This one had an introduction at least, though the author’s spelling and grammar haven't improved much since Escape From The House. Nor has his ability to know where capitals are and are not needed. And he’s still a long, long way from writing something even vaguely playable…
Quest has the strange habit of displaying the items (both ones you can pick up and immovable ones) in bold type before the main body of the text in the room description, which is a bad idea to say the least and compounded here by the author then going on to repeat most of what you have already been told. So the first room description reads:
You are in the main Garden.
There is a closed Well, some Yellow Flowers, some White Flowers, some Red Flowers and some Blue Flowers here.
You can go west.
You are standing in a small garden. There is a large well here and it is overgrown with colourful flowers
As I've already been told there's a well and some flowers here, is it really necessary to incorporate them into the room description as well?
What age the game is in set I couldn’t say. At one time you are given gold coins, which led me to assume it was way back in the Dark Ages, but at the same time you're given a photograph so it’s clearly not a medieval game. Unfortunately the author doesn’t seem willing to elaborate on things. Then again, little about the game is clear. For a start: who is the player? The background to the game is that someone called Annabel has gone missing (this is detailed in the remarkably clumsy introduction) and you have to find her, yet whether you're a police officer, a freelance detective or something else altogether is never indicated. Part of me suspects even the author doesn’t know.
I didn’t last long with Where’s Annabel? Mainly because it was just so bad I was on the verge of quitting before I’d even finished reading the introduction, but also because of the remarkably small amount of commands it understands and the frequent bugs. Not to mention some of the worst guess the verb problems I've ever come across. A good example of this would be:
You're given a photograph of Annabel. Now with a photograph, the logical thing to do would be to SHOW it to people, right? Ah, but the game doesn’t understand the SHOW command. It does understand GIVE funnily enough but won’t let me give it away because I need to keep hold of it. USE PHOTOGRAPH when speaking to an NPC called Baggie produces an unhelpful message that I can’t use it here. At this I got stumped and started typing in silly things just to see if I could hit upon the solution by sheer luck. And I did. The command required?
USE PHOTOGRAPH ON BAGGIE
Ah, of course. What an amazingly obvious command. USE PHOTOGRAPH ON BAGGIE is so much better than SHOW PHOTOGRAPH.
Okay, enough with the sarcasm and enough with the game. Avoid this one like the stinker it is.
Room descriptions are painfully brief – YOU ARE ON A GRASS HILL UNDER A TREE – was the first one in the game. The second wasn’t much better – YOU ARE IN THE LOWER BRANCHES OF THE TREE. LOOKING OUT YOU SEE A SORT OF HAZY REFLECTION. Exits aren’t mentioned in the room description, but instead displayed in the panel on the right hand side of the screen, so if you're one of those few people who occasionally play Quest games and turn the panels off because you don’t like them, you won’t have a clue where you can go.
It’s a difficult game to make any kind of progress with, although my initial lack of enthusiasm, which took a hit by reading the poorly written intro and never really recovered, didn’t help. As a game, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You wake up under a tree having fallen asleep and find you can’t actually go anywhere because every time you try you keep bumping into invisible objects. What…? So you climb the tree – only CLIMB TREE doesn’t work (another of the many, many basic commands Quest doesn’t understand) – and find yourself in the location with the hazy reflection. What to do then is anyone’s guess. There are hints but none of them helped much as they all referred to different parts and there was no walkthrough available that I could find. I couldn’t get to more than a total of three locations, I didn’t have any items, I couldn’t find much to do that didn’t result in Quest hitting me with its ever-present I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOUR COMMAND. TYPE HELP FOR A LIST OF VALID COMMANDS* and, in the end, quitting seemed like an acceptable thing to do.
* Which it does with a frequency that makes you wonder just how many commands Quest *does* understand.
On the positive side of things, there were very, very few typos which is worth mentioning because it makes this game almost unique among Quest games. But as that’s the only positive thing I could find to say about it, it’s still not a good game.
