Reviews by Rovarsson


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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.

Rover's Day Out, by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Good Dog!, October 28, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

(warning: while I do not spoil any specific puzzles, this review talks about the underlying weirdness, for lack of a better word, of the game)

The start of this game threw me into a wholly unexpected situation. From the (quickly skimmed) blurb I had taken away that Rover's Day Out would be a space adventure of sorts. Instead I got dropped in a fairly generic "my crappy apartment" intro. Complete with an annoying alarm clock waking me up!

That is... Until I started noticing things...

Most obviously, who are those people talking about me as if I were in another room. Am I? I sure can't seem to talk to them or interact with them in any way.

And... What's happening with the status bar? I'm used to glancing up there for confirmation of which room I'm in. This is different though... Some kind of technobabble straight from Enterprise's ship's computer. It's responding to the boring around-the-house chores I'm doing though...

Wait... There are those voices again, talking about me in the bathroom. One's being a prude about looking at me. But no-one's here...

And then the whole thing collapses when I tried to turn on the dryer.

Rover's Day Out is a 2009 game. It feels older though. This kind of confusing layering of player/PC personas reminds me a lot of the turn of the century experiments with the specifics of the IF medium.

The author uses the an AI-simulation to create a rift between the PC's perception, which consists of a recreation of the morning ritual of one of the designers, and the engineers/designers who judge the AI's performance from outside, in the real world.
During the game, the player shifts somewhere between these levels of perception and knowledge. From being confronted with a domestic breakfast situation, I quickly latched on to the simulation context through cues from the game. My knowledge becomes greater than that of my PC. The commands I give still need to be approriate in the PC's perceived reality however. This produces an alienating feeling of both inhabiting the PC and hovering above it. When the simulation-protocols are partially lifted during the endgame, this alienation is enhanced by an even greater disconnect between PC-perception and valid commands.

The fact that I, the player, am able to overhear the engineers talking about my, the PC's, performance broadens the gap even more, even while I'm consciously striving to bridge that gap and stay connected with my PC.

There are a few points where the partial overlap between player and PC is less than perfectly recognized in the game's responses, and sometimes I had a hard time discerning just what level of reality the description I was reading was about. Once I fully grokked the one-on-one relation between simulated and real objects though, the puzzles clicked quite easily and elegantly.

Confusing in a very good way. Must play.

A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Space Thievery 2022, October 27, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Puzzler

When I saw Space Oddysey 2001 for the first time (and the times after that, now I come to think of it...) HAL scared the brains out of me. The calm, collected voice-pattern, the ruthless efficiency, the cold determination...

Nah, I like his sister a lot more. Ok, she sounds at least as disturbing as her big brother, but at least I can picture myself having a fun night on the town with her.

(For no reason other than my own imagination, I perceived SOLIS as female.)

SOLIS welcomes you as you stumble onto her decks, on the run for the space police because... Well, you're a thief. Plain and simple. And your FTL-jump thingamajig had a small hiccup so you ended up here with a lonely AI in an abandoned spaceship.

Contrary to HAL, SOLIS does have a distinctly, erm... outgoing personality. In fact, sometimes she sounds like her personality is a bit too much for her to handle. Like it's growing out of her circuits, fizzing and crackling...

The more I engaged with SOLIS, the more it became clear that there were hidden depths underneath her humorous façade. As if she was using robotic indifference, AI-superiority and sarcasm as a shield from the utter desolation of her situation and from traumatic aspects within herself.
SOLIS is easily one of my dearest NPCs ever. Conversing with her, getting to know her was a great joy.

In comparison, the PC comes close to an empty shell at first. Sure, we get a bit of background to establish we're a thief but not a nasty one, but for the rest, the protagonist is a mask for the player. During the course of the game however, and especially through communicating with SOLIS, the player has ample choice to characterize the PC. I personally went for friendly pitbull (be nice if possible but bite down on any questions the NPC seems reluctant to talk about).

In fact, the entire game is well suited to this sort of featureless protagonist. At its core,A Long Way to the Nearest Star is a very old school adventure. Find codes and tools to solve clever puzzles and unlock previously inaccessible regions of the spaceship. While the obstacles are mostly engaging enough to make this fun in its own right, the gradually unveiling of the backstory is the real reward.

