Reviews by Wade Clarke

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The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee, by Daniel Gao
A game of teen secrets with a sci-fi wraparound and some narrative trickery, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: science fiction, ifcomp 2020, inform

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In 2020's entries list, I could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM). It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.

BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.

The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are implemented, players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation, and almost no synonym support, are typical shortcomings of the old Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.

I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.

In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.

The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and textadventures.co.uk website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline.

Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.

I'm not sure either of BM's endings are great. The most positive spin I can come up with on the solid/regular ending is the idea that the future people's faintly interested reaction to the detective machine (the one that you "were", or inhabited to solve the crime) and the most famous case it solved, is a sad-leaning reminder that we can easily forget about the realities of those who preceded us, and maybe now and then we should take some time to remember them... I hope this isn't too off course, because I lost this piece of the transcript when I tried the other ending.

The other ending is far-fetched in the sense that I think it's almost contrived beyond intentional logic (go west ten times in limbo?!) but it could be hit by accident. And with the walkthrough handy, I think players will probably try it anyway. While it's novel, it's totally removed from the bulk of the game. It reads as: 'Forget about Jenny Lee! I'm now a self-actualised AI out in the world!' Which is almost a different game altogether. I suppose it's cute as a novelty ending, and there have been a lot of bonus endings of this type in Playstation console games. Unfortunately this one wastes BM's remaining locked cabinet passcode puzzle in the process.


AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze
Hilarious sci-fi-horror comedy about a teen band, set in the 1990s, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: inform, comedy, horror, ifcomp 2021

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)

AardVarK Versus the Hype (AVH) is an extremely funny parser adventure about a bunch of teens whose rock band, AardVarK, suddenly becomes very important for the project of life's continuance when a corporate/alien entity known as Hype starts flogging its soft drinks ("sodas" for the handful of Americans out there) to innocent high-schoolers. The brew's side-effects include mindless shillism and bleeding from the orifices.

The game is set in 1997, a time when popular culture was still dominated by the recent explosion of alternative music into it but before the internet had made any excursion onto the same turf; the game is blissfully free of the internet. If I was going to hazard a cultural thought of the kind I don't know that Truthcraze would approve of in the case of AVH, I'd suggest the simplicity of The Kids versus The Hype conflict is already a bit nostalgic for the eighties, a time when individuals-sticking-it-to-commercial-behemoths plots were easier to articulate. The film Reality Bites (1994) captured the zeitgeist of young Americans of the 1990s trying to retain their cred in a culture that was beginning to facilitate the commodification of everything.

Such drama is not what AVH is about. It's about the eternal comedic struggles of being a teenager (well, eternal since the 1940s or so, so not very eternal at all, actually) and about the nineties version of them in particular. The player gets to control all four members of the band AardVarK at different times with a SWITCH TO (PERSON) command. The switching isn't bound up with complex puzzles. It's essentially for narrative purposes. These teens are boys and girls, punks, goths, would-be frontpeople, singers and guitarists. The nineties wack is clearest in their dialogue stylings. There is a ton of multi-option dialogue in AVH wracked with a mixture of self-consciousness and excitement as the teens try to blurt out their explanations of weird shenanigans and corporate shills.

It's not so much what the characters want to say to each other that changes across options, only how they're going to say it. Bravado, hostility, coolness, honest dorkiness and cluelessness are some of the modes the player can choose amongst. Just reading all the different options, including the 75% not chosen, makes for a good chunk of the comedy. There's rarely any revisiting of unpicked dialogue paths because the story and conversations are too busy screaming forward for that.

The seat of the game is a wonderful repeating set piece joke involving the Gas'n'Stop convenience store, a location that has been thoroughly plundered and destroyed by the time all the main PCs have abused it. There are also jock-guarded parties, night-time trees to be climbed, cars that are rocking, and condom-purchasing jokes executed in good taste. Furthermore, AVH has some cool tricks of delivery up its sleeve. One is the way it will suddenly override the player's typed commands with replacement evil ones if the current PC gets possessed by The Hype. Another occurs in a situation where the PC's car turns over, at which point some of the printed text does the same thing. I don't remember seeing that joke in a parser game before.

