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Old-school monster mash, August 8, 2022
Welp, that’s done it. Having likened ADRIFT afficionados to sex deviants in my Euripides Enigma review, sniggering through my sleeve all the while, I’m eminently deserving of karmic retribution, and the gods of the ParserComp queue (it’s an important job, there have to be several of them) have seen fit to reward me with another ADRIFT game as a chaser. This time, instead of generic sci-fi plot #4, it’s generic horror plot #7 – spend a night in a spooky mansion – and there are once again definite warning signs in the introductory text (the distinction between EXAMINE and SEARCH is emphasized). But while the setting is just as generic as the premise, and there are some wonky puzzles, including some guess-the-verb fiddliness and read-the-author’s-mind shenanigans, I actually got along fairly well with October 31st. Partially this is down to personally finding Halloween monster-mashes more appealing than po-faced sci-fi bug hunts, but the game also paces out its challenges well, and provides both a hint menu and a walkthrough to help players get over some of the rougher patches.
The game starts out with some appropriately spooky build-up, as you slowly and trepidatiously make your way to the grim manse where the adventure is set. The prose nails a campy but still slightly spooky tone, which helps build anticipation for what’s to come – like, when you open the gate to the mansion’s grounds, you’re told that “almost reluctantly it swings open with the sound of a thousand tormented souls.” Fortunately, X ME discloses that we’re quite the matinee hero, and definitely up to the challenge: “your piercing eyes are set in a face with a straight nose and lips quite a few girls find very kissable.” Indeed – it’s not our fault that all said girls live in Canada!
Er, regardless, it quickly becomes clear that rather than simply snoozing your way through the night, you’ll need to take on and defeat a series of classic monsters – a witch, a skeleton, a mummy, etc. – before going up against their boss (Count Dracula, obviously). Oh, and there’s a ghost too, but he’s cool (he’s a well-implemented NPC, in fact, and I enjoyed my chats with him). Each baddie inhabits a different precinct of the mansion, and defeating each requires running through a short self-contained puzzle chain. This structure gives the player agency in deciding who to go after first, and also keeps the game’s pace up, since every time you get to a new part of the mansion you’ll do some initial exploration, then encounter the foe, then get the climax of beating them, before moving on. While the lack of interdependence does sometimes lead to moments of illogic in the puzzles – in particular, there’s a bit where you’re doing the classic newspaper-under-the-door trick, but you can’t use a short piece of wire to poke out the key because you got that in a different branch, so you need to find a comparable item in the nearby environment instead – it does work to cabin things, meaning I usually had a reasonable sense of which locations and which items I needed to poke at in order to make progress.
The puzzles are simple fare, but often with a small twist that makes them more fun – like, no points for guessing what you’ll need to do with the bit of cheese you find, but there’s an extra step you need to perform that means the puzzle doesn’t feel utterly generic. Per my complaints earlier in this review, there are definitely moments that had me running for the hints, though: there’s one place where EXAMINing a bit of writing tells you what’s written there, so I didn’t realize I had to separately READ it as well, and there’s a spot of gravedigging that’s rendered more challenging than it needs to be by the parser being overly persnickety about your word choice. This is an issue in several places, in fact – I guessed that there was something weird about the clock in the library, but could never figure out what precise syntax was needed to interact with it, and I wasn’t able to put a key object in a receptacle clearly designed for it until, running out of more plausible approaches, I tried PUSH KEY OBJECT WITH RECEPTACLE, which doesn’t make much sense. And I wasn’t able to actually win the game, despite getting to the final confrontation being pretty sure of what I’m meant to do, with the hints and walkthrough not providing the help I needed (and contradicting each other to boot). Still, for every iffy puzzle, there was another that worked well.
I can’t help listing the annoyances, but still, I enjoyed my time with October 31st regardless of some of these spikier bits, with the evocative writing, campy monsters, and fun-but-shonky puzzling carrying me through. I’m guessing the real classic text-adventure mavens will find it more lightweight than something like the Euripides Enigma, but for the rest of us this is a nice, less-painful way to experiment with the style.