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Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Max Fog

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Unofficial sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

I beta tested this game a couple of times, although I only did a part at a time and never completed it, while on the other hand the author did a lot of testing for me, so I definitely owe him a lot!

This game is wildly ambitious in its concept: take the work of Douglas Adams (one of the best humorists of all time) and the work of Infocom (one of the best group of IF writers of all time) and write a sequel to their works with a lot of original synthesis and do it all in ZIL (one of the less-known IF languages) and make it roughly comparable in scope to the original (within an order of magnitude).

Oh, and do it as your first game.

To produce anything in this scenario would be a feat. I think that the end result is much more than Ďanythingí.

You start this game right where the old one leaves off, on the planet of Magrathea, with the other ship members from the Heart of Gold. Your end goal isÖhmm, Iím not quite sure. Explore? In the end it involves a lot of exploring Milliways and trying to gain access to a fancy ship.

In the meantime, the game is centered on a hub-spoke structure, with a central Ďdarknessí room imitating the first game, where different senses lead to different areas.

The game is intentionally hard. In another thread, the author laid down the following rules:

*NPCs are hard to get right, include less of them but make them worth it.
*Story comes after puzzles. Thatís how my cookie crumbles.
*DEFINITELY make the game cruel. Itís more interesting that way.
Randomisation? Obviously! Otherwise it becomes a follow-the-walkthrough-if-you-get-stuck kind of game with no brain involved. I usually end up becoming that kind of person.

This game features all of these things, although it actually has several NPCs. The game is quite cruel, and has many randomised codes and things that make a straightforward walkthrough impossible. Just about every area has some kind of randomization, from randomized exits in a small maze to a game of hide and seek with a randomized shapeshifter.

The most frequent way this shows up is the darkness thing. I never figured it out while beta testing, just flailing around until I got out of the darkness, and then with the walkthrough playing today I realized that you have to wait a bit first and then perform the appropriate action, but was frustrated when I kept getting sent to the same area over and over (due to randomization). I finally realized that you can just Ďwaití until you get the area you want.

For me what shines the most are the settings and the big set-piece puzzles. The settings include Milliwayís itself, Dirk Gentlyís office, and other areas from Adamsí writing. The game of hide and seek I mentioned earlier was a lot of fun, as were some of the interactions around disguising yourself and walking around Milliways.

There is some trouble; my game very frequently crashed, often after examining something, when using the Gargoyle interpreter. I took some notes at first but it was so frequent that I just started saving a lot. Iím sure itís something ZIL related, as I have almost never had Inform games crash. It could be due to window size or something. Edit: No one else seems to be reporting this, so I believe it may be an interpreter issue.

Other than that, the main thing I would have liked more of was a guided conversation system that suggested things to talk about.

Overall, this is much better than it could have been. I remember someone entered a text port of one of the graphical Infocom adventures into IFcomp many years ago and it was a real slog to get through. Pretty much most of the unofficial sequels to Infocom games Iíve played have been bland, outside of some highlights like Scroll Thief. So to see a game that is vibrant with interesting puzzles and which follow in the first games footsteps in many ways is quite impressive. I donít think it achieves the heights of the first game in terms of polish or writing, but thatís like saying that my work as a mathematician didnít achieve the heights of Newton or Gauss. This game aimed high, and so Iím impressed where it landed. I look forward to any future work.

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How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title, by John Ziegler

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Gargantuan game about puzzles and a Prince's journey of maturation, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

Iím pretty sure this is the largest TADS game ever made and one of the top 2 largest parser games (with Flexible Survival, the furry game, being larger). It has a map and puzzle list rivaling games like Cragne Manor, and actions frequently generate over a page of text, often multiple pages when dramatic events happen.

The story is that you have been assigned to make the young prince Quisborne into a man, basically, instead of the wishy-washy pampered prince he is. To do that, you need to explore the world, chase down dark secrets, and help out a great deal of people.

I tested this game, although I used a walkthrough for much of it. I also replayed part of it before this review, which Iíll come back to later.

I think a great deal of IF taste comes down to the first game you played that hooked you in. For me (and a few others, like Mike Spivey), our first big game was Curses. For people like Robin Johnson, those games were (I believe) Scott Adams. For people like Zarf, Infocom and Myst were big influences; for Garry Francis and others, type-in games and illustrated adventures were big.

Each of these influences leave a mark on us. For me, I like dry humor, exploration with a lot of varied experiences and consistent backstory, literary aspirations, etc. Robin Johnson took principles from Scott Adams games (and others) to make his successful parser hybrid games. Zarf made several amazing games that drew on Mystís complex mechanical puzzles (especially So Far), and so on.