AVH is a game that wants to help you finish it. It has graded HINTs you can ask for, but it's constantly prompting for free anyway in an amusingly harried voice. I think part of this stems from the fact that it's trying (successfully) to create a sense of lively action, and having players stand around examining everything is anti-action. The game would rather remind you of the next thing you're meant to be doing than let you gawp. There's also a decent amount of fourth-wall-breaking, and its version of the parser voice versus character voice dance is a cute one. I hit some bugginess across the game (remember paragraph one: I am now hitting myself with a stick) but the only thing that actually tripped me up was a guess-the-verb moment which was cleared up by the HINTs.

I admit I'd have liked some more reinforcement of differentiation amongst the teens identities across the game, what with all the SWITCHing amongst them that goes on, but this isn't a major complaint for a story this funny and engaging. The victory scene, which felt felt rushed in the original IFComp version of the game, has also been updated to make it much more satisfying. While playing AVH, I laughed aloud a lot, admired the many forms of comedy wielded by the writing and loved the Gas'n'Stop situation.


Closure, by Sarah Willson
Clever presentation in texting-while-snooping parser drama, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: inform, ifcomp 2021

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)

In Sarah Willson's parser game Closure, teenaged Kira has snuck into the dorm room of her newly ex-boyfriend TJ (using her spare key) intent on nabbing a particular photo of the couple for future reminiscence purposes. As she commits this rummaging crime of the century, she texts her best friend, YOU, THE PLAYER, detailing her every move and asking what she should do next at each juncture. The result is a charming game of rummagey revelations, presented in one's browser with an excellent marriage of content and aesthetic framing, and which took me twenty-three minutes to complete.

I think it would be easy to oversell the game's presentation as the answer to the question of why it works. When Closure is played in a web browser, it certainly puts the player in the right frame of mind to see the speech-bubbled messages appear onscreen as messages do, but what's considerably more important is the dynamic flow of the prose and its accuracy as (pretty articulate, considering the situation!) text message writing. The divisions between successive messages indirectly convey the flow of thoughts in Kira's mind, and also lead the player to visualise the physical actions Kira might be taking between texts. The game can't mention all of her lurching about, lifting and dropping things, her gaze alighting frantically on this and that, her occasional standing back to consider the situation, these things that she must be doing, but I experienced them in a peculiarly vivid way for their absence.

I was actually playing Closure offline initially (I play almost any game offline if given the chance) and even in that situation where the messages didn't appear in bubbles, I already appreciated how well the game was presenting as a text messaging simulation.

The game is well-implemented in terms of cleverly fobbing off many typical parser actions in context, or translating them into the game's context in cute ways. For instance:

>x me

i'm using that picture from new year's as your contact photo!! hahaha

Mechanically, it is a one-room game in which you need to search everything in the room to reconstruct the backstory as to why TJ broke up with Kira. This isn't a particularly difficult task, but the revelations are laid out well, with Kira realising things about both TJ and herself in the process and the player being compelled to keep digging.

The next paragraph is 100% spoiler:

From what's learned, it's clear neither character is a titan of complexity (au contraire), nor was their situation. This all suits a still-in-high-school relationship. From being on the outside of Kira's experience, I moved into it a bit, and could think things like, "Yeah, you should have tried to understand TJ's extensive sneaker collection a bit more if you really wanted this relationship, not just made fun of his extensive sneaker collection." Outwardly, this sounds superficial, but I can buy it. People have broken up over infinitely dumber things. I also don't know the nature/extent of the sneaker-teasing; maybe it wasn't actually so dumb an interaction in reality. Also, it wasn't only the sneaker-teasing; there's the liking-metal-music teasing. The conceit is that Kira is texting in harried fashion as she snoops a dorm room, so I can also accept the lack of details regarding these events within the context of the game. Can the game stand up without such details? I've argued here that it can, except that the final revelation of TJ's having run off to marry someone else felt weird and extreme. It's clearly not an impossibility, but it didn't feel like the right end for this game to me.

I think Closure presents its situation as a game about as well as anyone has ever presented this kind of thing in IF. The texting conceit, the thoughts of the responding character as modified by this mode, the prose used to convey it, the dynamics of the text itself and the thoughtfulness of how Kira responds to conventional parser instructions are all handled wonderfully. The only misstep for me was the final revelation.


Bigfoot Bluff, by P.B. Parjeter

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Highly original and funny, but underimplemented, cryptid adventure, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: inform, comedy, spring thing 2022

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)

Bigfoot Bluff is a busy parser adventure game of bizarre comedy. You play a paparazzi Bigfoot trying to snap a picture of your dad, also a Bigfoot, in a national park he controls. You're doing this for reasons that are hard to understand at first and hard to articulate later. Plus the park has other cryptids in it and you're photographing them. Why to both? Well, it works out eventually, but this doesn't feel like the kind of game in which one should be fumbling for understanding as often as one is.

