Reviews by MathBrush

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Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A grab bag of innovative parser/choice hybrid games, November 7, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

It's become increasingly hard to review Ryan Veeder's games because they're generally all the same: 'This game does something very creative that I hadn't really seen before and is polished and funny. One of the best games I've seen in a while yada yada yada. If this game was by a new author, I'd think they're one of the best new authors out there.'

And that's all true here, too. This game does something I had once considered the 'holy grail' of modern IF, which is to combine parser choice in a logical way. In this game you use Twine in an overworld with a map, which leads to Inform 7/Vorple mini-games that seamlessly transition back into Twine. Its all hosted on the authors website using the autosave feature first used in his Fly Fishing game. My only concern is for preservation; is there a way to ensure the game could be saved for posterity?

Storywise, the framing story is the same as last year, a funny take on literary culture and the way we handle celebrity writers. It contains 5 (or so) mini stories:

Letavermilia: This is a linear (story-wise), puzzle-based space game. You play as a bounty hunter chasing after a criminal who is also named after a horrible plague. You chase them from world to world, with each world having a puzzle you must solve to find the 5-digit autopilot code needed to move on. Solutions range from exploration and mapping to a straight-up cryptogram (the latter being my least favorite activity of the whole game, but easily solved online and solvable by copious in-game hints). This game features some genuinely chilling moments and some funny ones as well, and demonstrates Veeder's predilection for deeply implementing unnecessary side systems. This one takes an hour or so to play.

Nyvo the Dolphin: This is a Metroidvania-style game where you as a dolphin explore a wreck filled with scientific equipment, which grants you increasing capabilities. This was horror in the sense of Beetlejuice or Addam's family, where our cheerful protagonist blithely navigates the remains of past human devastation and death. This one took about 30-45 minutes. I had a little trouble navigating, so mapping might have been good, but I enjoyed the power curve and the finale.

Singing for Me: this is a Lovecraftian (or maybe, more Blackwoodian or fae) small town living simulator, in many ways reminiscent of AKheon's recent Ascension of Limbs or titles like Stardew Valley. You play as a recent move-in in a cabin, and typing LOOK gives a list of places or people you can visit. Each visit takes the entire day. You can also buy stuff, where buying one thing takes the whole day, or sell many things at once. As you explore, you discover more locations and people. Like Stardew Valley, there are significant holidays that you can experience on a set schedule. Through these, the main story is developed in a classic 'creepy small town' style like Midsommar or The Village. I enjoyed this one; I was worried I wouldn't be able to see everything, but the game gives you plenty of time to focus on one or two goals that matter to you. I spent a couple of hours on this.

Visit Skuga Lake: This game had the most traditional gameplay but used a mechanic with quadratic complexity. Basically, you start locked in a closet, but soon break out with the help of (Spoiler - click to show)an amulet with an empowering eyestone. You then wander a large map, gaining two new classes of powerful items that interact with each other in an enormous amount of ways. I'll admit that I ended up 'lanwmowering' many options to find what worked, but it was also fun to experiment so it didn't really feel tedious. I played this for about an hour and a half.

Finale (called (Spoiler - click to show)Hunted): (Spoiler - click to show)This story was a bit confusing, but felt fast-paced and appropriate as an ending. It was Christmas-themed and felt like an action movie. Scenes focused on movement and basic take/use gameplay. It wasn't as compelling mechanically as the earlier pieces but story-wise and emotionally was satisfying. This took less than an hour.

Additional comments: (Spoiler - click to show)There is a secret fifth game. I was able in this one to read many books, see a family tree and look up people in it, make coffee, and find a nook, as well as talk to Allison Chase. I wasn't able to find any use of the nook or book or tree, so either I missed out on the point or this was just a 'chill and vibes' section like the end of Rope of Chalk. If the latter, I think it worked well.(Spoiler - click to show)

Vampire: The Masquerade — Parliament of Knives, by Jeffrey Dean

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Fighting, politics, romance, mystery solving as a vampire, November 7, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

I've enjoyed all of the Vampire the Masquerade titles from Choice of Games.

