Reviews by Rovarsson

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1958: Dancing With Fear, by Victor Ojuel

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
♪ ♫ Bandiera Rossa... ♫ ♪, January 30, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

1958 Dancing with Fear is a very cinematic IF experience.
We are dropped in medias res in the head of Palomé, a woman we know next to nothing about at the beginning, but who clearly has an intruiging history.
As play begins, she is persuaded by an accomplice to accompany him into the Grand Mansion they are conveniently standing right in front of. He wants Palomé to strengthen his disguise (infiltrating a ballroom party is less conspicuous with a beautiful woman on your arm...), and he also needs her to be ready to create a distraction should that be necessary.

This wasn't part of the plan, but reluctantly (and slightly excited by the prospect) Palomé agrees. Within minutes after entering the mansion, the plan goes south, the accomplice is discovered and the success of the mission falls upon Palomé's shoulders.

You (the player) help Palomé by investigating the surroundings and talking to the guests at the party, some of whom are familiar from her past. This brings memories to Palomé's mind, gradually uncovering her eventful backstory while at the same time providing clues for handling obstacles.

While the main story and the mansion it takes place in are small, the use of flashbacks adds a lot of content and substance to the game. You get to know your main character better and better, causing you to align your game-objectives with her in-story motivations.

The flashbacks and the various obstacles in the mansion play out as short scenes in a movie. This gives the game a strong forward drive, pulling the player along with Palomé's discoveries and her memories.
It also means the game is very much on rails.

The author gives the player some leeway. Examining everything closely is encouraged. Even unimportant details will give a small insight into the personages' lives and the social/political climate of the time period.
However, any actions other than X run the danger of going "off script", leading to a swift discovery and a failed mission. These losing endings are just as engagingly written as the main line of the story.

To strengthen the immersion in the time-period, it's very much worth the time to just LISTEN (or WAIT) multiple times in the ballroom. The author has gone through the effort of providing a very large variety of background murmuring and gossiping for the guests. An effort that adds immensely to the atmosphere.

When you pay attention to the clues in Palomé's backstory, the puzzles shouldn't be too difficult. Sometimes the order in which to tackle one or the other obstacle is a bit unclear, as some of the clues seem to be applicable to more than one situation. This shouldn't pose too much of a problem though, and if you should go too far off script, there's always RESTORE (or multiple UNDOs) to get you back on cue.

Dancing with Fear is engagingly and enthusiastically written. The subject matter is quite a bit heavier than magical kleptomania, but it is handled in a balanced manner. Heartwarming notes, action sequences, and personal revelations are spread throughout the game which, mingled with the socio-political background motivations, make for an equally entertaining as though-provoking IF-piece.

Unfortunately, there is a noticeable amount of typos and language errors in the text. Not enough to ruin the pleasure, but they are distracting and immersion-breaking.

At the end of the game, the player has several choices (six, to be exact, of which I found three). They make it possible to insert your own views on the matter at hand (which I've kept deliberately vague in this review...), and choose an ending according to your personal preferences.

A great spy-infiltration thriller with deep background. Heartily recommended.

Lost New York, by Neil deMause

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Jump Forward..Fall Back., January 18, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

The train got you to New York right on time as scheduled... Which means you now have an entire afternoon's worth of time to kill before your friends get off work. Seeing as you're now a bit of a stranded tourist, why not make the most of it?

Lady Liberty seems like a good place to start. After poking around a bit (as adventurous tourists are wont to do) and standing in line for way too long, lo and behold, you find a portal to the past!

Lost New York is a time traveling sightseeing game. There is no pressing urgency, no impending city-threatening catastrophe. The essence of the game really is wandering around through New York in different eras of its construction.

That doesn't mean there are no puzzles. Oh my, but there are puzzles. Many depend on carefully remembering buildings or NPCs from different time zones and traveling back and forth with the necessary items. The majority are well integrated and quite intuitive for the helpful and inquisitive tourist PC you are guiding along, but there is no larger motivation to solve them. Indeed, from outside the game the puzzles mostly seem put there to force you to explore thoroughly and see as much as possible of the city the author has recreated in the game.

For the best experience, it is not recommended to focus too much on solving the obstacles as quickly and efficiently as possible. Instead, hang around, spend some time in interesting places. Well written and fascinating scenes are bound to unfold. This does mean that you will probably die on multiple occasions, or end up an adventure zombie at the least. Make sure to have a few save files at the ready. (Dying or quitting prematurely compares you to a New York mayor. The accounts of their accomplishments and fraudulence are worth dying for.)

