicking for all this.

But look, I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest, or at least I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest to me (let me reassure you that, as I write these words, my garments are not made from camel’s hair, and I have not lately fed on locusts and honey). It’s a commonplace to say that the best works of IF are worlds you can get lost in, and part of what makes Faeries of Haelstowne so lovely is that you can and will get lost in it. It conjures a completely and idyllically realized interwar milieu for your immersive pleasure, but part of the trick is that the map is too big and awkwardly laid out; that you’ll need to look carefully at every single patch of vegetation and confusingly-labeled bottle of photographic fluid; that you’ll have to get the match out of the matchbox, and light the match, and realize you didn’t put the candle on the candleholder, but then by the time you’ve done that the match has gone out, so you need to start the whole process over again; that you’ll hang on every word every NPC says, not because they’re finely characterized (though they are) but because you’re desperate for some guidance. To play this game is to be a well-meaning bumbler who eventually succeeds through a bit of cleverness, sure, but mostly through perseverance, luck, and aid from some more-competent allies – and that’s as true for the player as for the protagonist.

The reason I call it a trick is that this kind of thing doesn’t always work – I’ve given up on games with far fewer frustrations, and my closing thoughts were not of how immersed I was in the fictional world.
Here, it’s the writing that’s the secret ingredient and makes the magic come off. There are a lot of words in this game, and pretty much all of them are perfect, calling out just the right details to delight the player while communicating exactly what kind of place Haelstowne is. Like, here’s the kitchen of the vicarage where Arthur, the protagonist, is staying – there’s nothing at all special or concealed here, this is a simple quotidian description:

"The kitchen was a warm, busy space looking out on the path that ran along the west side of The Vicarage. The plain whitewashed walls held residues and aromas from centuries of cooking and had been privy to all the usual intrigues, plots and scandals that hatched in the average kitchen. There was a venerable old range set into an enormous alcove where once the fire would have roared and various pots, pans and utensil hung upon the walls. A heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak served as the kitchen table and general worksurface."

Yes, this is what this kitchen would be like!

Or a small strange occurrence, from when Arthur has started to attract the attention of the eponymous fair folk:

"A pair of field mice tumbled from a nearby bank and scurried across Arthur’s shoes as he passed. The little animals paused and seemed to observe him for an instant, before disappearing into the long grass on the other side of him."

It’s all very homey and exactly right, and even when other characters are getting snippy with Arthur or there’s real danger in the air, I still found myself grinning as I read, so pleasing is the prose.

There’s much more to do than soak up the atmosphere, though: there are puzzles here, and some of them are pretty hard. Partially this is due to how large the map is – while much of it is initially locked off, there’s still quite a lot of real estate over which to range, all the more so once Arthur is able to find transportation to the village. Partially it’s because the author’s hit a nice balance between open-ended sandbox and time-gated progression and there are a whole host of puzzles that can be solved before it’s strictly necessary to do so, which means there are a lot of objects and a lot of sub-objectives at play at any given time. And partially it’s because, admittedly, the parser’s foibles can make it hard to know whether the problem is with your thinking, or with how you’re typing your actions in. Once I realized that if the game gave me the kind of unhelpful response that I’d understand as telling me I was barking up the wrong tree were I playing an Inform game, here I might want to persevere with some synonyms or alternate syntax a little longer, I had a much easier time. And there are two levels of hints available to help get players unstuck. Still – it’s likely you’ll need them at some point!

This review is already far too long and I suppose I should start trying to bring it in for a landing. There’s so much more I’d love to highlight – like Ottoline, Arthur’s eventual partner in faerie-fighting, who quickly became one of my favorite IF allies ever. Or the climactic puzzle, which involves one of the best, most satisfying figure-out-the-ritual puzzles I’ve played. And I’ve barely mentioned how drily, understatedly funny it is. I’ll simply have to have faith that these things will all be discovered and appreciated as they deserve.

Maybe all this has put you off, and as you’ve read this review you’ve weighed the positives I’ve mentioned against the negatives I’ve acknowledged, and decided that the balance doesn’t come right for you, which is completely fair. But if your interest is piqued, and you have the time and space for it, I really encourage you to block out a few hours, pour yourself a big mug of tea, resolve not to look at hints until you really need them (and then to consult them posthaste), and jump into Faeries of Haelstowne – I can guarantee (I can’t actually guarantee) you’ll love it.

