Reviews by Canalboy
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Avon, the penultimate game from the Phoenix stable which released seventeen very challenging pieces of old school adventuredom between 1978 and 1989, is often considered to be one of the less difficult from that group of talented mathematical boffins. Having just completed it after many a long hour of brain torture, I would have to disagree with those who consider it so. In fact, the game has "strict statutes and most biting laws" if I may borrow some Shakespearean verse to mine own ends.
The first problem you will literally stumble across is how to find some light and the solution to this is pretty unfair I think. To those of you who remember the horrible puzzle in the shop at the start of Philosopher's Quest it should come as no surprise. Choosing the wrong object from four will immediately leave you in the dark and you will have to start again.
The game itself is written by the most prolific of the Phoenix adventure authors, Dr. Jonathan Partington and his love for all things Shakespearean really shines forth. Sir John Falstaff, the Lady Portia, Banquo's Ghost and a whole host of others tumble across the screen in a marvellously evocative caravanserai of characters. There are a lot of stabbings, poisonings, kisses and drownings so if you already get a lot of this at home you may find Avon a bit overkill. In my chastened, secluded monastery it was pulsating stuff indeed however.
Avon is studded with quotations and situations from Shakespeare's plays and here is where I need to take issue with previous reviewers of the game; it is claimed that no prior knowledge of the Bard's work is needed to complete it. In fact there are two scenarios where the solution depends on knowing famous quotes from his works. So prior knowledge is needed, and not just of the Swan of Avon but also that of a certain musical composer.
In common with many games in the Phoenix stable it is very easy to put the game into an unwinnable state and to lose or miss a vital object. As the game plays out over three days using the same set of locations (that is Twelfth Night, The Ides Of March and Midsummer's Day) I sometimes found it difficult to work out which puzzles could be solved on the date I was currently in and which needed solving at a later date. There is also one recurring problem which must be visited on all three dates. The puzzles themselves are, as usual from Dr. Partington, extremely clever and humorous, and more than one relies on committing an outrageous pun. The solution to escaping the gaol and one inside the Boar's Head Inn would be amongst the funniest I have ever come across. Think Tommy Cooper with a chainsaw.
Be careful where you Save (avoid saving the game just after you have received one of the many secret words you will learn during the game as it can render the whole experience unwinnable). Save after applying the word or phrase in the appropriate place. Some items have more than one use as well so avoid discarding them after their first application. The inventory limit is seven items which is standard practice with the T/SAL coding used for these games; it is not too difficult however to store your ammassed collection somewhere central.
The triptych of the game (if so it may be called) is unevenly proportioned. The third section is probably the longest, followed by the first and then the second. There are several pseudo mazes and the solutions to them all are very imaginative as none rely on the tried and trusted "drop one item per location" rule. The game weighs in at just under ninety locations which is somewhat smaller than most Phoenix offerings, however the three days' setting made it seem bigger to me than it actually is.
The marvellously evocative descriptions and responses are neither prolix nor too short. The two word parser eschews EXAMINE and OOPS but does cater for TAKE ALL and VERBOSE and it was never a problem for me expressing what I wanted to do or say. The whole was a perfect exercise in mimetic immersion for me and I really felt I was in Shakespearean England when I played this.
Nearly all of the puzzle solutions are very clever / very funny with two notable exceptions. As portended by the first puzzle mentioned above it is easy to make the whole thing unwinnable. There are several mazes but all are solvable without dropping your hard won inventory. No lamp/thirst/hunger daemons. If you like puzzles and puns and don't mind learning through death and taking notes on a piece of paper you'll love Avon. If you love Twine and hypertext, twere well it were not done at all.
With Kingdom of Hamil , or just Hamil as it was originally known in its mainframe form, the author Jonathan Partington chose to be a little more lenient with his player. He was the most prolific of the Phoenix IF authors in the seventies and eighties, with a particular penchant for large and innovatively tough mazes. While Hamil still has it fair share of them (including one maze which is included in the Phoenix version on this page but was omitted for reasons of space when the game was released by Acornsoft) the overall standard of puzzle is slightly easier than most he created over the years. Having said that there is still ample scope to make the game unwinnable which I managed several times. The inventory limit is set at seven items which seems to be the par for most of these games. Some objects have multiple uses while only one seems to be a red herring.
Mercifully there is no lamp timer in the game unlike Professor Partington's earlier co-authored work Acheton and it is significantly smaller than most of the other Phoenix efforts so easier to map. By modern standards it would still be considered large however. Location descriptions are brief but adequate with just the right amount of atmosphere thrown in. There is no option for VERBOSE, BRIEF etc. so full descriptions are only repeated when you LOOK. The converted mainframe version scores up to 300 points while the scaled down BBC one has a maximum of 250 points.
Like most of the Phoenix games the plot is merely a flimsy framework to support the pure beauty of the puzzles; you have discovered you are the heir to the throne of the kingdom and set out to try and reclaim what is rightfully yours. As well as this odyssey there are the usual treasures to collect and deposit in their rightful place to trigger the one move endgame. There is also an interesting twist at the end which reappraises the reason for your journey.
Most of the puzzles can be worked out either with a pen and paper (the game has its own code system which you will need to play around with at the beginning and very end of the game and mazes where every turn is crucial) or by trial and error. The game is not too strict in which order you choose to address the puzzles although there is one near the beginning that has to be solved in its entirety or victory is cut off. This should become apparent when you find it.
The terrain in the game is very unstable and there are frequent earthquakes and rock falls which add to the complexity of several areas and prevent backtracking. Try and leave nothing behind and deposit your items in a central location.
There is a particularly elegant problem involving a vampire which took me an age to crack but had me applauding when the penny finally dropped. Another that centres around Lewis Carroll's Hunting Of The Snark is also very clever and I think would have defeated me had I not played other games by the author and knew the way his mind works. I suppose this is rather like recognising the style of a cryptic crossword compiler in a daily newspaper.
A couple of annoyances include sudden death by one of a multitude of creatures if you hang about too long in one place and an object that it is impossible to hang on to for more than a few moves. This latter problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is impossible to SAVE your position in two of the game's mazes.
I would recommend a player try this game before attempting the other titles from the Cambridge stable with the possible exception of Sangraal by the same author.
There is the usual excellent two word parser and lack of an EXAMINE command which has polarised opinion over the years. TAKE ALL is implemented however.
Solve this and you may be ready for even tougher challenges from the Phoenix authors.
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