This began with a frustrating little puzzle that prevented me leaving the start location until I had all my stuff, while quietly remaining silent on exactly what I needed to take with me. It was a puzzle made worse by ADRIFT’s buggy item carrying limits that prevented me picking up certain things – like a pen – because my hands are full. Oh, and if you pick up a pen, then drop it (as I did when experimenting with what items were necessary), you can’t pick the pen up again. Nasty “puzzle”. I ran into the same problem later on in the game when I returned to the room and then was prevented from leaving because one of the required items was no longer in my possession.
There were other annoyances – items listed in the room description not being examinable, typos, misleading exit messages, guess the verb and the like – but it’s easier to forgive these considering the three hour time constraint imposed by the comp. Nicely written, too, which was an added bonus.
Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out most of the time what I was meant to be doing. Even with the Generator open and actively cheating, it was difficult to guess what my next move should be and often I’d be left stranded in one location with no idea of what I was meant to do next. On the occasions when I did manage to make progress, this was usually done after trying every single thing I could think of doing. Not so much solving a puzzle as hitting upon the solution by sheer persistence.
Overall this seemed a little too ambitious for a three hour camp and the rough edges really showed.
After an introduction that looked like it may never end – did I really count eight separate screen clearings or do I just think I did? – the game finally begins. You're out trick and treating, dressed up as a zombie ninja cat (as you do) and an old witch turns you into an actual zombie ninja cat. But she's clearly not all bad because if you find her some candy before midnight, she’ll turn you back to your human form.
From annoying pauses in location descriptions (seriously, they grow tiresome *very* quickly) to huge gaps between lines of text (most location descriptions were nothing more than half a dozen lines long but due to the weird line spacing would often take up a full screen) to typos, grammatical errors and capitals not being used where they should, this was a pain to play. It bore all the hallmarks of a game written by a first timer and is the kind of thing I keep hoping ADRIFT left behind years ago. While I can appreciate it was written under strict time constraints (three hours), it’s still a hard game to find anything positive to say about, and most of what's wrong with it – the pauses and weird line spacing being at the top of the list – would be irritating in any game.
“A weird little arty experiment of a game” is what I thought after a few minutes playing this. Nicely written but not much to actually do. The author recommends you play the game with the Generator open, but this doesn't really help matters much and after several minutes of randomly trying things and getting nowhere, I resorted to keying in commands at random from the Generator in the hope of finally making some progress. No such luck. As far I could tell, it doesn't look like it’s possible to make any progress with no clear ending or goal in sight.
(Warning: This review might contain spoilers. Click to show the full review.)City Of Secrets starts quite ordinarily: you're on a train on your way to a wedding. The train runs breaks down and is forced to stop in the city of the title (which never seems to be referred to as anything other than ‘the City’) and the train company, nice people that they are, put you up in a nearby hotel until the train is fixed. You're not especially happy about this but as you’ve no choice you go along with it.
Most games that start without giving me any real idea of what I'm supposed to be doing don’t generally go down very well with me but City Of Secrets gets away with it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it looks like a really professional work. The left side of the interface is given over to a panel which displays a few custom images and, below that, a handy little compass system showing which directions you can go (no need to wade through a lengthy location description just to know where the exits are!) The right hand side is the main area of the text and the panel across the bottom contains either plain text compass directions or, if you're in the middle of a conversation, dialogue options. This made such a nice change to the other interactive fiction games I play these days – lines of text scrolling up the screen without a smidgeon of decoration to spice things up – that I found myself having nostalgic feelings for the games I used to play as a kid. The professional interface impressed me so much that I suspect I might have enjoyed playing City Of Secrets even if the rest of the game had been bad. But it wasn’t. It was good. Very good.
I'm not sure if the interface is the same for every version of the game. One review I read commented on the fact that the left hand pane showed a description of how the player was feeling at the time which I certainly never saw.
It’s an easy game to make progress with at first and I probably spent a good hour just wandering around playing the part of the tourist and familiarising myself with the way everything worked before I got down to the task of actually doing anything. My pleasant little stroll around the city ended when I was mugged and after that bout of unpleasantness, the game seemed to start properly as I found myself in the middle of a power struggle for control of the city.
