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Lord Bellwater's Secret, by Sam Gordon

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A room investigation., September 25, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Being trapped ina single room with a bunch of puzzles is not normally my preferred cup of IF-tea. Lord Bellwater's Secret however managed to draw me in by the exquisite writing and the intruiging backstory.

The old Lord Bellwater has died and his estate has been taken over by his only son. Soon after your beloved Elsie took a suspicious fall out of a window while she was cleaning the study. You, an aspiring groom of the household, sneak in at night to investigate and clear up the muddy circumstances of your sweetheart's death.

The gameplay consists mostly of thoroughly examining everything in the room, gathering clues and piecing together the true happenstances surrounding Elsie's death, and the peculiarities of the young master's take-over.

I was amazed at the depth of implementation of the library, with more than a thousand books you can supposedly read, and the detailed backstory that is revealed in a large number of letters, texts and diaries there are to be found in the room. There are three code-cracking puzzles that require thoughtful handling of the written clues. The solutions should become obvious to the player who does the work and carefully investigates the entire room.

The game very believably breathes the atmosphere of the time-period it is set in, the middle of the nineteenth century. There are hints all over the place to the relationship between the privileged upper class and the "downstairs people".

Coincidentally, just a week before I played Lord Bellwater's Secret I had read the novel The Quincunx by Charles Paliser. I don't know if or in how much the author was inspired by this book, or if he even read it. It did seem to me that I had found a secret door into one of the most suspenseful scenes from that book, where I could place myself in the place of the protagonist. This gave an extra dimension of immersion to the game.

An exciting investigation that is sure to keep the grey cells working overtime for a few hours. Recommended.


Father Leofwine is Dead, by Pugpup

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Murder at the Royal Court, September 8, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Father Leofwine, the King's councillor and Queen's confessor, has been brutally murdered! Somewhat unexpectedly, the King chooses Cynehelm, his Tax Collector, to surreptitiously investigate the matter.

Cynehelm in his turn recruits an accomplice, Wulf, to do the stealthy legwork while he talks to the eoldarmen himself.

I love historical detectives. The (static fiction) books about Gordianus the Finder (Steven Saylor) and Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peeters) have brought me many hours of joy. From the first paragraph, I knew this game was right up my alley.

Father Leofwine is Dead begins with an intruiging "locked room" murder mystery and spreads out through the Castle, even the City. The story has two protagonists, and you alternate making choices for them. The different characters and social stations of the protagonists lets you see the the investigation through two different viewpoints, as Cynehelm is a member of the King's closest entourage, and Wulf is more at home in the backstreets and dark alleys.

I found it very well written and truly engaging. I'm not a completist in story-games, I will not go back and see all the different branches of what-could-have-happened. (I'll go back a page if I die unexpectedly, but I won't replay to see all the text.) This approach immersed me deeply in the story, laying a weight on each choice so it had to be seriously considered. To aid the player in choosing, there are many clues laid out in this story's pages. The mystery of course demands that the player differentiates between important clues and dead-end paths, a tricky but doable task in this game.

The writing is very good. There's a nice rhythm to the sentences and the historical atmosphere comes through without laying it on too thick. The suspense is sustained (even turned up) throughout the story, maybe even a bit too much. Perhaps one or two resting spots would have allowed me to catch my breath before diving in again.

The layout is great, the pages are the right length to draw the reader in while still presenting important choices to signal a new beat.

Some small nitpicks:
-I found it disorienting that the story is told from the 3rd person perspective of one of the protagonists, but that some of the choices inconsistently refer to a 2nd person "you". Either this is a remnant of the 2nd person IF-convention that slipped through, or it is a deliberate breaking of the fourth wall, acknowledging the player as the real decision maker. If the latter, it did not succeed as a style choice for me. If anyhting, it felt jarring to be adressed as player in a story I had been reading "from above".
-The writing is very good. Therefore, the typos are all the more grating. I reckon one per page. Pity.

Very, very intruiging historical mystery.


Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life, by Truthcraze

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Aquavit, August 25, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

"Aquavit" is a liqueur that my grandparents would recommend if someone was a bit weak in the knees or fatigued. It means "life-water". A small shot of it would get you back on your feet.

Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life bears some similarities to that liqueur. It's short, strong and it picks you right up.

The entire game is one funny poke at Indiana Jones tropes. The deathtraps in the temple are not any more over the top than in the movies, but the descriptions (and the protagonist's reactions to them) make it obvious how improbable and inappropriate some of those movie traps are. I bet the designers of the boobytrapped temples could have made a good living designing text-adventures in the eighties.

What appears to be a funny comedy at first does reveal itself to be a clever little collection of interconnected puzzles. After dying a few times, I found myself taking the game a lot more seriously. It became a matter of pride to not let this Indie-parody mock me and my adventuring skills.

