Reviews by MathBrush

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Return of the Sword, by Older Timer (Jim Macbrayne)
A windows executable BASIC game with fantasy, spells, and devices, July 1, 2024
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

I usually write reviews for both the author and the players, but I donít think Jim reads the reviews, so Iíll write for the players.

Jim Macbrayne is an author with a polished self-made writing system that he has used to make several parser games, usually 1-2 a year for the last several years (as well as some TADS games in the past). These games are windows executables and feature a command-line style interface with some color use. The Function keys are used as shortcuts in-game. An unusual feature of his games is that objects in containers cannot be referenced, so if there is a fish in a bucket, you canít type GET FISH or X FISH. Instead you have to type GET FISH FROM BUCKET or GET ALL FROM BUCKET. He has reserved the F1 key to always print out GET ALL FROM IT as this occurs very frequently in the games.

The games have a standard format and this is no exception. You generally are in a world that is fantasy with some mundane/modern objects (for instance, this game has a Gymnasium with a climbing rope in it) and different devices. There are usually potions of some kind and often a teleporter device that can be calibrated to different settings (in this game, a coin-operated dial). Puzzles often revolve around entering combinations using colors, numbers, keypads, etc. with the solution to one combination found on a card or piece of paper in another area. There is usually a book of spells that you can memorize a certain number of times, each time you casting them having one copy of the spell disappear from memory.

This game has all those things. The framing device is that you have been asked to find Excalibur, King Arthurís sword. In the meantime, youíll pass through caves, castles, and more.

I generally find these games pretty chill and soothing. I like to play for a bit till I get stuck, get some hints, play more, and then when Iím really not sure to use the walkthrough. I got around 60 points out of 230 before using the walkthrough. I feel like playing without help would take a week or two, with a lot of time waiting for Ďahaí moments.

I did miss some of the more exciting parts of earlier games; for instance, this game didnít have much NPC interaction.

I expect to see more similar games in the future, and theyíre nice to look forward to, and I like to play them early on in the competitions, as they donít get many reviews (mostly due to being a Windows executable). The nice thing is if you play one and like it, there are many more to enjoy.

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Zomburbia, by Charles Moore, Jr.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A pleasantly goofy zombie game with inventory limit, June 29, 2024
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

I knew before I played this game that it was fairly old-school, with the possibility of getting in non-winnable positions and a strict inventory limit.

I assumed that meant it would also be buggy or sparse. But I was pleasantly surprised to see I was wrong on both counts!

This is an amusing and puzzle-dense and polished game about zombies and other undead. You meet quite a few supernatural beings, many of which are pretty goofy and others which are frightening.

This is a hard game, and I used a walkthrough for the majority. I was able to get about 60 points on my own out of 300. I was glad to see that there was a 'winnable' setting you could activate to know if you had done something dumb or not.

The inventory was a major sticking point, though, and I'd probably raise the score by a point if it were removed. It is very tight, and I locked myself out of victory by bringing a shovel into the mansion, since I couldn't carry everything I needed out of it. And it doesn't contribute anything to the game; no puzzles are improved by the inventory limit. And you can take things out of the backpack but not put things in when it is being worn, which exacerbates things.

Overall this author shows great talent, and I would be happy to play more games from him (without inventory limits if possible!)

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The Trials of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A complex Twine puzzle game with many characters, June 27, 2024
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is a great Twine puzzle game that manages to have immense complexity.

You play as Rosalinda, an animated skeleton who can detach her body parts, and Piecrust, a powerful mage turned tiny mouse.

Rosalinda can detach her body parts, allowing you to control up to 5 independent characters/things, including the mouse.

Piecrust can cast numerous spells, gaining more as the game progresses, with some serving as a Chekhov's gun.

Both have their own inventory of items. Items can be dropped, picked up, and, adding to complexity, used on things in the room or combined with each other or, reaching tertiary complexity, combined with each other and then used on items.

There is a big cast of characters. Overall, I'd say this game is more story-driven than the first one, which felt more like a puzzle box exploring using Rosalinda's bones in creative ways. This game has a lot more variety, and has extensive character development. Honestly, I loved it.

It's a long game, taking me several hours. The plot is hard to summarize, but basically Rosalinda is exploring her (un)life and where she came from, but her and her friends get captured and put on trial. Later, everyone is separated, and must find each other again.

