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In the Service of Mrs. Claus, by Mathbrush

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fun game about mythology and Christmas, October 2, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: 2-3 hours

IFDB helpfully informed me recently that this is the only game that I've rated, but not reviewed. Time to remedy that, though apologies as, even though I've played this game three times, it has been at least a year since my last playthrough and my memory has faded a bit. This will be a shorter review than normal.

In this game you play an elf "In the Service of Mrs. Claus" who runs things at the North Pole (really another dimension populated by gods, dreams and things that go bump in the night), now that Santa himself is dead. You have a wide range of options in selecting your characters appearance and personality, and indeed a pretty wide range of options at almost every junction. I'm not familiar with the general Choice of Games style that much (though I hope to be more in the future), but I actually could have done with less choices. It seemed to me like they were coming at me pretty fast, and that the choices, especially at minor moments, where myriad and long. Thus, of all the words I read in this story perhaps a good 10% were not actually part of the story I chose.

The plot is wide ranging and deals with both magic and tech, with humans and your fellow extra-dimensional beings. There a bit each of mystery, romance, intrigue, combat, along with a heavy dose of magic. The game is very well implemented and even when choosing a wildly divergent path on the second playthrough I could see where the author had both incorporated my changes into pivotal scenes that I'd played through before, as well as providing new whole new scenes to enjoy.

In the end the plot just didn't quite grab me and I didn't feel as attached to the characters as I have in some other CYOA-type stories. It was fun with lots of variety, but didn't feel that deep to me. I hope the author tries his hand at choice-based work again though (he is better known for puzzle-centric parser games which are usually great). I think this game was a solid first effort and I'm eager to see what he comes up with next.

Stay?, by E. Jade Lomax

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A wonderful game that has it all, lots of choices, a good story and puzzles too!, October 2, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: 2-4 hours

This is a truly wonderful game. I don't give out five star ratings often and when I do it means that I'll be voting for it in the next IF Top 50 list that Victor Gijsbers complies every four years. That's how much I like it.

The game is set in a fairly standard fantasy-style world. It begins with you as a student at university on the day you have to pick your "major": Magic, History or Combat. Then the rest of the game spans the next 13 years of your life as you graduate, start your career, try to find love (as the author states, the game is part dating sim) and deal with whatever else life might throw your way.

I don't want to give anything else away without warning, but I have to discuss the plot and mechanics in more detail. Relatively minor spoilers to follow, I don't think your enjoyment of the game will be lessened by reading them before playing, but maybe go play the game for 15 minutes first and then come back and finish the review. ;-)
(Spoiler - click to show)
At the end of the 13 years on your first playthrough (there will be many), one of your old classmates, Jo, shows up to tell you that the world is ending. A magical comet will impact your world later that day just outside your city, destroying everything. Jo uses a relic, a magical stone/gem, to stop the comet, but they aren't satisfied. Other bad things happened over the past 13 years that they couldn't stop, and they think you can do better. So they use another relic to send you back in time to the beginning of the game, but with the knowledge of what is to come you have to find a way to save some, or all, of the world. From there you get to live your life again, and again, making different choices, learning what you can until you are able to stop the comet too. If you do then you've reached the end, but still the time-bending relic appears and you are given one more choice: be satisfied with what you've accomplish and stay in that timeline, or put your hand on the relic and start over again. Maybe next time instead of just averting disaster you can make a better life for others too. Maybe even find someone to spend the rest of your life with, after the comet is destroyed, that part of your life you haven't lived dozens of times over. Thus begins the real game.

I imagine that time-loop/"Groundhog Day"-esque games can get very cliched. And certainly this game doesn't really deviate from the usual tropes. What makes it great are two things: the emotion/heart of it (to be discussed more after I end the spoiler section) and the way that the author worked the puzzles into the game. Each playthrough you aren't just making life choices, you are trying to find new ways to discover knowledge, to learn the secrets you need to know to save the world. Discovering something on one playthrough will open up new options to you on the next. I'm not sure, but it seems that on some playthroughs, randomly or through some mechanism I didn't figure out, there are certain options available to you that aren't on other playthroughs. When those popped up the temptation for me to explore a never before taken path was too great and led to some really sweet moments. All in all, puzzling through how to construct my ideal timeline was fabulous and there were plenty of "Aha!" moments, more common to parser puzzlers, that gave me great enjoyment upon their discovery.

This game was marvelously implemented, the text always adapting to both what had happened recently and many cycles ago. I'd love to see how it was coded. It took me 21 lifetimes to figure out how to destroy the comet and an additional 8 on top of that to reach an ending where I was happy to stay.