Foreign Soil, by Olaf Nowacki

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Breaking new ground, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)

There’s an undeniable romance about making a new home after being shipwrecked, pushing civilization’s light into a heretofore-unlit corner and staking a claim: it’s a heady mélange of self-reliance and creativity, of being tested by a hostile and untamed wilderness without the support of society, and then constituting that society anew. Of course, the historical reality at the root of these fantasies is something else entirely, as it’s not possible to separate them from settler colonialism, given the common tropes they invoke – genocide, land-theft, and the exploitation of indigenous bodies for labor and worse belie the sunny Swiss Family Robinson image (points to Defoe for including the character of Friday in his original novel, making clear exactly how the trick works).

Displacing these fantasies into a science-fictional setting makes a lot of sense, then, as you get to invoke the tropes while starting from a place of relative innocence – with our scene laid at a completely uninhabited planetoid, it’s possible to simply enjoy watching a plucky hero (or in this case, heroine, as yes, I’m finally starting to come around to the game) carve out a settlement. Foreign Soil does have its moments of darkness – given that the protagonist first wakes up alone in a colony ship on the fritz, it’s clear that the life she left behind wasn’t great, and it’s quickly confirmed that we’re in a Botany Bay type situation – but it’s mostly an uncomplicated good time, as you solve some puzzles to wrest power and sustenance out of an unwelcoming hunk of rock.

That wake-up scene is probably the high point of the game, not because Foreign Soil goes downhill sharply, but because it’s a really compelling opening. The main character comes to amidst sleeping coffins, shivering with hibernation sickness and her mind and perceptions disordered. It’s hard to write a scene like this in IF, since you need to convey the character’s disorientation while still giving the player enough concrete information to figure out how to act. The sequence walks this tightrope very well, as the player is kept off-balance and doesn’t have a full sense of what’s going in the scene, but is always told about one salient detail or recent change that should be investigated, giving them a thread to pull to keep moving ahead. The game was an entrant in 2020’s IntroComp, and even though it’d been about a year since I’d last played this bit, I still remembered almost every detail, since it’s so strong.

Once you’ve got your colonist sorted, it’s time to get to the colonizing, and the challenges and puzzles are usually logical and fun to work through. As in the opening, you don’t usually have a complete understanding of what you’re doing – it appears the government that sent you out here isn’t big on briefings or instruction manuals – but the game is usually good at signposting what you should be paying attention to, and progress is typically possible with a little bit of prodding and poking. There are places where the implementation could be a little more robust, though, as a few puzzles flirt with guess-the-verb issues (when I replayed today, less than a month after doing my beta playthrough, it still took me forever to figure out how to fill the water bottle the second time), and there are a few errant typos – stray line breaks, missing spaces, that sort of thing – which is I suppose is primarily an indictment of how well I did my job as a tester.

The prose strikes an engaging tone throughout. I’m having a hard time nailing it down precisely, but I want to call it jauntily cynical, or maybe cynically jaunty? The main character definitely has a personality—I got a good sense of her as brash and determined – and her voice lends color to what could otherwise be a dull environment made of rocky landscapes and generic corridors. Here’s her take on an empty bit of crater, for example:

"This part of the crater gets a lot of sun, so… Ok, all parts of the crater get a lot of sun, and yet: This should be a great place for a vineyard slope! But only if the terraforming works. And even then, probably not for another 1,000 years."

This rough-edged but inviting narration also takes the edge off of death when it arrives, as it is possible to perish from a variety of missteps. It also helps that these deaths aren’t permanent, as they’re considerately rewound as soon as they happen (for a reason that makes sense once it’s ultimately revealed). And indeed, the plot winds up in a surprisingly sweet place that, much like the game overall, worked really well for me. Foreign Soil has room for more polish, it’s relatively slight, and it never manages to top its bravura opening, but if you want to play out an unproblematic colony-seeding narrative, it certainly meets the need.