Pretty standard for an old school text adventure. But it's implemented in Twine. The biggest consequence of this is that the level of interaction with the game-world is slightly higher order, less hands-on. Compared to a parser, the player has not nearly as much freedom to juggle the inventory and throw every imaginable verb at the poor objects. Instead of a compass, there are room-connections in unspecified directions. This didn't keep me from drawing a map.

Still, even though the player is clicking to advance through the game, the focus is very much on which actions to undertake, as opposed to navigating a branching narrative space. The choice format makes the conversations flow naturally. Many options differ only in tone, serving to characterize the protagonist. There are choices that can significantly influence SOLIS attitude and behaviour too. These, together with some PC actions during the game can lead to diverse endings.

I liked how the UI, with its boxed and highlighted options, mirrored my mental image of the screens and terminals the protagonist is confronted with throughout the game. For those who might find this too intrusive, the style is customizable in the gear-menu.

A polished and exciting science fiction game. Recommended.

Crash, by Phil Riley

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Just another day on the job..., October 3, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Puzzler

"♫♪♫...tum te dum te dum... ♪♫♪"

While you're waiting for this airlock to cycle open, you take a look at your task-list. "Repair microwave oven. Fix cabinet door." Should be an easy job, getting this crew's living quarters in order before going home. The crew are all in the space station, so you can take all the time you want, you've got this starship all to yourself.

For no reason but my own imagination I thought of the PC in Crash as a middle-aged guy with a two-day stubble and a cigar butt stuck behind his ear, doing this one last job before going home for the night and watching a far-future version of Jeopardy.

Of course, before you've set more than a few steps inside the SS Ugati, all hell breaks loose. The space station explodes behind you, propelling the ship you're on into open space. Darn! Looks like your task-list just got a bit bigger.

A few questions to the ship's computer quickly reveal a backstory of a system-wide rebellion, rivalling factions and opposing planets/moons. I really like this plot dynamic, a normal guy unwillingly thrust into circumstances with far-reaching consequences and no choice but to rise to the challenge.

The protagonist is weakly characterized, making it easy for the player to project herself onto the role or to invent a character of her own liking (the stubbled cigarsmoking guy I mentioned above...)

The build-up of tension is very well-paced, several times raising the stakes and increasing the urgency of the situation. The puzzles follow this arc of tension nicely, with a few simple preliminary obstacles leading up to two more complicated and challenging endgame problems.

All the puzzles are of a mechanical/physical/chemical nature, requiring obtaining and studying information (the ship's computer), and implementing cause-and-effect relations, all the while taking into account the fact that you are in a spaceship.

There is a lot of optional material for those with completionist/optimalizationist tendencies, although doing menial chores while your damaged vessel is hurtling through space does strain the suspenders of disbelief somewhat...

About midgame two NPCs come into play (albeit never personally, you can only talk to them on the comms.) Both are well-defined, they have a definite personal voice. The transition to the endgame requires you to put your trust in one of them. A frustrating dilemma with limited background information, adding to the tension of an already distressing situation.

There is much satisfaction to be found in figuring out the two main puzzles by yourself, perhaps with a nudge from the step-by-step hint system. Do give them a chance before running to the walkthrough.

Great puzzles against a strong but elegantly downplayed backstory.

This is very good.

Bane of the Builders, by Bogdan Baliuc

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Rescue the professor!, June 10, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

Some SF short stories can leave you numb and exhilarated at the same time as the repercussions of the twenty- or thirty-something pages you just read reverberate in your head. I'll just namedrop the first three that pop into my reverberating head to show off a bit: Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg, Nightfall by Isaac Asimoc, Second Variety by Philip K. Dick.

Now stop to think for a moment. I can't be sure about anyone else, but I must have read hundreds of SF short stories that were less awe-inspiring, brain-shaking or mind-shattering. Less memorable each on its own perhaps, but all of them added up to a pile of more vague or diluted memories of enjoyable evenings and chilling nights and exciting afternoons spent with my nose in this or that SF-collection. Taken together, those less memorable stories have undeniably given me many more pleasant hours than the aforementioned three and their likes.

Bane of the Builders falls squarely in that second category.

It's a competently written and coded adventure. An engaging, if not very original, storyline.

It has a very cool trick where the surroundings shimmer and then things change all around you. (Reminiscent of a glitch in that movie that couldn't decide if it wanted to do magical kung-fu or just shoot everything to smithereens and then proceeded to do both... Not that anything like that happens in Bane of the Builders after the shimmer effect, but... I just got carried a way a bit there, okay.)