Lighthearted comedy at the expense of our beloved action-archeologist, good puzzles and a general tone of "Don't take things too seriously, and if you die, you can always undo." Fun!


Jigsaw, by Graham Nelson

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
20th Century Tidbits, August 4, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Puzzler, History

I remember getting a very intimidating book as a present when I was a small child. I was amazed that it had more than a thousand pages. It seemed impossible that anyone would get through such a huge story. It turned out to be a "365 Bedtime Fairytales"-book, with a 3-page story for each night.

What was a relief in the case of the bedtime book turned out to be a disappointment in the case of Jigsaw, a game I had been looking forward to playing for a long time.

Instead of a sweeping epic story taking me past the turning points of recent history, I got 16 smallish (but hard) bedtime puzzles barely held together by an overarching plot. Just as with the bedtime-book, Jigsaw took a long time to finish. I would hardly call it a big game though. More a series of historical vignettes, to be experienced and enjoyed at the player's leisure.

As for the overarching plot, anyone's guess is as good as mine. Here's what I made of it: Black has a plan to change the past to mold the present and/or future to Black's priorities/preferences. You don't want that. (Even if some of the changes Black tries to make are really good ideas, like (Spoiler - click to show)preventing World War I...) Your task is to find and reverse the temporal disturbances Black leaves in his wake as he visits certain important times in the 20th century. Black's and your motives for all of this remain in the dark (to me, at least).

After a confusing introductory sequence (where you need to find an unmentioned exit to progress, not for the only time in this game...), you arrive in the central hub/control centre. From here you can access the different time-areas where you need to solve a puzzle.

Fortunately, the time-areas are mostly independent from each other. As you enter one, you should be able to find everything needed to fix the temporal disturbance. This makes the puzzles merely hard, instead of impossible. Allthough the number of rooms and available objects is limited in every area, you have to time your actions carefully and execute them in a particular order. SAVE and RESTORE are necessary parts of the gameplay.

Most of the historical vignettes were very enjoyable, clearly well-researched and very satisfying to solve. Some were either too hard, or were solvable but took me far into try-everything-on-everything terrain.

I missed a cohesive backstory tying this game together as a whole. However, it's well worth exploring and trying to solve the puzzles independently. As I said: very satisfying.


Whom The Telling Changed, by Aaron A. Reed

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The truth of the story is in the listener..., June 8, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Whom the Telling Changed is a different kind of IF. I was enthralled by this story within a story on multiple levels.

Superficially, this piece is a retelling of the story of the Cedar Forest and the demon Humbaba from the Gilgamesj epic. An interesting tale on its own, and also of great historical worth, it being the oldest recorded epic poem known in literature.

The setting is that of a non-descript tribal shepherding and farming community somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, some 3500 years ago. A group of newcomers have arrived, and the tribe is stricken with fear. There are also those who are curious to learn, and see these newcomers as an opportunity. You play the role of one of them, standing up to your war-hungry rival Sihan.

The epic poems that survived share a great relatability, centering on the great human questions of life and how to respond to them. It is here that Whom the Telling Changed places its interactivity. While the Storyteller relates the story of Gilgamesj and his friend Enkidu, you are allowed to comment and interject, hoping that your questions and suggestions will lead the emphasis of the story in your preffered direction and so sway the people to your point of view.

I imagine this sort of discussion over the meaning of old and well-known stories during a ritual telling around the fire may have been very important in the decision-making of pre-literate peoples. We still see this in debating the "true" meaning of religious and ideological texts.

Indeed, this is the wisdom the Storyteller imparts: Stories are not true or untrue. They convey meaning to the listener who makes them so...

The game-aspect of the story lies in traversing the pre-existing (and perhaps known to the reader) story in ways that emphasise the peaceful or curious sides of our human nature, as opposed to the violent or fearful ones.

Or not. The player is free to explore all the different directions the story may take, thereby sending the attention of the tribe and the relation with the rival Sihan in different directions.

Apart from some standard parser commands which are generally not needed, the player is offered a range of topics to choose from in the form of highlighted words in the text. There is also the opportunity to PRAISE or MOCK other speakers, to get the tribe on your side. Be careful, this may backfire.

I found there was a very believable and focusing contrast between the strict ceremonial protocol of the Telling and the freedom to interject at almost any time during the story. The game refuses all commands that would take the protagonist out of the frame of the Storytelling, most times responding with a valid in-game reason. On the other hand, there is a combinatorial explosion of choices that can lead you through the main story in many different ways, evoking different reactions from the tribe along the way.

The writing is exquisite throughout. The author has adopted the style of the epic oral poem, with repetitions and formulas, but he has also adapted this into readable and playable written IF-prose.