Gruesome, by Robin Johnson

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Quite agrueable (I'll stop), July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)

I copped to my inexperience with Zork in one of my earlier reviews for this Comp, but of course, even though I’ve never played, I know pretty much everything about it. Partially this is from reading things like the Digital Antiquarian’s series on the early days of Infocom, but largely it’s because of parodies. By my count there have been approximately… (checks IFDB) four trillion games riffing on all things Zorkian, with the violent, kleptomanic tendencies of its notional hero coming in for a kicking as early as Enchanter, and the heroic journey of progression inverted and parodied in Janitor and Zero Sum Game. Gruesome cleverly combines and re-inverts these parodic tropes, placing you in the shoes (claws?) of a noble grue trying to help a mob of violent, dull-witted adventurers complete their quests so they’ll leave the poor denizens of the dungeon alone.

This is funny, but it’s still a one-and-a-half joke premise at most, and throwing in a reimplementation of Hunt the Wumpus doesn’t do much to change things up. Yet Gruesome really works, on the back of solid puzzle-design and jokes that do the work to be funny, rather than just gesturing at something that happened in Zork and calling it a day.

Let’s start with the funny business. There’s a broad array of humor on display here, so I have to imagine at least some of the jokes will land for most players. You have your direct Zork jokes, sure – and these are good, from the opening line to “It is bright white. You are likely to be slain by an adventurer” – but also silly puns (“Handel’s Opening Number” is my favorite, because when you look at it, it’s an awful pun, but when you think about it some more, you realize there’s an additional, even worse pun hiding in plain sight!) as well as a whole bunch of physical comedy as the adventurers blunder around in the dark.

And save for the cute-as-a-button Wumpus, the adventurers are really the stars of this particular show. They each skewer a specific heroic archetype, like the mighty-thewed barbarian who “hails from the frozen wastes of the far northlands and, in accordance with Jones’s Law of Sartorial Inversion, dresses in a few leather straps and a tiny loincloth,” and they’re modeled with stunningly realistic AI: just like real adventure-game heroes, the bastards wander around at complete random and get into fights at the drop of a hat. My first time through the game, I was informed that one of the dopes had snuffed it, and I thought it must have been because the dragon had got him, but no, the pugnacious %#@#$ had picked a fight with one of his fellow hotheads and wound up pushing daisies – like a Zork-themed remake of No Exit, the dungeon in Gruesome may have monsters, but hell is other heroes.

Speaking of my first playthrough, it ended with all the adventurers save one dead in a ditch. That’s all right though, not because they deserved it (though they did) but because the game’s a giant optimization puzzle that’s meant to be played more than once. As you do your initial round of exploration, you’ll slowly work out the rules of the game and solve some of the component puzzles. Mostly these involve creating and extinguishing light, as the surface-dwellers unsurprisingly flee the dark and seek out rooms where they can see, which allows you to manipulate their movements. Invariably, solving the individual puzzles – which are a pleasing mix of simple object manipulation, maze traversal, and lateral thinking – will lead to an adventurer going somewhere they oughtn’t, and my initial impression of the game was a bit overwhelming, with chaos breaking out everywhere. But once you get your oar in and start considering how to sequence your actions and fit the pieces together, the meta-puzzle isn’t actually too hard to crack, though it’s very satisfying to come up with the final resolution.

Is there room for improvement in Gruesome? Sure – the climax and denouement aren’t quite as compelling as the main body of the game, for one thing, and there are some puzzles, like the one involving the dwarven foreman, that can feel a little perfunctory. And the lack of grue puns beyond the title is a real missed opportunity – like, your protagonist should feel grueful after allowing one of the adventurers in their charge to perish, or let out a self-congratulatory “gruevy” upon accomplishing a task. Or if you play your cards right in the attic, perhaps you could have finished the game as a bride-gruem. Come on, these were lying right there! (Perhaps the author considered them, but found them egruegiously bad).

Don’t let this significant flaw keep you from enjoying Gruesome, though. It’s a fun, funny farce whose jaundiced view of the typical IF protagonist doesn’t make its parody too acidic (I kind of want the slice-of-life sequel where you just hang out with Jessica the orc and the Wumpus), and it’s got some of the best puzzling of the Comp – plus the implementation seems quite smooth, though of course given I’m not playing with fresh eyes, I’m not best suited to make that judgment. If all Zork parodies hit this level of quality, keep ‘em coming!

