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Old-school but approachable, July 9, 2021
The gods of randomization decided I should play both of Garry Francisís games back-to-back, so here we are with another older-school Inform game Ė but instead of the tepid parody of Danny Dipstick, with Acid Rain weíve got a puzzle-y adventure that I quite enjoyed. Sure, itís got some player-unfriendly archaisms, like an inventory limit that adds nothing to the gameplay and a too-tight time limit that required a restart, but thereís definitely pleasure to be had in scratching a familiar itch in a well-designed, well-implemented playground.
Per the ABOUT text, this is actually a reverse-engineered reconstruction of a game from the late 80s, which helps explain the title Ė I grew up in the northeast U.S. in a similar time period, and remember hearing lots of worrisome news stories about acid rain, so using it as an ominous near-future setting element makes sense in world before a regional cap-and-trade system (the endearingly-named RGGI) got the problem under control. Acid Rain isnít about getting recalcitrant Reagan Administration officials to take Canadian concerns about trans-national pollution seriously, however Ė instead youíre some flavor of scientist driving home from a conference when your car dies due to a drained battery. Good thing your car fetched up right outside the mansion of a mad scientist, whoís surely got a replacement battery stowed somewhere amidst all the junk from their electrical engineering hobby!
It doesnít take long for the structure of the game to emerge Ė youíre quickly trapped in the house, and in addition to finding a new battery, you also need to gather a bunch of components to create a door-opening gadget so you can escape. There are also a host of strangely-behaving animals scattered throughout the mansion, serving as both barriers and occasional sources of assistance. Some of this is explained (the animal stuff), but some of it you just have to chalk up to text adventure conventions (why the mad scientist made the front door automatically trap visitors inside, but then also provided a sign clearly laying out the situation and a note with a list of the parts needed to build the opener).
This isnít the only way Acid Rain is a bit of an archaism: as mentioned above, there are some retro design touches that maybe provide some aesthetic pleasure to grognards, but serve mostly to annoy in the here and now. The refusal to allow X NOTE or X SIGN to reveal whatís actually written on them is just a niggle, and the inventory limit isnít too harsh, though I ultimately found it rather pointless since it doesnít force any decision-making or interesting gameplay, just a bit of backtracking tedium. The time limit is the worst offender here Ė you start out with a flashlight with limited battery power that will die if you take too long exploring the dark house, which I donít believe you can recover from. There are new D-cells available within the house, and they appear to function indefinitely, but theyíre not in a place youíd reasonably expect to find them meaning itís pretty much blind chance whether you come across them in time to avoid a restart.
On the flip side, the game is well implemented, with a surprising amount of scenery implemented and some nice conveniences too. Itís definitely possible to die, but a quick UNDO sorted any trouble out, and thereís a character who provides in-game hints. I didnít need to use this feature much, though, since the puzzles are typically well clued and fit the world reasonably enough once you grant the premise. Thereís nothing you havenít seen before, but theyíre satisfying to work through, with a bunch of keys to juggle and animals to feed on the easier end, and a secret passage to find and a code to decipher on the harder side. The code was probably my favorite puzzle, as itís possible to solve via brute force but also has a good number of clues for those who donít like grinding through such things.
Is Acid Rain anything other than a scavenger hunt through a medium-sized map of rooms that primarily hold one gettable object and one bit of scenery? No, and if that kind of thing isnít your jam, or youíre easily turned off by clunky gameplay elements that havenít stood the test of time, nothing here is going to change your mind. But if youíre the sort of person who sometimes looks at a long list of ice cream flavors and picks a vanilla Ė occasionally, one just wants the simple thing Ė Acid Rain fits the bill.