John Ziegler has cited the Unnkulia games as an inspiration. These were early TADS games, perhaps the biggest/most popular amateur text games that were released while Infocom was dying and before Inform came out. They feature games with lots of gags and names that were puns or jokes. They have a lot of background banter, and feature large outdoor areas with woods, taverns, etc. They have puzzles involving looking behind scenery things or repeating actions, lots of diagonal directions, etc. I replayed a bit of the first Unnkulia game before writing this review and these things stuck out to me.

I find a lot of similar elements in Prince Quisborne. We have an expansive world map that involves a lot of beautiful nature and sweeping expanses. We have puzzles that involve looking behind scenery things or trying actions multiple times. We have many names involving puns or jokes. We have maps with organic, diagonal directions. We have a plethora of taverns. We have the use of TADS. Some of these are stretches, of course, but I really feel like a lot of authors (including me) are perpetually chasing that feeling of the games that drew them into IF.

The craft is, in my opinion, much higher in this game than in Unnkulia. The poems are well-written, the puzzles can be exceptional, and so on.

When I first played, I got overwhelmed by the large amount of text. I ended up having to follow the walkthrough and couldnít figure out how anyone could navigate the tons of text, many room exits, tons of open quests, etc.

I replayed today, and I got to 75 points in 4 hours, out of 300. I got 50 of those points without hints, which was nice, but I really got stuck on the chess puzzle, which I had never solved on my own before. I also needed hints crossing the ferry, and I got some Ďsolveí help with some logic puzzles because I had already played through them twice (but some I did anyway because I like them).

I found it so much easier this time. What I did was, the first time I played, I read all the text carefully. All the pages and pages of backstory, the little jokes and character building moments of the game.

But this time, I just ignored it all. I just went through and saw the puzzle structure. I spacebarred through all the text and looked twice at each room to get the shorter room description.

With this simpler version, the map coalesced. I realized how much of it was closed off, and the rest was strongly guided. I was able to do a lot more of the puzzles this way.

However, it only made sense to do this because I had read the text once before. Without the text, some puzzles wonít make sense.

Fortunately, I found the NUDGE system really helpful. It helped me know what to focus on, and cut down on the time I was lost so much. It didnít even feel like cheating; honestly, playing the whole game doing NUDGE a lot may not be a bad idea.

The other reason itís good to read all the text is because it provides its own experience, its own plot and storyline, much of which is wholly unconnected with gameplay. It tells a story of a young man who grows wiser and older. Many reviews have found parts of this offputting, and I did too at first, as the character seemed so wishywashy. But the later parts of the game really pay off with all of that intro character framing.

I spoke about tastes earlier. Some of the puzzle style isnít to my taste in terms of difficulty. I have some habits in my own games I do specifically to avoid things I find frustrating in others. I lay out almost all of my rooms in rectangular grids and make sure to clearly label exits, because I donít like hidden exits; I try to keep my text short and make it clear what matters in each room; I like to make it so that all important text occurs at the end of paragraphs; if a puzzle requires multiple items, I try to keep them together in physical proximity or provide clear markings showing they belong somewhere else (which is something I like about Curses, and something Cragne Manor does in a way); and so on. Quisborne violates almost all of my personal rules, and this makes it, in my opinion, even longer and more difficult than a game of its size would otherwise be.

But I had fun replaying the first 4th of the game tonight, doing it in my weird way of having already read all the text and used a walkthrough and now stumbling through with occasional hints. I donít think thatís how the game was intended to be played. But I like it a lot. There are a select few other big polished parser games out there and many of them have not gotten the attention of smaller games; I recently have been replaying all IFDB games with 100+ ratings, and the only real Ďmegaí game on there is Blue Lacuna, which is the easiest giant game. Curses is on there, which is pretty big. But the other games, like Mulldoon Legacy, Finding Martin, Inside Woman, Lydiaís Heart, Worlds Apart, Cragne Manor, etc. tend to get few but high ratings. So will Prince Quisborne become popular and well liked by many, or just become the treasured love a few? Even the Unnkulia games which inspired John sit at less than 10 ratings on IFDB each. But I am a fan of this game, love the craft that went into it, and believe it fulfilled the authorís goals of making some exquisite.

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Murder Most Foul, by David Whyld

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Epically long murder mystery adventure in Adrift, July 10, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

Phew! This was a long game. I took a break from playing the other parsercomp games for 4 days to finish playing this one; and that was just by using the walkthrough, which spans 8 pages of 3-columned text.