Grandpa's Ranch, by Kenneth Pedersen

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A great introduction to IF, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Grandpa’s Ranch stands out in the Comp for being the only ADRIFT game, and also for being initially intended for a different competition entirely, the recent Text Adventure Literacy Jam. That slight delay is to ParserComp’s benefit, though, as this is a refreshing palette-cleanser of a game. The plot is simple and lighthearted – you play a kid whose grandfather is looking to give away the family valuables via a treasure hunt – and the small setting (the grandfather’s house and yard) is agreeable to explore, with compact descriptions enlivened by some pleasantly-chunky pixel art. And while there’s a tutorial that walks new players through the basics of playing IF, you can deactivate it if you’re more experienced or want a challenge, which I’d certainly recommend, as while the puzzles aren’t especially hard, they’re definitely fun to work through.

I haven’t played many ADRIFT games, but Grandpa’s Ranch is a good case for the platform by making thoughtful use of its features. In addition to the previously-mentioned graphics, there’s also an always-available map window that starts out showing the locations the player would already know about and updates as you explore more of the world. And there’s a clear attention to ease of use throughout: objects present in an area are listed out and underlined, making it easy for new players to understand what they can interact with, and when picking up objects whose use is obvious, the relevant command is disclosed, avoiding guess-the-verb frustrations.

This clean presentation makes most of the already-easy puzzles even simpler, but that’s not necessarily bad – there’s a primal joy in discovering secret doors that can be messed up if the process is too obfuscated. And I thought the climactic puzzle sequence was very well done, with several clever steps that all made sense given the goal you’re trying to accomplish, and no parser fiddliness despite the somewhat complex physical manipulations required. As with the rest of the game, the puzzles of Grandpa’s Ranch aren’t going to set the world on fire, but they’re better than they need to be for something with such a clear introductory remit. You could do a lot worse than have this as your first piece of IF, but even if you’ve been around the block a time or two, it’s still a worthwhile coffee-break diversion.

Return to the Stars, by Adrian Welcker

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Solid but dull, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The stereotype of parser games is that they’re lightly-comic puzzle adventures crammed with jokey responses and groan-worthy puns. There are obviously so many exceptions they overwhelm the rule, but there’s definitely something to it, and so usually I enjoy it when I come across a game that commits to a different prose style, as long as it fits the story. So Return to the Stars presents a bit of a conundrum: it intentionally eschews the comic-opera standard in favor of stripped-down prose that’s completely apt given the military sci-fi tropes of the setting. I can’t really fault the writing for being dry as a piece of toast since it does help advance the mood, but since that’s of a piece with the straightforward plot and unexciting puzzles, the game feels duller than it deserves.

Right, so the setup. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’re a soldier in a sci-fi army, and you’ve been captured by the forces of your enemy, the awkwardly-named Shwabolians. After they stop checking on you, the moment’s right for you to attempt a jailbreak so you can escape their clutches and, like it says on the tin, return to the stars and your home. Standing in your way are a bunch of locked doors, a shuttle missing its ignition key, and a few of those evil lizard-people whose name I’m not going to attempt to spell again moving forward in this review.

There’s nothing wrong with a standard premise, but it can feel a little boring if you’re not careful, and unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the author is steering into this particular skid. The various environments you explore are plausibly-realized but generic – a stockade, various control rooms, a barracks, a briefing room – but at least poking around them could offer, say, an opportunity to learn more about the aliens you’re fighting. And you do in fact find something out about their culture as you kick around their digs: specifically, they’re very down on any unnecessary display or extraneous details in their living and work-spaces. A noticeable portion of the word-count is devoted to flagging things that aren’t actually there, as room after room is described as “sparsely-furnished” or having “no decoration.” And when there is some scenery, it’s almost always called out as generic, with “nothing noteworthy” about it. Again, this fits the mood – as a no-nonsense space marine I’m sure the player character isn’t especially interested in the fine details of furniture styling. But it makes for a pretty dull time.