The exploration of the history of New York is where the heart of Lost New York lies. A few smaller areas are mostly there for variety and mixing up the puzzle-solutions. The meat of the game is in traversing and comparing the two big maps/years: 1880 and 1905.
The sideways encounters with some historical NPCs made me curious enough to do some research into the lives of Emma Goldman and Robert Moses among others.
The most impressive character in the game however is the city of New York itself. The author has lovingly recreated a miniature Big Apple with lots of famous and infamous locations. The traffic and hassle on the streets, the descriptions of buildings and parks, the shops and saloons,... They all call forward a city bustling with life and productivity.
The differences between time zones add to the impression of life and growth. A construction site here, a half-finished bridge there, the transition from above-ground railways to subway tunnels,... All paint a vivid picture of a city in flux, constantly on the move, hurrying toward the future.

While there is no suspense involved in your sightseeing trip through the past, there is much excitement to be found in the exuberant and detailed descriptions of New York. Even the parser gets in on the action by replying to a failed command in a typical brusque NY manner (>GET PAINTING "Get real!")

The love and fascination of the author for the city of New York shines through in every paragraph, even when describing the more shadowy sides of its history and geography.

A beautiful, entertaining, captivating historical tour.

Rite of the Druid, by Paul Weller

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Druid's Path, January 10, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

An aspiring Druid nearing the end of your apprenticeship, you stand before a final daunting task. You must imbibe the dream-potion and leave this world to go on a Spirit Trek.

In the Dream World lies your Druid Way, and you cannot return until you have found it.

An original premise for a text-adventure, a framing story I found very attractive.

The setting of the Dream World helps to defuse some common sources of disbelief. Various improbable, even physics-defying things can happen here, and it's not that weird to find a desert three steps from a glacial mountain flank.
On the other hand, although the setting unites vastly different ecologies in one world, the map in general retains a very natural feel. The easy way, especially in an oldschool adventure with 23 rooms only connected by cardinal directions, would have been a geometric grid.
Instead, the author has left out many room connections and skewed the map in a slightly asymmetric form. This gives it an organic feel, a shape almost like a bush or shrub. The more I mapped the game, the more this form became apparent. It's subtle, but it certainly added to my appreciation of the game.

Rite of the Druid was developed to be compatible with oldschool limited-memory platforms. A lot of scenery is unimplemented, and a lot of commands are met with "You can't do that." This is to be expected and didn't bother me much. However, the limited memory comes with more grating issues.
When the player enters a command that would be useful in another room or situation, even a very general "Not now"-response would be a helpful nudge. Instead, it's impossible to differentiate between a failed command and a near-miss.
Sometimes finding the right verb to appease the two-word parser is a pain, but it comes with the territory. However, when I suddenly found, after fishing up and juggling every seemingly plausible two-word combination to form an intelligible command, that in certain situations the parser does accept a compound phrasing... Let's just say that an unspecified amount of hair previously on my head is no longer there...

Apart from these issues I had with Mr Parser, the puzzles are delightful. There is a nice flow to the sequence leading the player from one solution to the next object to the next puzzle. Many solutions require that undefinable little snuff of moon-logic that makes for a nice "Aha!" once you find it.

When booting up Rite of the Druid, the first thing that catches the eye is the superb pixel art. Truly beautiful. But this is a text game.
I am very happy that the sparse descriptions do not fall behind. Whereas he pictures are luscious and vibrant, the sparse, stark white-on-black text pinpoints the salient details and carries the magical mood in well-chosen sentences.

I liked this a lot.

Roofed, by Jim Munroe

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Spizz., January 8, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

You love your big brother Anton very much. Wouldn't know where you'd be, how you'd survive without him. That said, Anton's not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Closer to a spoon, to be honest.

Just now, he turned away from the handleless rooftop door that he was supposed to hold open while you were working. It clicked shut, leaving the two of you stranded on top of the building with no way to get down again.

I booted up this game without reading a blurb or a review beforehand. From the intro, I gathered that Toph (the PC) and Anton were a pair of chimneysweeping brothers, or maybe smalltime burglars with a hide-out on the roof. Until I reached the end of the starting room description and it turned out we were gathering spider silk. Or "spizz" as Anton calls it, however nastily suggestive that may sound...

