I initially hesitated to get into this piece because it was labelled as "religion", which I thought could be rather controversial or preachy. To those who could find themselves in the same situation: fear not, "Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win" is part short puzzle, part satire and part corporate lingo. As a result, players are very unlikely to be offended by the topic from either side.
The player character plays "A" - the elderly but sharp top figure in the game's religion - as he attempts to thwart an attempt against his own life. I found the writing to be to my tastes and very representative of A's personality: witty, playful and accurate. The text quality was also fairly constant alternating between short descriptions, void-filling memories and satirical quips. Some rooms appear quite devoid of content (with A willfully remarking it) but there is enough to read as to gather some backstory on A and the religion he now commands.
On the other hand, there is little to do. A's quest translates to a short and linear game with around six locations and very precise actions and requirements to advance between them. Observation and examination (and searching!) of things mentioned, then putting some pieces together is all that is needed to progress in the game. Puzzles make sense to those paying attention and there is seldom need for a hint (Spoiler - click to show)(well, maybe "show knife" I got by pure chance.
I feel that the game works better as an appetizer than a full meal. Yes, there are interesting implications in the text, witty backstory components (I loved how places were also named after letters and how murder, conspiracy and power go hand in hand), lots of atmosphere and honest fun to be had, but the interaction with the world is quite restricted and some places I mostly rushed through. I can, however, recommend it as a game that might surprise players with its world and entertain them as long as they can follow along.
I got drawn into this piece because of its setting: it is not everyday that I get to play a serviceman to a Victorian household!. During the few first few turns I am introduced to my character (Bert Smith), the place (the master's study) and my motivations (furtively searching for answers about the death of Elsie, Bert's girlfriend) but I am also let free to wander the location as I take in some more pieces of the story.
Most of the game is played in a single room with a few points of interest in which we gather clues to solve the greater riddle. Movement between items and places is seamless and in that sense (and many others, such as in the general framework and inventory management) I was reminded of Final Selection - also by Sam Gordon - but where that game is heavy on the puzzles and red herrings, Lord Bellwater's Secret is generous with its storytelling and places the puzzles as little plot devices.
Each puzzle and clue found is cohesive with the rest and moves the player closer to the heart of the mistery. There is plenty of classic adventure trickery here (Spoiler - click to show)(the secret book, the crest that opens a hidden crevice) but there are also affordable leaps of logic (Spoiler - click to show)(the hidden safe box and its combination) and a heart-racing finale. I found the sense of rhythm to be good, certainly helped by its relative shortness and self-contained nature. The piece is also very fair to the player: I remained convinced that there was nothing being obscured behind specific verbs, never got really stuck and never felt unwelcome. This is a game that wants to be played.
The writing also gets a good mileage out of the locale. Without being overly verbose there is enough text to picture (and beautifully color) the surroundings and characters. It helps that of information is conveyed not only from Bert's point of view but also from (Spoiler - click to show)Bert's thoughts and the handwriting of other characters, which report a lot about their human qualities. Should I have to offer a highlight of the writing I would examine Cadogan Square again; it is just scenery but there is something about the silhouette of London in the moonlight.
As for extras, the game shows care and respect: there are sections regarding historical accuracy, a choice of date format, a reminder of the plot... And there is of course a hint system which could spoil the fun, so I only recommend a trip there once the game is finished, to search for missed clues (I got two endings, I think there are more).
In a nutshell, I consider Lord Bellwater's Secret to be a very good game and I can fully recommend it to anyone. Those looking for a lengthy game, complex character development, obtuse plots twists or overwhelmingly large worlds might not find their tastes here, but anyone up for a fun mistery romp will come out satisfied.
I have struggled to give a score to this piece. On one hand I wanted to like it, I wanted it to let me into its secrets and give me something to latch on at the end. On the other hand I often felt it failed me as a game and left me with the sensation that the plot did not live up to what it built.
But first things first, this is a puzzle game, a "escape" game where your purpose is to manipulate the environment until you can get out of it. It has a good premise, if maybe not the most original of all: the room is absolutely featureless and it's through examining it that different devices may be linearly unveiled, then manipulated until the exit can be found and reached. This can be done quickly once the workings of the devices are understood, but it also can be frustrating if the player loses the thread along the way.