When it comes to the puzzle-solving that’s the main focus here, things improve, but there’s still not much that’s exciting or novel. Like, if you’d guessed that you escape the cell you start out in by crawling out through a ventilation duct, give yourself a cookie. There are keycards to retrieve, launch sequences to initiate, and an RNG-heavy shootout that I had to abuse the UNDO command to get through. There are one or two clever pieces – I enjoyed figuring out how to get from the prison island to the main base, for example, and how to evade the force field – but also some read-the-author’s-mind bits. I figured out that I’d need to look for a keycard someone had inadvertently misplaced in order to get through a locked door, but the place where it can be found is so far away from the door it unlocks that I needed a hint to get me back on the right track. And the final step to turning on the shuttle was one of the worst guess-the-verb puzzles I’ve seen in a while, though it’s certainly possible I missed a prompt somewhere.

Implementation is solid for the most part, with a few nice touches. I liked the way the status bar updated with additional information once you recover your fancy armor, and once you find the enemy’s barracks you can wash yourself clean after you do things that make you dirty with various unpleasant substances. On the other hand, there are some minor bugs – I got stuck in the early stages when I typed CRAWL to get back into my cell after escaping, but then couldn’t CRAWL back out again, and the ignition-notch in the shuttle will accept anything you try to put in it, including the corpse of a large murder-lizard.

Even though I’ve caviled a lot in this review, I have positive feelings about Return to the Stars. It definitely passes muster as a solid slice of military sci-fi, and really commits to its premise in a way that I find admirable. I just wish it, and I, could have had a little more fun along the way.

Black Knife Dungeon, by Arthur DiBianca

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A great rou-IFalike (I'm trying to make this a thing), July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Has there ever been a pairing more obvious in theory, but more challenging in execution, than the IF/roguelike mashup? I mean I’m sure there has been, but let’s just go with it: the marriage seems natural, given the overlap in presentation, interface, subject matter, and, I think, audience – like, if you enjoy typing stuff into a text window to explore a dungeon, evade traps, juggle an inventory, and beat monsters in Zork, it’s not crazy to think you’d be into Angband or Nethack as well. And, importantly, so long as you’re sticking with text or ascii, neither genre requires the author to create art, which can be a significant barrier to entry.

On the flip side, there are really deep differences between these beasts that can make the hybrids rather awkward, if not sterile. First there’s the varying expectations for what “fairness” means – modern IF players expect to triumph with nary a restart, whereas if you win a roguelike without standing on a pile of the dead bodies of your previous avatars, it would feel unsatisfying. Similarly, it’s the rare piece of IF that takes more than two or three hours, while a mainline roguelike can easily take 30 or 40 for a single successful playthrough, and you need radically different gameplay systems and design ethoi to support those different playtimes. Finally, most of the fun of IF comes from bespoke puzzle-solving and hand-crafted text, whereas roguelikes are all about applying a consistent set of tools to wildly varying circumstances of inventory, monsters, and dungeon layout, with small shifts in positioning and granular inventory usage – awkward things to model well in a parser – providing most of the turn-by-turn interest.

Due to the combination of the appeal and the challenges, I feel like this sub-genre has a lot of entries, but comparatively few successful ones: I’m of course thinking of Kerkerkruip in the latter category, but honestly struggling to name a second stand-out example. Fortunately, after playing Black Knife Dungeon, I’ll struggle no more, as it offers a distinct, intelligent take on the rou-IFalike (I know it looks awful on the page, but say it aloud, it’s pretty good!), by adopting some more player-friendly, rogue-lite style approaches.

There’s a plot here, with the find-artifact-or-kill-foozle coin landing on the former side this time out; you’re drinking in a tavern with a sot of a dwarf, who tells you of an unrecovered treasure waiting at the end of a dangerous dungeon, and closes with these urgent words:

"'A steadfast adventurer may find it,” he murmurs, “but first, seek Blornang’s Hall.' With that, his head falls on the table, cushioned slightly by a coaster."

So yeah it’s minimal and trope-y, but at the same time, if you’re not enchanted by that “cushioned slightly by a coaster” bit, you and I are very different people.

Anyway it’s all about gameplay, and since the town is only sketched in, with two shops (one level-gated) and a tavern for getting gameplay tips in the shape of rumors, it’s all about the dungeon. In the first two minutes, you’ll notice two key examples of BKD’s streamlining. First, there’s no navigation within the dungeon – you’re always either fighting or searching in a room, or moving on to another randomly-generated one. There’s also no examine verb, possibly the first time I’ve come across this in a piece of IF? Combined, this means that the focus is on decision-making from a focused palette of actions that slowly expands as you level up, buy more kit, and encounter new foes.

