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Number of Reviews: 6
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Really groovy, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

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.