I had fun finding my way through the maze. The map is easily visualized, the impression of the alien base hanging in an underground cavern still lingers in my imagination.

The puzzles are not clued well enough, but persistence pays off (or the walkthrough, if you just want to experience the story.)

The end game is challenging but also a bit underclued. I had to fill in some blanks with my own imagination to get a coherent picture of why things did or didn't work.

But, all in all, a well crafted game and a well told story. One to put on the slowly growing pile of enjoyable afternoons playing a SF game while it rained outside.

Harmonia, by Liza Daly

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Utopian Literature, June 8, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: History, SF

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

Yes, you can. I judge books by their covers all the time. And by the size and type of font, the colour of the ink, the amount of whitespace on the page, the texture and smell of the paper, the illustrations if there are any, and any number of sensory details that influence my feeling about a book.

I wasn't able to ascertain the smell nor the texture of Harmonia's pages, but I found it an aesthetically pleasing work in all the other areas.

It has few but beautiful graphics that look like charcoal or leadpen drawings which complement the "old" feeling of the game perfectly.

Specific to the beauty of a mouseclick-driven text, the new paragraphs fade fluently into view, giving the eye half a blink's time to adjust and expect the coming words just before being able to legibly pick them out.
Perhaps my faux-tactile experience would have been even better if my cursor arrow were the nib of a quill pen, or the relaxed finger of a hand following the lines. Small nitpick, to be sure.

But of course, the saying has a point. No matter how prettily clothed and wrapped, the story must stand on its own when abstracted from all these adornments.

Harmonia surely can stand on its own. It is a SF steampunk time travel story looking back to the past. It makes excellent use of foreshadowing to heighten the suspense throughout, and adds a small twist in the end. The main character is a clearly drawn young woman with a strong voice. To talk more about the content of Harmonia would be to tell too much. Let the reader do the reading.

I do want to speak of the craft the author shows. It is considerable, especially in its pacing. As I was reading the first paragraph, I pressed "restart" after only a short while, having been tickled by the text. I sat down properly, took a deep breath and settled into a slow and focused mode of reading.
It's a treat to let the languid, comfortable sentences come over you at their own tempo; they have a musical rhythm that invites mumbling along or even reading aloud.

I should also like to dwell a short while on the form the author adopts in writing this story. In keeping with its inspirations, the late 19th century Utopians, Harmonia reads as a first person account of supposedly real events. In the principal narrative line, several other sources are found, read and discussed. Each of these in turn takes the form of an eyewitness account or a journal entry. Again, first person singular. These accounts are commented upon and annotated by other characters, or in the case of the main line, by the main character herself. The effect is that of a nesting or layering of first persons in dialogue, creating an intricate web of story threads.

Now, all of the above could as easily have been said about an ordinary, "static", work of fiction. Wherein then lies Harmonia' interactivity?

For one, it has choices. At my leisurely but concentrated pace, it took about two hours to complete one reading. In this time, I encountered but a handful of defining choices. (Beware, reader, for these are not accompanied by bells and whistles. Pause before you press.) As is my habit with these choice-based games, I only played it once through. I therefore cannot tell how far the other paths may diverge from the one I travelled.

Far more importantly in my impression were the annotations in the main text that come into view as mere scribbles in the margin upon a press of salient words. Because they are not present at the first viewing of the page before the reader, but only become apparent as one actively presses, it feels as though the character scribbling the annotation is reading along, and, at the click of a word, whispers side-thoughts and elaborations as one moves a finger along the lines.

This technique invites a deep engagement with the text, where the interactivity takes the form of discovering more profound meaning in a joint reading of the story with the characters that feature in said story. A vivid reading experience indeed...

This game written as a first person account contains excerpts of eyewitness novels and scraps of personal journals and annotations in the voices of the characters and whirls around and around... until the game recedes from view and one is truly immersed in the experience.

A superb piece of interactive writing.

Transfer, by Tod Levi

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A dog called Kafka, May 28, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Puzzler

This morning's groundbreaking transfer-experiment has failed. Maybe the Machine was miscalibrated, despite all the checks and double-checks. It worked on mice and reptiles, why did it fail with the first human subject?

Transfer is a mystery/detective game that plays in the aftermath of this failed experiment. Instead of providing a clear objective, the game relies on a few more subtle clues to grasp the player's curiosity. Two NPCs act a bit strange. It's left to the player to unravel the thread and find out what's behind all this.