The first game in the (loosely-connected) series, Night Road, won an XYZZY Best Game award and a had a very out-of-this-world style with cray labs, magicians, ancient vampires, and a CRPG-style quest structure you could pursue in multiple orders.

The next game, Out for Blood, featured a human protagonist in a small town and focused on running a shop, developing abilities like intuition or gaining weapons, and handling a small-town vampire clash. It was lower-powered and a smaller focus.

This game sits nicely between the two. You play as a powerful but out-of-shape vampire in Ottawa whose Prince has gone missing at the same time that Anarchs are raiding the city. You have to rediscover your old strength while solving multiple mysteries.

The number of stats is heavily decreased in this game compared to the other VtM games (and Choice of the Vampire). Now there are only 9 or so main stats. Disciplines can be used, which is my favorite part of VtM games, but you either have access to a discipline or not, no growing it. The disciplines basically operate like a 'be awesome' button that is later penalized by high hunger, which can take away your freedom to choose as your are forced to feed. I played as Toreador, and enjoyed using Auspex and Celerity the most.

Focusing on a big mystery is a bit of a gamble in a big Choicescript game, since the player always knows the truth after one playthrough. This game deals with the issue by having many endings depending on what you do with that information and how you resolve the issue. In the end, there are several factions you can unite with. Also, there are many sub-mysteries to solve.

There are two romances for now, but each is fairly well-developed. The one I went with seemed much better integrated into the game than most romances, probably because the author was able to focus more deeply on each romance rather than fitting in a ton of different ones.

On an individual line-by-line basis, the writing is entertaining and flows well, and the pacing in scenes is well-done, with few slow spots, making this a page-turner.

I've written for CoG before and previously received a lot of review copies of CoG games for free, but this is one I bought myself for fun.

The Song of the Mockingbird, by Mike Carletta

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A polished Western parser puzzler about surviving a long shootout, October 12, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game is a nice entry in a very under-represented niche of parser games: Westerns. While there have been some entries in this genre before (a Scott Adams Game, the puzzle game Hoosegow, etc.), it hasn't really attracted a lot of attention.

In this game, you play as a sort of singing cowboy, but your gun has been taken. You're on a quest to save a woman named Rosa from a band of bandits. All you have is your wits and your trusty guitar.

Along the way, you'll solve a lot of tricky puzzles. This game had some of the harder puzzles in the comp (from my point of view). There are complex mechanisms whose purpose you have to unravel as well as many physics-based puzzles involving (mild spoilers) (Spoiler - click to show)heat, leverage, etc.

The story was pretty good. Like others have noted, it lacks the sense of urgency a drawn-out gun standoff tends to have in films once you start tooling around for the hundredth time. I'd prefer that over a turn limit, though! Second, there are some reasonable solutions that weren't implemented, particular when facing Whitey (I particularly would have appreciated responses saying I was on the right track for (Spoiler - click to show)putting hay in the barn and setting it on fire.).

The game has a lot of ties to real-life history with detailed notes at the end. The songs in-game include a lot of old classics that remind me of my grandfather who recently passed, and who loved singing cowboy songs. I think the game in general reminded me of him.

While the game did have minor flaws in the puzzles and story, I was overall impressed with it. Definitely would rank it at a higher difficulty rating than most games in the comp. I ended up using hints on only one of the puzzles, but the other two took me several days of on-and-off playing.

Dr Horror's House of Terror, by Ade McT

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A big, polished, funny horror parser game with a lot of complex puzzles, October 11, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This long game is set on a movie set for a company that makes cheap horror films. After a harrowing experience with your boss, you have to explore five different studios to assemble a team to save your life...and the world!

