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Intriguing gameplay and an undercooked story, July 15, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: you want a short, sweet game with a smoothly-implemented gameplay gimmick.
Don't play it if: you prefer gameplay to be accompanied by a fleshed-out story, because in narrative terms this does feel a bit incomplete.
The most memorable aspect of this game is immediately noticeable: verbs of movement are discarded in favor of an alternative mode of transportation, and EXAMINING a place is what takes you to it. What impresses me more than the coding (not that I'm a wizard, but I can make a couple of guesses at how it was done) is the manipulation of English in order to make the effect seamless.
A common flaw in descriptive writing is the provision of information that confounds the mind's natural means of acquiring that information. For instance, in an oft-quoted sequence from the novel Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, the observing character is implied to be standing some distance from the lady he is observing. But then:
"Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon."
The reader is confused on two counts: first, the assertion that the moon has a fragrance (which given that's located in space, is impossible); and second, that the observing character can smell her face - specifically - from more than arm's length. In Silk and Steel, this is just poor writing. In Castle of the Red Prince, though, it's twisted into a means of travel. Essentially, examining locations from a distance will often bridge the spatial gap by simply beginning to provide information that would be unavailable from your original location. Coding aside, it's a fascinating linguistic trick.
(I should mention that this gimmick plays havoc with your ability to appreciate the relative locations of things, but given the small size of this world it's not really a major drawback.)
What's also interesting about this device is that it's left ambiguous to what degree this travel is simply a novel description of normal movement, and to what degree it's a form of sorcery available to the player character. This also leads into a minor disappointment I experienced: the player character has a sort of ambiguity which is suggestive of depth, but that depth is never really exploited. I mean, in theory the PC's dreams are being haunted by this Red Prince, but it's not used for much more than a basic motivator to tell the player what they're doing in the game. The Red Prince's rather blase attitude to your machinations, couple with the contents of a certain book, made me think that the PC was the Red Prince's son, or that the Red Prince had some sort of personal role in the PC's dreams and backstory. None of this appeared to be true, which is a bit of a shame.
The point is not to judge Castle by the arbitrary standards of my personal imaginary alternate universe for this game, but to point out that this game ignited my curiosity in a way it wasn't prepared to engage. In fact, the story itself is not particularly engaging, lacking much in the way of twists. The titular antagonist knows what you're doing from quite early on, but he'll be damned if he expends any energy on trying to actually stop you - and speaking here as a reader rather than a game-player, seeing that sort of thing feels like it's the story itself expressing this attitude to me (though I'm hardly going to go about accusing the author of laziness). Victor Gjisbers's The Baron might have been fairly unremarkable gameplay-wise but it made better use of a similar sort of premise.
On the whole, then, I have to agree with previous comments that this is a better experiment than a game. It's not that it's a bad game, it's just that what actually happens in it is barely enough to fill a two-page short story.