Arthur DiBianca’s The Wand is about a wand, and that’s pretty much it. Ostensibly there is a story about a wizard, challenge from said wizard, and cash prize, but really it’s just about a wand. A magic wand, sure, but still, just a wand. Oh, and there’s a dragon, too.
At it’s heart The Wand is a puzzle fest style game, and a damn fine one at that. You are limited to moving, examining, and pointing the wand at things, and with just those three actions DiBianca has put together a crafty series of puzzles. (Of course there is a little bit more than that but we are in the spoiler-free section of the review.)
One of my favorite aspects of The Wand is the way you progress through the game. You see a problem here, can’t do anything about so go there. When there, of course, you find another problem. This problem, though, you know how to deal with. Solving that problem gets you more information to solve the previous problem so you go do that. The Wand constantly has you going back and forth to get more information to solve more puzzles to get more information to solve more puzzles. The game world is compact enough that this is not a chore. In fact an “Oh, I know what to do there, now,” is a great reward mechanism.
The Wand is a definite recommend for anyone interested in a solid puzzle game.
You can find the SPOILER-Y, and much more personal, portion of unWinnable State's review of The Wand here.
All Things Devours is, in essence, one single puzzle. A crunchy, well constructed puzzle. I mean, I had to create a spreadsheet to solve the puzzle. Or rather, I got to create a spread sheet.
You play as a researcher who’s had their lab commandeered by the military. Afraid of the repercussions of future use of the prototype, you’ve decided to sneak back in to destroy your creation.
The puzzle of All Things Devours is exciting and tense. There is a real joy in discovering how the mechanisms of the puzzle work, and there are multiple paths to victory.
All Things Devours is not going to be for everyone. It is extremely light on story, and its puzzle, while fair, is difficult. You are likely to fail repeatedly before you find victory, but in the end the victory feels earned and is very rewarding.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable State's review of All Things Devours here.
One of my favorite sub-genres is the accidental spy movie, films like The Man Who Knew Too Little, Gotcha!, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the more recent The Spy Who Dumped Me. To my great delight, Emily Short’s City of Secrets is an accidental spy IF.
While on your way south to attend a friends wedding your train breaks down so the railway puts you up in an elegant hotel. Soon you find yourself possibly poisoned, nearly kidnapped, roped into a scheme to infiltrate a rebel faction for the mayor, and set loose in The City where you can trust everyone.
Initially, this accidental spy scenario is exciting. Your method of discovering information is almost exclusively through speaking to NPCs, with a dialogue system that is deep, wide, smooth, and easy to use. Suggested talking point/questions are available for you to follow or you can always steer the conversation to a topic of your choosing. When first trying to track down leads, I wanted to be coy in my interactions with the locals, slowly pushing the conversations I was having toward the subject my quarry. This approach really made me feel like the spy I was supposed to be. But it did not take long before I realized straight up asking everyone about the person I was looking for was quicker with no noticeable negative consequences for my bluntness.
Once sleuthing took this form City of Secrets no longer felt like an espionage game but instead became a series of invisible dialogue trees that needed to be navigated. At least most of the branches on these trees hint at story and lore in the world of City of Secrets and there is plenty of story and lore to discover. The worldbuilding here is superb.
The most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its name. With Emily Short you often get fun or interesting title; Alabaster for a game about Snow White, Counterfeit Monkey for a game with a letter removing device, and Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny for a game about… who cares, that’s a great title. With City of Secrets we have a game about a city with secrets. It’s just so bland.
The second most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its end sequence. The entire thing plays out like and interactive cut scene with limited choices, and a rather long cut scene at that. In an attempt at creating a climax that feels cinematic, the game lost what makes Interactive Fiction enjoyable; interaction with meaningful choice.
Still, there are many reasons I will encourage you to play City of Secrets. It is a well implemented, immersive world, its spaces designed to yield nuggets of story to those willing to explore. There is an incredible dialogue system with plenty of NPCs to speak with. And it has a deep lore that is interesting to uncover.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable State's review of City of Secrets here.
Grunk must retrieve a lost pig for his employer, and in doing so helps a gnome deal with his past and his place in the world today.
Grunk is one of the most charming PCs you are likely to come across, and the little gnome man, a fun NPC with a delightful story of his own. The writing is sharp and funny, in both its general descriptions and its handling of commands from the player.