BB taps the vein of fun eight-bit adventures with its tons of amusing objects to collect, little puzzles all over the place and a sarcastic parser voice. It's quite compulsively enjoyable already, but simultaneously frustrating to play. Part of the trouble is in the realm of combinatorial explosion. With so many crazy objects in the game (you can sling a goat over your shoulder, dig chocolate out of a pie, wear a falconry glove, take photographs of things, build disguises out of bits of park detritus, etc.) interactions amongst them are underimplemented. This much stuff calls for that much more development work. Many great ideas I typed in received default rejection messages, making my perception of puzzle difficulty go up. There are also minor bugs and almost no synonyms, which leads to time spent retyping and rephrasing good commands.

And, for a good while, I genuinely thought the game was trolling me. Part of the HELP says:

"... Try to do various things that will help you stay hidden in the park. As you do, your score will increase and you will be able to track down Bigfoot Senior and catch him on camera...

Bigfoot Bluff is a forgiving game even though undoing is disabled. If you lose points, don't worry! Just keep playing and you will more than make up for the lost points."


So the score is related to stealthiness. If you act stealthily or increase stealth, your score goes up. But if you bumblingly draw attention to yourself, you lose points. I grew to find the numerous ways you can lose points increasingly hilarious, and suspected that the game's help message about its forgiving nature might be part of the joke.

Here are examples.

What if I...

– Put on some aviator glasses I found on a crash dummy in a downed plane?

>wear glasses

The glare from the reflective coating gives your position away

Score minus two

– Examine the drone I saw hovering near the plane?

>x drone

The drone focuses its lens and you hear a click as it photographs you.

Score minus one

– Try setting a weather-altering machine to SNOW in hopes of making me harder to see?

>set weather to snow

You set the weather machine to snow.

It begins snowing. Your tracks will only make you easier to follow.

Score minus one

Try setting the same machine to WINDY instead?

>set weather to windy

You set the weather machine to wind.

The wind picks up; this will only blow your scent around.

Score minus one

After twelve score-altering events had occurred in the game, I had made a net gain of only three points.

It took me a long time to get on the wavelength of BB. To really understand the premise, and what I was trying to do, and why, and how I should be going about it. I think part of this may be that the intro is too sparse. The premise is deliberately silly, but it's also sophisticated. The opening line is:

"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to... Bigfoot Bluff."

This bit of prose requires unpacking and raises a lot of questions. But the game just starts with you standing in a Parking Lot of short description. Probably the HELP text would be better placed as part of the introduction, and it could all stand to be more focused. I don't think having to make sense of everything slowly by playing the game is the best fit for BB.

The game builds up an effective aesthetic that is simultaneously funny and a little menacing. The emphasis on surveillance inevitably makes you feel like you're being watched. The descriptions of the park don't need to be extensive to create a strong sense of place, a naturally beautiful wilderness with your father's menacing cabin sitting in the middle of it, and the PDF map helps, too. There are wacky cryptids about the place, such as the Garbogriff, for you to photograph, and the taunting announcements / nature talks your father is strangely obliged to give by loudspeaker at such times are amusing as well as truly weird. His later revelations are even weirder and wilder.

BB describes itself as a sandbox game. I don't think I've ever really understood the term, but here it seems to refer to both the nature of the map, and perhaps the mechanic whereby there are many puzzles to be solved, but that you don't have to solve them all. I found this to be a relief because I had a good amount of unused stuff left in my inventory at game's end. And that end is quite spectacular.

BB is a detailed and very funny game, but its implementation isn't a match for its content, and I believe it's unnecessarily hard to get into. I'd like to see these issues addressed in a future update.


Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony, by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw
An extension of the extraordinary Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: fantasy, spring thing 2022, Inform

(This review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)

Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony (HC from here on) is the semi-autobiographical parser sequel to 2016's also semi-autobiographical Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by the same authors, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, and which was also introduced via Spring Thing.

I found the first game to be extraordinary. It's a hippiedom-infused, life-living sim seen through the window of manic depression, and transfused with plenty of bike-riding, fictional computer tech, new age alternate realities, loving, drug-taking and blasts of mathematics. In spite of its chaos, it displays an almost perfect marriage of form and function in relation to its subject matter, and is wildly written, and fun as well.

