Ulterior Spirits

by E.J. Holcomb

Science Fiction
2020

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great main character, plodding pacing, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Ulterior Spirits has a lot going for it. There’s a well-realized setting that certainly takes inspiration from things we’ve seen before (Mass Effect is name-checked in the blurb), but has some nice bits of world-building all its own. The protagonist is immediately engaging, a middle-aged bureaucrat and mother who’s haunted by her actions in the past and her prejudices in the present. And there’s an unexpected framing around Christmas, foregrounding family, forgiveness, and generosity, which are not typical themes for something with these sorts of genre trappings. On the other side of the ledger, there are some UI and pacing issues that make the game feel longer and slower than would be ideal, and before the ending sequence, the choices on offer aren’t very interesting either in terms of revealing character or impacting the plot. This is still one to play, but unfortunately I did feel like I was ready for it to end a good fifteen or so minutes before it finally wrapped up.

My favorite thing about US was getting to play as Renee Bennion. A high-ranking functionary in a multi-species coalition government, she’s dedicated to her job, quick on her feet, and is a loving though occasionally exasperated mother to a twenty-something son. She also has a fun rapport with her old commanding officer -- the vibe is friendly but still with a note of deference -- who’s also got a position on the space station where the story takes place. As the plot kicks into gear and she realizes she’s the target of a plot by an old enemy, you get a sense of who she used to be when she was her son’s age, and how hard to rattle she is in the present. She’s drawn with real flaws, too – notably, some ugly prejudices about other species – making her a well-realized protagonist.

The universe she inhabits again isn’t the world’s most original, but it does have some clever touches. Though this is a bit underdeveloped, one of the primary alien races in the setting appears to archive entire dynasties’ worth of identities and memories in each individual, and the details about how human traditions like the holiday season have been translated into a post-alien-contact context are well thought through. There are hover-over hyperlinks that demystify some of the technobabble, though I found myself wishing they’d have focused on different pieces of the setting – I feel like there were a whole lot that went into detail on the timekeeping systems used on-station, but comparatively few on the culture and background of the various alien races.

The central plot, once it kicks in, is solid enough, but my main complaint, as mentioned above, is the pacing. Renee is being pursued by agents of a long-dead adversary, with threatening messages and recordings of her past being sent to her, and unsavory characters skulking around the dark corners of the station. To determine what’s going on, she consults with station security and old friends, while still trying to go about her day job of setting trade policy for the coalition. This is a strong structure, but it takes a while to get going, and most of the sequences go about how you’d expect but with maybe 20% more words than would be ideal, with few surprises in store for the middle part of the game. Exacerbating this, few of the choices here seem like they have much of an impact.

The interface is partly to blame too – while it’s very pretty, it was slow on my machine, and each paragraph of text fades in one at a time, meaning I was often impatiently waiting to click my way through to the next bit. I also ran into a couple of small niggles that might be bugs, though they’re from late in the game (Spoiler - click to show) (after I finished the climactic conversation with my old enemy, a security team burst into my room, as though I’d been locked in and they were worried for my safety, though nothing like this had previously been mentioned as far as I could tell. And after making the heartwarming war-orphan donation, the text made a note that my extra supply-points were now zero, but the interface display still showed me as having 700-odd. Since these are never otherwise used in the game, it’s odd to include that detail on every screen, then not update it the one time it’s relevant, so I assume that’s a bug)..

All told I think Ulterior Spirits is one editing pass away from being something really special – with some tighter prose, a speedier interface, and tweaks to one or two aspects of the storytelling (Spoiler - click to show)(I thought the decision to never show the actual conflict with Ruuaghri in any of the copious flashbacks was a misstep – we never get a visceral sense of Renee’s hatred and fear of her, which undermines the intensity of the final conversation, and means there isn’t a contrast to draw with the old, decrepit person she’s become) this would be great. As it is, it’s still a really strong comp entry, which delivers some real sentiment and an internally-focused, character-driven story in a genre that doesn’t typically prioritize those things.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Strong story, weak interaction., December 1, 2020

Ulterior Spirits is a choice-based work created with Unity.

This entry uses graphics, sound, and a futuristic presentation to support a story on a space station populated by aliens and robots. A lot of background material is necessary to introduce the laws, life forms, and technology of this world, but smart design choices bring readers up to speed without being invasive.

