Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone

by Ryan Veeder profile

Episode 4 of Tales from Castle Balderstone
2021

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So much to do! So much to see!, December 1, 2022

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.

Overview
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.

Letavermilia
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?

Final thoughts
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.


Comments on this review

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Ryan Veeder, December 5, 2022 - Reply
Update! I think I have effectively workarounded the Visit Skuga Lake lag issue by converting the game from a "save every turn" paradigm to a "prompt to save at key moments" one. (You can also save manually if you like.) This should allow you to take ten or twelve seconds off your speedrun!
Kinetic Mouse Car, December 8, 2022 - Reply
I don't know what magic you did, but it worked! I played it with the main link on the game's listing and then played it with the link that you had in your comment. No long lag. Or lag at all, really. Having the game occasionally ask you about saving is a huge, huge improvement over having to wait for every turn.

This might be hard to believe, but I never considered using (Spoiler - click to show) the opal eyestone to open portals for the other amulets. I played around with that for a while. Some even had an alternate way of completing the game! It almost felt like "rediscovering" the game after you’ve played it. I love hidden surprises.

Thanks for the updates. It makes a difference.
Ryan Veeder, December 1, 2022 - Reply
Thank you for your very kind review. I am highly distressed to hear about the horrible lag you experienced while playing Visit Skuga Lake. I am not suprised, though, because the autosaving code in that game is extremely bad.

I have just now tried to do a very hacky optimization, which I have added to this version (hey this link lets you skip to the game!) but not yet the itch.io version. I'm very eager to find out if I've improved the issue at all, but it sounds like the only way to do that will be to play the game for several hundred turns and see if the same amount of latency builds up. So, that's not ideal.

At any rate, I want to thank you for bringing this to my attention and let you know that I'm addressing it. Also, I'm glad you liked all that other stuff.
Kinetic Mouse Car, December 2, 2022 - Reply
Thank you for sharing the link. I played it twice (and ended up playing a few rounds of Singing for Me as well. I couldn't help myself). Perhaps I am imagining things, but I think the lag slightly reduced if you play Visit Skuga Lake first. If there's any logic to this theory players may find that tip helpful.

My record for fastest time (back when I played it last year) was 45 turns- I had a lot of fun with attempting new high scores. I don't know why my experience was different then. If someone were to play the game right now that record would be short enough to avoid the slowness that gradually accumulates. Obviously, that required a lot of strategizing and experimenting, but in this case the walkthrough offers a helping hand to players, if they choose to use it.

In my review I said that experimentation is a struggle, but I hope that does not scare people away. Visit Skuga Lake is still pretty darn awesome, and I still want everyone to play it.
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