A story to play and replay, and, for me at least, a reason to expand my knowledge of the source material.

Very interesting, very impressive.


Augustine, by Terrence V. Koch

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Watch out what you wish for., May 15, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

An oath sworn in anger and grief leaves two men immortal, bound in their fate until one succeeds in killing the other.

One of them is Kasil, a merciless warlord who led his men on gruesome slaughter-rallies through England in the early fourteenth century. The other is you. You saw your village butchered at the hands of Kasil's men and your sister raped and murdered by the man himself. At the end of an undecided duel, you swear that you will either kill him, or die by his hand while trying. And so the curse takes hold...

First, let's get this out of the way: Yes, this setup is very reminiscent of the <Highlander-movies. It's too good a story to dismiss it as derivative or even plagiarizing though. I categorize it as "an original story in the Highlander-universe", even though the particulars of the spell/curse are somewhat different.

I was very impressed with the structure of this story. Augustine begins with an action-packed prologue where the player learns the backstory of both characters and their bond of fate.

The contrast with the start of the story proper, where you are a bored office clerk in the city of Augustine could not have been greater. Looking for a way to spend the evening, you buy a ticket for a ghost-story tour. It's during these stories that the player learns that the PC is indeed the same centuries-old warrior from the prologue. Although it could be a bit more refined, the author still makes good use of the PC knowing more than the player.

Through flashbacks brought on by the different stories, the player gradually traverses important events of the protagonist's life, coming to know and understand him better. Eventually, this leads us to the expected final showdown at the end of a second and rather more eventful story-tour.

An enthralling story to be sure, but very flawed in execution I am sad to say. When going over my notes for this review, I was reminded of my comments on Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter. A great adventure story, but not an adventure game. Apart from some fightscenes where you can THRUST and PARRY, there is hardly any exploring and no puzzle-solving whatsoever. Exploring the story would count as adventuring for me, were it not that the game is so railroaded that there might as well have been a next page-link at the bottom of the paragraph instead of a parser-prompt.

Indeed, I would have enjoyed this story more as an ink-and-paper macabre horror fiction piece as were popular in the second half of the eightteenth century.

Add to this a very annoying lack of synonyms (>THRUST AT KALIS. You would have to unsheath your sword before you do that. >UNSHEATH SWORD. I do not know the verb "unsheath". Aaargh!) and an all too generous sprinkling of misspellings.

Summary: very good story, badly executed as interactive fiction. Read it, but don't expect to play it.


Border Reivers, by Vivienne Dunstan

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Medieval murder mystery., March 1, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Murder most foul! Archie Elliot has been slain, his throat cut in the night. The Warden, the highest authority of law in these parts is called to snuff out the guilty party and apprehend the murderer. He asks you, his clerk and youngest son to do the sniffing.

Members of all the clans involved are gathered in the great hall of the castle. You must ask the right questions to the right people to find out who did the deed and tell your father about it.

During the interrogation section of the game, you can ask each person about several keywords, notably the four clans of the region. From their responses you are able to gather clues as to who is holding something back, who might have a motive and what that motive might be.
This process quickly became a bit mechanical to me. I imagined my character to be a quite young, somewhat timid man, kept under father's thumb while my older brothers are free to build their own life. It was hard to get in charachter though, as I could not greet people, nor could I offer my condolences to the widow and daughter. I had no choice but to barge in with the limited set of questions I had. The fact that "Archie", "murder" and "body" are treated as synonyms was a disappointment, as these topics could elicit very different responses in my imagination. (The living person Archie, the circumstances of the murder and specifics about the wounds respectively.)

However, I found it more engaging as I played on and I got to see the discrepancies between different people's answers and I began to form a hypotheses. A hypotheses that was confirmed by a clue I got about halfway through the game.

After a set number of moves, you are forced to make a decision (or make a wild guess) as to who the murderer was. Depending on your answer, the loose threads are nicely taken care of in an ending of a few paragraphs. (I got a "good" ending. I didn't replay to get a "bad" one.)

I enjoyed this game as a quick diversion, but I enjoyed it even more as a springboard to dive into the history of the feuding clans along the Anglo-Scottish border in the 13th-16th century.

This game provides a good illustration of something I find immensely interesting in human culture and behaviour: the fact that among these antagonistic, often warring clans, there was still a law (Border or March Law) that they mostly respected. (Apparently, if you were raided, it was within your legal right to raid the other party within a period of a few days. But only if you made a lot of noise and were carrying a turf-torch to announce yourself as legal raiders, instead of the sneaky illegal kind...)

Border Reivers could be expanded to make the interrogations more diverse, and maybe to include a bit more clue-finding in the castle. As it is, it's a fun and interesting experience. It got me interested in its subject matter, that's for sure.


