Lady Thalia and the Seraskier Sapphires

by E. Joyce profile and N. Cormier profile

2021

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A delightful heist-fest, April 11, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Thalia is the Greek muse of comedy, and she’s an apt namesake for what’s the most purely fun game I’ve yet hit in the festival. It felt like LTSS was grown in a lab to plaster a grin to my face – I’m a sucker for anything involving British twits, heists, libraries, and museums, and here we’ve got the eponymous burglar planning not one but three heists (at a library, a museum, and a British manor), all to tweak the nose of a supercilious society doyenne. Oh, and there’s an extended game of cat and mouse played against a sexy art-theft consultant to Scotland Yard. Still, even if these particular tropes aren’t your specific cup of tea, the breezy, clever LTSS is a rewarding gem of a game.

Admittedly, I went into this one expecting to like it – one half of the authoring duo, E. Joyce, previously wrote What the Bus? for the 2020 Comp and Social Lycanthropy Disorder for last year’s EctoComp, both of which I’d played and really enjoyed. And the gauntlet thrown down by the ABOUT text got me even more excited:

"[The game] has been lovingly researched; much of this research was subsequently thrown out the window for reasons including plot convenience, genre convention, wanting to have female characters do things that women shouldn’t historically have been doing, and things just being funnier that way."

Happily, LTSS lives up to this initial promise. The opening does a great job of establishing the milieu, the antagonist, and the player character, who’s a social climber with a masked alter-ego and a fondness for relieving snobs of their possessions. Hearing her stuck-up hostess brag about the gems she’s about to parade at a fancy party, our heroine takes it upon herself to lift not just the jewels, but also a rare book and valuable painting in the lady’s possession.

The game thus plays out as a trio of heists, each proceeding according to a well-paced structure: there’s an initial planning meeting with your sidekick Gwen, who’s a seamstress and gadgeteer of no mean skill, then a sequence of casing the joint incognito, before the final nocturnal visitation to put the scheme into action. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and muses gang aft agley, so even the most meticulous preparation doesn’t save you from occasionally having to improvise. And then after each heist is done, you get to read about your exploits and get debriefed – and rated – by Gwen.

These sequences are all really well done – none wear out their welcome, and each builds momentum into the next as you’re eager to see how the groundwork you’re laying will pay off. Each works differently, too, which helps keep interest high. The briefing scenes are pure dialogue, primarily giving you a chance to add some shades to Lady Thalia’s characterization as the outlines of the plan get established. When you hit the streets, you usually get a choice of three or four leads to pursue to gather information, hide your tools of the trade in a useful spot, or recruit confederates, before time is up and it’s time for the heist. It’s possible to succeed or fail at each of these subtasks, which could make the actual burglary sections faster and easier, or more time-consuming and challenging – these bits are set up as linear gauntlets, and can be appropriately nerve-wracking, though generally you’re more in danger of making a mess of things and having to endure Gwen’s mockery than of losing life and limb.

The challenges are varied, too. Most of the social challenges use a system where you choose an approach from a menu of direct, friendly, or leading (this last meaning you’re asking leading questions aimed at getting more voluble types to share more than they ought). This is a nice framework, since it creates some structure around what could otherwise be very fuzzy social challenges, and it also prods the player to think about the personalities and desires of the other characters rather than as mechanical obstacles to circumvent (admittedly, sometimes using the direct route with servants and employees can feel a bit like bullying, though Thalia typically stays on the right side of that line). One heist largely hinges on a word puzzle; another’s all about planning ahead; and a third involves Burke’s Peerage, because of course this is that kind of game.

The writing is just as good as the puzzle design, in particular when it comes to the protagonist. Thalia herself is a joy to inhabit, and has some of the best lines. Here’s her reflecting on how her status has risen after many successful jobs:

"You are at the level of wealth where you can get people to do you favours by giving them money, but not quite at the level where people will do you favours because you said you might give them money, so you are here in disguise."

And here she’s sizing up a potential mark:

"She has the air of a spinsterish academic — which you don’t mean as an insult; you can appreciate a bluestocking. You’ve appreciated some of them quite a bit in your day."

(Yes, Thalia is unashamedly randy).

There are a few flies in the ointment: I ran into a couple of small bugs (when faking a swoon in front of one of the museum guards, I got a “cannot execute macro” error, and when chatting with Lady Satterthwaite’s maid, one of the friendly dialogue options appeared to redirect back to the same passage, so I had to choose a different approach to progress). There was one sequence that I found hard to parse –the duel of wits with Mel in the museum – where I understood what Thalia was planning but wasn’t clear on how to implement it given the options available (this was the one place where I save-scummed). Gwen also scored my performance on the first heist as a 15 out of 13, which could be an error or just an indication of how awesome Lady Thalia is, I suppose. But these minor flaws do nothing to detract from the zippy, cannily-designed pleasures on offer – LTSS is a must-play, and here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of its dashing heroine.