The idea of this game is that you are at a party at a large mansion where a murder has been discovered. It is your job to stop that murder!

The presentation and the writing are of high quality, which some nice visual effects with regards to headings and fonts, and very incisive and biting wit. There are many characters that are generally well differentiated, although almost every character frequently expresses very strong sexual urges in non-explicit ways, so it can blend together when the 5th or 6th man talks about how hot the widow is.

I played for about an hour or two to get a feel for the game. I got maybe 23 out of the 250+ points, then decided to use the walkthrough.

It soon became apparent just why the walkthrough was so long. The map is large, especially a garden area which is a maze with several almost-identical areas. The vast bulk of the game, around 75%, consists of some character asking you to give something to or ask something of another character. So you have about 10 or 12 moves navigating the garden maze and going into the mansion and finding your target. That character then says they can only do that if you bring them something else. So you type 10 or 12 moves going there and doing that, and so on and so on till you reach the end of the chain. Then you report back to people in reverse order, with the same maze navigation between every chain.

Due to this the plot really kind of stopped taking off. At first I felt like I was really getting somewhere (finding the widow! searching the murder room!) but if you charted the plot intensity with regards to time it would look like a giant snake that had just eaten a string of 30 rats. Flat plot progression for a long time, with a little bump of action, followed by more flat plot progression, with a little bump of action.

The writing was constantly of high quality in the genre it had set out to follow, a kind of bawdy, everyone-is-rotten nobles vs commoners dark comedy.

Outside of the fetch quests, the game consisted of finding objects in random and unusual ways. The kind of thing where touch a glass pane and it reveals a trapdoor which takes you on a chute ride to find an oubliette where you overhear two thieves talking and one drops a potato crisp. (this example isn't necessarily in the game).

When I wasn't following the walkthrough I had a bit of trouble. An early quest needed me to find some cream buns. I saw food on a table and tried X FOOD. That didn't work so I went into the kitchen and tried X FOOD. I figured maybe they were there but not in the description so I tried TAKE FOOD and TAKE BUNS. It turns out I needed to X COUNTER instead to find them.

So given that the discovery of objects was often difficult with the parser, and that seemingly unrelated actions were necessary to find the objects, and that almost each step of each task required navigation of almost-identical maze rooms, and that the game was as long as Curses and other huge text adventures, I think it's no surprise I turned to the walkthrough. There are copious clues though for those who prefer more gentle hints.

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Finn's Big Adventure, by Larry Horsfield

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A sprawling ADRIFT adventure about a 6 yr old boy exploring strange lands, July 1, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

I've played several Larry Horsfield games, and I generally have the impression that they'll be extremely long ADRIFT games that require you to look in every nook and cranny and often put you in 'dead man walking' scenarios because you forgot something 400 moves ago.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could solve the game. I started in a magician's room, and I tried looking behind an armchair, looking under a stool, etc. But there was nothing there, so I explored more and found some more reasonable puzzles: a light puzzle, grabbing a book, etc. Then I went to another area, grabbed a lot of stuff; the game even warned me that I hadn't grabbed everything! I explored a dungeon, and got really very far.

I thought to myself, 'Man, this game is awesome. It's a lot smaller than other Larry Horsfield games, and seems more focused on clever puzzles instead of hiding random stuff.'

At one point, the game said I needed a tinderbox, which I hadn't grabbed, so I peeked at the walkthrough, and found out that I had missed it at the beginning. Apparently instead of looking under the stool or the armchair I needed to stand on the stool and it would reveal some stuff to me.

Fortunately the earlier areas were still accessible so I went back to go grab it.

But then I ended up solving what I thought was the final area of the game. It actually ended up sending me to a nexus of areas. The SCORE command revealed that I only had 90 out of 500 points. And the door locked behind me. I thought, 'well, I'll still try on my own'. But getting in a boat told me I should be wearing my war belt. With the door shut, there was no way to get back. So I loaded an earlier save. Unfortunately, there was a bug where going back to get the warbelt meant I couldn't leave for some reason.

I restarted completely, deciding to just blindly follow the walkthrough. But it's missing a command early on and I ended up with a bug situation where there were two 'thin books' in the same room that I couldn't disambiguate between.

So I restarted again, fixed that problem, and just rode the walkthrough the rest of the time. I found out there was tons of stuff I had missed earlier because I hadn't looked under a desk or behind a door, etc.