The writing is clear enough to convey the gameplay and to engage the player at the beginning. There are great details and touches there (like your own clothes (Spoiler - click to show)and how they may change colors to match the room, some details on a late game item ((Spoiler - click to show)the towel, what it hints to) or whatever is displayed (Spoiler - click to show)on the screens but at the end of the game everything is left dangling and unsolved, with nary a lead for the player to guess the meaning of it all.
That may be a respectable author choice a but its the implementation that fails the most: key elements fail to be mentioned in the room description once uncovered, changes in the devices may go unnoticed by the player and the gameplay risks degenerating into a "examine everything and touch everything" fest once the player becomes lost. What I disliked the most, however, was a "guess the verb" fight I had right on the last movement of the game. The hint system confirmed that I knew exactly what the character was supposed to do, but not what I, the player, must type. A walkthrough would have gone a long way here.
I can recommend this game to anyone that is patient, has a couple of hours to spare, is looking for a straightforward puzzle with some guessing involved and - more importantly - can lower the expectations the beginning of the game may create. Two stars: would be three had not I become frustrated.
My first impression of this piece matches the one I have at the end: solid, intriguing and with a very good rhythm troughout. It can be framed within the "escape" genre (the player is a member of the crew of a damaged space station from which it must escape) but that is also underselling it by a bit.
If there is one thing that has stayed with me after playing is the sense of rhythm the game achieves. It certainly helps that it is a mostly linear affair in a self-contained world of six locations or so, but navigation is easy and painless (once you get used to sea directions, even if cardinal directions work too) and most things you need are not hidden behind obtuse reasoning. In fact, I would say that the only thing players need to succeed in this game is to keep their eyes in the text and to consider every bit of information they are told. There is the one red herring, the multiple-use item and the a-ha moment and it's all there, in the text, just one examine command away.
World-building wise the game exceeds expectations with a fragmented backstory, names and a strong sense of place. By the end, a complete picture is drawn in a short span of time and there is still some wiggle room for your own takes on what happened. The writing is a move in the same direction: detailed, with emphasis on the moment but also empowering the player and translating the way the main character understands the events unfolding.
As for implementation and puzzling (because this is a puzzle game after all) I am very sure everything is ok here. Most commands elicited good responses, all objects served a purpose and most of the scenery is either part of the narrative or part of a puzzle. There is a hint system in place but in the three or four short sessions I spent with the game I felt no need to check it since it was very clear that all I had to do is pay attention and consider my options.
To sum up, a very solid game. I would recommend it to every player looking for a piece of solid work in which to inmerse for a short time (or, as in my case, for several short breaks).
The game starts with an interesting premise and location, opening up new locations and possibilities after the first puzzles in a way that is never overwhelming.
The premise, unfortunately, loses steam as the game goes on: some threads become forgotten, the descriptions of the locales become shorter and a sense of missed opportunity begins to hover over the player.
In any case I found the game to be worthy of my time: the map is easily navigated and well organized, the hint system helped with most blocks (except with the part of(Spoiler - click to show)unfastening a seatbelt which stumped me for a little) and the puzzles are logical and a good time. This game will surely not change your life, but it will entertain you.
I gave this game a try and - like lots of other players I guess - got stuck on the first two locations. After some help from the comments on this site I broke through and managed to visit and investigate more places until the end.
Every location was evocative, interesting and with lovely prose. The text tells only enough details for one to make a mental picture and fill in the details with imagination. The references to hinduism (as far as I can tell) add a layer of density and incentivize the player to look further and further. My experience with the locations, however, was not very interactive: I smelled, listened, touched... But could not affect the world in any way, making it feel like a walk through an intriguing landscape.
On the minus side, I dearly missed an "about" command that would point me in the right direction on the first steps (there's a response to "help", very much in character) and more details on possible alternate endings. Because of not really knowing what and if there is something beyond my experience, I refrain from giving a score.