Grunk is the reason to play Admiral Jota’s Lost Pig. Look, the first three paragraphs of this review begin with his name, that’s just how great Grunk is. I would say don’t let him hear it or it might go to his head, but the truth is not much actually goes to Grunk’s head. And here’s the thing: You don’t actually play as Grunk. Lost Pig is not written in the second person. Grunk is telling the story. Everything from Grunk point of view… Excuse me, everything is from Grunk’s point of view. The commands you the player type in are more like suggestions for Grunk, which he usually follows.
The puzzles in Lost Pig are quit good, and the difficulty ramp up is smooth, with nothing diabolical A pause and a think will get you through most. There is one puzzle I found frustrating, its solution not entirely fair, but we’ll get to that in the spoiler-y section.
There is an extensive, topic driven, conversation system implemented for the one character Grunk runs into during the game. Through this conversation system you can find bits of guidance on how to complete the tasks laid before Grunk, but more importantly these conversations are what give you the lore of the game. (Lore is definitely overselling it, but hey, I like the word.) What you learn about the world and the character fill out a game that would be little more than a series of tasks otherwise.
While I doubt Lost Pig is going to make my Top 10 list, it is a definite must play. The game is especially great for newer players of parser based IF.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable States review of Lost Pig here.
Adam Cadre’s 9:05s most notable quality is its shortness. If it were much longer players may be unwilling to engage in what makes this work so fascinating, the fact that a replay of the game is thoroughly satisfying. When following the game through its logical progressions you reach an ending that re-contextualizes everything, enticing you to start again and interact with the world in a different way.
There is not much more to say about such a short game. If you haven’t yet played 9:05 by Adam Cadre, give it a go. It will surprise you.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable States review of 9:05 here.
There is a reason Planetfall is considered a classic. The puzzles are intuitive, the slowly unfolding narrative is mesmerizing, and Floyd. The only thing that marred my enjoyment of the game is what I believe to be a bug with the version I played, but more on that later.
Now admittedly, this is my first foray into Infocom’s catalogue, and, quite frankly, the first work of interactive fiction I have played to the end, aside from some rather small works here and there over the years, so my frame of reference for the sake of reviewing is a rather small and crooked frame. That aside, I know I had plenty of fun while playing, which is perhaps all the reference I need.
The world design, both in structure and aesthetics, is clear. As a player my goals were almost always clear, if at certain points perhaps too many at once. And while I am personally obsessive about mapping, navigating the world could largely be done without a map.
The puzzles of Planetfall are straight forward and intuitive. That’s not to say they are all easy, but they all make sense and can be reasoned out. (I did need one hint… I mean solution, you can read about that in the Spoiler-y Review.) There are no, “Why did that work?” moments in the game or, “How was I supposed to think of that?” solutions. This is perhaps the most winning aspect of Planetfall, the ease of interacting with its puzzles. I was lead to believe that Infocom games all had wildly difficult puzzles, often to the point of absurdity. Not so here. Everything feels doable and is a joy to play.
Planetfall tells you a story, and it tells it well. The story is presented in pieces through the environment and player discovery, though there is one info-dump in the form of a library computer. It can be a grim story with certain dark implications for those letting their minds wander, but a compelling story.
And Floyd. Floyd is great. But I do not want to ruin anything for those who have not given Planetfall a play yet so that’s all Floyd gets in the Spoiler Free Review.
Let me just get my biggest negative out of the way. Due to what I believe to be a bug, there were two objects in the game that are not listed in their starting locations. It got to the point where I had only one problem left to solve before finishing the game and I could not do it because I was missing two objects. I knew what needed to be done I just did not have the means. After becoming exceedingly frustrated, I went to the Invisiclues, which told me what I already new. So I went to a walkthrough, which told be the bobbit was in the dry-cleaners and the swend-o-fenn was in the linen closet (names and locations have been changed for the protection of the innocent). Sure enough, when in the linen closet, issuing the command >take swend-o-fenn resulted in taken. I almost rage quit then and there, never to return. For the record I was playing the file planetfall-r39-s880501. A test of two other versions resulted with the bobbit being listed in the dry-cleaners room description.
The rest of what I have say here is really just quibbles. Having to eat is an artificial obstacle, but common of games from the era. Inventory management is a pain, especially since if you drop an item in a room you better remember where you left it, because the game does not tell you about objects moved from their starting position. You cannot use the command >x to examine, you have to type out examine or look at over and over again. There are also a few long commands that you have to type a number of time throughout the game that get annoying.
Planetfall is a delight. From its depths of story telling to the approachable puzzles to Floyd, there are many things to enjoy. Gaining accessing a new area of the game world or discovering new information is rewarding and fun. If you have not, do yourself the favor of getting this to your interpreter, you won’t regret it.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable States review of Planetfall here.