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First Things First, by J. Robinson Wheeler

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Just the puzzle game I needed, June 4, 2022
by Wynter (London, UK)
Related reviews: Parser puzzles

NOTE: as explained below, I think there are a couple of bugs in the "play online" versions: read on if you are stuck.

I'd been looking for a new, medium/large puzzle game to play, but I often find parsers difficult and slow to get off the ground, and tend to give up on them very quickly. First Things First finally broke this streak.

You are off to return your time travel books to the library when you discover that you've locked yourself out of the house. Quite coincidentally, an actual time machine materialises in your neighbourhood (you accept this in a somewhat matter-of-fact way), allowing you to visit a further four time periods, starting from before the house was built, and ending in an apparently dystopian future.

The puzzles are pitched at just the right level: difficult enough to get me thinking, but not so hard that I gave up. Notably, they are often of the kind where, just when you think you have solved the problem, another barrier turns out to be in the way, and what was apparently a simple goal gets further and further away: truly infuriating and deeply satisfying. (Spoiler - click to show)For example, you try to plant a tree. One bottle of Miracle-Grow is not enough to get it to grow large enough, so you need to figure out a way of taking all the bottles. When that's done, it turns out still not to be enough, so another bottle has to be acquired. The tree allows you to get into an otherwise unreachable part of the map to pick up an object which you had been looking for, but the next problem is getting out, and so on. Some puzzles have more than one solution.

The game was written with real attention to detail: it's a joy to see how the descriptions of different parts of the map change as you alter the past and the future. The tone shifts a great deal, encompassing tranquillity (the woodlands that were there before the house was built), urgency (long passages of dialogue with a major character at a crucial part in the game) and occasionally terror(Spoiler - click to show): there is one surprisingly unnerving sequence, which some players might miss, where you grow the tree to its full extent and fix the roof but do not install a lightning conductor, and then go into the +10-year future and attempt to climb the tree. The game goes to considerable lengths to instil a sense of growing panic as you lose your grip, and fall to the ground, leaving you alive but unable to move. Playing with the bank while having time travel abilities is also great fun.

However, I ran into a wall at an important point in the story: in the section called "Outside the Executive VP's Office", the game froze: in the middle of a block of text, there should have been a "press any key" option and there wasn't! I was using the Parchment interpreter on iplayif.com (the "Play Online" option above) - there seems to be something wrong with it. So I restarted using the elseif player ("Play Online in Browser"), which has a separate window for typing in commands, and that did the trick.

Unusually for me, I didn't need to resort to a walkthrough: the in-game hints were enough. However, I ended up consulting it because, close to the end, I got stuck in a loop which may be a bug because it doesn't make sense as a deliberate way to get the player stuck. (Spoiler - click to show)If you just walk into the museum, the young man will offer you a tour, but there is no way of accepting it: typing "yes" or "follow young man" just lead him to repeat his offer; you can't even move beyond this point. I checked the walkthrough and discovered that there is a note underneath the doormat, instructing you to knock on the door. If you do so, you can type "yes" in response to the man's questions, and "follow young man" should work also.

It looks as if First Things First has been relatively underappreciated in the twenty years since it came out, and undeservedly so. If you're looking for a well-thought-out puzzle game that will neither be a pushover nor impossibly taxing, this could be the one.



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