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About the Story
Jaya Koto's plan was perfect: One big VR heist, and she'd be set for life. Too bad the city’s psychotically devout cybercops chose that exact day to screw with her.
19th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 2
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This is a pretty long download-only unity game that is choice-based with an interactive map, quicktime events and a specialized inventory. It is described as a Metroidvania, and that is true, as you collect multiple powers of your own choice and in a non-deterministic order as you play the game.
You live in a city that has a real-life side and a cyber side, and you can gain bionic or psionic modifications that make you stronger. There are a ton of mini games, including a fantasy MMORPG, gambling games, and arcade games.
There is a big cast of characters and many locations. While each one individually didn't seem super fleshed out to me in motivation and personality, as a whole the plot structure and relationships were interesting and satisfying.
Your goal is to rob a casino, but as the game progresses you find yourself more and more often coming up against God, a powerful AI that is in charge of your city.
The game doesn't have any easy way to save that I could see, but if you 'die' you go back to the last major decision point (I think; I only died once, at the very end). There are 9 branches but I only played through once, so I'm not sure what the others are like.
My number one gripe is that the main interaction was fussy. You read text and then choices appear, but how to get them to appear is confusing. I thought it was when you used the mouse scroll wheel down, but sometimes it appeared when I scrolled up, and sometimes I just had to wait. Choices always appeared whenever I equipped or unequipped an ability, so I eventually used that. Even the opening screen took me a while to figure out what to do. It might just all be timed and the mouse wheel thing was just in my head.
(And, just now, looking back, there is an option in the settings to let you see the choices immediately, so this is totally my fault!)
While the game isn't perfect, it was descriptive, polished (I think I only saw one typo in 2 hours), interactivity had a lot of highlights, I was emotionally invested and I'd like to see the other branches once I have some free time in the comp.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I have evolving views about custom parsers, but at this point in the Comp I’m starting to realize I should probably develop some thoughts about custom choice engines too! I'm lucky that it’s Silicon and Cells that occasions the thought, because it’s a really impressive piece of work. The system has an attractive visual design, with a nice color scheme and the ability to display graphics; the text is clean, large, and readable; it’s quickly responsive to user clicks; and it’s got support for timed events and other bells and whistles.
The engine’s in service of a game that’s on the more systemic side of the choice-based spectrum, as you guide a plucky heroine through a heist and subsequent investigations in a cyberpunk world. The hook here is that through the course of the story, you pick up a variety of Deus-Ex-style upgrades – for each slot, you get a choice of either psionic or cybernetic options which works a little differently – that open up new choices if they’re activated at the appropriate time. You only have limited energy, though, so you’ll usually need to choose which to have powered up. In most sequences, you can freely reallocate energy so you can lawnmower your way through the options, but there are some timed events where preparation – or manual dexterity in clicking to shift energy – will lead to better outcomes.
It’s this aspect of the game that gives rise to the “metroidvania” tag in the blurb, as you spend a good amount of time looping back over previous locations to see whether a newly-acquired ability has unlocked any new possibilities. This is just as satisfying here as it is in a traditional side-scroller, too, so it’s neat to see the mechanic deployed in a radically different genre.
As for the story behind this system, it’s a solid one, though Silicon and Cells is less innovative on this side of things. The introduction feels rather abrupt, as we’re thrown into an expository conversation where Jaya, the protagonist, meets with a mentor character and gains her first ability in service of a planned heist of a high-rolling casino. It took me a little while to feel like I was up to speed on why we were doing this heist and how the characters related – plus I found Jaya was a bit of a cipher at first.
This initial awkwardness goes away reasonably quickly, though, as the momentum of the heist – and its fallout – creates immediate goals, and Jaya begins to develop more of a personality. She’s an appealing figure, from one of the city’s slums but trying to do better not just for herself but also her community, and as the plot expands in scope you wind up getting the chance to make decisions that can have a really significant impact. Most of the main beats are things you’ve seen before in cyberpunk stories – there’s an all-powerful AI running the city, a corporation with shady motives, a circle of founding hackers with messy personal fallout – but it’s all well executed, and the different environments and challenges provide good variety. There’s a fantasy MUD that’s the playground of one of the aforementioned hackers, the casino, which has some working gambling games to play (though I think I found a bug where I couldn’t win at the Yes/No/Go game in the Pearly Gates section, albeit I had so much money by that point it didn’t matter), and various cyberspace archives and corporate HQs, all rendered in tight prose that provides just enough detail to be memorable. Overall, by the ending, I was invested in the story and satisfied with how the choices I’d made – both about gear and about people – wound up playing out. I know download-only games sometimes don’t get as much attention in the Comp, especially if they’re choice-based, but this one’s definitely worth a play.
Highlight: I enjoyed the MUD pastiche, from the realistically-annoying veteran player to the bartender who uses timed-text to deliver a well-paced joke.
Lowlight: the plot thread involving the casino owner felt underdeveloped to me, which was too bad since I enjoyed the initial verbal sparring with her and would have enjoyed seeing it go somewhere – possibly there are alternate approaches where she plays more of a role in the endgame, though.
How I failed the author: the timed events are fun and well-designed, but I’m clumsy with my laptop’s touchpad in the best of circumstances (I haven’t had much chance to sit down at a desk these last few weeks) so reallocating energy to my mods in real time was very hard. Fortunately the game’s forgiving, and autoresolved the key challenges in my favor even when I was flailing, though I was embarrassed that it basically wound up playing itself.
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