The follow-up, HC, has deep connections to the first, albeit in a fractalised, non-continuous way. Memories and events recur, or are revisited, or are re-analysed, or are fit into a continuing narrative of what has been happening with the authors since the first game. While all of the same subject matter returns in this second episode, the result is superficially less satisfying than the first because this time around, the framework is not conspicuously gamey. The player may still be the PC, now known as Mycroftiv (the narrator Ben from the first game) but they aren't a doer in a game world. They're invited to read what amounts to Mycroftiv's hypercubic journal of their memories and experiences. Each location in the game functions as one of 64 journal entries, and they're divided up in a virtual filing cabinet navigated by a bit-based nav system worthy of an Andrew Schultz game. The player's goal is open-ended: they can read entries as they see fit, and try combining some of the objects they find along the way. Objects like a Boolean Prime Ideal or a Measurable cardinal axiom. Examining these objects gives points, which is a measure of progress, but not a particularly important or logistically useful one in this game.

As I found the first game very moving, I found reading the entries in HC just as moving and stimulating, and somehow enveloping. They deal, through the authors' anecdotes, with family relationships, the nature of friendships, peak experiences via people and nature, and theories of "the mathematics of loving communication". Thus encapsulated, that last one may sound flakey, but the journal entries devoted purely to mathematical theories are not light reading. While two authors of the work are credited, the narrator voice is Ben Kidwell's / BenJen's / Mycroftiv's.

In both games, what I feel as I play them is the accuracy of the reality espoused (or theorised) by their authors, because in its bizarre way, it is perfectly articulated through wonderful writing that is never didactic. The narrator can be frank and proselytic when in their manic phases, but they're also tempered by acknowledgment of their mistakes, by moments of standing outside themselves, and by a lot of extended musing on the nature of empathy. The major declared mistake that forms a cut-off point in their life for the genesis of this game sounds especially disastrous (giving voice to sexual interest in a teenaged ward during a ritual invented during a manic phase) and this declaration is made in the first lines of the game. All the player's reading is declared to be about to happen "backwards in time... before everything shattered." So there is a sad frame placed around the game. However, its core narration is clearly an espousal of optimism. The sum of its multi-dimensional journal of positive memories, breakthroughs, mathematical progresses and wonderful human connections is an Eternal Yes.

Like the first episode, I see HC as demonstrating a perfect melding of form and ideas. The author's favourite idea, articulated in a thousand different ways, is about the interconnectedness of all things. The hypercubic nature of the game's journal connects its 64 locations in a fashion that allows you to get between any of them in fewer moves than it would take on, say, an eight by eight grid. This is a mechanical demonstration of what it may be like to have access to another dimension. In turn, the player's path through these locations may be entirely random (people who don't get binary numbers) or may follow a certain logic (people who know binary and can use the game's binary coordinates to lawnmower the journal). Somewhere on their journey, the player will likely find the journal entry that muses on the nature of free will and randomness:

"... I'd like to propose instead that free will is better understood as what randomness feels like from the inside. The intuitive sense that free will is different from randomness is a dichotomy between the external view of dice rolls as meaningless and arbitrary versus the meaningfulness we feel motivates our own choices. A more careful examination of the definition of 'random' shows that the identification of 'random equals meaningless' is not objective. The real definition of random is simply anything that cannot be externally predicted on the basis of available information..."

For all its wildness, the game has this seer-like, synchronous way about it, and contains journal entries addressing almost any mechanic or idea demonstrated by the performance of the game itself. Some of these entries are indirect, others explicit. One that made me laugh was the authors discussing whether the entries describing mathematics would prove too thick for readers. I'd already found my concentration wavering when trying to follow some of those entries down at my lay level. Another entry stepped out of the game to posit that the player is actually a character in another game played by 17-dimensional chipmunks.

It's with tricks like these that the game seems to be what it proclaims reality is: a demonstration of complete interconnectedness in ways we can't anticipate or understand. That it's also an emotional diary of creative experiences, introspective moments growing out of bike rides, jokes, and mathematical ponderings, demonstrates the authors' great instincts for mapping the personal onto the cosmic and the existential. And that it has no end as such, instead just failing to provide new material at some point – petering out, even – seems to be saying something about the imperfect movement between different episodes in our lives or creative outputs.