Each studio generally represents one 'big' puzzle, and most have at least one mini-puzzle as well. The big puzzles range from using animals to complex timing puzzles to story-based puzzles and more. The grand finale is a puzzle with many strategies, many solutions and three distinct outcomes leading to three endings.

The writing is humorous. It is pretty gory (lots of blood and body parts) and violent (with the player initiating much of the violence). There was one instance of mild profanity. Conversation uses a simple menu system which seems to be custom (no Inform extensions are listed). There are quite a few characters to talk to, more than ten.

The game contains several linear action sequences that are predetermined, with only one sensible action available at a time (although that might be just an illusion). When I encountered two such sections (one at the beginning, the other at the end), I felt a bit railroaded, but each one opened up into a large puzzle, so it balanced out and felt great.

Some personal thoughts I had in relation to something I recently worked on (not really relevant): (Spoiler - click to show)I was especially interested in this game as I had just released a game with striking similarities, one I had intended to enter into IFComp. The two games are completely unrelated (this game has clearly been in production for a long time), but I too released a horror game where you wander an entertainment facility, solving big set-piece puzzles (including a lot of animals) and befriending the supernatural inhabitants of the park while it slowly transforms, culminating in an epic battle between two factions. I'm glad I didn't release my game in this comp, as Ade's game is better in every way. I love how he slathered plenty of story, conversation and characterization over everything, leaving very little 'filler' text, which is something I struggled with.

I had a great time playing it! I also enjoyed seeing tie-ins to Ade's other games, both mechanically (the puzzle involving (Spoiler - click to show)ghosts reminded me quite a bit of Map) and story-wise (the animals and their behavior is very reminiscent of Hard Puzzle 2, and other references are even stronger).

Edit: I should say that I worked really hard to solve this without hints. I almost never do that, and only tried because the work was engaging. My biggest mistake (that, once I fixed, solved most of my problems in the midgame) was thinking that (Spoiler - click to show)each studio puzzle could be solved by itself, but that's not always true.

4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A long, complete Twine RPG with multiple classes and quests, October 10, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

Last year, the author released a game called 4x4 Galaxy, where you played a star fighter visiting 16 planets (arrranged on a grid), battling, gaining weapons, having different skills and different quests.

I really enjoyed it, but it got a bit tedious near the end of each playthrough.

This game is better than that one, though. This is a fantasy version and has more variety and more descriptive writing. Not only was I not burnt out by tediousness at the end, I was trying to find ways to extend my gameplay.

My character was a swashbuckler, and I focused a lot on combat. You start out with very few hitpoints and a couple of basic attacks, but enough to have some strategy (for instance, using a sword gives you the option to stun, while with a bow you can ignore damage reduction). By the end of the game, I had several legendary weapons, and could switch between sending out a half-dozen arrows from a giant's bow and using a finishing strike with 'the really really big sword'.

There are a ton of sidequests and they have excellent rewards. The main goal changes from game to game; mine was to assemble four pieces of a pirate's treasure map, and that involved things like becoming famous and defeating a pirate's ghost.

I did get really frustrated near the end of my several-hours playthrough when exploring the optional area (Spoiler - click to show)Coral Cove, which is a (Spoiler - click to show)maze with a kraken that attack randomly while walking around. I got very lost, and I gave up on it. In a future playthrough, I'd probably just map it out.

I don't think this game is for everyone; the opening is kind of overwhelming in terms of sheer number of options to try, and there is a lot of grinding, but I always enjoyed grinding fantasy RPGs as a kid.

There were a small number of errors. At one point </span> was used instead of <span>, leaving some raw code; a pirate threatened to conquer the land of [undefined], and a lot of dungeons that had events in their first room ended up overlapping the text compass. But these were minor in comparison to the very large amount of material in the game that worked great.

As a final note, the core gameplay here is similar to Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, so if you like one such game you might like the others.

Ghosts Within, by Kyriakos Athanasopoulos

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A sprawling city and mystery with multiple opening and endings, October 9, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is a TADS game entered into IFComp 2021. It is a very large game, with dozens of locations and requiring many hours to play through.