There were fun things to see on the way, like various foods and desserts. There was also some depictions of East Asian culture that were a bit suspect. There were some words I didn't recognize which wikipedia said are considered offensive (like a name for a kind of Chinese hat). The people are a blend of Asian motifs and generic europeans (they speak the same language as the protagonist and are offended by burping, which isn't very common in east asian cultures). At one point they're singing a sing with the lyrics 'ying tong ting tong' or something, which seemed wildly inappropriate to me, but apparently it's an old song by a group called the goons which has nothing to do with Asian culture. But then why is it featured in this area? Kind of weird.

Overall, if this game had been just the first area up to the dungeon, I might have given it 5 stars; I like the puzzle direction and the writing. But after that point it just becomes so easy to get into 'walking dead' situations.

I'd usually say beta testing could help with these kind of things, but Larry Horsfield has been writing games for fourty years and has been requesting testers recently, which haven't been found. I think the issue is that the core game design itself makes testing difficult; there are so many places to check, so many places to look, so many possible combinations of items. The game is huge but it also includes mechanics designed to make short games longer, like forcing replaying due to missing items or having tightly controlled sequences that are easy to fail. These combined, it makes playing the game without a walkthrough take days or weeks, including for testers. And the games are produced at such a rate (there were three entered in this same Parser Comp competition, although one was withdrawn) that there's wouldn't be enough time to test one thoroughly before the next came out.

The author is aware of these issues; on intfiction.org, there are posts going back to 2014 discussing how this author has trouble getting beta testers and why.

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T-Zero, by Dennis Cunningham

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A giant, obtuse, puzzle- and pun-filled time travel adventure, January 21, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

I started going through my wishlist on IFDB, and this game has been on their longer than any other, because it was so intimidating I put it off. I ended up playing the ifarchive version, which uses local browser storage for saves.

I played for a while, using in-game hints and getting < 20 points out of 365, then used a walkthrough and maps from several different sites, including CASA. Even then, it was difficult to follow and required solving some puzzles independently.

If you had to play just one IF game for a very long time and didn't have access to any other, but could talk to other people, this would be a great game, because it's designed for long-term group play.

Many factors make it large. First, it has a giant map with many diagonal connections and cycles in the graph structure, and doesn't list exits automatically (unless I missed a command to turn that on; I just used the EXITS command), and this giant map exists in multiple time periods at once.

Second, many of the puzzles rely on pun-based commands, requiring a leap of intuition that can't be solved with just brute force.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, many actions have long-delayed consequences, and many items are used in scenarios quite different from the ones they're found in.

None of these are bad game-design wise, but they mean that you will spend a great deal of time on this game in order to experience its content, while many current IF games are designed to be completed in one or two sessions with little 'friction', due to the multitude of competing games and other reasons.

The plotline is buried at first but becomes stronger and stronger, especially once time travel is allowed. If the author created the first areas first, it would explain why the game starts with a mishmash of silly things (including a tortoise and a hare on a Moebius strip a suspension bridge that suspends you). Later areas have strong thematic consistency, especially the future world. There are a few other threads of plot that weave through the game consistently, like the use of opiates to expand the mind and a meteorite that makes several appearances.

The game isn't mean; it increases difficulty in generally fair ways. Hints are provided in most rooms, and a helpful friend gives you more and more commands over time that help out in a meta way (I loved FIND [ITEM] because it moves you to that room, enabling fast travel).

This would be a great game for a let's play or other group-based activity, since finding the right phrasing is good.

I don't think I'll play it again, because I just struggle with its style of expansiveness, but I enjoyed my time with it and think many others would as well.

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The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A complex and rich puzzle game in a mall with very large map, October 8, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

This game is a sequel to Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, a game a couple decades old. When I first played IF in 2010, I downloaded the Frotz app and played all the main games that come with it. After I found how fun big puzzle games like Curses! are, I searched for other games that were like it and found Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. I ended up really enjoying the game a lot.

This sequel so far lives up to the original. Per IFComp rules, I've only played 2 hours, getting 20 out of 250 points and unlocking much of the map.

You play as a parent (I think a mother?) that is trying to get a prom dress for your daughter. There is a large mall that is mostly abandoned due to a parade. It's a 3-story mall, with many stores per floor and other areas outside.

It's a puzzle-based game, with a variety of puzzles, including conversation, codes, machines, animals, etc.

Like the original game, it has a huge map and is (eventually) very nonlinear. Unlike the original, it contains extensive in-game help systems and suggestions that smooth out the player experience. In particular, the (very mild early spoiler) (Spoiler - click to show)texts from your daughter help point you to the next available puzzle. I turned to the hints once, when I felt like I had a reasonable solution to something but it just wasn't working; it turned out I had just thought of it differently than the author, and the progressive hints gave me just the hint I needed.

