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Flawed but intriguing poetic battle, May 31, 2016
The War of the Willows is a fantasy horror game about fighting a tree threatening to destroy the protagonist and their village. It has mythical and horror overtones, and is extremely lethal.
The first impression is that The War of the Willows is not a user-friendly game, which is likely why it placed so low in IF Comp 2015. Having to download and install Python on top of downloading the game files is a high barrier to judges, especially when such a prolific year means 53 games to blitz through.
For me, playing in a console window isn't good for my eyes and makes it harder to read. It doesn't help that the game launches straight in with a long epigraph that, while atmospheric enough, is pretty esoteric to open with and is tempting to skim or skip altogether.
Player input comes from a list of case-sensitive keywords to type into the console. You choose your motivation (I chose "love"), an item to help you along (I chose a locket), and your patron deity (I chose Athena). The descriptions and responses to these choices are lovely and help build up a sense of the protagonist and their background, though it seems that most of the decisions don't have much mechanical effect. In a game that's all about the battle, it would be helpful to have more feedback about the effect the choices have.
The battle itself is a back-and-forth between the protagonist and the tree, with feedback about how the protagonist is feeling and how many limbs or branches have been hacked off. The feedback sometimes felt incongruous: one moment the protagonist was feeling hale and hearty, and then they were stumbling around, and then buoyed up again. At various points I wasn't quite sure how much health my character had, and death came as a surprise. In this case the flowery language (pun not intended) got in the way of providing information to the player.
The choice to write the game in verse is a Marmite kind of decision. I liked it: it creates an unreal atmosphere, and while over-the-top, it works to build the sense of a legendary battle. The main language issue I had was the use of "Fuck." when hitting the tree: I don't mind swearing by any means but it feels out of place amongst the game's mythical register, and I wasn't sure what exactly it was responding to.
It's an extremely difficult game to complete without dying; I died several times before stopping playing. I don't mind that, really - a challenge can be fun - but the game ends abruptly upon death, kicking you out of the console window without so much as a "play again?", which doesn't lend itself to feeling inclined to continue. It also requires reading through the introductory text again, which while intriguing the first time round, grows tiresome when you're reading through it again and again.
Having said all this, I'm not sure The War of the Willows deserves its 53rd placing in the Comp: it definitely suffered from being written with an unusual system. A parser with limited verbs, or a hypertext system, would have almost definitely gone down better. Regardless, the language and concept are intriguing and interesting, and I'd be interested to see more work from this author.
Further reading: Mathbrush's review which discusses modding the game (as encouraged by the documentation), to make changes to language and combat.