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About the Story
A puzzle game about secrets in the Age of Lead. You've spent seventeen years preparing for an infiltration. Stealing the Confessor's secrets is only the beginning: it will all be for nothing if you leave a trace.
Nominee, Best Setting; Winner, Best Puzzles; Nominee, Best Individual Puzzle - 2015 XYZZY Awards
6th Place overall; 2nd Place, Miss Congeniality Award - 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2015)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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This is one of the best - if you're a fan of espionage AND fantasy/sci-fi, you're going to love this too.
I want to see more of this setting. The REVEAL at the end (no, literally - if you achieve a perfect score, you have access to a command that describes the game's biggest twist and explains the "perfect" ending) left me speechless and also wanting more.
One of the game's biggest puzzles is simply leaving no trace that you were ever there to begin with. This sounds like it'd be a real chore, but it actually required me to be 100% engaged at all times so that I could remember how I had entered the mansion and what I had disturbed. It also allows the authors to completely avoid one of the tropes that is my biggest pet peeve with interactive fiction: you're not forced to be a pack rat... in fact, there are a lot of items that you conceivably could pick up and take with you but are prohibited from doing so because they'll leave traces that you could not clean up. So clever, and I appreciate it so much!
I generally have a policy of not rating or reviewing games that I haven't played to completion (and worse yet, this game famously has a big Twist Ending of which I am totally unaware), but Sub Rosa is so difficult and yet so enjoyable that I feel compelled to break my policy, so that I don't have to wait until 2050 or whatever to express my appreciation for its writing and worldbuilding.
Because those are really this game's main strengths. When I first played Sub Rosa during the 2015 comp, and got about a room and a half in, I was practically buzzing with joy at how fun, how original this game is. A couple years later, I've calmed down a little, but it's still an absolute joy. As others have mentioned, the library is a particular highlight, but really there's great stuff all over.
However, it is an old-school hard if-puzzle game. I keep losing my save files, not because of any extraordinary technical issues but just because I'm not used to sticking this long with a game that makes you save. Normally I give up on puzzle games pretty quick, but I like the writing in Sub Rosa enough to stick around.
I do wish that the walkthrough was a little bit more comfortably spaced, or that there was a more robust in-game hint system, so that I didn't have to deploy cat-like reflexes to avoid spoiling half the game when I just wanted to get unstuck from one puzzle.
Anyway, excellent game, good enough to convince me to bend my typical preferences and practices in order to stick with it. Like For A Change, this is worth playing even if you're not really an old-school IF type. I'm certainly not, and I'm enjoying it anyway.
Confessor Destine is an unimpeachable authority. His spotless personal record ensures that he can wield great power in society by exploiting other people's indiscretions, charging them with crimes, without ever having his own position questioned.
You play as someone who has a bone to pick with him. You have been preparing for years to break into the Confessor's mansion and dig up some dirt. You begin the game wearing a pellucid llama-suit that makes you invisible, and you will enter the mansion through a spatial intersection in a giant leather cliff that cuts into another physical plane.
I want to say that this game is surreal, but I don't think that's accurate. It's set in a fantasy world with very unusual qualities, but within this world everything is consistent and makes sense. There's no dream logic. There's just strange logic. The finesse required to achieve this subtle distinction in the writing is spectacular.
I don't want to say too much about the world, because the game's primary pleasure comes from exploring that world. I do think you will have to have a certain taste for peculiarity to enjoy the game though. It made me think about Edward Gorey. Consider this organization system in the Confessor's library:
You could choose a specific book or one of the seven eternal categories: damp, forgotten, implausible, pejorative, exhaustive, unsettling and beseeching.
If you look at the "forgotten" books, some titles you'll find are Urn Dwellers, Emponderations Most Wearysome, and History of The Boundless Plains. In the "damp" category there is a book about milking called Milking.
This library is probably the game's greatest achievement. It has 101 books, and you can read them all, and they are all different and wonderful and enrich the world. At the same time, the library also illustrates the game's biggest weakness, which is that it demands an exhaustive attention to detail from the player to solve its puzzles.
Sub Rosa rewards patience and critical thought, and it does not respond well to being rushed through. Some players will be frustrated by its difficulty, and the puzzles could certainly be clued more overtly, but this is exactly what will draw other players to the game who want a challenge. Even though I personally needed hints, that didn't detract at all from my satisfaction with the game's other elements.
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