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About the Story
Spangleland! Sawdust and glitter, buffoons and cotton candy! It's a place where your wildest dreams come true! At least, that's what you think... until you get behind the scenes at the big top. Then you learn how easily sweet dreams can turn into nightmares.
When I first played Ballyhoo, I strongly disliked it because of a technical problem. [...] But if you can get past these glitches, you will find quite a nice little game. There are several characters, all well developed. There are everal amusing little responses and sidelights [...] The game captures the circus feel in much the same way that Hollywood Hijinx captures the Hollywood feel. As an added bonus, you get an all text blackjack game in the bargain.
-- Graeme Cree
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Number of Reviews: 6
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I played Ballyhoo with a friend of mine, and it was a great way to experience it. I'm sort of a fan of the circus, and I think this game did the atmosphere very well, despite the typical Infocom in-jokes. The game takes great pains to time events so you never miss anything, which has some mimesis-crushing side effects. The puzzles were not ridiculously hard, though I think we used hints once or twice. There a brilliant dream sequence marred by maddeningly tedious puzzles. We had a lot of fun with it, even while we cursed the puzzles that just don't make sense.
Yes. That's just one of the great things about Ballyhoo: you get to learn circus-lingo.
After overhearing the circus boss talking to an obviously incompetent private detective about the disappearance of his daughter, you decide to do some investigating yourself. No other motivation than your protagonist's whim. Works for me...
So you start the game and soon find that...
Ballyhoo is pure puzzle and comedy gold.
The comedy comes from many different sources.
There is the persistent atmosphere of a somewhat run-down circus. There are mislaid props and animal odours and filthy rags for banners. One of the trailers is off kilter, an old and warped attraction front serves as part of the fence, one of the lions is skinny and shaggy... This atmosphere doesn't get depressing because it's offset by detailed and colourful descriptions.
The prose is really good. The room and action descriptions are clear but also playful, and there are some hilarious cutscenes (I include deathscenes in the "hilarious cutscene"-category...) A lot of the comedy comes from the protagonist winding up in awkward situations and uncomfortable circumstances ((Spoiler - click to show)trying to navigate a tightrope 20 feet up in the air, finding your way through the crowd searching for your cotton-candy). Many times I laughed at the almost slapstick shenanigans needed to complete one or other task.
During your investigation, you'll meet many outlandish characters. When you (the player) stop and think about it, these NPCs are no more interactive or conversational than a cardboard cutout, but they are so well drawn that their stand-offish behavior and reluctance to answer your questions seems perfectly natural in-game. And they are marvelous just as they are. A collection of wonderful circus-artistes to gawk at.
Other funny features were the many, many instances of wordplay and punnery in the responses to "wrong" commands. My favorite was GET OUT OF LINE when exiting the line in front of a food stand ((Spoiler - click to show)the game describes your character raving and ranting and jumping up and down in anger, i.e. behaving "out of line"...)
As I said above, the puzzles in Ballyhoo are really top shelf. Beautifully hinted and clued. Very rewarding, in the searching for clues as well as in the discoveries after solving them.
When I came across a puzzle, I always could picture a vague general plan to tackle it. And it always turned out that I had missed a necessary step or forgot to bring an important object, throwing me off-balance again. Wonderful! And it always made sense in hindsight.
A small criticism: although I loved solving the puzzles for their own sake, and a joy to solve they were, I rarely had any idea why I was jumping through these hoops.
Of course I'm going to try to get in the lion's cage if I find out it's locked. Why? Because I'm playing an Infocom game. Apart from that, there is little to no motivation in-game to do the weird things that you do. Not even the occasional "You think you see a silvery glint behind the grating"...
This is in keeping with the characterization of the PC. Sure, the game-world is a late 1800s circus setting, but if you look at the bare bones of Ballyhoo, you're still a nameless cleptomaniac adventurer solving puzzles because they're there. There are a lot of instances where you find the solution before you see the puzzle. So you wind up taking everything with you "just in case". To be clear, I don't mind that. I actually like it. Just pointing out that we're not far removed from ZORK-gameplay.
There is however a bigger and more compelling story woven around the puzzle-solving hoop-jumping. This becomes evident int the finale. Excellent building of tension, beautifully tying together the narrative strands (in a hilariously off-kilter way, but hey...). The player's expectations are abruptly shaken a few times before finally solving the bigger puzzle that is the disappearance of the boss's daughter.
Really, play Ballyhoo. It's a hoot.
I'm surprised this has gotten the good reviews that it has. I didn't enjoy this one at all. In fairness to the game I think that I'm still a little rusty on thinking (and using verbs) the way Infocom thought when designing these games. However, I managed to get through most of Zork and Deadline alright. In those games I think I figured out 80% of the puzzles without hints, but with Ballyhoo I think I only got 20% without hints. Even finishing it with a walkthrough as I did, I still don't understand some of what was going on or how I would have ever figured it out on my own. The ending in particular is crazy.
So having to use a walkthrough for 80% of the game is a big strike against it, but even beyond that I didn't care much for the story or characters. Most of the characters are unlikable and the story feels thin. I think I finished the last 30% of the game by strictly following a walkthrough because I just wanted it to be over.
Oh well, they can't all be winners.
ADDENDUM: I bumped up my rating on this one star after listening to the Eaten By A Grue podcast episode about the game. I wrote the above review right after finishing the game and while I still hold to it, I think my frustration at the ending in particular made me forget about all the humor earlier in the game. This game is legitimately funny at points, in ways that not many pieces of IF are, and so I think that is worth an extra star.
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