I think the game is also superbly written from word to word. The voice is persuasive, lyrical, able to build ideas clearly when necessary, and also able to explode them with illegal syntaxes when necessary. While HC drops its gaminess relative to its predecessor, its lack of a need for world model implementation has allowed the authors to take even more flight with their prose, at greater length and as often as they like.

I find it hard to imagine how HC will fall on players who never tried the first game. It's bound up with that game's contents like the posited hypercube. A cube placed in the first game, and which then expanded simultaneously in all directions, might produce the vertices of the second game as a diffracted take on the old mixed with the new. Given that the parts of the old that reappear are reconstituted in detail, I suspect they might work and stand alone for new players. And if you like HC, you should certainly return to the first game to experience its more purposive take on an earlier stream of the story. Both games come with optional outside-the-game music, and HC's extras folder contains css files with theory and speculation about Enlightenment Escalators and Harmonic Ultrafilters. Together, the two Harmonic pieces comprise one of the most singular visions in IF.


Alone, by Paul Michael Winters

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A zombies and survival game that's quiet., August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform, ifcomp 2020

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

Alone is an adventure of survival set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world. The initial situation of having your car break down out on the road leads gradually (but not too gradually) into a series of dense and satisfyingly overlapping puzzles, especially of the mechanical variety. With its keys, locks, recalcitrant security doors, fuseboxes, circuits and deserted environments, Alone's puzzlebox reminded me most of the Resident Evil games. Alone also steps into the equivalent IF tradition of the Resident-Evil-type game, though pointedly without gunplay, shooting or much violence at all. I'm now finding it harder to think of other similar parser IF games than I expected; there's Divis Mortis, and, with a supernatural spin added, One Eye Open. Calm has deliberately very fiddly mechanics in a post-apocalyptic world, but not any bogeymen if I recall correctly. Alone has The Infected. Zombies if you prefer.

Alone's puzzles are broadly familiar in the adventure game aesthetic, but that doesn't matter when their execution and interweaving are as solidly performed as they are here. The game isn't perfect; a couple of the most difficult actions only accept one very specific phrasing, and I had to use the walkthrough to get through those parts. But otherwise, there's consistent logic to all the mechanics. Alternate solutions to problems are considered by the game and well-excused. Nearly successful attempts on puzzles give feedback to point the player in the right direction. Irrelevant objects fob the player off to avoid time-wasting. These standards are maintained for the game's duration and that is very good work.

A few spoilers if you read on:

Alone has an interesting quality that was apparent to me only after completing it. I noticed all the things that hadn't happened in it. I mean things that I might have expected from a game like this if it had not veered from the centre of this genre's road. The threat of infection is always present and its zombifying consequences are apparent (the one time I did turn into a zombie, I found the description pretty creepy) but there is ultimately only one active zombie encountered in the game. The PC isn't disrespectful of the dead and the player doesn't have to fight or kill to survive. There's almost no violence. And though there are a few endings, the game's ABOUT encourages the player to get the most obviously good one, which it turns out is tied to the most moral and hopeful outcome in the game. So Alone reminded me what my expectations for this genre are, and was uncharacteristically optimistic or entropy-averse in relation to them. In this way it stands out from what you might call the current glut of material in this genre in other media. Though as I say, I think the genre is not as strongly represented in IF as I thought it might be.


Necron's Keep, by Dan Welch

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Hardcore CRPG with neat spellcasting system – and bugs – for hardcore players, July 30, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, CRPG, RPG, fantasy

Version five of Necron's Keep is a great advance on the buggy original I tried many years ago. I played this hardcore CRPG to completion over four hours and found it to be very entertaining, in spite of the continued presence of many bugs of inconvenience (mostly involving the automatic inventory management). In a nutshell, Necron's Keep is a challenging, detailed and unforgiving single-character fantasy CRPG. There's no UNDO, and you'll need to keep and label many a save file to make it through. What you get in return is an interesting spellcasting system, transparent die-rolled combat and a satisfying gaming challenge with plenty of danger. The story style is probably most like that of a 1980s Fighting Fantasy gamebook, complete with nasty surprises, while the combat adds some AD&D-like detail.

You wouldn't expect someone called Necron to be a nice guy, but the truth of this game's background story is that you don't know. He's an archmage who went off to live with his people in an enchanted castle and fell out of contact with the world. The king has sent you, a mage, to Necron's place to find out what's going on.