City Of Secrets is a vast game. The city itself is a large, sprawling metropolis (although, saying that, the number of locations it contains, while large, is only a fraction of what I'm sure would exist in a city of these proportions) and there are few, if any, wasted locations. Each seems to have something in them to either use or simply examine, although not all of them are apparent at first. There's a tremendous sense of depth in the locations as well; often it seems like the city is a real place and it’s easy to forget you're wandering through a fictional place and not something that really exists somewhere in the world.
The idea behind the game is a power struggle within the city by Thomas Malik (the current ruler) and a mysterious woman called Evaine (who might well be the city’s true ruler). I was quite minded to throw my lot in with Malik when I first met him, despite the fact that there seemed something very suspicious about him, as this was following an encounter with a ruffian who it appeared Evaine had set on me. He beat me unconscious and stole my money. Strange behaviour indeed for the agent of someone who I believed actually wanted my help!
My first wander around the city impressed me greatly. The effort expended on making the locations seem alive – complete with NPCs who flittered about to give the impression you weren’t alone in the city (as happens so often in games set within cities) – is evident, although I’d hate to see how much hard work it was. On the down side, the NPCs who populate the place and make it come to life could have been handled quite a bit better. I tried speaking to them or examining them and found I wasn’t able to as there don’t seem to have any responses coded for them. In short, they're just pieces of scenery which move about to make you think there's more going on in the game than there is. To a degree it works well, but it would have been nice to talk to a few of the NPCs.
Then again, there are a considerable amount of NPCs you can talk to and the range of conversation options is quite staggering. None of them are what I’d call classic NPCs (i.e. they're not particularly memorable) but they serve their purpose adequately enough. A handy feature of the game that impressed me no end is the “think about [name]” command which lists all the bits of information you’ve managed to discover about certain people from speaking to other people about them. Quite ingenious (even if most of the stuff it remembers isn't especially helpful or even useful). There's no score as such but “summary” provides a list of things you’ve done during the game. Some of these are a little on the pointless side (is there any reason to tell the player he’s been wandering around tired?) but, again, it’s a nice feature.
It’s not a game without problems, though. The conversation system in particular seems especially buggy. Quite a few times I was partway through a conversation and suddenly an option would come up which seemed to have no real relation to what had been discussed before. More annoyingly, a conversation would end (the conversation options section would be blank) and yet when I tried to restart the conversation I’d be told the conversation was still progressing so I couldn’t say anything else! This happened in almost every conversation at some point and quickly became tiresome. I wasn’t sure afterwards if this meant the conversation options had been exhausted and there was no reason to keep speaking to the NPC in question, or whether it was just a failing on the part of either the writer or the system.
There were also problems with the city itself. I wasn’t able to examine a temple despite the fact that I was standing right outside it at the time. (Funnily enough, when I was standing one location west of the temple I was able to examine it perfectly.) Nor was the river examinable. I also couldn’t figure out to get through the green door into Malik’s office. I unlocked and opened it – minus any kind of key – but then was still unable to enter as there was “nothing beyond the green door”. Trying to ‘go door’ hit me with:
[** Programming error: East Alley (object number 1600537) has no property <number 0> to read **]
The alley runs east-west.
which I'm guessing must be some kind of system message in Inform for when you try something the writer hasn’t thought to cover. In a game where so much time and effort seems to have gone into it, the bugs with the green door were jarring to say the least. But then I guess no one’s perfect…
Inevitably, as always seems to happen when I'm playing a game (particularly a big and ambitious one like this), I got stuck. I had spoken to everyone in the city I could find to speak to, uncovered numerous items (very few of which I seemed to be able to find a use for) but then seemed to hit a brick wall in that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. For a while I just wandered around and hoped something would happen. A couple of times I returned to the hotel and tried to sleep as previously this had moved the game on and opened up other events, but this time I was just informed that I was awake and would be staying that way.