The first two hours have been fun, and I look forward to the rest. I was just going to power through with the walkthru, but I think this is fun enough I'd like to take it slow later.

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Heaven's Vault, by Inkle

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A graphical exploration and archaeology game , June 16, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

This game is by Inkle, a studio that has made numerous interactive fiction games. While this game has many non-textual elements, the text is a very important part of the gameplay and the core mechanic is a large textual language puzzle. It took me 16 hours for one playthrough, according to Steam.

The main idea is that you, in an fictional futuristic setting, are an archaeologist exploring an ancient, highly-advanced civilization. They settled a nebula with 'moons' connected by jets of water that are navigable by boat. The main thread throughout the civilizations' history is the use of a language: ancient. This is presented as a series of sigils, usually ran together, that you at first guess and then eventually become certain of (through a mechanic where the game tells you if you got it right after you use it a few times in a row). No spaces are used in most words, making finding where words start and stop the hardest part later on.

I'd like to split up this review a bit into different categories, starting with what was, for me, the weakest part:

3d Navigation and pacing
I bounced off this game at first because of this. One thing that a lot of commercial IF games lean into, especially ones by authors transitioning from indie to AAA-adjacent, is to bulk up the play time, is splitting up stories with long sections of travel. This is done in 80 Days, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies, and here, too. This leads to a lot of very dull moments. 80 days helped make up for it with quick transit animations and making the movement part of the overall puzzle, while in most of these other games it's just dead air.

This game splits up content in two different ways. Large chunks each take place on different worlds, split up by ship travel, which has no hazards and no decision making outside of binary choice points and occasional random treasure. The smaller chunks on each world are split up by 3d motion. This uses invisible hitboxes that don't always line up with what you can see; this is especially apparent in 'open worlds' that look easily navigable but are secretly linear. I found myself frequently running into walls and getting stuck. Amusingly, I realized that the space part and the 3d part were very similar to Kingdom Hearts 1, just without the enemies.

Conversations happen in real-time. Speed is adjustable in the menu, but there is no scroll-back and pausing is difficult. I generally like text games because they can be picked up and put down, minimized, multitasked, and easily played around others without being intrusive. For this game, I had to give complete attention at pretty much all times, and even then I missed quite a bit of dialog looking away to itch a scratch or to answer my kids' questions.

Continuing on my scale of not liking to liking are things that I liked a lot but don't really factor into my rating:
Graphics and audio

I think they did a great job here. Voiceover is really lovely, the music is heartrending and sci-fi feeling. The art looks a lot better than most 3d games, and loads well on my potato laptop. The artists and sound designers really did well.

Character and Plot
This is generally very good, with some slight caveats. Characters are very distinctive and mostly memorable. The protagonist has a rich past interconnected with many corners of the Nebula. The plot contains multiple independent strands circling the big mystery: where did these civilizations come from, why is everyone here, and what's going to happen to them?

Our main character is kind of a jerk. I know subconsciously it can be easy to perceive strong female characters as aggressive when compared to similar male protagonists, but I believe our character has attributes would be jerky for men as well, especially in regards to her interaction with the robot Six. It was actually refreshing in a lot of ways, but I think 'jerk with a heart of gold' interests me more than 'jerk with a heart of jerk'. The strong personality does lend to some fun role-playing through.

The plot threads were very intriguing, including the mysterious workings of your home city, the cryptic machinations of you employer, some kids trying to find their place in the world, etc, as well as your progressive discovery of the ancient world.

I felt like the ending in my playthrough came at a time where I had a lot of loose ends, and not a lot of choice to go back and work on them. And the final reveal, while visually stunning, left quite a bit unresolved as well, especially given how much build up there was. I know that it can be hard to simultaneously give people choice as well as a satisfying plot structure (which is one reason, I speculate, that a lot of Choice of Games with award-winning stories often don't sell as well as those with straightforward power fantasies), but I've seen a few people do a great job of this, such as the 'Truth' ambition in Sunless Skies. That game separates your quests into different categories and has clear victory conditions, so you know if you're going to leave threads unfinished. It also provides a very weighty, powerful, and conclusive finish to the final story. I feel like Sorcery! 4 also had a very satisfying ending. This game, Heaven's Vault, was not bad at all with its ending, better than average for sure, but could have been amazing.