Aunts and Butlers, by Robin Johnson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not quite, your lordship., February 23, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

The opening paragraph of Aunts and Butlers immediately sets the tone for this game: silly, jolly punniness played off of British stiff-upper-lipness.
The first part of the game succeeds in keeping up this atmosphere. You play an impoverished young man from a wealthy family. Your filthy rich aunt is coming to visit and you will have to jump through hoops to have a chance to get some money from her so you can pay your debts.

The puzzles are not difficult. The game pretty much tells you what to do, in a polite and British way. The implementation might give some troubles: when trying to interact with something, the game does not differentiate between an unimportant object or an object that is simply not there.

Up until here, I had great fun trying stuff out and breathing in the fresh British air.

Unfortunately, after solving the bottleneck-opening puzzle at the end of this first part, the game loses its ambiance and slides off into oldschool incoherent silliness (the bad kind). A medieval knight and a starship are involved, among other things.

In the hints for one of these rooms, the author writes that this room was coded at 11pm the night before IF Comp's deadline. I suspect that he turned to unfunny random madness as a last resort, pushing himself to get something finished to enter in the competition. Pity. I would have loved to see what this game could have been if it stuck to its first-paragraph principles.

Disappointing.


Cana According To Micah, by Christopher Huang (as Rev. Stephen Dawson)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mmmhh, honeyed locusts., February 3, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Cana According To Micah is a very nice retelling of one of Jesus' miracles from the viewpoint of a servant at the wedding in Cana.

In search of the last jug of wine that has gone missing, you encounter several characters from Jesus' time and entourage, trying to get their help in understanding where the wine has gone. The puzzles almost all consist of talking to the right people at the right time.

I found the fact that there is no real theological depth to the conversations refreshing. After all, you're a servant trying to solve a practical problem. Discussions about the deeper meaning of the dis- and re-appearance of the wine are for scolars in later centuries.

I really liked the setting. In spite of a really small map, I got the impression of a spacious house with a large number of wedding guests. There were some hints to the Jewish wedding customs at the time, but as you play a character from that time, most are only mentioned in passing.

After accomplishing one important task, a quote from the poet Coleridge pops up. Not only did this take me out of the time of the story, it also hid the game-text right after my last command. Annoying.

There are a few decision points where the story can branch. I did not replay to look at them as I was content with the one playthrough and the ending I got.

Nice historical/religious vignette.


The Abbey of Montglane, by Art LaFrana

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Holy Relics!, November 11, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History

Wow! That was really really really cool!

The year is 1347 AD. You, a renowned scholar and theologian, have been summoned by King and Pope. There has been a tragic fire in the library of the great abbey at Montglane. The fleeing monks have rescued as much of the treasures as they could, but the location of certain ancient relics has been forgotten through the centuries. You are to retrieve them for the greater glory of King and Church.

The Abbey of Montglane is a 1988 DOS text-adventure. It is by far the oldest IF I have finished. (Edit: I see that the date on the IFDB page is 1993. I could have sworn I saw 1988 somewhere.)

Because of the limited implementation of objects and scenery, I had to switch my adventuring style from obsessively examining everything named in the descriptions to a more general exploring of the game-space. On my first evening, I spent more than two hours drawing a map of the abbey, and I hadn't even found the passage into the catacombs by then.

This game is awe-inspiring in its handling of space. The map is very large, and a huge chunk of it is open to exploration from the get-go. However, it is structured according to the layout of a historical abbey, a large rectangle contained within the outer walls. Most of the locations are next to one of the main paths, with enough of them to the side or in between to break the symmetry and give the map a more natural feel.
A medieval abbey was for the most part a self-sustaining entity, so the locations are very diverse. Next to the church and the monk's dormitories, there is a herb and vegetable garden, a bakery, a pigsty (with barrels for collecting the blood of a butchered pig!), a meditative fountain grove,... An impressive bell-tower looks out over it all.
The orderly structure of this above-ground map contrasts with the nooks and crannies and twisty passages of the underground catacombs. (No maze.) Mapping fun guaranteed!

The intro I have summarized above promises good writing, and the game delivers... for the most part. The descriptions are sparse, efficient and more verbose when needed. But: the juvenile 1980s text-adventure humour that pops up here and there broke the atmosphere enough for me to take away a star from my rating.

Solving the puzzles is mostly a matter of exploring thoroughly, taking the (surprisingly few) objects you find with you and remembering written clues until you need them. The best puzzle of the game is wildly unfair to modern standards, but it works and it is great and funny. Well worth solving without cheating.. (Spoiler - click to show)Learn by dying... A lot.

The Abbey of Montglane is a tremendous work of interactive fiction.
Highly recommended.



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