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Quintessential medium-length puzzle game, with Groover homages a nice sideshow, August 11, 2023
I have a vague recollection of a Twitter conversation with the esteemed Mathbrush about a year ago regarding this game that was still a work in progress at the time. I don't remember if I was talking to him about it or merely observing a thread he had going with someone else, but what I do remember (which doesn't necessarily make it true) is that he said he was working on a game that combined all of the most popular elements from IFComp winners of years past. That he was making the uber-IFComp game, designed specifically to win the competition in 2021. I'm not sure what happened along the way, but more vague memories of tweet snippets have led me to believe that IFComp needed his help, perhaps behind the scenes, but definitely as the preeminent reviewer and judge of interactive fiction, so he selflessly entered his game in the less prestigious (though still awesome) ParserComp 2021. And it won, defeating a game by another titan of IF, Robin Johnson, along the way. I don't know if it would have won IFComp 2021 (the list of games isn't out yet), but it would have had a great chance.
This is a really good game.
You play the part of Lily, a little girl on her birthday at the eponymous theme park, tasked with gathering five key items from throughout the park in order to enter the castle at the far end of the park and become queen for a day. But all is not as it seems. Strange things are happening in the park, and the longer the day goes the weirder things get.
The game is heavy on puzzles and atmosphere, light on story, but that's just fine. The puzzles are some of the best I've encountered and range from easy and obvious to tricky and hard. I liked the spectrum of puzzle difficulties as well as the variety of types. There are a few find-the-missing-item puzzles that we've all seen a million times, but there were also some truly unique geographic and mechanical puzzles, one of which I will likely nominate for a XYZZY award (see spoilers below). With one exception I thought puzzles were pretty easy to wrap your head around, even if they took a little while to solve, and the clues were ample.
The world is very modest in size and the map laid out very simply, which is great as it makes sure that navigation isn't a frustration. I did draw a small map for one of the puzzles, but moving around the park from attraction to attraction was easy and set in memory pretty quickly. Every location and just about every item was important, with some dependent on others in order to progress, so that if you got stuck somewhere you could just explore and examine some more, or in other areas and usually find something to help you out. There is also an in-game hints system. I didn't have to use it at all (first time in while that has been the case), but I tested it out after I finished the game and the hints for the hardest puzzle are good and dole out the information Invisiclues-style so you get just the push you need.
Overall the writing wasn't anything to write home about, but it usually isn't something that I look for in parser games. However, there were a couple places that had some great writing, one atmospheric (to me reminiscent of the Land of the Dead puzzle from Zork) and one just crazy weird in true Groover fashion. The story is thin, again, pretty normal for puzzle-first parser games, but it is sweet and has a good ending.
Overall, a truly excellent and enjoyable game. This one got close to five stars from me, and I very rarely give those out. (SEE EDIT BELOW)
(Spoiler - click to show)My favorite puzzle was making the Creaky House sing. I think that one should get nominated for best individual puzzle in next year's XYZZY awards.
My least favorite puzzle was the Midnight Laserfight puzzle. The explanation of the mechanics/layout of puzzle went by fast and didn't give me enough to really visualize what was happening. I had to save my game and then restart to go back to the first entrance into that room to get the explanation again and still it took me a while to figure it out. But eventually I did without hints. There were enough clues in the text after you experimented with giving the teams uneven weapons that I knew what my ultimate goal was, and I just missed it a couple times when the hidden room became an option at the controls.
EDIT 08/11/23: With the quadrennial IF Top 50 vote upon us again I'm re-examining many of my old reviews and ratings, much as I did four years ago, to see if anything that I've given 4 stars really deserves that bump up to 5 stars. This one deserves it. It has stuck with me more than most of the other works I've given 4 stars. My mild criticisms of it still stand, but I don't think they should hold it back from being considered one of the 50 greatest IF works of all time (at least in my book, though I still haven't played many of the best loved classics). Over the past 4 years my respect and enjoyment of puzzle-centric games has increased greatly. I still love a good story with deep characters mixed in with my IF, but I really do appreciate games with layers of puzzles in a well-built world just as much too. And this game does that better than almost all (if not all) other games I've played. The puzzles are fun, interesting, and innovative, without being too hard, and that is something I really respect. Add to that the myriad of homages to another IF titan, Chandler Groover, and I think it makes this one a classic that will stand the test of time.