Puzzle mechanics

I really enjoy languages. I've studied French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Greek, Latin, Japanese and a little Hebrew, some more than others. So I was definitely up for a challenge here.

As someone who has struggled with many languages, I have to say that the experience in this game is much less like learning an actual language and much more like learning a code alphabet for English. Emily Short, in her review, said "a great deal of Ancient is English in a chiffon-sheer disguise", and I have to agree.

However, this isn't necessarily a negative. Language take forever to learn. I've been studying written Japanese for 3-4 months now and still struggle with basic pronunciation. For the average English-speaking player, learning an actual non-English language would be far too difficult.

So the game simplifies it. 'Ancient' has none of those bizarre ultra-common connector words that can mean so many things (like 'zwar' in German or '就' in Mandarin). Most sentences, especially early ones, follow simple noun-verb-object patterns, with some light prepositions added in later.

Most words are ones that can be easily identified with pictographs. Themes of light, travel, people, fire, water, air, earth, plant and metal dominate the vocabulary. In another distinction between in-game and real-life pictographic languages, there is not a significant 'drift', where everyday words have bizarre derivations based on non-written considerations (like the fact that 'mother' in chinese is woman-horse due to homonyms). Interestingly, the pictograph for 'man' is the same in 'Ancient' and Chinese, although I don't know if that's a coincidence.

Some features are distinctly English, such as the way that past and future tense are conjugated and the use of helper verbs. The game uses symbols that directly derive from modern earth culture, like (Spoiler - click to show)question marks and x's

These features make word-solving easier. Even then, it would be impossible to just begin with a blank slate, make guesses, and hope you're right later. It'd be the worlds' hardest cryptogram and sudoku, a big pile of guesses waiting to collapse. Instead, the game gives you a huge leg up over real-life translators by giving you four options to guess from, 1 of which is always correct. Which every one you pick is indicated by a ? in future uses. Once it's used 3 or 4 times, the game confirms your translation or denies it through your robot or your own intuition. This is probably the main feature that makes the game far easier than learning a real-life language, and it is, in my opinion, what makes it actually fun.

By the end, individual pictographs are all easily identifiable, so the trick is giving you longer sentences with no spaces, so you have to identify words by their structure. The language is very systematic, and I was thrilled to puzzle out some pieces, although some I struggle with, especially (Spoiler - click to show)the difference between a period . and a colon :. It can become very difficult to find the border between words, and you can't figure out new words unless you surround them on both sides with established words. I often had to save longer texts to come back to after I learned more words.

I adored the translation. For me the highlight of the game was finding a huge (Spoiler - click to show)book that never seemed to end. I translated over 20 lines, took a break, delivered it somewhere, and translated more until it made me stop.

As mentioned earlier, the game ended kind of abruptly for me and I had some unresolved translation, but by then I felt like I was going to have to compromise anyway on what I had hoped to achieve in the game. I didn't feel compelled to do another playthrough, but I may try again some day.

Overall

Overall, it was worth the money. I got it on sale. It provided me 16 hours of content and could easily go up to 30 or more, with a large chunk of that being just reading/translating. That's much more than most free/indie interactive fiction. I didn't really like the 3d movement aspects at all, and I feel the ending could have had more narrative weight, especially (Spoiler - click to show)talking more about loops, and the repetition aspect. But the plot still pulled me forward the whole game, and for a language puzzle, it was the best I've seen out there, and the dialog, art, and sound were outstanding to me.

For my star rating system, it was polished, descriptive, had good interactivity, I felt emotionally invested, and I will likely play again some day. Just not today.

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The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A F2P-mobile app-style fantasy card game with a variety of quests , October 3, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

One of the games I've put the most hours to in the last few years is a lesser-known Hearthstone clone called Plants vs Zombies Heroes. It's the only card game app I've played, but it has a lot of features in common (I've heard) with the other big ones like Hearthstone.

So that's my basis of comparison.

This is an Online unity game. The download is a webpage with a redirect to the online play. Starting play has a lot of download bars as various things load. It has an opening movie cinematic with voice acting. After that, there is something of a tutorial, and then it opens up.

The main idea is that you open packs that contain cards or gold or other things, then you assemble a deck. You then play different levels or (eventually, but not now, I think) PvP. During gameplay, you have three keepers that generate points to buy cards with or attack (but not both). Keepers that get to 0 hp are taken out of play, same as for enemies.

Overall, this game is, to me, a mismatch for the comp. The spirit of the competition has generally been that you provide a complete gaming experience which can be archived and stay free forever, with possibly a better version released later for money (like Scarlet Sails). The two hour rule is there to encourage games to be substantially completable in two hours.

