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About the Story
"Magic comes with a price. But on your birthday, all your expenses are paid. Welcome to Grooverland."
1st place - ParserComp 2021
|Average Rating: |
Number of Reviews: 6
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Happy birthday to you!
It's your special day and your parents have gone all out and got you the Queen-package for Grooverland. It's an all-access special treatment pass for your favourite theme-park, with a coronation ball in the big castle included. You just have to enjoy the rides and find your Queen-stuff while you're at it.
A seemingly light and humorous plot, told in a funny and colourful tone. Until you get a bit farther along on your quest and start gathering the regalia you need to enter the Queen's castle. A darker dimension lies behind our own, and obtaining the symbols of your royalty causes it somehow to overlap more and more with the happy theme-park reality, subverting our familiar world into solid scary-clown territory. (Coulrophobics can rest assured, no actual scary clowns appear in the game)
The writing seems to have some trouble keeping up with the gradually changing atmosphere. The descriptions do change while the game-world devolves into a darker version of itself, and random background events now depict monstrosities selling snacks, but I never had the feeling of being dragged down into darkness with the protagonist though. I was more a curious but distant observer than an involved participant.
In part, this is because the puzzles are so darn good. They are very accessible, even on the easy side. At the same time, they are wonderfully original in the most creative way: take something that's well-established and add an unexpected twist. The laser-fight puzzle is among the best I've ever seen, while it is in essence a "push the right button"-puzzle in disguise.
Now, the accessibility and originality of the puzzles demands that the writing be crystal clear (which it is), without any ambiguities in the descriptions, so the player can clearly visualize the surroundings. This takes precedence over describing the atmosphere of the changing game-world. The clarity of the puzzle-descriptions shines a bright spotlight in the supposedly dim and gloomy alternate realm taking over our world, causing it to be not so dim and gloomy.
Grooverland's gameplay made a very solid, robust impression on me. The game-world felt like it was there, and I could try whatever I wanted without fear of breaking anything or confusing the underlying order. There are helpful NPCs, funny references to other games, a lot of tinkering and experimenting puzzles, all leading up to an exciting endgame.
The grand finale is just the way I like it. I have proved my worth during the middlegame, solving the fiddly puzzles with the many possibilities. Now it is time for a straightforward but very exciting and well-paced boss fight. Excellent way to reward the player and to leave him with a sense of accomplishment after finishing the game.
I enjoyed this very much.
As a fan of Chandler Groover's writing, the setting of this game was nice. There are references to many of Groover's games that were fun to find and read. This game is probably better enjoyed playing some of his first!
I enjoyed the puzzles generally, but found one of them to be too difficult. The (Spoiler - click to show)creaky house was a huge pain to think about. Mapping it is probably necessary, and while that is traditional, I hate mapping puzzles and was happy to skip it using the in-game provided hints which were direct and helpful. I also found myself a little disappointed by the (Spoiler - click to show)midnight laserfight puzzle which seemed somewhat barebones where the items you could pick up and drop didn't matter. My favorite puzzle was the (Spoiler - click to show)menagerie puzzle with foods named after Groover's other games. Delectable and fun to strategize! I really enjoyed the use of the cake as well, which had a nice parallel to (Spoiler - click to show)Eat Me with progression being marked by what you eat and destroy, and the shenanigans with the animals in the petting zoo. The in-game hint system is very useful if you are having trouble, so if you're unsure about this game, the puzzles shouldn't put you off. It also helps that this game is impossible to be made unwinnable.
The (Spoiler - click to show)steadily more horror-themed amusement park was a nice touch, but this game by no means trips into the actual horror that marks Groover's games. You get about what you see going into Grooverland, with about Disney-level scares.
Story notes: (Spoiler - click to show)Although the beginning of the game really had the feel of a ten year old blitzing through the day that just for her, the high queen! I felt the ending was more caged in. Even if you don't interact with the family members early in the game, you still must pick up their dropped items and use them in the last section. But in the early game it's easy to ignore your siblings and parents in favor of the cool amusement park with very little dialogue from them, so going back to the idea of using their love to defeat the monster and save the park feels kind of hollow. The ending being unmissable thus makes it feel like, well, you have to do this to move on the plot, and somewhat unearned by the player.
About a decade ago, I played the Lego Harry Potter video game with an ex-girlfriend. She was a fan of the franchise, but at the time it was probably the biggest gap in my nerd-milieu knowledge: I’d never read any of the books or seen any of the movies, so while I knew the setting’s basics (off-brand Gandalf, wizard rugby, Alan Rickman) I had no idea about the overall plot or the secondary characters. The game, unsurprisingly, was pitched towards fans: the cutscenes didn’t have dialogue, just mime-acted versions of famous sequences that the audience presumably knew by heart, and it boasted dozens of beloved side-characters to unlock. My memories of playing it are thus of bizarre story sequences where a mute Lego-guy seemed to be scared of the moon or an ugly-cute gnome was excited to read a book about a sock, while my ex excitedly crowed that we’d just unlocked Fistibum Crackettycrank, who looked exactly like the seven other randos we’d previously rescued. And yet, I had fun! The cartoonish pratfalls in the cutscenes had great comedic timing, and the low-challenge, welcoming gameplay was enjoyable even if I had no idea why killing plants with sunlight should work.
