The Eidolon's Escape

by Mark Clarke


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A convincingly inhuman viewpoint, December 7, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

A workman-like piece of choice-based IF, Eidolon’s Escape hits its marks while dangling hints of a deeper mystery, and if it lacks any particular standout feature, I nonetheless enjoyed my time with it. You don’t know your character’s full backstory in EE, but there’s a reason for that: you’re playing a disembodied spirit whose memories have eroded over years of imprisonment in a magical crystal. One of the tricks up your sleeve is possession, though, and since two hapless youths have picked your gaol as the site for their romantic rendezvous, you finally have a chance to escape the tower of the mage who’s caged you by riding one of them to freedom.

This goal is clearly communicated, and it doesn’t take long before you’re able to learn the steps needed to carry it out – there are a couple, but they don’t feel needlessly convoluted. The main gameplay is more puzzle-focused than exploration-focused – you usually only have two choices at a time, and a large number of these are false choices that shunt you back to the main thread. There are challenges and wrong answers, though, most of which revolve around social interaction: you might need to fool the cook into telling you something she’s meant to keep secret, or bluff your way past a skeptical guard. While it’s not too hard to figure out the right approaches in these situations, the eponymous eidolon doesn’t really understand humans so you’re not given too much prompting, meaning it feels satisfying to succeed. Adding to the gravity of the challenge, there’s no save game option and incorrect choices can quickly lead to game over – replays go reasonably fast as there’s no timed text, so this isn’t too annoying, but it does provide an incentive to get things right the first time.

These puzzles and situations, while well-constructed, aren’t that interesting by themselves – it’s all stuff you’ll have seen before. The eidolon’s character and way of understanding the world are what give the game its flavor. I was struck by the way that the choices on offer really only allowed for two ways of playing the eidolon: either as an imperious figure commanding others to do its bidding, or a master manipulator disgusted at how easy it is to twist people around their finger. It’s not very good at social cues much of the time, though, and is usually stuck doing blunt imitations of behavior it’s seen people perform, with the aping only occasionally convincing. Guiding such a character, and engaging with whether its behavior and attitudes are just a reflection of how alien it is from humanity, or if there is something truly sinister about it, adds a welcome note of mystery the otherwise rather quotidian proceedings.

The writing is – I’m going to back to the well of “workmanlike.” I think I only caught one stray typo, and it usually focuses on the right things. But it describes more than it evokes. Take this passage when you possess one of the youths and are embodied for the first time in ages:

"You clutch at the rough cloth of his shirt as your mind wheels. He continues to talk to you but you cannot take any of it in; lights and images blind you, burn into your mind’s eye and blur with new images. Sounds boom, rip and echo through your head, incessant waves of unbearable odours assault your nose, every touch sends lightning through your nerves and your mouth feels as though it has been packed with all the vilest effluvia that the world has to offer."

This is all solid enough, and touches on the right elements to highlight – you’d imagine this is what the experience would be like. But it’s a little vague, and it never sings. There are also some odd anachronisms (the eidolon can attempt to dress someone down by asking “did I stutter?”, and try to seduce another by praising their “symmetrically aligned features”) that undermine the immersion somewhat.

Eidolon’s Escape is smoothly put together – I enjoyed scheming my way to freedom and found the various obstacles on offer fair to work through. The first ending I got, while a victory, was a bit anticlimactic, so I went back and played to a second one that, while technically a failure, was more satisfying and hinted at a resolution to the questions about what exactly the deal is with the eidolon (Spoiler - click to show)(as best I can tell, it’s actually a fragment – and probably not a very nice fragment – of the soul of the mage’s long-dead lover). I wish there was a little more of a spark here, but I can’t be sure that’s because something’s missing in the game, or just personal preference for writing with a bit more flair, and for weird-protagonist games that do more to lean into their odd conceit, rather than EE’s way of playing things fairly down-the-middle.