There are three different opening scenarios, each giving you a slightly different backstory. In all 3, you're an injured and forgetful young man exploring a small town called Foghelm.

There are numerous NPCs to talk to and a big mystery to solve. There are at least 3 endings, some of which are bad endings which you can't undo out of, so make sure to save.

Gameplay requires the use of ASK, TELL, SHOW, and ASK FOR. Searching all around is also helpful, as is keeping a map, even if you usually don't.

I manage to beat the game with 32 points out of 50, meaning there are many optional things I didn't see. I also replayed with a different opening, and some areas were unlocked that I couldn't see the first time and others were blocked off.

Overall, this is a compelling and excellent game.

It's negative features, such as they are, are typos (a frequent typo is having both a period and a comma after speech), topics for conversation appearing before you'd really know about them, and the big world map making it hard to know what to do at times.

Very fun game, one of the most fun I've played in a long time.

I Contain Multitudes, by Wonaglot

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Detective game on a boat with great concepts but some execution issues, October 3, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is Wonaglot's third IFComp game, the other two being the well-received Dungeon Detective games, both placing in the top 15 and both receiving XYZZY award nominations.

Mystery is one of my favorite genres, so I was excited to see a new mystery game by Wonaglot. Surprisingly, this one is a Quest-based mystery. Quest is a parser system that, like similar systems such as ADRIFT, provides a simple and intuitive system for making parser games with less overhead than Inform but a little less robustness.

The storyline is that you are an engineer with a set of special masks, asked to investigate a murder on a large private ship. This is a long game, the longest I've played so far in the comp.

This game has great concepts and could be described as ambitious. It has many NPCs spread out over dozens of rooms. The PCs respond to conversational topics and items shown and can move from room to room. There are multiple mysteries to solve, multiple subquests, and magic involved. There is even some animation involved. Perhaps most ambitious, there are 4 masks you can wear that affect how others see you and treat you, changing conversations.

While I completed the game and found it overall satisfying, the implementation wore thin in several places. The mask system was not intuitive; it was hard to figure out what effect each mask would have, and the first NPC I saw didn't react to it at all. In the end, the masks systems ends up pretty inconsistent; sometimes it changes what actions you can take; sometimes it changes a couple of lines of text in dialogue; sometimes it adds flavor text to room descriptions. It was difficult to make plans and execute them with the masks.

Similarly, the NPCs had so many different ways to interact with them (showing them things, asking about topics, and TALKing to) that most interactions ended up being not coded in at all, leading to a lot of 'I don't know anything about that,' a problem common to many parser mysteries.

And in the endings I got, it lists what happened to everyone, with a few saying 'you should have interacted with so and so more' when I had gotten to what seemed like the end of their quest, while people I didn't interact much with got a bigger ending.

I'm not sure that all of this could be or should be changed, though. In a recent game I wrote, I spent months writing out every possible response for every object, but all feedback I received about that was that the text seemed generic and bland (since writing 100s of lines gets repetitive). So leaving the player to only find the few key lines of text isn't a bad alternative. But in the end, I wished for more smoothness and understandability, especially for the mask system.

+Emotional impact
+I would play again

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood, by Jim Dattilo

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A sprawling town mystery in the Vampire: The Masquerade setting, August 20, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game is the second in Choice of Games's deluxe series of Vampire the Masquerade games. It is long (the 12th longest CoG game), has at least a dozen high-quality character portraits, and uses the White Wolf system of attributes.

Inevitably, this game will draw comparisons with its (unrelated, story-wise) predecessor, Vampire: The Masquerade—Night Road. That game featured you as a solo vampire making their way up the ranks of the city's undead through elaborate and high-powered missions. This game, in contrast, focuses on a human protagonist inheriting an old shop in a small Illinois town that has a dark presence lingering. I can't think of a more apt comparison than Jojo's Bizarre Adventures. Night Road is more like seasons 1-3 of that story, big battles and crazy powers, while Out for Blood is more like season 4, a smaller story where we meet locals with different interests and abilities and the main enemy is a sort of lurking, hidden figure.

