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.
This game was apparently voted Adventure Game Of The Year at the Golden Joystick Awards (somewhat ironically for a text adventure) and has long been a lacuna on my adventure CV. The following review contains mild spoilers.
I had previously only played The Pawn and Wonderland by Magnetic Scrolls (this game was released between the two) and had found The Pawn rather intractable and Wonderland, well, wonderful. Magnetic Scrolls' games definitely improved as time passed. This is certainly one of the finest games of its genre.
The parser is superb for a game of its time; certainly I would compare it favourably with the Infocom example which is high praise indeed. There are also some graphical locations which were state of the art in their day but which I prefer to switch off. This isn't so much a question of speeding the game up as using my own imagination to evoke the long and clever descriptions; for me the hybrid trope of graphical adventure and text adventure has always been rather uneasy and I was surprised to discover that approximately two thirds of all IF ever written has been of this type (according to Graham Nelson I believe).
The game is unashamedly a puzzle fest in which you have to amass fifteen treasures and store them (there are in fact four places to leave your plunder which will then all end up in one place automatically) in order to join the emponymous Guild. The GO TO command is implemented enabling you to travel to any previously visited location via one command line instruction. You can also SEARCH for a lost object. Use these options thoughfully as it is all too easy to walk subliminally into a deadly trap.
When you have finished playing Croesus you are ready to enter the very tough endgame. This reminded me strongly of the Topologika games and the shadows of Dr Partington, Peter Killworth et al hang over it in a most satisfactory way.
I played the version from the Magnetic Scrolls site via DosBox-X and found only five or six trivial grammatical errors which is pretty good for such a complex game. It did crash on me four or five times however, and I am not sure whether the game file or DosBox-X itself was the guilty culprit. You also need to type in a word from the What Burglar? feelie if you start a new session but as this is now freeware and available to view online it shouldn't present any problem. You are also given three attempts to type the correct one in.
The puzzles themselves tend to become more difficult as you progress into the game and several objects are red herrings. There is also one garden based scenario which appears to be a set piece puzzle but isn't. This was something I banged my head on for some considerable time before realising it wasn't actually a puzzle at all. So I buzzed off and tried another puzzle elsewhere.
There is a conundrum towards the end which strikes me as unfairly described; if a slot is mentioned I tend to think of something long and thin and not die-shaped. As I was carrying four long and thin objects and there were four slots I made a natural but inaccurate deduction which held me up for a long time.
In the manner of games from this era there is an inventory limit and many chances to make the game unwinnable but there are no lamp timer or hunger / thirst daemons. There are also no mazes. As you progress you will come across a number of human (and non-human) NPCs in the game with some of which, thanks to the parser, it is possible to have fairly sophisticated colloquy and you will need to do this to find out vital information to finish the game. Likewise the game is littered with pamphlets, books, magazines etc. which contain more information necessary to bring the game to a successful denouement. Remember in particular to spend plenty of time in the Library; it contains a very large collection of volumes and the subjects range from the merely humorous to the very helpful.
There is a wonderful humour pervading the game, at times dryly sparkling and at others Pythonesque to remind you that "hey, this is only a game!"
As an old fogey I find it a shame that practically no-one writes long parser-based puzzle fest IF of any pith or moment any more. If modern players tried this they may be inspired to write something in a similar vein rather than short and Twiney.
This is a rather good, rather large slice of old skool gothic puzzlefest by Paul Johnson. There are nods a plenty towards Curses! and Mulldoon Legacy here (obstinate cat, formal garden, pirate ship, battlements and assorted hidden passages, steps and chambers) but it stops short of outright plagiarism.
Your goal to begin with is unknown, but there is the traditional castle to break into and the story slowly unravels, although the real reason for your determination to enter the castle will not become apparent until near the climax of the game.
You have to collect four items during the course of the game, rather like the rods in Curses! before you can begin to think about your final showdown with the eponymous baddie.
The descriptions of decay, death and ubiquitous grand guignol grate after a while and are sometimes a little too florid and a little too repetitive to prevent the shock value being diluted.