What really makes this game great though is the heart of it and the emotions that it evokes. Usually, a game described as a "dating sim" would not be up my alley, but in this game it feels less like a gimmick to scratch a romantic itch and more just the tale of true human connection. And beyond romance, their are plenty of options for just making a friend, or helping strangers. Chances for selfishness and self-sacrifice. Triumph and sorrow at what your friends accomplish, and in how they choose to live and die. Every character has depth if you want to know it, and as you do you feel a real connection to this world.

As far as I can tell this game was just published unceremoniously to, not entered in any comps. This day in age it feels like any game that I play that wasn't entered in a comp is at least 10 (if not 40!) years old. I think this game would have had a great chance at winning any comp it had been entered in and it wouldn't surprise me to see it on the next Top 50 list!

Turandot, by Victor Gijsbers

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Linear story, great writing, September 30, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: 1-2 hours

In this story you play Calaf, a rougish young man with rich parents whose primary leisure activity is spending time in brothels. But with a single glimpse of the legendarily beautiful and mysterious princess Turnadot (based loosely on the play/opera of the same name), he falls deeply in love with her (or does he?) and becomes willing to do anything to get her to marry him.

This is an interesting piece of IF. It is written in ChoiceScript, but does not make use of the stats features (instead replacing the stats page with a funny message), and I'm not sure any of the choices you make cause the story to branch much. But it illustrates well a different way to put interactivity into a work of IF. Each bit of writing in between choices is very small, you basically get to decide on 90% of the dialogue of Calaf. In this way I felt I embodied the character more than in many other pieces of choice-based IF, because he basically didn't do anything without my permission, I put all the words in his mouth. Now, between the subject matter and the necessarily limited choices I was given in most instances to choose the dialogue, I still didn't really connect with the character, as my personality does not fall any where near the range you allowed to pick from for Calaf's personality. Still, the quick pace of choices made me feel like I was playing the character almost as much as I would in a parser-based game.

The writing in this game is excellent as well. It is mostly dialogue between two characters and has a fun cat-and-mouse rhythm to it. It reminded me of the best scenes of dialogue from a Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino movie, and I enjoyed it very much.

In the end, I think mostly due to the subject matter, and a bit of plot dissonance towards the end ((Spoiler - click to show)I felt like the story went too quickly from Calaf discovering his friend murdered to the "happy" ending), this one didn't really grab me the way some lesser games with more agreeable plots have. Still, I think this is an important game for the quality of the writing and the lessons it can teach about the different kinds of interactivity. Certainly worth your time for that.

Grooverland, by Mathbrush

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Quintessential medium-length puzzle game, with Groover homages a nice sideshow, September 28, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: 2-3 hours

I have a vague recollection of a Twitter conversation with the esteemed Mathbrush about a year ago regarding this game that was still a work in progress at the time. I don't remember if I was talking to him about it or merely observing a thread he had going with someone else, but what I do remember (which doesn't necessarily make it true) is that he said he was working on a game that combined all of the most popular elements from IFComp winners of years past. That he was making the uber-IFComp game, designed specifically to win the competition in 2021. I'm not sure what happened along the way, but more vague memories of tweet snippets have led me to believe that IFComp needed his help, perhaps behind the scenes, but definitely as the preeminent reviewer and judge of interactive fiction, so he selflessly entered his game in the less prestigious (though still awesome) ParserComp 2021. And it won, defeating a game by another titan of IF, Robin Johnson, along the way. I don't know if it would have won IFComp 2021 (the list of games isn't out yet), but it would have had a great chance.

This is a really good game.

You play the part of Lily, a little girl on her birthday at the eponymous theme park, tasked with gathering five key items from throughout the park in order to enter the castle at the far end of the park and become queen for a day. But all is not as it seems. Strange things are happening in the park, and the longer the day goes the weirder things get.

The game is heavy on puzzles and atmosphere, light on story, but that's just fine. The puzzles are some of the best I've encountered and range from easy and obvious to tricky and hard. I liked the spectrum of puzzle difficulties as well as the variety of types. There are a few find-the-missing-item puzzles that we've all seen a million times, but there were also some truly unique geographic and mechanical puzzles, one of which I will likely nominate for a XYZZY award (see spoilers below). With one exception I thought puzzles were pretty easy to wrap your head around, even if they took a little while to solve, and the clues were ample.

The world is very modest in size and the map laid out very simply, which is great as it makes sure that navigation isn't a frustration. I did draw a small map for one of the puzzles, but moving around the park from attraction to attraction was easy and set in memory pretty quickly. Every location and just about every item was important, with some dependent on others in order to progress, so that if you got stuck somewhere you could just explore and examine some more, or in other areas and usually find something to help you out. There is also an in-game hints system. I didn't have to use it at all (first time in while that has been the case), but I tested it out after I finished the game and the hints for the hardest puzzle are good and dole out the information Invisiclues-style so you get just the push you need.