In the fashion of many an old-school (or old-school-styled) RPG, the beginning of this game can be the roughest time. It's when random die rolls and traps can kill you off quickly. Traps and monsters will eat your hp (there are both fixed and random encounters), and the spells you cast to try to protect yourself also cost hp. The multi-page tome you're given to read at the game's start is semi-overwhelming, but it combines lore on how the spell system works with hints that will help you later in the game. You start off with a good number of spells; they show up in your inventory. More spells can be learned from scrolls you find (doing that also costs hp!) and some require material components that you need to find on your journey. This is quite a cool aspect of the game, though it takes a lot of observation to work out which components get eaten by the casting of spells. In bad but amusing news, the game is prepared to incinerate your only held wooden weapon to cast a spell requiring wood if you don't have any other wood in your inventory. You can detect traps, mend broken items, divine the nature of things, cast offensive spells in combat. There's a good range of stuff and a lot of it works on a lot of the game's contents.

The thing that might drive some players spare is the inventory. You've got an unlimited holdall, but only finite hand space. So the game autoswaps items in and out of your holdall as required. This constantly results in situations like you putting away one of two things you need simultaneously when you take the first one out, or accidentally forgetting to get the wood out and burning your weapon as a spell component. This is the main site of bugs in the game that still needs fixing.

The early game is about battling through and finding healing items to sustain you. Once you have the power to create your own healing sphere (this is a cool effect, where you ENTER SPHERE, then sleep or meditate to recover), you enter the midgame, roaming around fighting monsters, collecting xp, healing, learning new spells. The late game could be considered tackling the bigger puzzles and challenges of the keep directly. I was stuck for ages in the midgame because one room exit wasn't mentioned, but I'm not sure if this was semi-intentional – there's a magic item you can acquire that gives you an exit lister, and it was the exit lister that showed me the new way to go.

Once you've worked everything out in Necron's Keep, there's a degree of optimisation in stringing all your knowledge together, and probably revisiting older saves where you were in a better position. I felt really satisfied when I completed it.

This is definitely one for people who like this kind of game, and in spite of its inconveniences, I think it's a good example of the CRPG in parser game form. I wouldn't normally give a game with this many bugs remaining a four, but I can't go below four for a game that kept me this involved.


Ka, by Dan Efran

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Afterlife adventure with exotic machinery and puzzles, June 3, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: fantasy, Inform

Like a lot of the most high-faluting mummies, you used to be a pharoah. Now you're a Ka, an ex-mummy spirit about to quest for the afterlife. And as the game's blurb reveals, the first problem you face is that you're inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin... etc.

In spite of Ka being on my To Play list for a long time, I procrastinated because of the impression I'd obtained from reviews that it was a hard-leaning puzzler with an emphasis on machinery puzzles; I don't consider interpreting detailed descriptions of arcane equipment to be one of my strong suits in parser gaming. Ka definitely has a good amount of arcane equipment in it, but it's also considerably more varied, and the way it's mostly delivered as one self-contained room after another reduces stress. The player doesn't have to worry that the thing they might need to make a machine work is elsewhere. I was thoroughly engrossed in it and completed it in eighty minutes, only checking a walkthrough once. It is a little strange, though, that so much is implemented in this game, and yet so much that seems obvious has not been implemented. I suppose this backhandedly amounts to direction on the puzzles (you can't muck around with things that aren't implemented) but it does suppress Ka in the polish stakes.

The ABOUT text mentions the amount of research on Egyptian afterlife rituals that went into Ka. The game has a convincing and exotic (to non-ancient-Egyptian me) aesthetic that's lived-in for its PC. I don't think I'd call its procession of puzzles a narrative-narrative, but it does develop a story, attitude and a history through the PC's narration, including flashbacks to his life as a pharoah. Battling through the puzzles amounts to a microcosm of the struggles of the living during life, and the prose doesn't forget to keep pressing this note. Success in the end does bring a kind of spiritual relief. There is an emphasis on time, memory, circles and loops in both Ka's bejewelled imagery and in the physical constructions of its puzzles.

The game's ultimate puzzle, a riddle, is the only one for which I needed to consult a walkthrough. Once I'd read the answer, I couldn't actually reverse engineer the sense out of it, so I wasn't hurt by my failure to come up with it. Fortunately David Welbourn, via his walkthrough, went the extra step of explaining its meaning to me.

Ka is a dense but not overwhelming puzzle game with a rich Egyptian aesthetic, plenty of exotic mechanical puzzles and a good number of other types of puzzles as well.