This is a long-winded way of saying that as with Zork, I’ve never actually played a Chandler Groover game, save for that cyberpunk fish-pope one he co-authored last year. But while that means that I’m pretty sure I’m missing a huge number of in-jokes, call-backs, and meta references in Grooverland, nonetheless it’s a well-crafted romp through a darkly fantastical playground that doesn’t require outside knowledge to be compelling. Starting with a dangerous situation that turns out to be innocent, then slowly shifting from innocence to spookiness then back to danger, there’s a smooth progression through a series of set-piece puzzles that are clever without being too hard, and if the relatively-thin overall plot means Grooverland doesn’t wind up being more than the sum of its parts, those parts are compelling enough in their own right.
Said plot has a straightforward setup: the player is a little girl whose family have brought her to the eponymous amusement park to celebrate her birthday, and after a short introductory sequence you’re given a list of regalia to collect ahead of a climactic celebration for your big day. This framing provides a perfect excuse for running around the various attractions – your character is clearly excited to be there so seeing all the sights and chatting with all the characters is in-theme, but you also have a puzzle or challenge awaiting you at most of the park’s sub-areas, which move you closer to completing the scavenger hunt. The structure isn’t a simple hub-and-spokes (or maybe spine-and-ribs?) model, since some of the challenges are initially locked off by an independent puzzle, and there are some connections between the areas so only a few are completely self-contained. This helps proceedings feel less artificial than scavenger-hunts sometimes do – progress requires more than going north to solve a puzzle and find a MacGuffin, then going to east to do the same, then south…
Collecting the pieces of regalia also slowly transforms the park, adding to the dynamism of the world. What starts out as a purely kid-friendly, sunny playground takes on a more sinister cast, with the patrons growing more inhuman and members of your family going missing one by one. This effectively raises the stakes, again making Grooverland more engaging than the typical “solve five puzzles and then you’re in the endgame” scavenger hunt. Unfortunately, on my playthrough, this meant I never actually got a chance to talk with my sister Alice, since she was the first to be taken despite being located the farthest from the entrance, so I’d solved the first major puzzle before I came across her. I’m not sure if the choice of abductees is randomized, and of course other players might explore more systematically before trying to crack the puzzles, but it was still disappointing to miss out on meeting her, especially since the help text indicates that she can provide some background info on the various easter eggs and Chandler Groover references.
The writing is effective but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I found the prose wasn’t always quite as evocative as I wanted it to be. Take the Midnight Laserfight area, where vicomtes and countesses, clad in fools’ motley and armed with laserpistols and cutlasses, fight savage skirmishes for the parkgoers’ amusement. That’s a great setup, redolent of ancien-regime decadence, but some of the descriptions once you dig in are a little flat. Here’s X VICOMTES:
"This group of people are so wild and diverse they are impossible to describe. Your sister Alice might say they have a look that 'inspires passion', but that’s just Alice. They are carrying some red laserpistols and wearing some red motley."
It’s definitely not bad, but I wanted a little more to sink my teeth into. With that said, there are also places where the prose does go the extra mile, like the descriptions of the too-big, too-sweet cake you eat your way through in pursuit of one piece of the regalia.
The puzzles are ultimately the main draw here, and they’re a fun bunch, widely varied and rewarding to solve. There’s a series that involve luring animals out from the petting zoo to help overcome a bunch of different obstacles, an optimization puzzle involving feeding the right foods to the right animals in the right order, two mazes that play very differently (though neither is frustrating), and the aforementioned Laserfight area, which has a profusion of levers to pull, dials to turn, and noblemen to arm, in a pleasingly tactile way. These are lots of fun to work through, since you never feel like you’re doing the same thing twice. The difficulty also hits a nice middle ground, since most of the puzzles require a little bit of thinking or note-taking, but once you do that they fall pretty easily (I build a spreadsheet for the food puzzle, which was overkill but that’s OK, I love making spreadsheets for puzzles!)
Despite these varying mechanics, the implementation of the puzzles is completely smooth, with every synonym and alternate syntax I could think of easily accepted. And even when there were multiple layers of events firing off in some of the more complicated scenarios, I didn’t notice any holes that took me out of the world. There are also a really large number of conversation topics implemented for the sizable supporting cast, which added to the fun of exploration. With all this spit and polish for the key parts of the game, it’s forgivable that there are a few small rough patches in some inessential areas – a few typos and missing line-breaks, the inability to pet the animals in the petting zoo, the persistence of a few members of the crowd after the part is evacuated, and a non-updating description of the layers remaining in the giant cake after you start eating are niggles that would be nice to see fixed in a post-Comp release, but don’t do much to impact enjoyment.
While I’m levelling small criticisms, I also found the endgame weaker than the beginning and middle. Again, it’s not bad by any means, with callbacks to the opening and some nice thematic weight, but the final sequence is a fairly straightforward matching puzzle that’s not as mechanically interesting as what comes before. And the ending wraps up the fate of the park, its rulers, and its inhabitants perhaps a little too neatly, and doesn’t linger on the impact of the day’s events on the protagonist and her family.
But perhaps that’s for the best: I won’t remember Grooverland for its epic narrative but for as the small moments along the way, like meeting the delightful Morgan the Mechanical, dancing a frenzied tango with the gentlemanly Eugene, and winding my way through the world’s creakiest (and rattlingest, and shakingest) mansion – it’s more of a place than a story, in other words, and what a marvelous place indeed.
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