Neither rule is hard or fast; there have been games in the past which could not be archived (like Paradise, a text MMO game that was like a reinvented MUD) and the winners each year tend to take over two hours. But it's a bit odd to see a game like this which has different quests which can only be played once every 28 days (!) and has a cash shop with items up to $10.99 (none of which seem to be needed for progression).

I played the first two levels of the main game, but it seemed like GUI-based combat is the main thrust of the game with little text. Compared to Jared Jackson's Tragic from last year, it has much less of a strong storyline).

I don't generally include UI in reviewing, but it's an important part of this game. This UI could use a lot of tweaking; it popped up for me far too large for the screen. I think it told me to use CTRL+'-' and CTRL+'+' to adjust it, but I couldn't tell because I couldn't see. When I did get it to fit, it was usually too small to see, in a small rectangle with a blank white border around it. When opening packs, you had to slide a key from left to right. The interaction felt off; I think it was missing some kind of subtle highlighting when hovering over the key or inertia when sliding it. And you had to repeat it 30+ times in a row, making it kind of slow. The tutorial explains stats, but in-combat it's hard to remember; having hovering tool tips would be better.

Overall, this feels like an open beta for a commercial F2P/IAP game, which is why I provided the feedback above.

For my IF ratings:
-Polish: The game could use some tinkering with, as described above. I saw a couple typos, too, in the main story text, but I can't remember where.
-Descriptiveness: Most of the 'flavor' is communicated through images rather than text.
-Interactivity: It was difficult to figure out combat; all the mechanics were thrown at once instead of introduced one at a time, and complex opening and deck-creating had to be done before fighting. I prefer the tutorial of PVZ heroes, which has ultra-simplified combat happening first with a pre-made deck, then slightly more complex battle, then adding just a few cards to your pre-made deck.
-Emotional impact: I was too lost to get deeply involved in the story.
-Would I play again? Not without significant changes.

The scale I use doesn't really apply to this game; as a card game I'd probably give it 3/5. But I'll use my IF scale on this website for consistency.

Note that this was just my personal experience; others may have wildly different reactions to the game!

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Fallen London, by Failbetter Games

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
A gigantic Victorian fantasy text game with a dark atmosphere, September 13, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

I've been playing Fallen London for at least 5 years now, with a few different characters. I never wanted to review it before because I was worried it would be transitory, and that once the company went under no one would ever be able to play the game I had written about.

But it has been doing better than ever, and has in the last few years added a ton of new content which has significantly improved it.

In form, it is similar to old facebook text games like Mafia, where you have a bunch of numbers for resources and items that change around as you click. The difference is that this has really nice backgrounds, a ton of well-written text (I think a couple million words?) and a card-based system for storylets.

The game is set in a version of London that was sold to dark Masters by queen Victoria. It was taken underground, where the laws of physics no longer apply and death isn't permanent. Hell is a neighbor, and fungus and candles replace plants and sunlight.

It really is two games in one: the first is a time-gated system of customizable stories, with sixty or so actions spread throughout a day (or 80 if you pay a monthly fee). These stories include sweeping epics of revenge or battle against extradimensional beings that changes entire countries or the world, as well as smaller stories like fighting a spider in the sewers.

The other game is a carefully-balanced resources game. Each 'click' has an optimum number of resources available, growing larger until the endgame, and some powerful items take months to save up for. Some hardcore players compete to buy extravagant items like a hellworm or a cask of immortality-inducing cider.

Many storylets are re-used; so, you can bust a 'tomb colonist' (kind of a decayed sentient zombie) out of prison over and over again. Some are only done once, like deciding whether to support a local mob boss or his cop daughter. The re-used ones tend to occur in 'grinds' which are pretty common in this game, although much less than they once were in the early game.

To me, the best stories are:

-Making Your Name, early storylines that help you progress the four stats: Watchful (used for detective work with a Sherlock Holmes substitute, archaeology or university work studying bizarre magical languages), Persuasive (used for romantic and creative work, including writing operas and engaging in courtly romances), Dangerous (used for fighting duels and capturing monsters), and Shadowy (used for pickpocketing and elaborate heists)
-Ambitions. These are stories that span the entire length of the game, starting from something simple (usually tracking down an old friend or lead) and ending up dealing with godlike beings. They include a horror story, a revenge story, an adventure story and a sort of legend or fantasy about wish fulfillment.
-The final stat-capping storylines. These include the railway, an end-game segment where you become a railroad baron, building a railway to hell that gets stranger and stranger the further from London you get; the University Lab, where you discover the dark secrets of the Masters; a series of wars that you lead as a general in a bizarre place; and elaborate thefts that make you a legendary thief.

