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About the Story
The fourth one in a series of anthologies of unbelievable terror, edited by Ryan Veeder. Also an ECTOCOMP 2021 entry.
Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Implementation; Nominee, Best Use of Innovation - 2021 XYZZY Awards
Winner, Le Grand Guignol - English - ECTOCOMP 2021
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Number of Reviews: 3
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The fourth in the Castle Balderstone horror anthology series is the first to mix Twine (for the framing story) with Inform 7 (for the stories being told). You can choose which order to play the stories, and the game even auto-saves! This time round, stories are being told in different rooms around the castle, so the Twine sections provide some back-story and characterisation via conversations with your host as you travel between them. The castle map serves as the main menu, from where you can select your chosen story.
- Explore a shipwreck with basic Metroidvania-style gameplay, revisiting previous areas with new-found abilities. Well-judged difficulty, lots of surprises.
- Be a space bounty-hunter, tracking down your target over multiple worlds. Really stylish, really atmospheric, really cool.
- Imagine if those pastoral/rural life sims (like Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley etc) were actually folk-horror? Plays almost like a turn-based business-sim (and keeps a score, if you want to replay).
- Look for your missing boss in a lake town. The highlight, a "HUUUUGE" game, that has got everything: a big map, lots of fun characters, a complex (and really thoroughly implemented) magic system, lots of puzzles (some with multiple solutions?). This one alone could probably win the XYZZY Best Game of the Year Award by itself.
And that's still not all! There's more, as Veeder begins playing with the medium (both mediums?) with one further spooky story to wrap things up. Must-play stuff from top to bottom. A sensational effort.
It's become increasingly hard to review Ryan Veeder's games because they're generally all the same: 'This game does something very creative that I hadn't really seen before and is polished and funny. One of the best games I've seen in a while yada yada yada. If this game was by a new author, I'd think they're one of the best new authors out there.'
And that's all true here, too. This game does something I had once considered the 'holy grail' of modern IF, which is to combine parser choice in a logical way. In this game you use Twine in an overworld with a map, which leads to Inform 7/Vorple mini-games that seamlessly transition back into Twine. Its all hosted on the authors website using the autosave feature first used in his Fly Fishing game. My only concern is for preservation; is there a way to ensure the game could be saved for posterity?
Storywise, the framing story is the same as last year, a funny take on literary culture and the way we handle celebrity writers. It contains 5 (or so) mini stories:
Letavermilia: This is a linear (story-wise), puzzle-based space game. You play as a bounty hunter chasing after a criminal who is also named after a horrible plague. You chase them from world to world, with each world having a puzzle you must solve to find the 5-digit autopilot code needed to move on. Solutions range from exploration and mapping to a straight-up cryptogram (the latter being my least favorite activity of the whole game, but easily solved online and solvable by copious in-game hints). This game features some genuinely chilling moments and some funny ones as well, and demonstrates Veeder's predilection for deeply implementing unnecessary side systems. This one takes an hour or so to play.
Nyvo the Dolphin: This is a Metroidvania-style game where you as a dolphin explore a wreck filled with scientific equipment, which grants you increasing capabilities. This was horror in the sense of Beetlejuice or Addam's family, where our cheerful protagonist blithely navigates the remains of past human devastation and death. This one took about 30-45 minutes. I had a little trouble navigating, so mapping might have been good, but I enjoyed the power curve and the finale.
Singing for Me: this is a Lovecraftian (or maybe, more Blackwoodian or fae) small town living simulator, in many ways reminiscent of AKheon's recent Ascension of Limbs or titles like Stardew Valley. You play as a recent move-in in a cabin, and typing LOOK gives a list of places or people you can visit. Each visit takes the entire day. You can also buy stuff, where buying one thing takes the whole day, or sell many things at once. As you explore, you discover more locations and people. Like Stardew Valley, there are significant holidays that you can experience on a set schedule. Through these, the main story is developed in a classic 'creepy small town' style like Midsommar or The Village. I enjoyed this one; I was worried I wouldn't be able to see everything, but the game gives you plenty of time to focus on one or two goals that matter to you. I spent a couple of hours on this.