There was a hints system, and a lengthy and very detailed one it was too, but unfortunately it wasn’t so much a hints system (despite being accessed by typing “hint” or “help”) as a guide to playing the game. While this was all well and good, it wasn’t a whole lot of help to someone who had reached as far in the game as he was able to get and didn’t know what he was supposed to do next to progress the game any further. Admittedly part of that problem with progressing any further might have been my own fault – turning down Malik’s offer to work for him probably didn’t help and nor did refusing to help the urchin who approached me – but in the end I seemed to be wandering around the city without a clue as to what I was supposed to do next. Perseverance managed to get me to see Evaine but after that I really came undone. I was sent out to get myself arrested in order to bring me closer to Malik. How was I supposed to do this? Beats me. I attempted to kill every NPC in the city, smash things up, even threw items at the bots repairing the roof of one of the buildings – nothing.
But while it has its fair share of problems, City Of Secrets is a pretty amazing game all things considered. It’s huge in scope and the writing is excellent throughout. The back story is an interesting one and could probably form the basis of an entire novel in itself. And the city impressed with no end with its sheer depth of character.
A few errors right there in the intro – general Secretary of the UN? Shouldn't that be Secretary General? Paragraph spacing also seems a little off – why not leave a line between paragraphs or indent the first line so it stands out? As it is, they all seem jumbled together. Item descriptions are poorly written. This is the desk:
IT'S A PLAIN WOODEN DESK, NOT WORTH MUCH.
THE SURFACE IS SCRATCHED AND MARKED FROM MANY YEARS OF USE.
THERE'S A SINGLE DRAWER PLACED AT THE LEFT SIDE OF THE DESK.
STACKS OF BOOKS ARE PLACED ON THE TABLE, AND OTHER BOOKS ARE PILED UP ALONG THE WALL NEARBY.
THESE ARE THE BOOKS YOU NEED TO CLEAR UP AND PUT IN ORDER.
Five sentences split over five paragraphs. Wouldn't it have been better to keep them all together in one paragraph? But the above is typical of the game and makes reading anything longer than a few words quite jarring.
Many other typos – Counsil instead of Council – meant the overall standard of writing fell a long way below what I’d call acceptable. English might not be the writer’s first language, but it’s still hard to recommend a game like this.
The game itself didn't exactly seem enthralling. The intro was poorly written and did a poor job of setting the scene. An intro needs to grip you and make you want to play the game. This intro just had me writing up a veritable shopping list of things that were wrong with it.
Anyway, not expecting much, I persevered. I got myself out of the cellar without too much trouble but then I wandered back and found that the exit had mysteriously disappeared; despite being informed that there was an opening in the wall, I wasn't able to go through it.
There were then more annoyances – a book that can’t be read while standing up but can while you're sat at a desk. The default error message of YOU CAN’T READ THE BOOK! is a little unfortunate here. (Incidentally, ‘read it’ doesn't work when referring to the book.) Here I was plunged into darkness and found myself in an unwinnable situation as I’d already used all the matches and thus had to start again. Probably my own dumb fault for lighting all the matches already for no other reason than they were there but it would have been nice if the game had warned me about this beforehand or at least given me an alternative light source. After a quick restart, I found myself magically transported to the kitchen of Castle Camelot... and a room description, complete with dialogue and an annoying pause and screen clearing, which repeats itself every type you type LOOK. How on Earth was this missed during testing?
At that point, I decided enough was enough. Sorry. While the game might boast no less than five testers, it’s so rough around the edges that it’s hard to believe it was tested at all. The three locations I saw were so buggy I could write an essay on the subject.
Okay, confession time. I've never been a big fan of Adam Cadre's work and have spent the last few years wondering if he's heavily into bribing people to say nice things about his games because I could never see what the fuss was. Photopia left me cold; Lock & Key confused me so much I don't think I managed to do a single thing right; I gave up with Narcolepsy five minutes into it despite telling myself I'd at least give it a fair go before passing judgement. So when I was looking around for a game to play and chanced upon Varicella I wasn't, despite its reputation, really expecting much. I figured that at best it would be a well written mess that had been heralded as a masterpiece for reasons which I would never understand (which is pretty much my opinion of Photopia). So imagine my surprise when not only did it turn out to be very good, but also one of the best text adventures I've ever played.