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The Witch, by Charles Moore

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A long fantasy parser game about elves and a witch with some bugs, November 23, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

I played this game because it was a Ďlonger than two hoursí parser adventure, so one that I would consider might be difficult to complete.

You play as an elf in a village that has suddenly been kidnapped en masse by a witch. You have to look through all the elvesí abandoned houses and workplaces and get the tools and items you need!

This game can be pretty tricky. I made two attempts in playing. In the first, I carefully explored, and discovered some locations where timing was essential. For instance, there is a mine with a lamp, and the lamp has a limited battery. I had to save and undo several times to get that right. Then there were a few other ways for objects to get lost forever.

Increasing the difficulty was a carrying limit, so I had to drop things at different times. There were a lot of containers I could throw things in, but those too had a carrying capacity. Sometimes containers got weird (I had a jug of mead and at one point I was carrying the mead outside of the jug). Iíve had my own issues implementing liquids in containers though so I know how it is!

Unfortunately, after I had escaped and got a bit stuck and turned to the walkthrough, I couldnít find something mentioned in it while I was wandering up and down the river and, to my sadness, I hit the turn limit and died at about 50 points.

The turn limit seems like a fixed limit, around 600 moves, and so there was no way to undo far enough to keep going. I had to start over, and, fearing similar problems, followed the walkthrough precisely this time.

Before using the walkthrough, I encountered a maze that was actually pretty neat. Itís a Ďtwisty little passagesí maze (i.e. a maze where all rooms are identical, or almost so, and going back the way you came doesnít always take you forward), but the only directions are UP and DOWN, so you have to navigate your way through. I reminded me of the cramped/claustrophobic area in Andrew Plotkinís So Far a bit.

Some of the puzzles after turning to the walkthrough seemed really hard to solve, especially the finale; I wonder if there are hints you can find elsewhere that can help you with them.

Iíve attached a transcript. It has some bugs in it Iíve marked here and there. Overall, I was glad to beat the witch!

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One Knight Stand, by A. Hazard

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Lengthy and wordy Choicescript game about modern take on King Arthur, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is the first chapter of a large Choicescript game. I played past two hours on my phone, saving occasionally, but I lost about 30 minutes of progress near the end by forgetting to save (I got to the point where you can pack your suitcase). I think I got pretty close to the end, from what other reviews have said.

The scope of this game is large. The current largest Choice of Games title is 1.2 million words (while some Hosted games are larger), so one chapter of 400K is quite big. Production seems to have taken a long time, as there is a lot of reference to face masks and social distancing.

The overall concept of this game is that King Arthur and his court were real and still exist in a certain way (revealed later on) in the modern world. Simultaneously, demonic forces are trying to start the apocalypse, and you can help stop it.

There were two main romantic options I saw, a man and a woman. There are tons of different chance to declare your affection, so many so that I felt I had to constantly be turning down the people I wasnít interested in.

The game has lots of action scenes which I thought were full of descriptive language and feeling like stakes were real. I died in one! (to see what would happen). A lot of times it was over the top (lots of Zalgo text for horror and tons of quip/pun options for humor).

The game is so large, I feel, because all the normal Choicescript stuff is amplified. Usually you can pick a few features of your appearance; here you can pick if you have hair, what length is your hair, what color is your hair, what shade is your hair. Instead of five to ten options, there are 15 to 20. Instead of choosing conversation topics from a repeating list that gets narrowed down, you pick from a list of conversation topics that each open up to their own list of conversation topics and so on.

This provides for a lot of customization but it can kind of interrupt game flow sometimes. I felt a bit of decision paralysis from time to time. Itís kind of the opposite of the problem a lot of games have, where all of the cool branching and decision making is hidden and players think the game is small/short because they donít realize the choices they could have made.

In contrast, here everything is put on display constantly, revealing the massive amount of possible choices. And some donít even seem implemented yet, like the fencing club (unless there is a way to get into there!).

I liked the Merlin character, and saw them as a fun RO/mysterious person. The overall magic system seems thought out and coherent, and the worldbuilding feels like itís on an epic and grand scale. While I did find the large amount of choices overwhelming at time, it seems reasonable given the overall scope. I could definitely see it being popular when it comes out.

