I set myself the ultimate challenge this year - to complete all the games in the Phoenix canon.
I realise that this is somewhat akin to that other masochistic pastime blindfold bomb disposal but after recently completing the epic brain sizzler Hezarin I thought I would go for a game I last attempted when I was doing my 'O' Levels - one Geoffrey Chaucer had just started shaving I think.
Peter Killworth, Oceanographer extraordinaire wrote this mainframe game under the name Brand X back in 1979 - Acheton, the first game in the collection to be started, was only half completed at the time.
It is available to be played in the mainframe version (upon which this review is based); a cut-down 250 points 1982 Acornsoft version released for the BBC and retitled Philosopher's Quest; and a 1987 Topologika release which is almost identical to the mainframe version but still called by the last name.
The game is rather more compact than the other early releases from this stable (just over 100 locations as opposed to over 400+ locations in Acheton and Hezarin) but shares the same rigidly unforgiving intellect of those other two games. Due caveats as to its unforgiving nature are given at the beginning: "You don't need any instructions, so you won't get any!" Learning by death, softlocks via experimentation and formal maze mapping were assumed as didactic inevitabilities in these early games and they didn't disappoint. Indeed, there are two problems right at the start of the game (the opening location and a room to its immediate south) which have had their very fairness debated many times. I think the second problem is just about excusable but the very first poser (removing items from the Antique Shop) would seem to me to be on the wrong side of fairness. It is almost as if the creator were laying down warning markers for what was to come.
The latter two versions of the game do at least have a series of progressive hints. The mainframe version leaves you very much to fend for yourself. Purist that I am, I went for the original uncut and unaided release. Hair shirt time.
At its scholarly heart Brand X is very much a treasure hunt that really cares nothing for mimesis; a long plank cum mathematical puzzle just happens to run along a cliff by the seaside; there are several elaborate chaining puzzles and of course there's an invisible dog and an ancient mariner! The game amounts to a group of beautifully constructed set piece posers like this, all pretty logical when you have gleaned the solution but head bashingly difficult until then. Underpinning the treasure hunt is your search for an old lady's missing dog, but appearances can be deceptive. For me working out the chronological order for solving them was as difficult as the actual solutions as it is incredibly easy to render the game unwinnable and be blissfully ignorant of the fact until much later in the game; this is a familiar trope to those of you who have played these games before.
Several of the set pieces have biblical connections as well: there is a Tower Of Babel where nobody understands anyone else; a Jonah And The Whale puzzle; also a Garden Of Eden puzzle with a less than friendly snake. The game also name drops such literary luminaries as Coleridge and Steinbeck and a maze is dedicated to that indefatigable maze creator Maurits Escher. You knew they'd be mazes didn't you? Yup and there is also my least favourite hardy perennial in early text adventures, namely the lamp timer. Switch it off at every opportunity. I don't think the timer is quite as tight as in Acheton but you still can't afford to leave it switched on al fresco for very long. When a game is as difficult as this I feel a little more slack should be cut for the player in terms of daemons.
The game is imbued with the author Peter Killworth's usual dry wit. I love his mordant description of the "living granite" in one location in particular and there are some excruciating puns to boot.
The two word T/SAL parser is certainly adequate and I never found myself unable to phrase what I wanted to say although of course there is the lack of an "examine" command (in common with most Phoenix games) together with no "verbose" although "take all" and "drop all" are recognised. I did occasionally find it annoying that I had to "look" to get a list of exits when revisiting a room and this of course uses up more lamp time. When these games were ported to Inform the boys left the parser as untouched as possible; quite rightly in my opinion. It's trad, dad.
The location descriptions can be quite long in places but are never less than interesting and there is an inventory limit of seven objects; this is standard fare for the Phoenix games.
There is a last lousy point too; as far as I can tell it is as unclued as in Colossal Cave but try a magic word you found near the beginning of the game at every recurring shape on the walls. I'll say no more.
A small but significant band of hardy (masochistic?) traditionalists will continue to hold these games in high esteem; progressives will no doubt continue to pour scorn.