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The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An Enjoyable Soak In An Old School Tub, March 29, 2024
by Canalboy (London, UK.)
Related reviews: Parser based, Surreal, Large, TADS

The Only Possible Prom Dress was for my part a long-awaited sequel to Not Just An Ordinary Ballerina and showcases the author's admirable refusal to run with the modern interactive fiction herd. If you thought that long, puzzle-heavy parser games with subordinated plots were a thing of the past think again. While there's Jim Aikin there's hope for us old-timers.

I'd played Ballerina a decade ago and even then games of this type had of course become rarae aves. By the time of this sequel they had become as rare as right wing governments and pubs that take cash.

The diaphanous plot revolves around your efforts to buy your daughter Sam a dress for the senior prom as her kid brother has (deliberately or not) spilled ink on the designated apparel. A perfect excuse for another visit to the somewhat creepy and almost deserted Stufftown, Jim's ode to the excesses of consumerism. George Orwell once described advertising as "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket" and the author obviously shares these sentiments; I was reminded of Cronenberg's Starliner Towers as I wandered around this futuristic dystopia. The whole scruffy, pigeon-violated edifice of Stufftown is crammed full of shops, twenty-nine of them to be precise, selling everything from surreal-shaped birdbaths to microscopes; they are nearly all deserted as a local lacrosse game has made the people of Stufftown forget about commercialism for a day at least. Rubbish is strewn in passageways, stairways are broken, maintenance equipment is rusty and forlorn. The NPCs you meet along the way and with whom you will have to interact to win are as decrepit as the building in which they work - Betsy the chain smoking girl from the beauty salon has fingernails bitten to the quick and has obviously just been dumped by her boyfriend; the corpulent clairvoyant spends her days knitting; the art gallery owner is chock full of existential angst and stares fixedly at the floor. The two owners of this corporate monstrosity sit in their glass-desked ivory tower on the top floor and dream of the future and virtual tours of their world where money is spent on cutting edge technology and not on disinfectant or hammer and nails.

Woven into this depressingly naturalistic milieu are a number of supernatural elements. These are used sparingly and thus with deftness. A homeless man sees pixies flying around his head; an annoying purple dinosaur follows you around and two experimental protagonists must be brought back to life to complete your mission by dint of recipe collecting. As you progress the difficulty level of the problems facing you increases and the story naturally progresses as problems are solved. It is not, however the kind of game where you are stuck on one problem and thus unable to progress; often solving one will help with a problem that you have put on the back burner.

You can choose to play the game with hints on or off and I chose the latter. The former feeds you clues on your mobile phone when you reach certain points in the narrative and FULL SCORE will show your progress out of two hundred and fifty and itemise the obstacles you have overcome, much like Curses.

The problems themselves constitute a mixture of traditional tropes. There are doors and portable items to be unlocked, anagrams and mathematical posers, hidden passages to be revealed, machines to be brought to working order or vandalised, stores to be broken into and other characters to be cajoled/bribed/unmasked. Favours are very much bought with favours.

There are seventy-four portable items and all have at least one use. There are no tiresome inventory limits or daemons and the game will automatically jettison items that you no longer need if you pass a certain central location in the game which is a thoughtful and none to easy to program feature. Some items have multiple uses. There are mazes in the game, however all are outside the drop items to map variety, a subtle nod towards IF modernism.

It is pretty difficult to put the game into an unwinnable position although two particular puzzles do present this opportunity. Save, save and save again. I found the parser to be more than adequate and it will try to auto correct and interpret your typing errors. I came across almost no typos and very few other bugs, although one involving a locked gate stands out. This is not game breaking however.

In summary this is a well coded, well written puzzle-based diversion; if you are endowed with patience and like old style games with modern IF conveniences you will enjoy this. Just prepare to put aside a lot of spare time and read location descriptions very carefully.

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