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Have Orb, Will Travel, by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Long old-school game with hard maze and complex puzzles, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is I think the 5th Jim MacBrayne game Iíve played, and I think itís definitely the most fair and well scoped of them that Iíve played; either that or Iím simply getting used to their internal logic.

These games are all written in a custom engine that is remarkably smooth, as least here. For those new to Jim MacBrayne games, the most unusual feature is that if an object is in a container or on a supporter, you canít take it; trying to will say ĎYou donít see anyÖí. I believe this is due to the fact that tracing through the contents of all the supporters and containers is too hard for the engine to handle. Instead, you have to say TAKE ALL FROM ____. There is a shortcut specifically for that (F1).

Anyway, the main idea of the game is that you are hunting through a cottage and adjoining area for a mysterious orb, with clues left behind by a circle of elders.

Most of the puzzles revolve around enigmatic devices that you have to figure out, interspersed with riddles and codes that explain how to use them.

I was able to get pretty far on my own; although I only got 70 points by the two hour mark, when I checked the walkthrough I was about 40% through the game. The puzzles are tough but fair; the place where I got stuck was due to not remember a clue from earlier.

The setting is very abstract, and much like Zork in its mix of fantasy and modern aesthetics.

I was glad to play this game, and hope Jim MacBrayne is able to enjoy coding up games for a while to come.

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Bright Brave Knight Knave, by Andrew Schultz

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Long wordplay rhyming game with helpful NPCs, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is definitely one of the heftier IFComp games; I took a whole evening to look at it, spending two hours playing it and then speeding through with the walkthrough and thinking about it for a while after.

This is the 6th in a series of games that are all based on the same concept: rhyming pairs of words. Progress in the game consists of walking around/exploring and taking the names of rooms or objects and finding another pair of words that rhymes with them (like the name of the game itself).

Andrew Schultz has written many wordplay games over time (more than 40!) but I think this concept has proven the most productive, given the number of games that have been produced with the rhyming pairs.

Iíd like to describe what this game has in common with the earlier games and whatís unique to it.

First, in common: This game is set in a kind of abstract land, reminding me a lot of The Phantom Tollbooth, where abstract concepts are taken literally. By removing the need for all items to be concrete or to fit into a unified setting (like a fantasy world or spaceship), it opens up the opportunity to include a ton more of the rhyming pairs.

Another thing in common is that the game is centered on an emotional journey of sorts. with a lot of focus on emotions and experiences. I said earlier that the game doesnít have a unified setting, and while thatís true physically, each game has a unique emotional setting, a journey of self actualization that changes from game to game. Most games have an enemy that represent negative social traits such as bullying, peer pressure, cruelty, lying, pandering, or other bad traits, which the protagonist can only defeat after a great deal of personal growth. Not every game has these exact ingredients, because there is a lot of variety.

So that brings us to the unique parts of this game. First, its personal journey is quite a bit different from the others; rather than the hero alone reading books or psyching themself up, they help others. You can grab a whole lot of friends to walk around with you, each of which can help you in different ways. You can also find some people who have been wronged that you can bolster and lift up. Your friendsí journey becomes your journey, in a way. Overall, I liked the positive atmosphere.

Youíre also provided with a list of items to get, which I found helpful as a way to track my progress in game.

Itís also pretty hard; while you can just go through the alphabet plus some letter combinations, it can be tricky to come up with solutions. Iíd recommend one of two different play styles:
1-Taking a long time on the game, with breaks between sessions, to let yourself find everything.
2-Explore for a while to get as many answers as you can before getting stumped, then using the walkthrough to get to a new area and repeating.

This is definitely one of those games that you can figure out early on if you like it or not. The puzzle types and themes are very consistent, so you can try out the first few rooms to see if you feel like playing more or not. Iím glad I saw the end, even if I needed some help to get there.

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Hawkstone, by Handsome McStranger

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An old-school RPG with combat and some neat UI, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This one was a bit of a wild ride.

Itís a long game written for windows. At first I wondered if it was another secret BJ Best game (in the past heís entered a retro game under a fake name). After all, it has a cool animated loading screen and a neat pixel art inventory picture.

But the author has introduced himself elsewhere and it seems to be just a neat-looking original game by a new author.