The game can be 'completed' without paying, but the monthly fee makes grinding a lot easier and provides access to some amazingly good short stories called 'exceptional stories'. Older exceptional stories are available for a fairly hefty sum, but they are generally worth it (especially ones by Chandler Groover and Emily Short).

There's a lot of interesting material up front in the 'making your name' segments, so it's worth checking it out just to see the overall style and feel.

Edit: Looking at the other reviews, I'd say their criticisms are absolutely true (stories can be shallow, clues and hints are items instead of actual stories). I just can't give 4 stars after having played this game for hundreds of hours and honestly investing over $100 or $200 in bits or pieces after years.

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Eternal, by Endmaster

9 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
An extremely long fanfic-style dark fantasy story , February 2, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: more than 10 hours

Edit: There are several alternative takes on this game available in the comments.

This story is one of the main games displayed on the front page of ChooseYourStory.com and has been upheld by some in the community as some of their best work.

ChooseYourStory's corpus was downloaded and used to fuel the original AI Dungeon (although the new version, I think, uses other material), and quite a few on IFDB and intfiction were very interested in AI Dungeon, so I thought it would be interesting to see the source of it.

From the outside, the CYS community is very different from the other writing communities I've been in. For instance, the SCP wiki mods, Choice of Games editors and IFComp voters are obsessed with games being free from typos and errors. So in that sense, it's more like the Wesnoth campaigns and creepypasta sites, where the focus is more on just size of writing and worldbuilding.

Edit: several comments about CYS as whole were removed.

This game is an example of all of these things. In content, it reminds me of nothing more than when I started browsing some fanfiction. The worldbuilding is very detailed, and the content is huge. Reading every branch would easily take over 10 hours.

Structure-wise, it's more like a long chapter-based novel where the next chapter is determined by your choices at the end of each section. Choices are usually binary, unless they are 'reference' choices that give you optional backstory. Out of the binary options, one is usually a death. The graph of this game's choice structure would generally be a tree.

In fact, it's almost like three games in one, since one of the earliest (maybe the very first?) choice lets you pick one of three branches that offer different perspectives on the same story.

Content-wise, this is a dark power fantasy. You are essentially like Darth Vader but in a fantasy world, in the sense that you are a ruthless murderer and assassin in the service of an emperor.

The content is labeled as 'grimdark'. There is content in it that I found offensive, especially (Spoiler - click to show)the main character's penchant for violently raping women before killing them, or the way many women want to be raped, the way that the character helps run a concentration camp to eliminate another race, the character's joy in sexually humiliating or physically defacing others, or acting like King David by sleeping with a married woman then killing her husband discreetly. Interestingly, the only thing that the player regrets is accidentally sleeping with an enemy by mistake when she was disguised as his true love, with him later realizing that it was rape and he feels upset.

I generally just stop playing games in these situations, but in this one, the game was oddly distant from the graphic situations, generally because there wasn't a lot of lead-up. I've been deeply affected by traumatic scenes in stories before, but usually because there was a previous investment in character development to make me care for the people involved and an expectation of normalcy established that made the later broken barriers seem shocking. Like Ethan Frome, for instance, which I hated. Or Vespers, the game, which led me to try actions with awful results with no one else to blame but me for typing them in. In this game, it was more like 'you walk into a room and slit someone's throat to establish dominance'. In any case, I only finished so that I could give an accurate report for my first CYS review (although I did review Briar Rose before).

The author himself seemed to eventually tire of the rape-murder fantasies, leaving much of the second half of the game devoted to political intrigue.

My grading scale is not designed for this type of game, but I'll give it a go anyway:

-Polish: There were numerous typos and other errors.
+Descriptiveness: The worldbuilding was detailed and vivid.
+Interactivity: The game had a lot of real choices, with even dead ends having thousands of words poured into them.
+Emotional impact: Not always ones I wanted, but it was there.
-Would I play again? No, and in the future I'll heed the warnings available on the site for various games.

Edit: It should be added that this game has over 8000 ratings and over 400,000 plays on their website, far outstripping any IFComp game.

EditEdit: I should also say that Champion of the Gods is a game I loved that has a fairly similar concept but without any non-consensual encounters. In that game, it was fun playing a wild barbarian, but the justification for it was much stronger. Also, I played this game with a profanity filter in the browser.

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