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An old-school delight that fondly recalls the era of Infocom, October 11, 2012
Berrost's Challenge seems to have been released at a point when old-school text adventures were considered thoroughly déclassé by the IF community. It earned 10th place in the 2008 IF Comp -- a respectable showing for a first effort, but far from the limelight shining firmly on Violet.
At first glance, it looked like this game had every reason to simply fade away, ending up consigned to the dustier directories over at the IF Archive where it would never bother sensible people again. What made me explore it further was its one mark of distinction: It was the 2008 winner of the Golden Banana of Discord. (For those unfamiliar with it, the Golden Banana is presented to the work that has the greatest disparity in high and low marks in scoring for the IF Comp. In other words, it goes to the entries that people seem to either love or hate.)
Many of the negative sentiments seem to be rooted in the idea that puzzle games are useless and lame. If you agree with this idea, then read no further because this game is not for you. Another strong sentiment seems to be that this is the wrong kind of puzzle game -- that its puzzles are annoying and offensive relics of an era long gone, not suitable for this enlightened time. If you find no value in the Infocom aesthetic, this criticism makes sense. However, much of that decried by critics (e.g. hunger and sleep puzzles) is really little more than window-dressing. Given how prominent these aspects seem when starting the game and how little they actually impact gameplay, one could almost argue that they function like a insect mimic's protective coloring, giving a false impression primarily useful in keeping casual predators away.
If you do appreciate the early Infocom canon, this piece offers much to love. To me, it feels like something that made it all the way to the playtesting stage there before being put aside for marketing reasons. I give Mr. Hatfield credit for capturing the feel of the Zork-era games so well: Homage of this type is often attempted and only rarely achieved. Deviations from Infocom conventions are handled fairly well, with the "about" command providing a good overview and the menu-driven conversation model neatly intercepting attempts to use the ask/tell model.
Reviewing my own notes, I see that much of what I planned to mention has already been covered by others: the comparison to Wishbringer instead of Enchanter, the guess-the-verb issues, the regular (if infrequent) encounters with spelling and/or grammar errors, the lack of a proper ending. I will limit my remarks to those that seem likely to encourage those on the fence to play this piece.
This game is unapologetically puzzle-based, not story-based, and the puzzle quality is only decent, not extraordinary. What makes this an out-of-the-ordinary puzzler is that (as Merk's review point out) the clueing in this game is exceptionally well-done. In most cases, the author's careful commitment to ensuring that puzzles are fair under old-school rules is evident. Responses can be terse, and, as with many early Infocom titles, close attention to game responses is warranted. Near misses are not labeled clearly; instead of that last nudge in the right direction that most modern titles provide, there is a tendency to offer a reply that feels like discouragement but which, for those with a keen eye for nuance, provides the information needed to guide further experimentation. As with The Meteor, The Stone And A Long Glass Of Sherbet, this information sometimes comes in the form of what's not said, as opposed to what is.
I only rarely ran into anything that felt like a genuine guess-the-verb issue. If a noun or verb didn't work, one of the first few alternates I tried did. It quickly became apparent that this game was picky about terminology, but I did not find it to be unreasonably so. Arguably, in some cases, the semantic precision required encourages the mindset necessary to interpreting game clues. The are only a few instances I considered problematic(Spoiler - click to show), with the only offender that resulted in any real delay being the requirement to use "thumbwrestle" instead of "wrestle", a distinction that makes no sense until it becomes clear that both can occur in the game, and which really should have been handled by friendlier hinting if "wrestle" is used first.
Some significant problems were caused less by verb and noun implementation than by dissimilar treatment of similar situations at the coding level(Spoiler - click to show). The most notable item of this type was the way that the lamp oil and the grease were handled; the same verbs and syntax do not work equally well on both, and the way the oil was presented (always in a container, never spoken of as being in said container when examining the container) never made it clear this would be something you could directly interact with, unlike with the grease. These flaws are forgivable in a first work with no further revisions, but they speak to the value of obtaining proper playtesting before release, and to reserving enough time and enthusiasm to incorporate the feedback received.
With enough additional polish and/or more inventive puzzles, this game could have earned four stars from me. As it is, I give it a solid three stars and a recommendation that old school fans give this piece a try if they've overlooked it so far.