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Yearning for a polished re-release, December 20, 2021
(This is a repost of a review originally posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)
Gilded is one of the more ambitious games in this year's field; unfortunately, it's also one of the least polished. It's got an interesting premise, and the prose is fluid and distinctive, but the player isn't given enough direction, and sloppy implementation further confuses things. There's plenty of creativity on offer, but lack of guidance and bugs suck away most of the enjoyment, and I found myself floundering and using the provided hints and walkthrough as a lifeline.
The set-up for Gilded—a fairy-tale in reverse—is initially compelling, and after reading over the introduction and ABOUT text, I was looking forward to leading the adventurers on a merry chase. The descriptions and especially the dialogue were amusing, but almost immediately the fun of using my powers to play pranks on the poor mortals gave way to a life-and-death struggle. Instead of proactively coming up with clever mischief, the player is himself forced to react to a series of threatening situations, which increases the feeling of being off-balance, as the player doesn't have the leisure to experiment and explore. While there's nothing wrong with such an evolution towards reactive gameplay, it happens far too suddenly, and feels too much like the rug being pulled out from under the player. The opening sets up a lighthearted scenario where the player will be in control - and then midway through the second location, this control is history. A more gradual transition would allow the player more time to master the fey's powers, and flesh out the characters more fully. Indeed, the rivalry/flirtation with Val is one of the most enjoyable elements of the game, but again, it isn't given much space to develop—you chat for a while outside the tavern, and then are off solving puzzles and trying to escape him. Most of the world is open from the very beginning, and while there's quite a lot which isn't directly related to your struggle with Val, its relevance is rarely clear.
Puzzles based on magic and allusion are always difficult to pull off; when they work, they work beautifully (see the Moonlit Tower, for example), but it's often hard to communicate the operant logic to the player. This difficulty is compounded in Gilded; not only do the player's abilities work on metaphor, so too do those of the primary antagonist—when Val begins plastering papers etched with sutras all over the forest, it's difficult to know what the appropriate course of action is. The endgame, by way of contrast, seems to vary wildly in tone, and brute force comes to the fore; while I'm sure there are cleverer ways out than simply fighting, I wasn't able to come up with any, and as a result, the ending was very anticlimactic. Still, the writing as a whole is a pleasure to read, and there's plenty of visual creativity on display—the sutra-plastered forest might be somewhat obscure as a puzzle element, but it's a beautiful image.
Contributing to the sense of disorientation is the feeling that the game isn't quite finished. There are only hints for two areas of the game, and I got stuck in the help menus at some point, unable to return to the root menu. I encountered a number of disambiguation problems, and in one play-through, the conversation in the tavern would display no matter how far away I traveled.
Overall, I found Gilded to be a frustrating experience; the writing is good, and the scenario should present fertile opportunities for enjoyment, but the lack of guidance and lack of polish makes it more frustrating than it should be. A post-comp release with some better clueing and some of the quirks ironed out could really improve the game; it's deep and interesting, but doesn't quite cohere as-is.