What's it about?
The complicated goings-on at the Palazzo del Piedmonte where you, one Primo Varicella, are the Palace Minister. Despite the rather grand title, you wield little actual power and your duties generally include those of a glorified butler. But you're a schemer and eager to seize every opportunity that comes along to better yourself. And if this comes at the expense of others, well... too bad.
And now such an opportunity has presented itself. The King has just died and his son, Prince Charles, is five years old. Soon there's going to be a power struggle for the position of regent (who will officially rule the land in the Prince's stead but unofficially can do pretty much what he likes) and you intend to come out on top. Of course, that means dealing with your rivals as quickly as possible but you have few qualms about that sort of thing. "Dealing" in the case being a polite term for murder.
The introduction is good. Very good. Primo Varicella at once becomes a real and believable character, although it's easy to see why he's held in such poor esteem by everyone he meets in the game. He's a fussy little man, obsessed with manicures and interior design who considers himself the only genuinely sophisticated person at the palace. He's also quite happy to murder anyone who stands in his way, hardly a quality likely to endear him to other people. On top of that, he has an over-inflated opinion of himself and his own abilities, as demonstrated so well during the introduction:
Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.
There you have the introduction which does an excellent job of setting the scene.
Oh yes. I've played some difficult games before but none that come close to Varicella in terms of sheer, downright impossibility*.
* Okay, maybe an exaggeration. After all, I've finished the game so I have firsthand knowledge that it's not impossible, but play it a few times and see how far you get. If you're like me, you'll spend your first four or five plays through the game not having a clue how to finish it.
My first time through the game I actually felt like I was making some pretty good progress. I wandered around the palace, chatted to people, discovered a few things, got a good feel for how I felt everything was likely to pan out - and then I got killed. Yep, soldiers stormed the palace, grabbed me and a moment later one of my rivals, clearly better at this sort of thing than I was, proceeded to shoot me in the head. Exit one fussy little man. Hitting UNDO didn't undo my problems unfortunately as the event with the soldiers and the subsequent untimely demise is on a timer and the program only allows one UNDO in a row. So all UNDO did for me was allow me to relive the moment of my death. Over and over again. Oh joy.
Undeterred, I restarted the game and tried to do better this time. I didn't succeed. Before long, I found myself replaying the final events of the previous game and getting steadily more annoyed at what I felt was an unfair and somewhat premature ending. I'd have probably quit then if not for the slight problem that Varicella was just so damn good that I couldn't bear to quit.
Part of its difficulty stems from the sheer shortness of the game. There is an incredible amount to do to reach an ending which doesn't involve one of your rivals killing you before you kill them and a lot of what needs to be accomplished to steer the game along the path you're after isn't at all straightforward or obvious. A lot, in fact, is the sort of thing you're unlikely to stumble across through sheer luck and instead needs to be plotted out very carefully over a period of many, many games. It's possible to make a few wrong moves here and there, waste a bit of time, but the shortness of the game and the available time you have to complete everything you need to do means that time-wasting just isn't an option. If anyone tells you they finished this game on their first play through they're either a) lying, b) lying, c) lying or d) relying on a walkthrough. Even knowing roughly the sequence of events that you need to go through in order to win, it's still far from easy to actually get there in one piece.
Saving your game regularly - the sort of thing anyone who has played more than a few text adventures knows to do instinctively - is less effective in Varicella due to the game's shortness. Several times after dying I reverted to a previous save only to find myself in another no-win situation because I hadn't performed a certain action by a certain time. In a lesser game this sort of thing would have driven me to distraction (and sent the game off to the recycle bin) but here it's almost forgivable considering the game's other strengths. Almost. When you've just died for the tenth time in a row because you missed something not particularly obvious right at the start of the game, it gets increasingly harder to keep feeling positive.