At the start, the main mechanic is a low-stakes push-your-luck calculation – in another bow to roguelite convention, death only means missing out on the small gold bonus you get from leaving the dungeon alive, so it seems like all there is to do is fight your way through each set of foes and then bail out when the going gets too tough. The main wrinkle at this early stage is that monsters all come in a normal and extra-tough flavor, with the difference usually being signaled by a subtle tweak of a single word in the sentence-long descriptions printed at the start of each encounter. It’s typically more trouble than it’s worth to fight these pumped-up versions of the bestiary, so once you learn to recognize them, you’ll usually just slip right by (since you can bypass any monster at any time, even once you’ve launched into combat). You can also choose whether you want to search a room once you’ve killed a monster, with some kinds of rooms more likely to yield treasure and others tending to conceal traps.

Later levels of the dungeon complicate this simple dynamic in ways that keep BKD fresh through its hour-long playtime. Beyond incremental weapon and armor upgrades, you’ll be able to purchase three different magic items. The first is a simple ranged attack, but the other two are more interesting, consisting of an I-win nuke that must be charged up by conventional victories, and a ring that uses the environment against your opponent by casting a spell that’s unique to each room. As a result, every time you go down stairs into a new layer of the dungeon, there’s a pleasing bit of business as you figure out which text identifies the hard version of the new monsters, test their vulnerability to the various attacks, and fill out the ring’s room/monster grid. Ultimately, of course, there’s a boss who tests your mastery of the previous mechanics while injecting a few new spins of its own, and then the story wraps up tidily, though the player is left with some extra-challenging postgame goals to work through if the spirit so moves.

It’s all well considered, and if, unlike Fivebyfivia, the story’s “twist” ending didn’t land that strongly for me, well, that’s no big deal, as the journey getting there is clearly what’s important. And I did have a lot of fun with BKD, though I think the tuning requires a bit more repetition than I would have preferred. Progression through the dungeon isn’t gated by flat experience, but rather by accomplishing specific goals. Many of these are grindable – earning enough gold to upgrade your equipment, coming across the right room in your random explorations – but others require a bit of luck, like being able to kill a certain number of monsters before your hit points or a time limit runs out. This helps proceedings feel less mechanical, but in the later stages of the game, even after I’d figured out all the relevant tricks it felt like it still took a lot of replays until the stars aligned just right so I could check off these boxes and make it to the boss.

A heavy reliance on RNGesus for success is a central part of most roguelikes, of course, but this did make the final act of the game sometimes feel like a drag. And I would have liked the game better if there was a little more going on in the town, since there are no characters as engaging as the coaster-napping dwarf from the opening. Still, these are small complaints – RKD is a short game so having a bit of ennui set in for the last 10 minutes is no big deal when I enjoyed the rest of it so much, and my eyes were skipping over most of the text by the end anyway. There’s a lot to be said for a game that makes succeeding at a tricky design challenge look effortless, even if the perfect rou-IFalike is still yet to be written (admit it, it’s starting to grow on you now).

Fivebyfivia Delenda Est, by Andrew Schultz

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Working on my knight moves, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

If this wasn’t ParserComp but rather BadassTitleComp, let’s all take a minute up front to acknowledge that FDE would be the runaway champion (I see you over there, Black Knife Dungeon – you’re ballpark but you’re trying too hard). Take a genocidal threat from the ancient world, blend it with a made-up mathy word, and slap it on a chess-based puzzler, and you have a sure-fire recipe for coloring me intrigued. Happily, rather than just skating by with a neat title and cool concept, Fivebyfivia Delenda Est has as much substance as style.

For one thing, there’s an actual plot here, about a daring knight sent out to conquer a neighboring kingdom via dynastic assassinations and a terrain-occupying tour, that’s written with humor, fleetness, and an understanding of the actually quite problematic nature of what’s occurring here. As with most of Andrew Schultz’es games, though, FDE is a puzzler through and through, and this time it’s chess that’s going through the wringer. Of course, chess puzzles are a genre unto themselves, but the spin here is quite clever and would be hard to implement outside IF – you need to arrange pieces to set up a checkmate, which you do by dropping off your allies then summoning the enemy king as your knight traverses the board in the expected L-shaped pattern, with a move limit adding an additional dimension of challenge to proceedings.