This is just the first of many small and subtle but very intruiging bits of worldbuilding you'll find while searching the abandoned rooftop for a way down. They come together very effectively to paint a fragmented yet evocative post-apocalyptic picture of the near future, one that I would love to explore in a bigger game.

Roofed is a very small game, six locations in total and maybe 45 minutes of (slow and attentive) playing time. It feels like a small slice-of-life in the daily goings-on of the two brothers, and it makes me very curious about how they spend the rest of their time. There are hints about a rivalling gang, about their boss who buys the spider silk, about the completely organic architecture in the newer parts of town, and of course about the spiders who left their threads to be harvested...

The puzzles are simple but clever. Even though there are very little resources to be found on the rooftop and the objective seems straightforward, it takes a decent amount of experimenting and getting to know the surroundings to successfully find an escape. Of course your trusted big brother is there to spring to your muscular help should you require it...

The relationship between the brothers is endearing and lifelike. Each stands by the other's side and helps out with the skills nature has given him, be it brains or brawn. Helping them escape their predicament and seeing them walk off toward new adventures, little Toph atop Anton's broad shoulders made me smile.

Good game.

Old Jim's Convenience Store, by Anssi Räisänen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A hatch? How quaint., January 7, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)


It's a real pity that there aren't any good superlatives to descrive something that is really good at being plain good.

Old Jim's Convenience Store (see, the plainness begins with the title already...) assumes nothing, seeks no higher glory, has no ambitions I could discern apart from providing an pleasant semi-adventurous hour or so. It does so by means of an easy but rewarding treasure hunt in an underground tunnel/cave.

You see? It's the exemplification of adventure tropes. It's a cliché boiled down, condensed to its purest essence. Except that it's set in a convenience store instead of a spooky manor.

I had a lot of fun playing through this. There is comfort in re-exploring well known ground. There is pleasure in seeing the familiar treated with loving craft.

I'll settle for "Brilliantly Average!"

Fish!, by John Molloy, Pete Kemp, Phil South, Rob Steggles

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Plastic Castle in my Bowl, January 6, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Someone over at Magnetic Scrolls must have though "Hey, if we can get the players on board with the most ridiculous premise right at the start of our new game, we can do pretty much everything we want to them once they're along for the ride."

So they did.

It's only through the mastery of text adventures that Magnetic Scrolls has that this doesn't dive off the deep end into utter baffling zaniness. Even then, Fish! cuts it really close.

Two things hold it together:

--The skill of balancing puzzles on the brink of logic. Oftentimes, I found myself doing stuff because that's what you do in an adventure. Only afterwards did the results fall into place and did things make sense. I blamed this on lack of clueing or lazy storytelling at first. I have to admit that at least part of the gaps were caused by my frequent use of the walkthrough. When played on its own terms, Fish! sends you back to your fishbowl upon failure (or just plain kills you later in the game). This means that before you solve a given chapter, you will experience it many times in different sequences.
Even then though, some of the jumps, hoops and timeloops the game expected me to not only find but also exploit in the right order were a bit too much of the try-die-repeat variety. ((Spoiler - click to show)How on earth one is to know when to go to the disco?)
At its best however, Fish! offers some long-term puzzles where it is a great pleasure to see the vague goal you saw from afar finally come into focus and click.

-- The skill of letting the story cover any holes. A mystery story with dimension hopping fish is bound to have lots of loose threads. Those are features, not bugs! Now, I don't want to accuse Magnetic Scrolls of doing this on purpose... much. Fish! is an immersive action-mystery. The dimensional loops give it a thought-provoking SF feel. The writers throw in their best goofball-comedy talents. It's really a very entertaining ride.
If a few clues and some plotlines got obfuscated for the sake of fun, oh well...

The PC in Fish! is sent to different areas by means of warps. Each area does not just contain a puzzle, it is a puzzle. You need to find the sequence to get to the proper ending, otherwise you are sent back, killed off, or zombified. Especially after the first three preparatory levels, thing get serious. There are explicit and implicit timers (you were told that you have a meeting at ten, but (Spoiler - click to show)no one said when and why they stopped selling plankton sachets in the restaurant...).

I found this incredibly difficult without the walkthrough, but, as I said, relying on the walkthrough too much will make you miss a lot of the story.

And actually, aside from all the frustration this game will surely cause you, the mystery-goofball-SF story is a big laugh I wouldn't want to have missed.

