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Frothology Review: Beneath: a Transformation, December 4, 2007
If the actions required to complete Beneath: a Transformation were, instead, a brutal murder of a young schoolgirl, than the killer would get away with the crime because not a single clue would have been left behind.
I love the atmosphere of BAT (what an interesting acronym). I have never read any work by Robert E. Howard but after playing this game I think I might have to go and read Worms of the Earth. The idea of horrific physical change has always been the foundation of good horror and in this case reminds me a lot of Lovecraft (hooray).
Unfortunately there is one fundamental flaw that really hurts BAT and it is summed up in my opening statement.
There is a story in here. But is it Graham's or is it Howard's? It seems like I am expected, by psychic powers I presume, to know a lot more about what is going on than I do. Perhaps this is because I have not read the book (which I felt should have had an interesting passage quoted whenever the player reads it instead of just letting them know that they now possesses a greater degree or worm expertise. What would have been really cool is to have quoted page 57 from the actual book when the player reads page 57. In fact, I have decided to buy Worms of the Earth just so I can see what it says on page 57.)
There are many things going on in this tale. We have, amongst other things, police stations with murderous cops, pet stores with dogs and owls, coffee shops, and decayed buildings. What we are missing is the point for having any of these things. Why do I need to go see the police? Why do I need a dog? Why do my feet click on the cement when I try to go up in the air?
Here is a quote from the "help" section of the game:
...Type anything that seems logical. If the game doesn't recognize what you're attempting to do, no harm done...
But there is harm done...to my soul. Besides, logic is a relative thing. What seems logical and natural to a serial rapist suffering from Necrokleptabeastapyraphiliaphobia (the fear of stealing dead, burning animals for impure purposes) would not seem logical at all to a devout Baptist elderly woman.
BAT requires that you type exactly the "magic command" to solve a puzzle. You can come really close, even have the right action but the wrong wording, and fail. This problem is common in many games but it is especially bad in Beneath. The hook and crack scenario in the cell is a perfect example of this.
There are no bugs that I found, only a few cosmetic issues. Hanging the rope from the balcony causes it to be visible all over the place (even places where you would think it would not be so). Implementation is not really an issue in this game so much as design is.
The main problem with the design is the lack of cluing for puzzles and the goals itself. I wandered around the map for quite a while at first, and while I really dug the setting I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. My only goal was trying to get to the end of the game. By that I mean typing a series of commands needed to reach the winning block of text. The puzzle of the game, its main purpose for being, is never stated.
When you finally get stuck (you will) and try to use the walk through (you also will) you will find another of the games design flaws. The walk through itself is a sinister, yet crafty, little puzzle. If you follow it as it is written than you are going to die. Can you figure out what needs to be changed to live? Good Luck.
A z-code game, a z-code look. BAT gives good examples of what I do not like about the look of inform. I liked being chased by the mad cop, I think things like that are great tension builders. I do not enjoy the clunky, awkward way in which that information is presented. Regrettably I can think of nothing that can change this, and I am not faulting the author for it.
Did I have fun?
I did in a way. I liked the creepy setting and I found the text to be engaging. All my problems dealt with my psychic powers having failed me in my early twenties. Of course, there was the rare moments of actually figuring out the right action but not being able to type it in correctly.
There are many things to like in Beneath, but unearthing them is more work than it should be. If the author were to do a re-release with a little bit better cluing as to the main goal and puzzles, and add a little more flexibility to the parser than I think this would be an enjoyable game for more people. It is not a failure, it just needs a little more work. (It is also not a failure for Mr. Howard who has generated a sale for his book from my playing of this game).