Visit Skuga Lake: This game had the most traditional gameplay but used a mechanic with quadratic complexity. Basically, you start locked in a closet, but soon break out with the help of (Spoiler - click to show)an amulet with an empowering eyestone. You then wander a large map, gaining two new classes of powerful items that interact with each other in an enormous amount of ways. I'll admit that I ended up 'lanwmowering' many options to find what worked, but it was also fun to experiment so it didn't really feel tedious. I played this for about an hour and a half.
Finale (called (Spoiler - click to show)Hunted): (Spoiler - click to show)This story was a bit confusing, but felt fast-paced and appropriate as an ending. It was Christmas-themed and felt like an action movie. Scenes focused on movement and basic take/use gameplay. It wasn't as compelling mechanically as the earlier pieces but story-wise and emotionally was satisfying. This took less than an hour.
Additional comments: (Spoiler - click to show)There is a secret fifth game. I was able in this one to read many books, see a family tree and look up people in it, make coffee, and find a nook, as well as talk to Allison Chase. I wasn't able to find any use of the nook or book or tree, so either I missed out on the point or this was just a 'chill and vibes' section like the end of Rope of Chalk. If the latter, I think it worked well.(Spoiler - click to show)
Several days ago, I visit IFDB and see this:
News on Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone: OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE November 22, 2022 An OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE is now available for Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, with all kinds of tips and hints and solutions and maps. - Details
I wasn’t sure if I should cry. I had thoroughly played all the games (within the game) and completed them but one. Meanwhile, I was hearing all about (Spoiler - click to show) some secret bonus game that would be unlocked by completing the first four. The words “tips,” “hints,” “solutions,” and “maps,” in this announcement immediately pulled me back to the game so I could finally play it from start to finish. It also means I can give this awesome game a review.
This was an entry in last year’s Ecto-Comp and offers quite an experience. My understanding is that people besides Ryan Veeder wrote and created stories that he then implemented into parser to be showcased in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. An anthology.
It is the first game that I have played that splices Twine with Inform/Vorple. It begins in Twine. You are a guest at Castle Balderstone and are brought to a room where four cover art photos are displayed on the screen with the games’ titles. It felt like walking into a movie theater and looking at the posters. When you click on one you “walk” to an area where the author of the story is getting ready to read the story to an audience. This transitions to the parser where you can play the game. Immersive approach!
During the gameplay a sketch of the author is included on the right side of the screen with a small bio. It helps you appreciate the amount of brain power that went into each story. Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone is the amusement park and the games set within it are the rides. It has nothing to do with amusement parks/rides but that is the analogy that came to mind.
I will discuss this game first because it is the one that I could not complete without the walkthrough.
In Letavermilia you are playing as a bounty hunter tasked to hunt down a hacker who goes by, Letavermilia, the same name of a deadly plague that has run rampant across interstellar space. This is probably the most elegant space bounty hunter IF game I have played. The protagonist has worked their way up to become an “A-list bounty hunter” with high paying clients, and it shows. For one thing, the ship has been upgraded to something classier. If “space bounty hunter” does not sound like your cup of tea- think again. There is something about it that strikes a unique chord. Rather than a typical high action speed chase through space, an emphasis is placed on subtlety. If you try to examine a detail, chances are the game will have something to say about it.
We begin on Ligeia, an oceanic planet where you are vacationing. As you lounge peacefully on the hull of your fancy ship you get an urgent message to track down Letavermilia (the hacker). You are following a trail that she leaves behind. Gameplay involves decoding her messages to find the coordinates for the next planet you travel to. Before the walkthrough was published, I was stuck on (Spoiler - click to show) Zante, trying to decipher the message on the (Spoiler - click to show) etched panel. I feel like I should have been able to figure it out on my own. But I didn’t, and that’s that, I guess. Now I was able to go to the next planet. I was really excited to see what world was in store (and tired of guessing pitifully at travel coordinates). After that, I used the walkthrough on and off.