Opening Night, by David Batterham

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A rose for a star., December 3, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

A bouncer looks down his nose at you. "So sorry to inform you, sir, but we do have a dress code here. If you would be so kind to adhere to it or shove off. Please."

Opening Night starts out with a straightforward puzzle: find a way past the bouncer and into the theatre. We meet our player character, who seems to be a somewhat obsessed fan of the lead singer/actress in the play this evening. His insistence upon getting in goes two ways: it garners sympathetic feelings for his obvious and honest admiration for the show's leading lady, but it also verges on the edge of creepiness.

In later chapters however, the need to get a personal meeting with the actress falls away as the prime motivation of the game as it transforms into another story altogether.

There are puzzles, but they serve mostly as a means to get the player more deeply involved with the story.Away to elicit a deeper emotional response as the game goes through its metamorphosis.

In the end, Opening Night is a short and compressed tale centered around the eponymous pivotal night in the protagonist's life. While the game shows us only scenes from the theatre and its immediate surroundings and never elaborates on the player character's personal life, Opening Night still manages to somehow imply the protagonist's entire life story. We are given just enough hints to let the imagination take over and fill in the blank years.

Very strong storytelling.

Recluse, by Stephen Gorrell

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Grashoppers, robins and squirrels, oh my!, November 25, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Puzzler

While flying through the air, your nose already preparing to courteously greet the gravel waiting to catch it, you ponder the manners of the butler who just threw you off the porch. Surely he overreacted just a tad...

Since a simple knock results in a rather unpleasant scraping of your face on a less than welcoming road of little rocks, and from the looks of that butler (and the fact he effortlessly hurled you several meters far), you decide that sneakiness and subterfuge might be a better tactic for delivering this package.

Instead of a Dungeon Crawl (although we are briefly entertained in one of those later in the game...), Recluse is an Estate Romp. Its basic structure remains the same though: a big ol' puzzlefest. In the best tradition of the genre, there isn't really a plot or story to speak of. Instead, the author finds other ways to engage the player.

--A good introduction goes a long way. It sets the mood and puts a question, a magnetic objective if you will, in the player's head. Even if the game itself doesn't tell much of a story, the intro resonates throughout the playthrough and pulls the player along. In Recluse, the adressee of the package you must deliver is a once-famous homo universalis.

> "J. Daggett Winton, archeologist, explorer, inventor, mathematician, philosopher. Director, Winton Antiquities Research Foundation. Chairman of the Board, Winton International. Holder of thirty-seven patents in fields as diverse as Genetics and Game Theory. Rumored to have the largest privately-held collection of historical artifacts in the world."

Since the untimely death of his wife however, he has locked himself away and became the titular "Recluse".

This character made me think of Howard Hughes, and especially of Leonardo Dicaprio's over-the-top portrayal of him in The Aviator. The prospect of meeting such a character at the end of my travails worked as precisely such a narrative magnet as I have described.

--The game exploits brilliantly the major strength of parser IF: leading the player on a tour of exploration and discovery. Recluse boasts an immensely gratifying map. The biggest part of the game-world is a grand manorly estate, with lots of varied environments. Its central fountain and gravel paths give way to wilder and more unkempt stretches of brush and rough clifftops. There are carefully locked off areas, some of which come as a surprise when finally unlocked, others enticingly visible from a high vantage point without obvious means to get to them...

--Modern IF heavily emphasizes the integration of puzzles into the story. This isn't quite possible for a puzzlefest that sports, at most, the flimsiest of framing stories. In Recluse, the puzzles are integrated with the surroundings. They flow organically from the environment. All the puzzle elements and the obstacles are naturally present in, even expected on a lordly manor estate. The one puzzle that could be viewed as overly convoluted is justified by the personality of the owner of the estate, J. Dagget Winton the recluse... Interestingly, this most complicated of puzzles yields an anticlimactically mundane reward. This sort of thing happens regularly in this game.

--The writing joyfully (perhaps even childishly) plays with lots of IF tropes, twisting them upside down and (sometimes) setting them back right side up for an extra twist.

The narrative voice in Recluse is the most powerful immersive element in the game in my experience. Not a true character in itself, it does act as a mediator between the player and the game. First and foremost, it does its job admirably: It clearly describes the locations, the protagonist's actions within them and the consequences of those actions. On top of that, it paints an elaborate and detailed picture of the surroundings and it evokes a sense of space by recounting the travels of the protagonist.