I should say at the outset that I would like to be the kind of person who’s good at chess puzzles, but am in fact the kind of person who’s awful at them. As is also usual for Schultz’s games, though, there are a host of features that invite players of any skill level in so they can enjoy things at their own speed. There’s a map that helps you visualize the state of play; many different ways to input your moves, so guiding the knight is easy; a full tutorial and a quick precis of the rules of chess; and gentle hints that ramp up if it’s clear you’re not getting a particular puzzle. So while the initial challenge definitely presented a learning curve as my head desperately tried to wrap itself around this unique take on the chess puzzle, it was a smooth curve with lots of support (so a flying buttress, I guess?)

The puzzles do escalate as you go, with the two-rook training wheel scenario giving way to more complex arrangements that were delightful to work through. My only real complaint, besides wishing there were more challenges beyond the four here on offer, is that the second one wound up having additional constraints that I don’t think were clearly signposted in the setup – my first solution was rejected because one piece didn’t want to be too close to the enemy king, and the second one because the player character wanted to hold it in reserve. I came up with a third one soon enough (and then was able to re-use my second solution in the following puzzle), so no harm no foul, but I think clearly telegraphing these added rules from the jump would have been more satisfying.

At any rate, FDE left me wanting more and hoping that, like the Punic Wars, it would be one of a series – given the way the imperialism-kicking plot wraps up, though, I’m not sure that’s in the cards, and perhaps it’s for the best since I don’t think I’d be up to the difficulty of solving puzzles in the untrammeled wilds of the knight’s home country of Twelvebytwelvia.

Yesternight, by Robert Szacki

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Flower follies, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

When I was in college, I had a running conversation with a friend where we tried to determine the smallest discernable unit of various things – like, what is the band such that next-worse band is actually bad, therefore allowing you to express the goodness of all other bands as a multiplier of the goodness of that one band? We decided that there was, and it was Jimmy Eats World, for reasons I can’t currently recall or defend.

This was a weird pastime – we were taking quantum mechanics at the time, so that’s why were interested in trying to come up with discrete measurements for things that are typically experienced as continuous or analogue – but I bring it up because Yesternight is a plausible contender for a sort of text-adventure eigenunit, complete in itself but so stripped down that if you took almost a single thing away from it, you’d have something that felt more like a tech demo than a full game.

The player character has no history and no future, their only goal to work through the obviously-signposted puzzle chain that doesn’t constitute a narrative beyond the inevitability of union between one object, one action, and one barrier that it resolves. Eventually you go north, having traded all the money you had in the world (in fairness, a single coin) for forward progress on a road, with no indication of where it leads (maybe existentialism would have been a better one of my early-adult obsessions to organize this review around, since the protagonist and their world is entirely defined by absurd but compelled actions? …probably not).

Matching the thin puzzles and thinner narrative, the game is pretty underimplemented, too. It’s written in AdvSys, a fairly obscure mid-80s language that I was unfamiliar with before a quick google, and look, I’m not going to make you sit here and listen to me pretend to have an opinion about LISP-based parsers, but even with allowances for the limited technical affordances of the time, there’s no excuse for the guess-the-verb silliness that only accepts POUR FLOWER to indicate that you want to pour some water on a desiccated flower (the instructions do indicate this is a two-word parser, but even still, POUR WATER, WATER FLOWER, EMPTY BOTTLE, and various permutations thereof would have been far more intuitive!)

So like I said: plausible candidate for the eigen-venture. And yet! When I said there almost wasn’t a single you could take away from Yesternight and still have a game, I was being precise. There is exactly one superfluous item in the world, a medical book of some description (I say “of some description” because its description is “you see nothing special”, and you can’t actually read it), that serves no purpose whatsoever. It must be there because the author wanted it there; there was no puzzle-logic or worldbuilding rationale that required it to exist, after all. There’s something intriguing about its completely unnecessary presence in this otherwise minimal game, and I’m almost tempted to argue that the seed of all art is putting something like that into a work that clearly doesn’t need it – and the seed of all criticism is trying to figure out what it means that it’s there. Right now it’s not very interesting art, and it can’t lead to interesting criticism, since the medical text is an empty signifier, an invitation into the author’s mind that only leads to an empty house with no lights on. But hey, a seed is a seed.

