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YA supernatural romance, IF style, April 2, 2012
When I was in high school, there was a certain type of young adult fantasy novel that I read quite a few of. These books always contained (a) Ordinary Teenaged Girls who also happened to have Awesome Supernatural Powers, possibly with an attendant Special Destiny, and (b) Brooding, Aloof Male Love Interests who were often on the opposite side of whatever the main conflict was, but who were, deep down, Really Nice Guys.
"Shadows on the Mirror" feels very much like an entry in that genre. The heroine's Awesome Powers are only hinted at, but are undeniably Awesome, and also Unique ("Are you... like me?" she asks the hero, Galen, at one point, to which he replies, "No one is like you."). There are also tantalizing hints of ways in which the world of the game is not quite like our own, references to things unfamiliar to the player that the characters seem to view as so ordinary as to warrant no explanation. This could easily become frustrating, but it's done sparingly enough that it remains simply intriguing. That said, at times the game feels like almost too small a fragment of a larger story, a teasing glimpse of something that deserves a novel-length exploration.
Make no mistake, though: the real focus of the game is the Brooding Love Interest and the heroine's interactions with him. This was never quite my cup of tea (I was in it more for the power-and-destiny bit), but it's done fairly well here; the heroine is well-characterized, and the love interest, while a bit more of an enigma, is at least interesting. There's the possibility for some playful, fun interactions, and while Galen is not exactly warm and outgoing, (Spoiler - click to show)once the necklace comes off he's not such an unbearable jerk that it's impossible to understand why the heroine likes him.
The gameplay mostly consists of talking to Galen about various topics; the mechanics of this were a little hit-or-miss. Most of the topics I thought to ask about were implemented, and often asking or telling about a term that came up in response to the previous topic resulted in a conversational flow that seemed logical and natural -- no easy feat in IF. On the other hand, with the way that certain conversational responses are "unlocked" by pursuing other lines of questioning, it was sometimes unclear when Galen really had nothing, or nothing more, to say about a subject, and when I simply needed to talk about something else for a while to unlock more information about that subject. The "topics" command was also less useful than one might hope -- it seemed to return four or five topics in random rotation, regardless of whether that topic had been exhausted or not, and sometimes would return "You can think of nothing to say to Galen" even when there were topics remaining to be discussed.
After playing once, I immediately restarted the game to see if I could get a different ending, but was quickly frustrated by the fact that I was unable to discuss topics I had discussed in the previous playthrough and I wasn't sure why or what I had to do to unlock them, and I couldn't tell if the game was progressing especially differently to the first time. I did get a different ending the second time through, but I couldn't quite figure out why I had. At that point I gave up on replaying to find other endings--kind of a shame, as I don't think I even saw the "best" one, but replaying the game had become more irritating and confusing than fun.
For all my complaints, the conversational system was pretty strong overall, and I did enjoy the game as a bit of nostalgic fun. However, I'm not sure it would hold the same appeal for anyone who has never been the particular sort of teenaged girl who reads that particular sort of fantasy novel.