Overall the writing wasn't anything to write home about, but it usually isn't something that I look for in parser games. However, there were a couple places that had some great writing, one atmospheric (to me reminiscent of the Land of the Dead puzzle from Zork) and one just crazy weird in true Groover fashion. The story is thin, again, pretty normal for puzzle-first parser games, but it is sweet and has a good ending.

Overall, a truly excellent and enjoyable game. This one got close to five stars from me, and I very rarely give those out.

(Spoiler - click to show)My favorite puzzle was making the Creaky House sing. I think that one should get nominated for best individual puzzle in next year's XYZZY awards.

My least favorite puzzle was the Midnight Laserfight puzzle. The explanation of the mechanics/layout of puzzle went by fast and didn't give me enough to really visualize what was happening. I had to save my game and then restart to go back to the first entrance into that room to get the explanation again and still it took me a while to figure it out. But eventually I did without hints. There were enough clues in the text after you experimented with giving the teams uneven weapons that I knew what my ultimate goal was, and I just missed it a couple times when the hidden room became an option at the controls.

A Blank Page, by Edu Sánchez

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Decent short piece about overcoming writer's block, April 3, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

This is a Twine piece in which you play a writer, or at least someone who aspires to be such, trying to just get something on that damn page to start your novel. I think anyone who has encountered such a problem will recognize many of the excuses to avoid writing and the honest attempts to jump-start your creativity.

The game loops a little bit more in the beginning than I would prefer (I was beginning to wonder if the game had an end or if it stayed in the loop forever to make a point), but slowly progress is made and new choices become available.

A decent effort, if nothing too special. A fun, short piece, worth a few minutes of your time.

Baggage, by Katherine Farmar

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Couldn't figure it out, April 3, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

This game is very abstract, with concepts implemented as objects and I suspect able to be used in that way if the conditions are right. I could not figure out how to do so though, and after puzzling with it for awhile and asking the game for help (only to be told I'd created a game condition without an associated hint), I gave up. There wasn't anything about the game up to that point that made me care enough to fight harder to get a resolution/ending.

This is a game I feel like would have been better in Twine or a similar system. Instead of me getting frustrated to the point of giving up, trying to make the parser do what the author wanted me to do, I could have been guided gently down the author's intended path.

An Amical Bet, by Eve Cabanié

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
An author's first game, April 3, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

This game felt like the author was just learning Quest and wanted to create a whole (though very small) world to test that she knew the ins and outs of the system. Sadly, that's all this is, a proof of concept, a prototype, a maiden voyage.

There isn't much to this game other than clicking (since it was programmed in Quest) the hyperlinks to navigate around the world and find the various objects you are supposed to find, all very obvious and none hidden behind puzzles. And there really isn't any story to it either.

I did really enjoy the implementation of the map creation system. As I moved around the game drew the map for me, which was a great help in orienting me in the world. However, when I went back down stairs and the ground floor map started to be written on top of the upper floor map I was less thrilled. That was unnecessarily confusing.

No bugs, but also not much fun.

Hunt the Wumpus, by Gregory Yob, Magnus Olsson, and David Ahl

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fun little logic puzzle, March 18, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

First of all, my thanks to Magnus Olsson for the z-code port of this game. So much easier to load up Filfre to play this rather than trying to get an ancient executable to work or what not.

I had never played this game until today, but had read about it many times. For the time in which it was created I'm sure it was a fun little game. Even in the modern era I enjoyed playing it for a bit and I'm sure I will introduce it to my kids one day as both a logic problem and computer history lesson. That said, it is just a puzzle/mapping game, no real story to it.

I recommend everyone play it for an hour or so to appreciate where IF started and where it is today. Still fun, if only for a bit.

The Feather Grange Job, by David Fletcher

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short series of puzzles that I didn't finish, March 18, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

As best as I gathered, in this story you play a series of birds, I believe all pets, stealing diamonds from your owner.

The game provides very little backstory or direction and just have to flounder around for awhile trying to figure it out. You play though a number of scenes, embodying a different bird with a specific task of the heist to carry out in each. Each scene has a single puzzle. I finished the first few, but gave up on the third (or fourth?). All the puzzles seemed very guess-the-verb with few hints from the game to clue you in to the correct solution.

Didn't find much about this game to like, except the ostrich character. The stark change from the prior few scenes did have me giggling.

Your mileage may vary.

Beagle 2, by Larry Horsfield

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Not worth your time, March 18, 2021
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)

This appears to be a one-room game with a single guess-the-verb puzzle. No backstory, characterization, or reason to care about what is going on. Feels like a test game for someone trying to learn a new IF coding language. It did implement an impressive number of verbs for such a small game though.

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