You are about to die. There isn't anything you can do to change that. Or, just maybe, you might get a second chance.
In a bizarre and unnerving limbo, the somewhat sleazy salesman Everett Rhodes is offering you that chance. "You made some mistakes, friend. Bad mistakes that have crippled your life. Today you can fix them. TODAY you have the opportunity to SET MATTERS STRAIGHT. Just shake my hand and everything will be YOURS to decide.”
The game (or Rhodes himself) puts you in several different characters' shoes, as you attempt to work out just where your life went wrong in order to put you in this position. It is highly probable that you will need to play through the game multiple times in order to reach a good ending - requiring not just a second chance, but a third, fourth or even fifth. However, each playthrough gives you a better sense of your characters and their relationships, and the satisfaction gained from doing a little better each time outweighs the minor annoyance at quickly re-solving a section you'd already completed.
There were some situations where I felt that the options available for solving the puzzles could have been expanded, or that the solution would not have been effective in real life, but full realism is impossible to achieve without sacrificing gameplay, and no solution was entirely counter-intuitive. There was also one particular glitch that I noticed towards the end-game, where a description from another part of the game appeared, but it did not affect the gameplay aside from breaking momentum a little.
A minor warning: many of the characters are unpleasant and hold contemptible views, and the author himself warns that the game contains bad language and violence. While Whyld certainly is not espousing these views himself, he gives minimal moral narrative in favour of reflecting a realistic form of character. And the characters are well drawn, as you get a good sense of their lives even as you spend little time with most of them.
Overall, this is a very well-written game with a compelling premise. Ultimately it is a game about free will conquering determinism. This is made more interesting when considering the relationship between player and player character, the latter of whom inherently lacks will at all. In a way, you the player are the enigmatic Rhodes, holding cards your character can't see, but equally it is Whyld who flashes you the smile as you struggle, nodding, and saying: "Just shake my hand and everything will be YOURS to decide.”
In Dead Reckoning, you are Mark Duffy, returned to the village of Morrow to help your friend Edwin, who has been babbling about mysterious dangers. Initially sceptical, you soon find out that they are very real.
While I'm not sure that Dead Reckoning qualifies as cruel on the Zarfian scale, there are certainly multiple ways to bring death upon yourself here. Judicious use of save and undo will help you, and the game in some ways actually encourages you to try death-bringing moves to gather knowledge needed to better understand your aims and how to achieve them.
The writing is mostly pretty tight, and it's a well put-together world, but there are flaws. In one area, you must examine something, and then examine a further element of that description in order to find an object (Spoiler - click to show)(although I don't believe this object is essential to finding the best ending). In other areas, however, there are descriptions of objects that seem important, and yet are not implemented in the game-world.
I uncovered two small incidents of guess-the-verb, though only one I found infuriating:
1) (Spoiler - click to show)When trying to get into Edwin's house, you must make yourself known to him lest he attacks you. Yet when you try this, the parser demands a very precise wording:
Command not understood. Try something else.
You’re a little reluctant to do that.
> call to edwin
“Edwin! It’s me!"
2) (Spoiler - click to show)And later, when trying to discuss topics with the priest:
> ask kadrin about shekel
Kadrin frowns. “I fear I do not understand what you are referring to.”
> talk to kadrin
“What do you wish to know?” asks Kadrin.
1: “Tell me about Shekel.”
Other than these few irritants, Dead Reckoning is an enjoyable horror with a tint of mystery, and for fans of the genre it is well worth a play-through or two (or more, if you're also a fan of dying, a lot).