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About the Story
Explore the wizard Bartholloco's castle with the help of a versatile magic wand. Can you overcome his challenge? Can you levitate a rock? Can you slice a baltavakia?
Winner, Best Puzzles; Nominee - Learning the Cycle, Best Individual Puzzle; Nominee - Discovering the rest of the game, Best Individual Puzzle - 2017 XYZZY Awards
11th Place - 23rd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2017)
The title says it all. This story is about the wand, figuring out how to use it and then doing so. There’s minimal setup and character development and almost no dialogue, but it’s a darn good puzzle game.
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Renga in Blue
As one might expect with a wand, this is generic fantasy: you’re supposed to make your way through obstacles in a castle and gather enough new spells (things like “levitate” and “fire”) to escape. In a way, the presence of spells makes this the most expansive verb list Arthur DiBianca has ever used, since each spell is a verb of sorts. The lack of ability to TAKE things means even the simplest of activities gets turned into a spell-related puzzle.
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The Breakfast Review
The puzzles start off easy and straightforward, getting more complex towards the end. They're just hard enough, I think, to elicit that all-important sense of achievement that puzzle-solving has to evoke without crossing the line into being frustrating.
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Although the wand can be programmed to cast a variety of useful spells, the player only acquires knowledge of these spells incrementally. The pacing is appropriate to this type of game: the player acquires a new spell, finds a need to use it immediately, and then has to apply it elsewhere in a less obvious situation. With increasing power of knowledge, the puzzles also become more challenging. By mid-game often a whole series of spells must be cast to solve a problem. The final challenge is delightfully and absurdly complex, requiring the player to invoke nearly every spell they've learned in a carefully timed sequence.
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Number of Reviews: 7
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This was my favorite 2017 Ifcomp game. I don't see how to make a meaningful review of this one, without touching on the hidden content, which is more than half the game. If you cannot find the hidden content, check out David Welbourn's excellent walkthrough.
The Wand is a very polished puzzle-based text adventure, where the player seeks out a challenge at Bartholloco's secluded castle. The player is not allowed to touch anything in the castle, except from the wand, he/she is given at the beginning of the game. Luckily the wand is magical and can be set to 1000 different color combinations. The wand has different abilities depending on the chosen color combination. Unfortunately you do not know which combinations are useful, but clues to this are placed around the castle.
The apparent challenge of the game has a very nice level of difficulty and can be completed in approximately 2 hours. However, (Spoiler - click to show)if you restart and approach the game with your knowledge from your first play-through, you may find a much deeper and more involved challenge.
It is during this deeper challenge you will come to realize how well thought out the magic system actually is. Also, the ending of this deeper challenge is much better than that of the first challenge.
I don't think a pure puzzle game comes much better than this.
It's become something of an IFComp tradition: the rock-solid puzzlefest by Arthur DiBianca, with a cleverly stripped-down parser and only the barest veneer of a story. Art's first entry was the unique but tepidly received Excelsior, followed by Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box, which earned positive reviews and attracted so much traffic it nearly crashed the IFComp server. 2016's entry, Inside the Facility, was a novel movement-only game that won the Miss Congeniality award and received two XYZZY nods (Best Puzzles and Best Individual Puzzle).
So what did Arthur DiBianca put forward in 2017? The Wand, and it's pretty good. The Wand revisits Excelsior's seemingly bland milieu - "a wizard sets up puzzles in a tower" - but this time with far better results.
One of Excelsior's problems was that it wasn't always clear what the "use" verb would actually do. ("use statue"?) The Wand adopts the Enchanter mechanic, where you progressively learn spells that interact in interesting ways, but strips it down to *just* the spells with no other verbs except for movement. This creates a very effective experience where it's always clear what you're attempting to do, but the consequences of your actions can be unexpected.
Another of Excelsior's problems was the lack of a story or any real context for the puzzles; I kept wondering "why is this here?", and the ending felt like a disappointing afterthought. The Wand avoids this by being entirely upfront about its concept. I'm reminded of Emily Short's "Action and Interaction": "I’ve come to think that one of the jobs of a work of IF is to teach its player - constantly, in every kind of feedback - what sorts of interactions are appropriate to the game." This idea permeates The Wand, from how the concept is presented to how puzzles are hinted. The game continually and progressively teaches you what to expect, while offering some little surprises along the way. (Case in point: the brilliant way the game handles the "use" verb.)
In many ways this is the driving idea of the limited-parser movement, of which DiBianca is a vanguard: people are quite happy to play by the rules of the game you establish, but when there's a mismatch between their own idea of the rules and the game's idea of the rules, they can be disappointed. Thus, stripping down the parser and saying upfront "yeah, don't expect a story" can actually increase immersion. (Indeed, going into the game with no expectation of context or story made those elements pleasantly surprise me where they did appear.)
I must admit I am not a full convert to the minimalist school. The call of the verb is strong. But there is much of value in this way of thinking, and The Wand does it well.
Other strengths: DiBianca's writing is terse, but whimsical and evocative. (What is a baltavakia, and how do you slice one? I'm still not really sure I know, but the mental images that section conjured were fantastic.) Puzzle design is strong, mostly of the satisfying "oh! now I can do *that*!" variety. Puzzles are often "themed" and make sense within the context of their environment, which is small enough to keep everything nearby but large enough to offer a few different avenues to explore if you get stuck. Hinting is strong, with a mix of obvious solutions and head-scratchers - although I did have to check the walkthrough to realize I could (Spoiler - click to show)just walk past the dragon. The adorable, adorable dragon.
I do have a few minor critiques, e.g. I'm not sure about the wand mechanic. Spells take two turns to input, and wand settings are hard to remember without writing them down, especially since the color abbreviations can be unexpected. I do wonder if Enchanter-style magic words would work better, but as a mental concept, "one wand and two verbs" has its perks.
IMHO, what would have made this game even better is 1) deeper spell interaction, and 2) deeper worldbuilding. You can levitate rocks; what if you could levitate *anything*? The wizard has a pet kimpert; why? But I acknowledge that these thoughts are driven more by my personal affinity for games like Counterfeit Monkey than by any practical considerations.
Note: This game has hidden content that is not mentioned in the walkthrough.
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.
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