While gameplay has a narrow focus on one objective at a time, it still injects intriguing overarching story along the way. The big concern looming over everyone’s heads is Letavermilia, the plague. We get a smattering of interplanetary politics. Entire planets infected by the disease are quarantined. Meanwhile, uninfected affluent planets form an alliance called “Isolated Worlds” that cease contact with worlds outside this group.
The player is in a unique position because the PC’s bounty hunter credentials allow access to worlds that would otherwise be unavailable. I feel that the portrayal of bounty hunters in both IF and non-IF (or at least in what I’ve seen) tend to use a profile of a battered scoundrel who accepts shady contracts and walks a fine line with the law. The protagonist in Letavermilia is more privileged with glitzy clients and jobs received from entire governments.
I was not happy with the ending. No, no- It’s a fantastic ending. It’s an effective ending. I disliked it simply because it did not end how I wanted it to end. This may surprise you, but if I were to assess the ending of every story in this game and decide on the scariest, it would be this game without a doubt.
What do I mean by scary? I don’t mean spooked scary where everyone around the campfire screams because they heard a small noise out in the words. The feeling I associate with this ending is deep dread that sets in only when it is too late. You realize what just happened, quietly, without the game having to spell it out for you. (Spoiler - click to show)
Your nose is bleeding.
This bounty hunter had in the bag only to discover that the villain (who, technically, we still never meet) has been holding everything in the palm of her hand. I was rooting for the PC. If it weren’t for the villain, we would be swimming about leisurely on Ligeia. Plus, there is only one ending. In the other three games you can negotiate for happier ones.
This sense of dread is not a sudden event. It develops slowly through the gameplay, and you hardly even know it until it reaches the end. A trend is that (Spoiler - click to show) planet locations generally have small maps that you navigate freely and yet they manage to convey a feeling of being funneled along in a direction regardless of your choices. The anxious man who is a little too zealous about your presence (and your teeth, for some reason) as he escorts you up and down the narrow stairwell to look at the server room. The dust storm that keeps you confined to the area around your ship. The deep elevator (my favorite) that shuttles you deep underground to a concrete room. And somehow this hacker manages to leave her messages before you arrive. You are in control, but ultimately, you are not. The extent of this is not revealed until you paint yourself into a corner. Then- surprise! Down you go. That’s what makes this game scary.
Before I move on, I want to share my favorite planet, (Spoiler - click to show) Ulalume. Here, you are at a planet devoted to the nightlife. While planets are consumed by disease, partygoers continue to live extravagantly without any thought that the vast resources of the Isolated Worlds could be spent- I don’t know- coming up with a cure, maybe? Or maybe they simply want to distract themselves from it. People on this planet have a lot of ways of trying to distract themselves. You use an elevator to reach the bottom level. Its glass walls allow you to see the establishments on each floor. The farther down, the more unsettling things we see.
Now you can see through the haze. Humans are sprawled over velvet pillows, wearing expressions of vacant satisfaction.
No one cares that you are plunging deep underground in an elevator to reach a cold concrete room with a message from a hacker who borrows inspiration from a deadly plague. Now, that’s atmosphere.
Visit Skuga Lake
Your boss went to write some articles on a little-known town but has gone missing. As her intern, you travel to the town to investigate only to be thrown into a motel closet. Seems like outsiders are unwelcome. I did not need the hints for the Visit Skuga Lake because I had already devoured back when I first found the game. I mapped that place to death. Notes, lists, you name it. I did consult the guide’s amulet/eyestone chart because it is much more organized than the table I created.
When I first played Visit Skuga Lake last year during Ecto-Comp, I remember the parser being a tad slow with my commands. It would take about half a second- just enough to be noticeable- for the game to respond. But not really a big deal. When I replayed it a few days ago the delay time was even slower. The longer I played the greater the lag. By the time I managed to (Spoiler - click to show) retrieve the key from the sleeping guard and get the boat running to reach the smaller island it was taking three full seconds for the game to respond to each command. I’m not sure why. This was not a big deal since I already knew what to do, but if this were my first ever playthrough, experimentation would be a nightmare.
