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Exciting action, excruciating inventory mgmt, September 12, 2011
The Best Man is a rare example of an action thriller in a medium known mainly for leisurely contemplation. In the game, you are en route to a friend's wedding, to serve as best man (naturally), and deliver the ring for the bride. After a short flashback sequence, you find yourself aboard a train which, within a few moves, will be hijacked by terrorists. If you want to deliver that ring (and survive), you'll need to defeat the terrorists singlehandedly.
The game does a lot of things right. For the most part, it fulfills its action-movie goals. It resembles Die Hard in its one-man-vs.-the-terrorists setup, but there is rather less ass-kicking on the protagonist's part, and rather more chemistry. That's not to say there's less death -- in fact, there's a shocking amount of it, which could just as easily have been written away -- but the dirty work is all handled offscreen and indirectly. The first half of the game is tight, exciting and well-done, and the initial puzzles are at the sweet spot in terms of challenge, even if there's a lot of learning-by-dying, which turns some players off. The story works well enough for the genre it's trying to emulate, even though it doesn't make a whole lot of sense (and there are suggestions that much of it (Spoiler - click to show)might be a dream). It has excellent feelies (good luck trying to fold that spider).
On the other hand, there's not enough characterization of the PC for the transformation from everyman into terrorist-fighting hero to really work. The PC is pretty much a blank slate (as good looking as ever, in fact). There's a brief setup scene where we learn that we're the survivor of a plane crash on a previous attempt to serve as best man for this same couple, but there's nothing which really prepares us in a character sense for what happens later. Terrorists take over the train, and we suddenly become a coolly competent terrorist fighter, because that's what protagonists do.
The game as a whole is on a timer, and there are a few smaller timed puzzles as well. The time limit is more forgiving than the one in say, A Change in the Weather, but it is not exactly slack. I played a pretty taut game, restoring frequently to optimize, and I still finished with only a few moves left on the clock. It's definitely as cruel in the Zarfian sense as A Change in the Weather. It's extremely easy to lock yourself out of victory without knowing it, and by performing actions that look reasonable at the time.
The Best Man is too old-school in its gameplay than it should be given its year of publication. Doors don't open automatically, even those you've opened before, an annoyance felt all the more keenly in a game with a time limit. More disappointing, though, is the inventory management system. There's a very strict inventory limit, and even the "carryall" object has a limited volume. Items which are in the carryall must be brought to hand manually before they're dropped or used. The game tries to juggle some items for you, swapping items into your carryall as needed, but it always managed, seemingly with malice aforethought, to stash the item I actually wanted to keep at hand (or to transfer liquids into the carryall while leaving the containers in hand, breaking the game). Exacerbating matters, there are a number of similarly-named objects, and a great deal of movement that relies on having free hands. The end result is that much of the game is spent laboriously dropping and stashing items, a gameplay style decidedly at odds with the action-movie genre.
The puzzles are mostly fair, but there are a couple of doozies involving the (Spoiler - click to show)bomb. It's very confusingly described and hard to picture. There are components mentioned in its description which can't be examined until the thing is opened, and worse, there are very critical components which are not mentioned at all until you've tripped over them and died. The (Spoiler - click to show)balances puzzle is fiddly to the extreme, with disambiguation issues compounding the overall challenge of solving the puzzle. After looking at it for a few minutes, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do, but I still couldn't do it, because a) I struggled with (Spoiler - click to show)all the various tubes and flasks and bottles to express what I wanted to do; and b) the quantities of liquid involved were too great. The puzzle would have been greatly improved had the beakers contained only 20 or 30 ml of liquid each, so that experimenting produced feedback more quickly and reliably.
The hints, as other reviewers have noted, are not as useful as they could be. You generally can't access a hint for a given puzzle until you've died failing to solve it. In general, I find adaptive hinting pretty annoying; very rarely does a game seem to know what I actually need or want. There are no hints at all for the endgame (a three-move timed puzzle with no slack, and with at least three nonobvious prerequisites), even after you've died. There really aren't very many clues, either. I always find that rereading feelies is helpful in these sorts of situations.
I've dwelled on the negative too much. The game really is very exciting, and handles the action genre better than any other IF I can think of, except perhaps Border Zone and the endgame of Spider and Web. If it had a more forgiving and convenient inventory system, I'd give it an easy four stars. If the (Spoiler - click to show)bomb puzzles were made a little more sensible and the PC given a little more characterization, I'd have no trouble listing it among the best games I've ever played.