A secret experiment needs a secret location. In this instance, a mostly underground scientific research base on a far-off island. This makes for a small and compact utilitarian map. Labs, sleeping quarters, common eating hall.

However, it's remarkable how much adventurous exploration can be crammed in such a restricted space.

Partly this is due to a few blocked-off passages that draw the player toward opening up these undiscovered spaces. When they do open up, they don't disappoint...

Another big part of the richness of the game comes from the behaviour of the NPCs. They all have their own agendas, and their walking to-and-fro helps bring the research base to life. You need to learn about their work and their routines to figure out how they might be involved in the greater mystery.
Giving the NPCs a measure of personal agency may enhance the lifelike feeling of the facility, but it also creates expectations the game cannot fulfill. It feels grating to break into off-limits areas while someone is standing right there, or showing someone their stolen stuff without it provoking any reaction. Playing Transfer with a straight face sometimes requires wearing quite stretchy suspenders of disbelief.

During the game, there is a lot of plain old exploring and searching and puzzling going on, but all the main plot advances rely on using the Machine. This main puzzle/solution mechanic is implemented in surprising ways. In the first parts of the game, this makes for original and well-thought-through puzzles. By the end however, there is a series of Machine-manipulations that inadvertently lean towards the comical rather than the suspenseful. It's still a good puzzle sequence, but its tone would perhaps fit better with a fantasy-comedy than a science-mystery.

Solving puzzles and finding secrets advances the plot point by point. At the beginning of the new “chapter”, as well as in the introductory sequence, the writing shines. The room descriptions are clear and effective at conveying everythin the player needs while still adding to the atmosphere. It’s in the intermezzos however, in the overheard whispers and in the sudden actions of the NPCs in between acts that the narrative tension and tempo are best brought forward. The quality of the writing was certainly good enough to let me glance over some of the more improbable bits of the story.

The ending may feel disappointingly unrealistic to some. I for one really enjoyed the Poirotesque dénouement where the mystery's solution is summarized and elaborated upon by the villain with all the characters in the room. A fitting moment of closure for a puzzling game.

Heartily recommended whodunwhat and whoiswho against a scientific backdrop.

Andromeda Apocalypse — Extended Edition, by Marco Innocenti

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Of the Puny and the Vast, May 19, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF


Alone in the deepest, most serious meaning of the word.

Before you a blackness the stars do not penetrate. Around you a galaxy collapsing under its own weight. Behind you an all-consuming, fast-expanding sphere of heat and radiation.

The remains of your exploded home are all that is following you. The supernova is gaining on you.

Andromeda: Apocalypse opens after the catastrophe on your homeworld that was the end of Andromeda: Awakening. There is a certain calm in the desperate knowledge that all is lost, there is no need to frantically try to prove your point to those who need to know. In fact, during this game's reminiscences, it is called into question if anyone even wanted to know...

The map of Apocalypse is very satisfying to explore. A giant derelict alien ship, battered by time, meteors and who knows what else provides the perfect mix of ordered hallways and corridors on the one hand, and clogged, torn, or plain ripped apart tubes and plates on the other. Chaos and recognizable structure in the right proportions.

There are puzzles, and a few of them made me stop and think and check my notes. However, the rhythm of the game thrives on thorough but speedy exploration, on getting pást the obstacles, not snagged up mulling about them.

While staying true to the "catacombs-and-puzzles"-structure of the first game, thematically this game offers more room to philosophical ruminations. In between the explore/action sequences, there are intermezzos of a dreamlike or hallucinatory quality where the protagonist discusses the meaning and importance of being human in contrast to the vastness of time and space. That sounds bloated and arrogant when I inadequately summarize it like this. In-game though, it works. Mostly because these discussions take place in a friendly and familiar setting with the protagonist and his uncle bouncing thoughts and feelings off one another.

By the halfway point of the game, you will meet an NPC whose nature and knowledge will bring this emphasis on the short and limited versus the vast and ungraspable even more to the foreground.

By the endgame, I felt a bit sad for this friendly NPC.

Many intruiging questions and themes touched upon in a setting that could not be more appropriate.

Very good.

Floatpoint, by Emily Short

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Extraterrestrial Diplomacy, March 19, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

(Nothing in this review gives away solutions to puzzles or tells you what choices to make. However, if you want to experience the contents with a completely open mind, skip this and play first.)

The Colonist's homeworld faces an imminent global freeze-over. The High Company back on Earth, in its benign and charitable friendliness, extends a helping hand.