Mechanically, there are a lot of statistics to sink points into. This is an RPG, so we get a lot of experience points over 12 chapters. I sank most of my points into Intuition and the Occult. I found this satisfying, as I was able to get flashes of insight at different points (although I'm not sure if this was from my ability or built into the story), and I was able to use magic extensively to curse people, place wards, and to scry. Given the different achievements and options I saw, I'm sure I would have had a very different experience with a different stat build.

Mechanically, the game has a few distinct threads.
-You have ownership of your late grandfather's shop, and you can decide who to hire to work there, what to invest in, how to pay for it all, etc. It starts you off seeming like it will have numerous recurring options, like Metahuman Inc., but it never really circles back to it, so you only get one real shot at setting up the shot and then many sub-choices after to affect minor details.
-There are numerous romantic options, including the sultry vampire villain, a goth/punk human friend, a handsome disabled attorney friend, a friendly vampire hunter, etc. I had numerous romantic encounters with my chosen relationship and it seemed fleshed out better than many CoG games. Occasionally there were scenarios with my love that may have seemed out of place given our current history, but they were few and far between and none spring to mind immediately.
-(Early spoilers)(Spoiler - click to show)A wealthy and powerful vampire seems to have set up in town and is manipulating affairs. This thread forms the main plot.
-(Middle spoiler but not giving a lot away)(Spoiler - click to show)A group of weaker vampires is also in town.They form the second-biggest thread.
-A lot of complicated town history is also floating around.

The game definitely was affected by my choices, and I re-evaluated my viewpoint multiple times as I realized a group I trusted was pretty bad, etc. Near the end, I felt like the whole weight of complex machinery the game is built on began to break down, as I double-crossed a lot of people without too much punishment. But while it pushed up against disbelief, it never really crossed the line. I think a lot of things depend on the relationship statistic alone, and I had had a lot of built-up trust before the betrayals.

Overall, the game is very long, but many people have said it feels short. This is likely because the game has so many options and avenues mid-game that it doesn't really get a sense of building to something. The other VtM game, Night Road, had the regular structure of missions and payments and handled increasing tension well, but here it's hard to feel much progress until near the end. I don't think this game is short or small or linear, but I think it could be paced or structured a bit better to indicate its length. Someone in the CoG forums said it has 12 chapters and 12 endings, and that really helped me set appropriate expectations.

Overall, I would rank this as one of the better Choice of Games titles. I think it is worth its purchase price, and that fans of Vampire the Masquerade or White Wolf in general will be pleased, as well as fans of small-town stories. It's a story that I wish I had written, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I received a review copy of this game.

Somewhere, Somewhen, by Jim MacBrayne

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A lengthy QBASIC traditional adventure with magic and codes, August 1, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game is a large treasure hunt that, like very early parser games, is a mishmash of fantasy and modern concepts put together for a treasure hunt.

There is a central hub with different 'mini-worlds' you can access. They are interconnected, in that the solution for one world is often found in another.

I played straight through with the walkthrough, as:
-the game is in QBasic, and no scrollback seems to be available, making it harder to keep track of things
-the author stated it may take weeks to accomplish
-I wasn't sure if the game was 'cruel' or not in the Zarfian sense (i.e. can you lock yourself out of victory without knowing it?)

After I won, I went back and tried to explore on my own and look for different paths. I found it 'parcelled out' fairly well.

The parser is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the author describes it (in a forum post) as being the product of 40 years of work, and that it is a 'very powerful parser'. It can understand pronouns and complex commands like 'drop everything except blah and blih and..'