This game has heaps of cool content. Every animal, landmark, and found object have important content attached to it. What I like best is how there are plenty of puzzles, but their solutions are flexible. While many puzzles are optional, pursuing them are still relevant to your objectives because they follow a similar concept. (Spoiler - click to show) You collect animal amulets and eyestones. When paired together, they give you powers- a wide variety of powers. Experimenting with them is so much fun. You do not need to find every (Spoiler - click to show) magical item, but it is a welcome task, and one that will likely prove useful later in the gameplay. Experimentation is the main attraction. I hope the lag is just an issue on my end. That aside, the story, gameplay, and characters are excellent. Lag-time or not Visit Skuga Lake is a must play if you feel like sampling the stories in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone.
Singing for Me
Definitely, my favorite in all of Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. It is meant to be played repeatedly and offers a lot of strategizing. My high score is (Spoiler - click to show) $1938. "I suppose this is adequate," said the Waldgrave. I’m still proud of it.
The protagonist is a young man returning home after college. He tells the story through humorous journal entries shaped by the player’s choices. The entries depict an oddball town that grows weirder and weirder in a way that suggests normalcy in its community. If you keep shuffling along with the town’s traditions, you get sucked right in. Next thing you know, the (Spoiler - click to show) Harvest Festival arrives. The ending is delightfully disturbing and unexpected. Even better is the redeeming ending. The game makes the player work for it, but it is fulfilling. I’d share more but I’m already starting to sound like (Spoiler - click to show) Darren.
Nyvo the Dolphin
This game gave me a lot to think about. If you happened to be standing on a tall cliff while staring at the ocean and see a dolphin equipped with a (Spoiler - click to show) prosthetic arm, a (Spoiler - click to show) grenade launcher, and some (Spoiler - click to show) foreign object in its eye, what scenario would play through your head? What explanation would emerge as you try to rationalize what you just saw? Nyvo the Dolphin has the answers. An adolescent dolphin comes across a shipwreck. Not some storybook pirate shipwreck but the wreckage of a high-tech ship carrying (Spoiler - click to show) classified military cargo. The highlight is the writing. It has a dramatic yet clinical tone as it narrates Nyvo’s encounter with (Spoiler - click to show) dangerous human technology…and how he is changed by it. It’s also in third person which makes it even more potent.
You mean there’s (Spoiler - click to show) more?
Finally, this was the moment I was waiting for. (Spoiler - click to show) The bonus content: a FIFTH game. Hunted , if I remember correctly. A stop and start Christmas nightmare. I think. This kid is on the run in the North Pole. When he gets caught* the gameplay switches where you are the “Bad” version of the kid. The Good and Bad version of the kid’s identity battle it out as you flip flop between two gameplay sequences. And then sometimes the parser would kick back to the Twine format where everyone is sitting in a circle to hear a story before launching into more gameplay. It was overwhelming. Cool, but overwhelming. At one point I was in a cozy house, but then that changed. The entire time I was all, “wait- stop, stop, stop. I wasn’t done yet!” I would gladly replay the entire game to revisit it if not for the lag issue I had with Visit Skuga Lake.
Nonetheless, I am so happy to have reached this point.
*Also: (Spoiler - click to show) I found a key that presumably unlocks the office door, but right before I reach it Krampus gets me. Is it possible to outrun him or is failing the whole point?
A truly ambitious piece. It also defies the notion of quality over quantity, or quantity or quality. It’s a quality game, and there’s lots of it! A lot of planning and care seems to have gone into its creation. Sometimes you may find yourself coming back just to revisit one of the stories. Especially Singing for Me. There is something in it for a wide range of audiences in terms of length, technicality, and subject matter. Make sure you turn on the rainy music that the game recommends before you start playing.
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