Desolation

by Earth Traveler

Horror
2020

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Creepy but a bit underimplemented, December 6, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

(This is a review of the initial Comp release of the game; I believe mid-Comp updates have addressed some of the bugs mentioned below)

Desolation is a sequel to a game I havenít played (and side-note, that bothers me way more than it should because Iím the kind of bloody-minded completionist whoíll be recommended a TV show thatís uneven at the beginning but gets really good in season four which is a perfect jumping-on point because they rebooted the premise and shifted the cast, and decide right, season one episode one it is). Interestingly, it appears to be written by a different author (much like Magpie Takes the Train, it occurs to me), so Iím a bit curious about the backstory.

Anyway, the lack of familiarity with the prequel isnít too much handicap, as the opening immediately establishes 1) youíre fleeing into a desert with little but your wits, and 2) youíre being pursued by a sort of demonic Pippi Longstockings. I kid, but the horror bits here are probably the most effective part of the game ó whenever the two braids girl shows up or is mentioned, the writing conveys how reality constricts around the player character, and their desperation to get somewhere, anywhere else. Thereís not much specificity about who she is or what she wants, but for a plot as elemental as this, I donít think thatís really a drawback (play the prequel if you want the lore, nerd! Or so I assume the rejoinder goes).

Structurally, Desolation is well set up into a series of self-contained puzzle areas, which generally keeps things zippy, and the puzzles themselves are fairly well clued. However, thereís no walkthrough or hints on offer, and thereís some unfortunate wonkiness in the implementation. In general, thereís not much scenery thatís implemented (including some that seems like it would be needed/helpful, like (Spoiler - click to show)the ďsoftball-sizedĒ rocks that one might try to throw at the dog), thereís wonkiness about trying to go directions that donít lead anywhere (which the player is likely to do, since exits are sometimes described in a confusing fashion), and there are a fair number of bugs, including lots of scenery not being flagged as such (in the (Spoiler - click to show)apartment sequence, I was able to pick up pretty much all the (Spoiler - click to show)furniture, and start cramming the bathroom sink into the peanut jar). Itís possible to do some things before they should be allowed, and I ran into a guess-the-verb issue that stymied me for quite a while (Spoiler - click to show)(to hit the dog with the pick axe, HIT DOG WITH PICK AXE doesnít work but ATTACK DOG does Ė but the dog is very clearly scary, I donít want to fight it without a weapon!).

One last thing thatís neither here nor there in terms of evaluation, but which was certainly interesting (very light spoilers for an early part of Desolation, then slightly deeper spoilers for a different, 20-year-old game): (Spoiler - click to show)the first main sequence involves the player character hallucinating that theyíre back in their apartment, going through a pre-trip checklist. But any time they open the fridge or turn on the taps, sand starts coming out, until everything starts dissolving into dunes. This is Shade! But it isnít presented in an in-jokey way that makes it seem like an obvious tip of the hat, nor is it exactly the same because the player clearly knows whatís up (the choice of soundtrack creates some really funny moments here). Iím not sure if this is an homage played exactly straight, or what would be even more interesting, independent invention of the idea. If so, well done for having a brain that can simulate Andrew Plotkin!

Hopefully the author can make a quick update to squash some of these bugs (and add a walkthrough file too!) because if you stick to the critical path and donít poke around too much, this checks a lot of boxes for a short, scary, puzzley vignette.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.