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A wonky game wedded to an enticing setting, January 3, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Reading the blurb for ICM, I realized that just as this Comp has been thin on fantasy adventures, it’s been positively skeletal on mysteries. I really enjoy them despite being awful at them, and this Quest game has a compelling setup: we’ve got a cruise ship for the pampered elite of an Italianish steampunk world, a dead bishop, and a creepily clever mechanic where you can don different masks to vary your aspect as you interrogate the array of witnesses and suspects. Sadly I ran into some technical issues that meant I couldn’t finish the game, and the puzzles lean more fetch-quest-y than mystery-solving, but I still enjoyed my time with it – I’ll be keeping an eye out for a post-Comp release.
The biggest positive here really is the setting. There’s an air of decadence that oozes from every overdone decoration or costumed passenger on the ship, and hobnobbing with slumming sopranos and vicious empresses is quite the good time. Poking your head into all the nooks and crannies makes the initial exploration lots of fun, while the on-screen map and compact layout still make it easy to get around when it’s time to dig into puzzle-solving. The prose doesn’t go too far over the top, either, relying on a few well-chosen details rather than slathering adjectives about willy-nilly. This restraint holds true for information on the overall society, too, with a few optional books and throwaway references hinting at an interesting world without getting bogged down in exposition. Sometimes the writing can err on the side of providing atmosphere and a general vibe rather than nailing down specifics of furniture, which can make some of the locations feel bare once you’ve read the introductory paragraph, but this again makes it easier to shift into progress-making mode. And there’s clever attention to detail, too: when you pick up a knife while wearing a bestial devil-mask, an extra sentence appears saying that it “reminds you of one of your fangs.”
Speaking of the mask, that’s the other immediate standout. Masks are a big deal in this setting, and besides going bare-faced, you have the choice of four to wear as you do your work: a devil, a cherub, a widow, and an anonymizing half-mask. Some puzzles revolve around having the right one on at the right time, with different dialogue options or actions being unlocked. I wasn’t really clear what this looked like from the perspective of the other characters in the game world – like, if there’s something supernatural changing their behavior when they see you don a mask – but it adds a needed additional bit of business to interacting with other NPCs: mysteries in IF are often tricky to solve because they can require repeat play, with careful tracking of NPC schedules, but things are more straightforward here, with movement only being triggered by your actions.
NPC autonomy isn’t ICM’s only departure from mystery orthodoxy, though. There’s some evidence to be gathered, primarily through SEARCH, LOOK BEHIND, etc., but for the most part you’re doing favors for the cast of characters, and at least in the first stages, they’re largely well-signposted scavenger-hunts. This makes it easier to make progress, since you usually have a list of specific tasks to accomplish and places to poke around. On the flip side, for the portions of the game I saw, I felt less like a detective creating a web of deductions to snare a murderer, and more a traditional adventure-game protagonist doing favors for people until they explained the plot.
This might change in the final section of the game, though, since I ran into some bugs just as thing were starting to come to a climax. After showing a piece of evidence to someone, I started getting repeated out-of-memory errors printing out down the screen. I was eventually able to type some commands which appeared to make the errors stop, but when I attempted to save, the interpreter froze (I was playing offline, per the recommendation in the blurb) – and what’s worse, this seemed to have corrupted the save. Since I’d already gotten close to the two-hour mark, that’s where I left things. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and depending on how the finale goes I could see ICM tipping over into something really special, but I’ll wait for a post-Comp release to find out.
Highlight: the ship’s library has a book with extensive excerpts from an in-universe opera which provides a lot of cool flavor for the world.
Lowlight: there are a few puzzles that have guess-the-verb issues – in particular, when a particular character asked me for some medical help, asking or telling the doctor about them does nothing (I had to ASK them FOR MEDICINE instead).
How I failed the author: life’s been pretty busy the last few days, (including Henry getting some vaccines yesterday that led to a stomachache and bad sleep last night), so I had an extended pause after my first forty-five minutes in the game that meant that when I came back to it, I had to spend a bunch of time reading back over what had happened – which in turn meant that when I ran into the bugs, I didn’t have enough time left to start over.