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Well Worth Your Time, With Warnings As Follows ..., August 22, 2010
by Ghalev (Colorado, United States)
Sand-Dancer is a good game with strong atmosphere, a well-characterized protagonist, lots of guidance for the player, and a story well worth the modest investment in time and effort the game demands. It also sports some genuine replay value, and almost demands that you take advantage of that. On the flip side, Sand-Dancer is marred by some awkward writing issues, basic implementation shortcomings, guess-the-verb, guess-the-noun and even guess-the-preposition problems, a sometimes overwhelmingly overt linearity, and pockmarked by the occasional proofing mishap.
It's the kind of game that's difficult to review because while its problems are many, my goal is to celebrate it and affirm the good bits, because most of the bad bits are easily fixable distractions, lesser parts of the worthy whole. Compounding the problem is this: most of the bits I want to celebrate are spoilers, and not the kind of spoilers I'm even comfortable tucking away behind a spoiler tag ... because I do feel this game is worth playing, I don't want to tempt anyone to shortcut its delights. But with that sincere praise on the record, I'm also here to warn you about some of the speedbumps that lay ahead.
The game setting is, in many ways, minimally implemented. A large number of the nouns offer a single stock non-description. I like that, for the most part ... it provides a crystal-clear focus on exactly which nouns are important to the character (not to be confused, in this case, with importance to the "puzzles" in play). But there are some places where the world model underperforms in frustrating ways. To pick one simple non-spoiler example: I'm here in the desert with my damaged pickup truck, but the pickup truck doesn't have a bed. I don't mean the game gently refuses to bother with the bed; I mean it's just not there, even as a minimally implemented noun. This would be only mildly jarring in some games, but here it's compounded by a host of other guess-the-noun issues with missing common synonyms, so when I'm alarmed to find that my pickup truck has no bed to look into, I feel obliged to make sure it's really not there, and to do that I have to bang my head against the parser wall a few more times, to make certain it isn't just hiding behind a synonym I've overlooked.
Nouns aren't the only culprits. I have a lighter, but I can't FLICK it ... but if I SWITCH LIGHTER ON, the first thing it tells me is that I've flicked it. At one point in the game I can (Spoiler - click to show)lift a sheet of metal ... except it doesn't understand LIFT (but when I finally TAKE it instead, I'm told explicitly that I've lifted it). To solve one of the earlier easy puzzles, I need to (Spoiler - click to show)throw something through a window ... except I can't throw something THROUGH a window or INTO a window, I must throw something AT a window, and other phrasings provide no re-direction; they leave me wondering if I've got the solution wrong (even though, as it happens, I don't). Minor issues like these are, individually, dismissable, but Sand-Dancer is dusted with them from start to finish, and it drags the experience like grit in the gears.
The game is linear (or at least, guided along very finite paths) in an overt way. The key character choices are so clearly marked (and in most cases, their consequences so clearly telegraphed) that, structurally, I'm comfortable considering the game a choose-your-own-adventure with bonus interactive cut-scenes. As a fan of CYOA for any game that explores really divergent story possibilities, I don't intend that as a slur, but it undermines the sense of interaction when, at times, you're given a "choice" of exactly one thing to do, and the game grinds to a halt until you do what you're told. This happened to me several times during the course of play, and it left me wondering why the game simply didn't presume the action instead of forcing me to "interact" by typing in the only allowable command. Other games, for example, also characterize with (Spoiler - click to show)triggered memories ... but in other games that rely on the same device, the memories just happen. Here, the game prods me to ask for them, and won't advance correctly until I obediently comply. Maybe that's meant to be a helpful blend of "guided" and "interactive," but there's a line between leading by the hand and leading by the nose. This game lives nowhere in sight of that line.
My biggest problem with the game is also my most subjective problem with it, so grains of salt all around, please. The writing is, for the most part, very able ... the game's authors (I'm unsure of who wrote and/or coded which bits) achieve some very effective atmosphere without resorting to bloated prose, and I can't thank any writers enough for that ... but the game makes attempts at colloquialism in a way that fails spectacularly, resulting only in that embarrassed awkwardness you get when an elderly person makes an attempt to sound 25, in that hey-kids-I'm-hip-to-your-crazy-lingo way. The parser is a smartass, which would be more palatable if it weren't so frequently (and outrageously) a dumbass ... and when on top of that it's referring to me as "holmes" and "bro" and "dawg" and "gangsta" (no, really) with all the authenticity of George W. Bush in baggy shorts making a gang sign, it's just ... it's just embarrassing. All this to emphasize that my regular-guy protagonist (the one with the grease-monkey job and the pickup truck without a bed ... who also happens to think of the world around him in flowery poetics) is just a dawg who SWITCHES HIS LIGHTER ON, holmes, that's just ... no. In these matters, the game fails not only totally, but pitiably.
But it's a good game. Smarten it up, tighten it up, ease it of its insecure pretenses and give it more backbone, and it'd be a very good game verging on great. Play Sand-Dancer, because it has qualities seldom seen and some genuinely sharp ideas, well-executed and well-implemented. Play it to be inspired to do better, perhaps. Play it for the imagery. Play it because it's fun. But don't expect a completely polished and satisfying experience, at least not until a later release.
[Review based on Release 1; some of the technical concerns (forwarded to the authors in greater detail) have already been addressed in the first days of the game's existence! Groovy.]