For a price.

The Ambassador on the Colony has been removed from his duties. He had gotten a little too friendly with the natives to the Company's liking. You are to replace him and negotiate a satisfactory agreement about the evacuation of the Colonists and their resettlement on Earth. You have received rather precise instructions as to what kind of deal is acceptible to the High Company and how to get the message across.

Of course, you are on a planet orbiting a distant sun. Back on Earth, they might have taken you for an easily manipulated handpuppet, but there is not much the Company can do to keep you from investigating alternative options...

You start off exploring an overwhelmingly beautiful world. The natural splendor of your landing spot gradually gives way to a once magnificent city, now rapidly falling to ruins. The descriptions reflect the breathtaking surroundings without lapsing into purple prose.

During this first exploration you are nudged along to find your quarters at the embassy and perform some official duties there. Once you have done those, you can take all the time you want to wander around.

Apart from the readily accessible and very clear instructions from your superiors from the High Company, you can find out the opinions of other people about what should be done with the Colonists. Finding out these alternate opinions constitutes the only real puzzle-solving in the game.
This is necessary if you want to have a full understanding of the situation to base your decision on, but you do not need to solve any to get to an ending.

Your diplomatic decision is to be made on Gift Day, a ceremony of exchanging symbolic gifts. Because of the language barrier, the only means available to you to communicate your chosen agreement is through a combination of the clothes you choose to wear and the object you wish to present as gift.

There are notes and recordings to be found that can inform you about the meaning of the clothes and the gifts. The end-puzzle therefore is not a puzzle at all, but a well-considered choice on your part.

I followed my ideals on the first try and got a bittersweet epilogue, that I have to admit is more realistic than the happy ending I had in mind.

The same goes for the other endings you can reach through different choices of gift and apparel. This made me very aware of the ethical repercussions of my choices as ambassador to all involved, my superiors at the High Company, my fellow humans back on Earth, the Colonists in need of help whom I've gotten to know, and my own conscience and ideals. Each choice can be argued for with strong arguments, even though some may run counter to impulsive feelings of empathy or self-defense.

The ethical consequences of the game's choices could spark a night-long philosophical debate in the real world about humanity, identity, refugees, personal responsability, climate change and how to face it,...

Or one can just savor the experience of dressing up as a sci-fi diplomate and enjoy the delightful writing and surroundings.

Either way, a magnificent game.

Deep Space Drifter, by Michael J. Roberts and Steve McAdams

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The Maze Walker-Througher, February 26, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Escape, SF

Phew! Someone heard you! When adrift in interplanetary space, chances are slim that anybody would hear your distress signal in time. You received the coordinates, you probably have just enough juice left in the fuel cell. So yeah, very fortunate to be underway to that big... distant... abandoned... space station that is now being pelted with debris... and fired upon by a giant laser from the planet's surface...

Hmmm... Maybe not that fortunate, but you either dock here or die in your broken down spacecraft.

The space station in Deep Space Drifter is a compact and effective puzzle-space. A small number of rooms to explore, each with a clear function. Enough objects lying around to get a notion of the backstory and aid in some nifty puzzles. And there's a robot! The environment is sparsely but adequately described, and every few turns the narrative voice informs you that the station is shaking around you as a result of an explosion or an impact. While these messages help with the sense of being in a larger and quite vulnerable place, they do become repetitive to the point where you just skip them.

I dropped my inventory a lot in this part of the game. And not because I typed DROP a lot. I didn't methodically investigate, so I don't really know if it's a bug, if you lose your inventory each time the station gets hit, or if there are an inordinate amount of actions that implicitly DROP ALL (SIT does this for sure), or a combination of all the above. What I do know is that I often arrived at my destination ready to tackle an obstacle only to find that I was empty-handed. That involved some backtracking.

Since the space station is abandoned and empty, just refueling your own spaceship won't work. So, in the next part, you go down to the planetary surface. The game from this point on is very uneven.
I loved zipping around the underground tunnels in the shuttlecar (yes...) There are two very satisfying puzzles. There are also two very large mazes. And that's a pity. I thought both mazes had a really good concept that was drawn out far into tedium and boredom. I frankly didn't care anymore and went with the walkthrough. The concept could have been kept intact, and the mazes shrunk down into 10 room navigational/timing puzzles that would have been more engaging.

Some good puzzles, some good fun, but ultimately not enough.

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