While popup windows appear instantaneously to give more detail about races and technology, the story itself is revealed through individual paragraphs of timed text. I wish I could have experienced the main story at the same speed as the background reading.

I needed time to get invested in this entry's narrative, but that investment paid off. Nuanced characters with understandable motives acted out a story arc that ended in satisfying personal development. I enjoyed it as an immersive work of fiction supported by well-timed, illustrative artwork.

However, an immersive work of fiction is not the same as an interactive one. Some choices were obviously meaningless, only altering a single line in the next passage or responding with text that ignored the choice completely. Most passages ended with simple "click to continue" buttons.

Although I tried to make choices as a level-headed senior officer, I suspect that I would have seen similar outcomes from the wild and impulsive options. It was still enjoyable, and I'd recommend it to others.


5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Great art and visual design, but it was difficult to get into the story, October 12, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I wanted to like this game more than I did. It was clear that much effort went into building the custom UI, worldbuilding, and so on, but I feel like the story didn't quite live up to what I expected based on the blurb.

The blurb describes it as Mass Effect meets A Christmas Carol, and in broad strokes, it's kind of accurate. The protagonist is an admiral for the Coalition who fought in a war against an alien race, and now the Coalition is sanctioning the aliens. The admiral is pushing for harder sanctions. Then an infiltrator hacks her computer and showing her images of the past, present, and future, possibly in an attempt to convince her to vote against sanctions.

As usual in stories with tons of Worldbuilding, the sci-fi jargon and alien species got kind of overwhelming, and even with the pop-up hints (which were a great effect), it was difficult to keep up. It was difficult to get invested in the story; Mass Effect gave us dozens of hours to establish the world and why we should care about these people/aliens, while this is a one-hour game. At the end I didn't know what to think about the aliens or whether sanctions were good or bad (and the player doesn't explicitly make that choice anyway).

I liked that the protagonist was an older woman and a mother. These traits are still uncommon for video games protagonists. And I liked her relationship with her son.

In the end, the visions were all for nothing; the admiral voted for harder sanctions. Maybe there are routes that are different?

The game was created in Unity, and the art and interface are superb. I didn't like the slowness of clicking through; there was too much friction with the animations and having to click to advance every block of text. It discourages me from playing a second time, which I now really want to do to see if there are different possible outcomes, and to see if understanding the world makes the story easier to follow.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Unity game with good graphics and UI about a threat in space, October 8, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This game is written in unity, and, unlike most IF games written in unity in past years, it actually makes good use of the processor-intensive engine.

It’s a very slick design with hover-over links and a sidebar of choices. The art on this game is great; my son kept popping up by my computer to look at it.

It uses slow text, which is fine in a short game but really not that fine in a long game. Fortunately, you can click to speed it up at least a little faster.

In this game, you are a famous governmental figure in a space coalition between various races. You are known for having caused the death of a cat-like alien years ago, and now you are threatened by the repercussions of that. The different alien cultures are distinct and well-drawn.

It’s hard to know how your choices affect the story. The game never really settled down into a rhythm or gave hints about its length, or provided saves, so I was just kind of flying blind. In the ending I received, there were several loose threads, which makes me believe that the game has multiple paths and significant branching.

The art and UI programming were excellent, and the actual story were excellent, but I wonder if they worked at cross purposes at times. I guess it was the slow text that really inhibited this for me; I think the intent is to get people to read slow, but I have a reading pattern where I look over the whole page, planning which segments to focus on and then moving in. I read non-linearly, I guess I’m trying to say, and slow text really messes that up for me. And what’s the purpose of it? To make sure people don’t miss your text? The best way to do that is just to write only what’s essential. Clicking helped but was still fairly slow.

This is a great team, though. I could definitely see all 3 of them working for AAA if that’s something they were interested in.

+Polish: Very polished.
+Descriptive: Writing was great, not gonna lie.
-Interactivity: I couldn't figure out how to strategize or immerse myself in character, and either would have been fine.
-Emotional Impact: I felt an emotional distance from the character, and the stakes felt low emotionally, due to my issues with interactivity.
+Would I play again? I'd like to see more endings.



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