by Caleb Wilson (as Ralph Gide) profile

Science Fiction

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My favorite title from Shufflecomp 1, September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

ALL CAPS titles usually raise my blood pressure slightly. The writing contained under them often tries too hard. I know what I'm supposed to feel, but I feel forced to, and that ruins the effect. It's like someone using too many meaningful pauses or voice inflections. Even if I get it, I may just want to pretend I don't get it out of spite. Yes, yes, you're very avant-garde, that's very nice.

But I quickly forgave HRE. It doesn't force anything on you, although it does lay things out so you can't miss some very clever jokes. The flip side is that you are probably so involved you missed a few. There's no shortage of games that poke religious fanaticism as well as those who poke the sterility of a robotic approach to the world, and HRE somehow pokes both without seeming like yet another South Park episode that needs to make sure it's tried to annoy everyone. I'm amused to say that, here in a dystopia where robot popes now control the levers of religious power, the solution to missing anything is to do a good old-fashioned text dump.

So who are you, and what's your goal? Well, Morgan Santemore, instructor in robot decorum at the Mathedral of the Heavenly Code High School. Oh, and a deputy Robot Inquisitor. And with Pope Fortran in town, your goal is to kiss his ring. Everyone wants to, though.

And as the absurdity quickly hits you, the puns and incogruence come flying. Of course, there is winning the game, but if you're like me, you'll want to know the words to the DOSology and Ave Machina. You'll groan at entering the crypt ("you have been encrypted!") or wonder if the 9 in Saint Number 9 means anything, or if the fuse from a saint is more a votive candle or piece of their heart. The puzzles are silly in their own way, too--the final one requires placing a brain in the Robot Pope's guardian, after which they gratefully let you by.

The puzzles, thankfully, require no great robotic calculation. They really do feel classic, the first point coming from more or less following instructions to process a student's test. While some might object to the hygiene and ethics in some of the puzzles, that can be hand-waved away by saying "well, you're a Deputy Inquisitor. You get to do what you want!" You wind up exchanging a lot of dollars with a hermit for a lot of items that seem useless. They give a full refund for slightly-used stuff. This may not make perfect sense, but it's worth a try. Perhaps the implication is that humans can be suckered around.

Oh, there's a chronological list of robot popes, too. It's well worth reading, as many of them are named after languages. Their rule started in 1 ARA (after Robot ascendancy? The mystery is interesting--perhaps we humans are meant to feel silly we can't figure it out) and it's one of those small shaggy dog stories where you don't have to understand the languages to get most of the laughs.

Amusingly, in this well-implemented game, one item that isn't described is a fiction paperback--and the joke works well. There's also a discussion with your supervisor about their job, which ... well, turns into a disturbing inquisition. We've all had power struggles at the office, or stuff we need to say to the boss to make them feel great, but this, oh man. There are a lot of these conversations, which are to the point about what to do (after all, robots don't care about frippery, and anyway you should be smart enough to figure it out, right?) but they do leave me feeling quite hopeless for the main character. This is the neat stuff on the side, besides the puzzles and jokes you must see to get through the game. So you may walk away worried you missed a bit.

HRE does feel intimidatingly smart, and it's very well put together. Coming back to it after a few years, I remembered it as being much bigger than it was. It uses big words like Narthex, which intimidated me (but when Cragne Manor came around years later, I was PREPARED.) It may intimidate you with just how smart it is. It certainly blew me away with "you'll love this or hate this" vibes early on, but after reading the descriptions in the first two rooms, I knew which side I was on. It's really extremely clever, and perhaps my main gripe with it is that I couldn't think of all the thematic puns and such. They populate the game, and they're what you'll notice most, but there's also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and authoritarianism and idees fixes through the laughter. Sometimes that is the only way to approach such issues.

Oh, also, there are some Tom Swifties once you win, as a bonus.

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