"You soon realize you're in for a bit of a hike. The path passes to the east of a large greenhouse, then bends northeast toward the cliffs overlooking the ocean. The ground turns rocky and starts sloping downward. Before long you're winding down stairs cut into the face of the cliff."

I love this. It opens up the map and lets me walk alongside the protagonist with the wind in my hair. The view from the cliffs, once you get there, broadens your sense of wide-open space even more.

But these things are not so special... Other games have them too...

What made the narrative voice stand out most were the many asides, serious and playful alike. Like a storyteller around the campfire stepping outside of the story and adressing the audience, pointing out a funny detail or drawing the attention to an important feature. Most of the time this happens in a gentle, almost confidential tone. The one time it nears the border with intrusiveness, it does so to great comedic effect.

--When the outdoors adventuring options on the estate grounds are at long last exhausted, the player enters a high stakes endgame. The reward for getting through is a delightfully lengthy epilogue which finally explains the backstory of J. Dagget Winton. It also provides an obvious opening for a sequel.

Alas! Recluse was written 14 years ago, which makes the chances of ever joining our protagonist on a next adventure seem slim. Perhaps, if it is not too forward, I could urge the author, Stephen Gorrell, to follow the example of Michael J. Coyne, who wrote Illuminizmo Iniziato 15 years after its predecessor Risorgimento Represso.

--A wonderful parser puzzler. Beautiful game-world and a friendly, welcoming narrator. Strongly recommended.

Being Andrew Plotkin, by J. Robinson Wheeler

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A postcard from Zarf's insides., November 18, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Quick recap: the protagonist of the movie/game finds a magic door that leads into John Malkovich'/Andrew Plotkin's mind. Shenanigans ensue.

For the most part, the game follows the plot of the movie quite closely. The biggest alterations are jokes and references to IF in general and Zarf's games in particular. Since I wasn't around in the era of sizzling and bubbling creativity on the intfiction newsgroups in the 90s, a lot of the references went over my head. I'm also not intimately familiar enough with Andrew Plotkin's work to recognize all the jokes and shout-outs.
However, having roamed the internet for IF-history sources, a lot of the game did ring a funny bell.

For a text-adventure about a PC who's a hobbyist text-adventure writer entering the mind of one of the most renowned text-adventure writers of the era, there's actually precious little actual text-adventuring to do.

Most of the game pushes you along the rails laid out by the movie, with frequent conversations where you can choose to say a silly thing or an even sillier thing. Only in the very last sequence before the epilogue does a puzzle show up. And it's a rather mediocre one at that. (One could call it a callback to the classic puzzles, if one were generously inclined...)

The writing and tempo are great though. Exciting scenes zip by at rollercoaster speed, the descriptions are detailed and evocative, the conversations are very funny indeed.

I enjoyed the ride.

Grounded in Space, by Matt Wigdahl

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Naughty Spaceboy, November 15, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

You should think your parents would be proud of your advancements in rocket science and pyrotechnics, what with all the effort you put into your experiments. Ok, a tad more forethought might have left the now-wrecked shed in the backyard standing, but still...
But no! They decided to send you on a punishment mining mission to teach you some responsibility...

For all the whimsical slapstick style of the introduction, Grounded in Space quickly turns into a more serious space-faring mission. En route to the family asteroid mining claim, the game allows you ample time to familiarize yourself with the ship's functions. And you'll need it.

After a first mining puzzle where you figure out the (well clued) sequence of commands needed to operate the ship's heavy equipment, the story twists around and turns into a rescue mission. There are multiple possible endings, all more or less intuitive once you use your imagination and think about what a young bright lad on a massive mining spaceship has at hand.

The development of the story through its escalating levels of engagement works nicely. The narrative timing draws the player in while increasing the tension, but still leaves enough room for experimenting, exploring the ship's interior and its equipment.

There is one geometric/logic puzzle that completely baffled me. The game attempts to aid you in visualizing it with a rudimentary grid and detailed description, but without actually seeing the results of my interventions I could not get a grip on it. (There's a walkthrough by the author on the IFDB site.)

The endings were perhaps a bit predictable, but the satisfaction of finding that last move to save the day (at least partly, with more or less collateral damage depending on your chosen tactic) more than makes up for this.

A great SF game with good narrative development.

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