However, it has some issues. Sometimes you can refer to a noun by its first name (like EYE for EYE of NEWT) but not its second (like NEWT); sometimes, it's the opposite (so SCRAP doesn't work for SCRAP of PAPER but PAPER does). Perhaps most oddly, it, as many people have pointed out, can't take items out of container without using the phrase TAKE X FROM Y. Given the 40 years of development and the otherwise complexity of the parser, I can only imagine this is a conscious stylistic choice.

The world is sprawling, with many rooms having multiple exits and the ordinal directions like NW, SW etc. being used extensively. Rooms are almost ideally generic, with most rooms being empty and having names like 'MIDDLE OF CORRIDOR', with most descriptions being 'The room is vaguely lit and hard to make out. There are bare walls and floor and ceiling and several exits, including one going down.'

There is at least one NPC, who is fairly responsive. Puzzles include codes, riddles, leaps of intuition, musical puzzles, etc. with many hint sources in-game as well as built-in hints and a walkthrough.

Every game is written for a purpose. Some purposes are to share your feelings with others, to emulate something you find worthy, to try to become famous, to make money, to fufill a request for others, etc.

Due to the author's desire to keep in the oddities of the parser, the general vagueness of the game and its Zork-like setting, the QBAsic64 environment, etc. my guess is that the game's purposes are to evoke nostalgia and to demonstrate the author's system. Evaluated for those purposes, I'd have to call it a success.

For my own liking, the game is very polished and has some clever puzzles, but I didn't enjoy the interactivity as much as I could have and felt emotionally distanced from the game.

The Faeries Of Haelstowne, by Christopher Merriner

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A huge, complex story/puzzle game about dangerous Faeries, August 1, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game is very, very long, certainly the longest adventuron game I've seen. It's split up into 6 or so parts, and the first part alone is already one of the longest games in Parsercomp.

I'm going to go over my 5 point scale with it.

+Descriptiveness: The author does an excellent job of painting a rich and vibrant world. Everyone knows each other, and events in one location affect events far away. Rather than a Zork-like grab-bag of random magic and sci fi (like a lot of big puzzlers), everything is tightly inter-connected, like Anchorhead.
+Emotional impact: Unlike Anchorhead, and most horror IF games, this is based on Faerie magic. While you may or may not classify this game is horror, it certainly presents scenarios which would be strongly horrifying to those in them. I enjoyed the story, which is the main reason I persisted.
+-Interactivity and Polish: These two categories go hand in hand, and I kind of want to give half a star in each. More details below.
+-Polish: The author intentionally chose Adventuron as an engine to show what it could do in a long-form game. Through a great deal of effort, I think he was completely successful in what he wanted to achieve. However, one difficulty is with not always having useful parser responses when having the correct verb and wrong noun or correct noun and wrong verb. One frequent occurrence for me was using the right verb and the wrong noun (like saying 'mirror' instead of 'fragment') and having the game imply it knew what I was doing but that it wasn't helpful. I didn't even know the game couldn't recognize the noun until I looked at the hints or other people's discussion. This happened multiple times. Outside of that, the game is remarkably well-constructed for such a long game.
+-Interactivity: The puzzles are a mixed bag. Some are mundane (find and light candle), some are complex (operate a camera and develop the photos), some are very obscure (the game is filled with many details in every room, and four or five puzzles depend on examining such a detail, while all the others are red herrings). I enjoyed the complex procedures, the gathering ensembles. Perhaps the most fun was just grabbing everything along the way, wondering what it would all lead to. Also related to interactivity, there were numerous timed events to add flavor. These were well-written and interesting, but when repeated multiple times and in various settings with the same text, became surreal and blurred.
The game is ponderous, which a huge number of locations. To preserve realism, the game frequently has you 'wake up' with a few key items removed from your inventory and placed around you. This contributed to mimesis but also contributed to me wondering where on earth I set things.
+Would I play it again? Yes. This is a marvelous achievement of a game. I'd like to one day write something like it.

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