Grooverland, by Mathbrush

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Major fantasy'n'puzzling adventure in an ever-weirdening theme park, May 23, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, fantasy

Disclaimer: I cameo (name-wise, anyway) in this game as an NPC. This was a prize the author gave me for IFComp reviewing.

Grooverland is a big, modern day fantasy'n'puzzling adventure set in the eponymous theme park. The player is eleven-year-old Lily, and for her family birthday outing she's granted the run of Grooverland for a day, as well as the personal party role of Queen. The park is outwardly wondrous but increasingly sinister as the game progresses, putting the game into what I broadly think of as the Wishbringer tradition, with a touch of Willy Wonka to boot. Indeed, both Grooverland and Wishbringer open with a dragon attack scene, and in both cases the scene quickly turns in an unexpected direction.

Grooverland is named for IF author Chandler Groover, from whose games it's inspired in imagery and themes, though in a more G or PG-rated way than the source. I continue in the embarrassing (but majority) tradition of reviewers of Grooverland who haven't played most of Groover's games. Nevertheless, I recognised more of them than I thought I would during Grooverland. Plus, like the game says, knowledge of them is not essential for play.

The puzzles are excellent, exploiting all of geography, mathematical logic, permutational experimentation, and intuition both fantastic and emotional. They involve such tasks as feeding icky foods to weird animals, charming creatures into service, eating giant cakes and working sideshow magic. Some interlock, some stand alone, some require the player to reach back to prior ideas or knowledge at the appropriate moment – and they're great at building that knowledge in the first place – and they all feed each other's logic.

It's this consistency and cumulative development that makes Grooverland feel so vivid. This is a big game (close to three hours for me, without hints) but arranged so that it never feels overwhelming. I'm not used to puzzling at such length these days, nor with puzzles that are so cleanly and sharply presented in concept and in their elements. I almost felt they might be easier than they seem, but I think it's the access to them that is the site of increased ease, a reflection of contemporary possibilities in IF and the author's abilities.

The prose delivers visual clarity, and is especially good at doling out the game's highly dynamic world in a comprehensible way. While the various wacky NPCs demonstrate clear personalities in prose, I felt the heroine perhaps demonstrated the least, or at least the least specific. The game has an impressive catalogue of anti-stock responses and jokes, but I got the feeling too many of them were from the school of parser humour rather than what Lily might be likely to think. (Though who can prove that she doesn't think like a parser game author? She's certainly likely to become one if she survives the experience of Grooverland.) Lily's family, too, are a bit functional in delivery. That didn't bother me. There's so much puzzling to be getting on with, I was glad to not have to ASK/TELL my family into the ground as well. Amongst them, they have enough strokes to conjure the needed familial emotions.

The prospect of tackling the game's finale was almost too much for me when I reached and apprehended it. However, it turns out not to be some brutally punishing boss fight puzzle, but rather a way to reward the player with access to the powers they've spent the game acquiring.

Grooverland is a great puzzle game that's fun and highly involving, and a fine feat of fantasy imagination as well. It is also technically rounded well beyond what any one player might see, which I consider to be one of the hallmarks of the best IF.


Carpathian Vampire, by Garry Francis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Solid parser tutorial game tapping Dracula, May 20, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform

Carpathian Vampire, part of the 2022 Text Adventure Literacy Jam, puts the player through one strand of the classic Dracula story – the finding and staking the vampire part – via a clean and fundament-focused presentation suitable for the teaching of playing parser IF. There are few flourishes, but the implementation is very solid and the classic styling of the castle taps the eternal gaming Dracula. The thoroughness of the playalong tutorial is about equal best I've seen, only tripping once with a bit of contrary advice regarding a notebook.

Dracula might be my favourite story. I don't know that it's my favourite novel, because in spite of my indulgent nature where horror is concerned, I do think some bits of the book are particularly poorly or strangely written. In each new take on Dracula in gaming or film, Dracula's castle can be reconfigured in one of an infinite number of ways, drawing on a library of elements that are now sourced from more than a century of books, films and other media. A lot of these ways may not be too different to each other as they target the key tropes, but I still have time for all of them. This was the aspect of Carpathian Vampire that most interested me as an old Dracula head: the familiarity of its setting. I could almost swear I'd walked this configuration before, kitchen on the left, dining room on the right, etc. But I feel that way in many Dracula castles, and it's a good feeling.



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