So, this game is a mix of combat RPG and Scott Adams-style gameplay. The Scott Adams style is a fun one, but it had two features that I wasnít used to: the location description is always at the top of the screen (unless you swap to inventory view), and if steps or a door are in the location you type GO STEPS or GO DOOR instead of any specific direction. These tripped me up a bit; especially not needing to LOOK, since LOOK gives a pretty unusual response in this game.

The idea is that a ferry you were on crashed and you need to explore. There is some combat, but most of it is with small and/or goofy things. Beyond that, you have to find a way to enter the city of Hawkstone and discover the secrets beneath it.

I played around without the walkthrough for a while, but had to peek at it to find the right command for dealing with the gate early on. After that, I found a lot more interesting things, and found a way to die.

After a while, I started getting pretty confused. Sometimes itís hard to tell whatís going on, due to procedurally generated text. For instance, one action resulted in this (blocking out some names for spoilers, [REDACTED] is by me):

You attempt to unlock the [REDACTED] with the [REDACTED].
object is unlockable. You have a key.
You unlock the [REDACTED] with the [REDACTED]
You roll the dice on your stats and get.. +1 stamina.
Your Stats have increased!
You did a thing!
Something happened somewhere.
Argh!
A kerfuffle!
You are knocked over as a monkee jumps at you.
The monkee screeches as he runs away through the crevice..
You did a thing!
You did something!
Something happened somewhere.


After events like this, objects will be added to your inventory or appear in the room description.

The puzzles were fairly difficult, so I ended up using the walkthrough for a while. Even with the walkthrough, I took about two hours.

There are lots of compelling and interesting elements in the game, like a world you can substantially affect in various ways. There are a lot of silly and goofy things in the game, like buying things on the Ďnetí. Iím not sure thereís a major resolution to the game; I followed the walkthrough and it seems to just peter out near the end, with there being some nice resolution to some plot points, but I think the game is intended to either have an open, exploration ending (or thereís more that isnít in the walkthrough).

A lot of items have a generic description; looking at a woman hanging upside down by a rope says ĎThat looks like a normal woman hanging upside down by a ropeí. A lot of puzzles get repeated over and over (Iím looking at the bananas here). And, finally, there are several commands in the walkthrough that arenít really described elsewhere in the game (like Q for Quests).

The overall user interface is great. The animations at the beginning are really neat, and the layout looks nice overall. I also liked the saga of the monkee character the most.

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A Dark Room, by Michael Townsend

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A long crafting and exploration-based idle game/roguelike, September 17, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

I played this game because it was one of 2 on the Interactive Fiction Top 50 poll of 2023 and I had never played it before.

There are a lot of things that can be spoiled in the game, so I'm going to just describe the beginning here and some accessibility stuff, then put some mid-game stuff in spoilers, and leave out the endgame stuff.

The game starts like an idle game like Universal paperclips. You have a 'stoke the fire' button and, on another tab, a 'gather wood' button. A stranger wanders in, freezing in the cold.

Gameplay expands significantly as you go on, adding crafting mechanics and mild city-building. Eventually you do need movement keys and there are some parts I don't think would be accessible to screen readers.

For mid-game spoilers:

(Spoiler - click to show)Once you are able to craft a compass, you are able to explore a world map. This map contains a variety of outposts, and includes real-time combat that involves clicking, with some battles requiring intense clicking.

As you explore the map, you can make the world a safer place, eliminating threats as you go and establishing outposts. As you do so, you learn about the lore of the world.


Overall, the game is very polished, and while minimalistic it is descriptive. The interactivity worked well for me, although I found some endgame timed events very difficult. I found the game emotionally satisfying and could see myself revisiting it.

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Elite Status: Platinum Concierge, by Emily Short and Harris Powell-Smith

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A character-driven story about a high-stakes job, July 28, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

Some background: I wrote a game for Choice of Games a few years ago, but it did really poorly. I ended up playing and reviewing all the 100+ available COG titles at the time to figure out where I went wrong and ended up seeing a lot of different patterns in their titles and in what sells well.

At the same time, I kept seeing hints of a game by Emily Short coming out, who is one of the most respected IF authors with some of the most well-known games in her repertoire (Counterfeit Monkey, Galatea, etc.) But it was always delayed, and disappeared for years.

So I was excited to hear that it had been finished (with a little boost from Hannah Powell-Smith, another very popular author), I was excited to hear about it.