Many of the problems are totally logical and not too difficult, although the final scenes see the difficulty level take a sharp uphill turn; there is one action in particular you need to perform in an area that you have no real reason to visit.
The author has an obvious love of antique furniture and art as a plethora of these objects are lovingly described throughout the game, juxtaposed effectively against the pervading atmosphere of decay. Indeed, the decay of these priceless paintings and other objets d'art is described with far more plangency than the discovery of the dead or dying.
The whole is mercifully free of any inventory or time limit (just as well as you will end up with a considerable variety of items to port around) and contains only a handful of typos and other grammatical errors, none of which really downgrade the game play value.
It is possible to put the game into an unwinnable position but not easily, and where this is the case there is usually a warning hidden away in one of the many inscriptions and messages you will find in charts, above doorways etc. In this game more than most, examine and search everything.
The ending certainly surprised me but that is for the player to discover.
All in all, an excellent parser based distraction which will keep you occupied for some time.
There is an old saying by George Santayana which goes something like "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." There can be little condemnation when new authors produce old style work as entertaining and skilful as this, regardless of whether you consider puzzlefests part of the past or still worthy of current consideration as I certainly do.
The game runs via a Glulx interpreter and can also be played online; just check out this year's Spring Thing page.
It is a sequel to the author's Bullhockey game which was released last year but needs no prior knowledge of that game to enjoy, although it shares some locations and protagonists. I would recommend that game as well.
As in the previous game, the hero(?) of our story wakes to discover that his beloved girlfriend Natalie has been abducted from the apartment which they share in the run down town of Bunco Springs and sets out to find her, convinced she has been kidnapped by the evil sorceress of the first game who, he discovers, has just busted out of prison.
I felt a strong empathy with Tom, who is in every way a believably decent, flawed everyman. Try and steal something and you will see what I mean.
The picaresque story moves along at an enjoyable lick in three distinct acts, never rushing the plot and allowing for a real sense of "world immersion." Seldom these days do you have any kind of large canvas to paint detail on and to enhance the realism, the modern trend being to produce pretty cameos. Bullhockey 2: The Return Of The Leather Whip achieves the Old Master effect very well, buildings being realistically depicted in their scope. There are large areas of the game that need careful exploring and mapping, and therein lies much of the game's old school charm. Corridors are just that; long and often prosaic, but all part of the elaborate weave of the plot.
Those of an impatient, I want my dinner now! mindset may learn a thing or two. The rest of us will enjoy a throwback to the days of wrestling with the likes of Mulldoon Legacy, Curses! and Trinity. I have no hesitation in praising this game as highly as that holy trinity (no pun intended). It is also of a similar size to those games, being over 120 locations in all and the descriptions informative and entertaining without being unnecessarily prolix. It even features some "stepping out of the present" dream sequences which reminded me of Curses! in particular.
There are a number of interesting and well delineated NPCs, both friends and foes, my favourite being the pulchritudinous Judith; I wish I had a neighbour like that.
Bullhockey 2: The Return Of The Leather Whip is not an easy game, although the puzzles are generally logical and feel like part of the story rather than stand alone scenarios. There is a point near the start of the game however, (Spoiler - click to show) involving purchasing a newspaper that had me stuck for a while and that I know stumped some other people too.
The coding of the game is excellent, with the odd typo and left over bug now corrected by the author (I helped here a bit I must admit!) and no problems with inventory limits or hunger / sleep / thirst / lamp light daemons the likes of which so often plagued games of this type in days gone by. And no mazes!
One interesting option the author has included is the THINK ABOUT command. This enables our modern day Quixote to momentarily pause his windmill tilting and consider objects, locations and characters he has met. Some of the responses are important to the progression of the story.
The denouement really surprised me as it goes against all that I had been expecting. Suffice to say that the fourth wall is breached and I feel confident in saying you will never guess the outcome.
Load it up and if you're like me, get out the A3 sketch pad and pen and prepare to immerse yourself in Bunco Springs. Just never stay the night in the local hotel.