The Arkham Abomination, by catventure

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Abominably fun, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Arkham Abomination doesn’t put its best foot forward – a custom-parser game with no testers listed and a readme that’s actually titled “for testers” is spookier than any eldritch horror, and the fuzzy icons and garishly-colored text that greet you on booting up left me quaking in dread. Happily, it quickly shakes this negative first impression and serves up a quality bit of Lovecraftiana. If you’re burned out on the subgenre, it’s not doing anything novel enough to shake you out of your ennui, but it’s a well-crafted, well-written romp through the dark woods of Arkham Country with only a few flies in the ointment (or rather, mi-go in the slimy remnant of some nameless horror?)

Much of this is down to how it nails the Lovecraft style – and not in a “anyone with a skin tone slightly darker than ecru is a degenerate villain” way, thankfully, but by offering up prose that’s dizzyingly dense with recondite adjectives and ominously-overdescribed landscape. Here’s the opening location, for example:

"I am on a twisty trail west of old Arkham town. Looking around I see the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep, dark woods. I turn and see dark narrow glens where trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes I spot a few deserted farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages dilapidated and vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs."

Some of this is word-for-word Lovecraft (“…the hills rise wild”) but the rest of it could easily be. Or take this description of the not-at-all-suspicious monoliths at the edge of town:

"Occasionally, through gaps in the trees, the sky silhouettes with especial clearness a queer circle of tall stone pillars upon which a large grassy hill in the distance is crowned."

It’s awkward sometimes, but sure, that’s the point. And all of this excessively-detailed scenery is implemented, every gambrel roof and narrow glen of it. In a sea of Lovecraft-alikes that nick the fish-men but present their stories in the same flat prose you’d use to recount a trip to the supermarket, Arkham Abomination stands out by adopting the style as well as the substance.

The plot itself is also cannily chosen, as it’s riffing off a specific Lovecraft story, but not one of the over-used ones like Dunwich Horror or Shadow Over Innsmouth (Spoiler - click to show)(we’re looking at the Colour Out of Space, here). The classic setup has you visiting a threatening village, looking for a missing friend who was trying to get to the bottom of a strange wave of sickness that’s laid many of Arkham’s citizens low. The shape of what’s happened is pretty obvious from early on, at least if you’ve got much familiarity with HPL’s oeuvre, but going through the steps of the investigation is a pleasure, with clues that logically connect one to another and a detailed but not overly-large game world. The readme implies this is an adaptation of a pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu scenario, and if that’s right it does a good job of translating an RPG story into IF form.

There are only a few puzzles, most of which are pretty well prompted and pleasing to work through – light sources to use to illuminate darkened areas, makeshift ropes to discover, mazes to explore, and so on – and appropriately enough for a CoC scenario, it all ends in fire and explosions. The last major puzzle of the game was occasionally frustrating, though – it requires stealing some items from a half-crazed, randomly-wandering farmer, and avoiding the death-by-shotgun he visits upon you if he notices your thefts requires a lot of reloading, as UNDO won’t take you past the barrier of death. The puzzle is also a little fiddlier than it should be, due to some commands that work in earlier scenes not behaving quite the way you’d expect them to in this sequence – it’s not awful by any means, but in a game without hints or a walkthrough, it’d be unfortunate if these niggles put players off from finishing (if you are feeling stuck, this thread might get you going again).

To close with a word about implementation, Arkham Abomination is yet another example of a well-made custom parser that’s made me reconsider my previous negative feelings about such things. Modulo that UNDO inconvenience mentioned above, it has all the features a modern player would expect, and it understands basic actions in a completely transparent way. Besides a few small bugs (sometimes X FOO would result in “I X the foo…” before printing the description instead of the usual “I examine the foo…”), the only real complaint I had is that much like in Somewhere, Somewhen, it’s hard to look at or interact with objects in containers, even open ones, without first retrieving them (is there something in the water making custom-parser authors think players want to fiddle about with containers in this anal-retentive way?)

Does the world need another Cthulhu scenario, or another custom text-adventure engine? Probably not, but Arkham Abomination demonstrates that you can have a lot of fun with such things nevertheless, so long as the craft is there.

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