So for the game itself. My first go-to with a choicescript game is to look at its stats page. The best-selling games tend to have clearly defined and cleary differentiated stats, while the less popular ones often have confusing or overlapping stats. Here the stats are a bit overlapping: discretion vs self promotion, practicality vs daring, loyalty vs idealism, populism vs elitism. If you speak out to a billionaire and say you hate the wealthy (not an actual in game example), is that populism, idealism, or daring?

So in games where the stats are confusing, it can be hard to min/max, so I tend to just imagine a very specific persona and pick only what I think that person would do. This game responded to that very well, and I got a good story out of it, which is a good sign.

You play as a concierge to the rich. Billionaires ask the company you work for to arrange parties, trips, housekeeping, etc. Kind of like a fancy butler. I felt some connection with this theme as I work at a private school, and helped supervise a trip to Spain this summer, something I could not have afforded on my own. I don't work with billionaires, but sometimes with millionaires.

In the game, you encounter a series of challenging or intriguing clients. That's another aspect of this game compared to other CoG games: this is much more character focused than plot focused. I've heard some say it ends early; with a 500K wordcount, that's not really true. I did finish it in 3 hours or so, while I've had some CoG games take 10, but there are ones like Choice of Dragon that are finished in 30 minutes but don't feel like they end early. I think it's because the plot arc is fairly flat; there's not really a sense of continually rising drama with a dramatic climax; instead, there's a rolling succession of parallel character-focused subplots that each have their own rise and fall.

Going into more detail, rather than having dramatic overall events, we have things like examining in great detail the life of a trans billionaire who is uncomfortable with wealth; the life of a rich woman with a troublesome child; the life of fellow coworkers, bosses, etc. Much of the game is about reflecting on your views on them and life in general and on yourself and your feelings for them.

And reflecting is a key concept here in terms of other CoG games. The real big bestsellers tend to have actions have direct and dramatic consequences. Do you spare the life of the prisoner, or execute them? Do you take the evil crystal or smash it? On the other hand, a lot of the lower-selling games are reflective. Here's what you do: why do you do it? It's much more passive. This game is in between. You do get some pretty big choices, but a lot of things just happen to you and you reflect on how you feel about it.

This makes this game not really fit with the power fantasy that most Choice of Games fans look for. You're not stomping around destroying things. You're not constantly winning despite the odds. There are failures and takebacks (like a long sequence about a helicopter near the beginning) where you lose ground, something a lot of fans distinctly dislike.

But the games that do these things often win awards for writing, like Rent-a-Vice. Having the reflection, the failures, the character drama all are associated with games that have won awards. So if I had to predict anything about this game in the long run I'd wager that it will likely have middle-of-the-pack sales (definitely better than mine!) but be nominated for at least one writing award.

My particular narrative arc worked out well. I played a people pleaser who is mildly uncomfortable with the status quo but not enough to do anything about it. I ended up (Spoiler - click to show)becoming the CEO and marrying my coworker. I was interested enough to try another playthrough. I clicked through the first four chapters quickly trying to do bad. A lot of the early storyline was similar in the major plot points, although wildly different in the details (I somehow picked up an aunt I didn't have the first time). Later chapters were completely new material; in my first game I had several chapters about blackmail, while in my second I had a kind of international investigation storyline, which was very cool. Overall though I don't think it sells its branching very well; my first playthrough looked like I had hit up most major content, while the second was quite different. Signposting that more content exists is hard (more greyed out choices than we have here, chapter numbers with subletters, etc.).

I liked customization; I was able to refuse a drink and say it was because I was a latter-day saint, which I've never been able to do before.

Overall, this feels like a story about real people in real life situations. It feels like a biography more than a fantasy novel. I like to think of IF writers as opera composers and I've often thought of Emily Short as like Verdi, finding some similarities in their tones and settings. This is more like Beethoven though, with a clear aesthetic free of unnecessary clutter.

I don't think this will be a bestseller. But after having played more than 100 of these games, I think it's unique and high quality, and worth playing. I got really burnt out after playing them all and have started a few I never finished, but I played this all the way through in one setting, taking it to the library and reading it on my phone there, and even replayed it. I'm glad it was published; it would have been a terrible shame to leave this work incomplete and in storage.

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