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Too old-school for me, December 11, 2020
I swear, the randomizer has a sense of humor – after giving me Tangled Tales, prompting me to whine about a too-large map and guess-the-verb puzzles, it decided to serve up Return to Castle Coris to see how I liked a double-helping of those issues, plus extreme pixelbitching and copious opportunities to be straight-up killed or, worse, unwittingly get myself into a walking dead situation. This one’s billed as longer than two hours, but I have to confess I gave up on it less than halfway into the judging period.
This is apparently a late entry in a long series of games, stretching back several decades, so it comes by its old-school approach honorably. The introductory text calls back to many of the protagonist’s previous adventures, including one in the eponymous castle, which you’re now called to follow up on after the discovery of a new tunnel in the dungeons. There’s nothing really motivating the exploration – you’re just asked to go into the tunnels and check things out – except perhaps a hint, when examining the protagonist’s clothing and finding out that his wife made him throw out all his old, comfy gear and get nice new stuff, that he feels slightly henpecked and is looking for a distraction.
So it’s really a straight-ahead dungeon crawl, which I can certainly be in the mood for, but the emphasis here is on the “crawl.” The puzzles rely on going through the dungeon like you’re being paid by the hour, and poking at every single object like you’re a CSI technician analyzing a crime scene. Sometimes this is just a matter of tedium: there’s one area that’s made up of about ten wooden landings on a set of stairs, and you need to SEARCH the random detritus that’s glancingly included in the identical room descriptions to find a hidden key in one of them. But usually it’s much more involved, due to the profusion of verbs.
LOOK and LOOK AROUND are billed as different actions. SEARCHing an object won’t disclose if it’s on top of something; that takes MOVE. Your initial inventory includes a magic bottomless bag (handy!) but neither the inventory listing nor X BAG reveals that this open bag actually contains a rope and grapnel – you need to LOOK IN BAG for that.
This is where the guess-the-verb issues and the hunt-the-pixel ones combine into a cocktail of eye-stabbing frustration. To solve the first puzzle, you need to find a hammer and chisel. These are hidden in the space below a set of spiral stairs leading back up to the castle (why are they there? Who knows), four screens north of your starting area which clearly prompts you to explore the area to the south. If you X STAIRS you get told “They go Up to Castle Coris itself. Under the bottom of the stair you see a space.” OK, X SPACE: “A space under the spiral stairs about a foot or so high.” That’s right, you need to LOOK IN SPACE.
This is not to undervalue the places where the way to solve the puzzle is obvious, but you can’t get the syntax right. In the above-mentioned stairway, at one point there’s a gap in the wooden stairs that you need to cross, described as follows: “You are on a platform in the spiral stairway in the vertical shaft on the west side. There is a gap in the stairs further down where the wood has rotted away and you can only go Up to the platform above this one.” The grapnel and rope is the obvious way to proceed, but THROW GRAPNEL ACROSS GAP, THROW GRAPNEL OVER GAP, THROW GRAPNEL AT STAIRS, TIE ROPE TO PLATFORM, THROW GRAPNEL AT PLATFORM, and THROW GRAPNEL ACROSS SHAFT all fail with unhelpful errors. Maybe there’s a non-obvious solution? No, you just need to THROW GRAPNEL AT UNDERSIDE of the platform above – a word that shows up nowhere in the descriptions of the scant scenery here, at least when just using the standard EXAMINE.
The punch line here is that five minutes after using the walkthrough to get past that puzzle, I faced an almost-identical one where I had to climb down into a dark chasm, with a conspicuous wooden railing at the top providing a convenient anchor point. Again, I tried TIE ROPE TO RAILING, HOOK ROPE TO RAILING, HOOK GRAPNEL TO RAILING – nope, none of it works, just HOOK GRAPNEL TO WOOD. Then I found myself in a pit with a snake who seemed to autokill me in half a dozen turns no matter what I did, including the time I was able to climb all the way back up the rope to what I thought was safety. It appears to have been magical in other ways too:
"The snake hisses loudly and its forked tongue whips in and out of its mouth as it tastes the air to work out what you are.
STAB SNAKE WITH SWORD
You can’t see the tunnel snake!
The snake throws itself at you, knocking you to the ground. You try to scrabble away but the creature coils its muscular body around you and starts to squeeze."
The old-school tough-as-nails adventure game is part of an honorable tradition, and I’m sure there are players who slot into the mindset necessary to make progress in RtCC without too much difficulty. But I am just not a bad enough dude to rescue the president/mess around in the dark for hours until hopefully stumbling onto a plot. When I checked in the walkthrough and found that I was maybe 10 percent of the way through the game, and also saw there was no mention of the snake but a bunch of stuff I’d missed in the beginning (apparently by not shining my lamp at the walls for no prompted reason I could see) and I was once again walking dead, I just didn’t have the heart to spend any more time with this one.