Persistence seems to be the best way to get anywhere. A couple of times I didn't even try to finish the game, I just explored different avenues that were open to me and if one avenue didn't seem to lead anywhere I restarted and tried something else. One entire game I sat by my surveillance equipment and watched everything I could through it, seeing what I could discover about my rivals that they might not want me to know. In the end, persistence does pay off in that you finally manage to put everything together but you might be forgiven for thinking that you're getting nowhere.
Lots, and very good they are, too. They're a pretty despicable bunch for the most part and at times I was reminded of films like Pulp Fiction where every character, no matter who he or she is, is a nasty piece of work. You might find it hard to sympathise with them - they are, after all, a bunch of back-stabbing, conniving, evil little hellions who would throttle an old woman for her last coin - but it's possible to relate to them all the same. They're all interesting characters with a fully fleshed out background and while none are as well detailed as Varicella himself, they nevertheless perform their duties admirably in giving the player some worthy adversaries to pit himself against.
Not that everyone is against you. With a little bribery, you can find one ally and some detective work and inspired questioning will get you another. Asking as many questions as you can of the characters is a good way to learn things but this is best done in a session when you're not planning to finish the game as the sequence of events that trigger after a set amount of time are likely are come around long before you've exhausted every conversation piece you can think of.
Charlotte is perhaps the only character in the game who doesn't fall into the despicable category, although she has more than a few despicable acts done to her. She spends the majority of the game locked up in the asylum atop one of the palace towers following a mental breakdown after her husband was shot on their wedding day. Several of your rivals regularly rape her (an option, fortunately, you're not able to pursue yourself).
Not a game for kids
There are several dark threads running through Varicella. Charlotte's rape is one of them. Spend enough time checking your surveillance equipment and you'll find an unpleasant scene (mercifully interrupted before its conclusion) with another of your rivals about to molest the young Prince Charles.
Now I started the game thinking that Primo Varicella himself was the lowest of the low due to his plotting to wipe out his enemies, but it quickly becomes apparent from playing through even a portion of the game that he's actually quite a lot less despicable than of his rivals. While more than happy to indulge in power-grabbing games and murder of people who haven't actually done anything to him, he's certainly more tolerable than his rivals. It's probably true to say that he's bad but not half as bad as anyone else.
The tale of the unsatisfying ending
You know on internet forums how when they're about to tell you something that you might not want to know they tend to put a row of dots or SPOILER SPACE with the letters one per line so there's no way anyone can glance at the spoilers without realising what they're looking at? Here we have a single row that says SPOILER so skip over the next few paragraphs if you haven't reached the end of the game yet and don't want it spoiling for you.
The ending was the game's weak point for me. Is there more than one ending? I'm not sure. I finished the game a couple of times and the ending I got was the same each time so I'm assuming it was the only one. If so, well... what a poor way to finish the game.
You win, defeat your adversaries, become regent for the land... and then the Prince grows up, turns into a real terror, stages an uprising, overthrows you and has you tortured to death. Hmmm....
While this certainly made a change from the usual run-of-the-mill game endings where you live happily after ever or find the big treasure chest or slay the evil dark lord and save the world, it's the kind of ending that makes me wonder what the whole point of the game was. Surely there must be a better reward for all that hard work than being tortured to death? Even the endings where I failed and got shot were more satisfying.
Of course, it's altogether possible that there are other endings that offer a more fulfilling conclusion to the game. But I finished it twice - once on my own (and slightly aided by the walkthrough) and once solely with the walkthrough - and both led me to the death-by-torture ending.
Better than Photopia?
Definitely. Now if people spoke about Varicella in the same kind of hero-worship tones that they do Photopia, I could understand where they were coming from. But whereas I finished Photopia and was left wondering just what the big fuss was, when I finished Varicella I immediately played it again several more times just to see what else I had missed. Recommended.
9 out of 10