Entangled

by Dark Star profile

Slice of Life
2020

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Unique setting, straightforward gameplay, December 7, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

The Comp randomizer giving me two solid but slightly underdeveloped parser games involving time travel back to back must surely be as statistically unlikely as a mad scientist dragging an unsuspecting bystander along in their trip backwards through time, but here we – meaning both me, who had Entangled come up after Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder in the randomizer, and the player character of the said Entangled – are. There are a lot of differences in the settings, don’t get me wrong: no secret-agent-druids to be found here, and we’re wandering around a declining Rust Belt town rather than a cult’s forest base. And the locals are definitely a bit more chatty. But just as with SAD, I felt like I enjoyed Entangled a bit less than I wanted to because the worldbuilding and puzzles are just a little underbaked.

The game starts as it intends to carry on – you’re given a minimum of information about your character and the task at hand that was initially quite confusing to me, and set loose on a large, sparse map with lots of locations described but inaccessible. As you move through the streets of your hometown – which is clearly on the downswing, with a shrinking population and many folks living in a trailer park – you get a bit more context filled in, explaining that your buddy Sam and his harridan of a wife have moved in with you but now the landlord is cranky and you need to track down Sam at the one bar that’s still open for business in the town (it’s attached to the bowling alley). Then a funny thing happens on the way to the bowling alley and lo and behold, you’re stuck in 1980 and need to gather three weird-science materials in order to fix the time machine and make your way back.

There’s a little more to the setup than this, but not too much. Despite the fact that the player character seems like they’ve lived in this town of 350ish people their whole life, I didn’t feel like I got a great sense that the relationships with the other present-day characters ran especially deep, nor did the narrative voice convey much interest or enthusiasm when seeing the 40-year-old version of their home. While the writing is largely typo-free and communicates enough to understand what’s going on and how to solve the puzzles, there isn’t much affect to any of it.

If the backdrop isn’t the draw here, the supporting cast do much better. There are a wide variety of inhabitants to talk to – I found around ten, and the post-game text told me I missed another ten (this might have been because I didn’t spend too much time poking around 2020). They’re a fun bunch too, running the gamut from the disaffected bowling-shoe girl with dreams of making it big in New York, to a cut-rate fortune-teller and a high-art gallerist with sharp elbows – not to mention the nerdy convenience-store clerk who’s stuck around all these years. Interaction is made simple through a TALK TO command that lists likely topics of conversation, though I found a lot more bonus options were implemented, and probably the most fun I had in the game was talking to these colorful folks about their histories and their dreams. They also serve as a light hint system – when I wasn’t sure where to start looking for one of the three widgets I needed to get back to 2020, asking around set me on the right track soon enough.

The flip side of this, though, is that most of the characters aren’t that integral to the action, and those that are tied to puzzles are among the least grounded, behaving in somewhat cartoonish fashion to make things work. The puzzles themselves are fine, though gathering three MacGuffins isn’t all that exciting – they do boast a whole lot of alternate solutions from what I was able to glean from the walkthrough, and seemed pretty well-clued to me (with that said, one early puzzle(Spoiler - click to show) – giving something to the UFO-obsessed oddball outside the bowling alley – seemed very poorly motivated to me since I’d thought I was bent on finding Sam and didn’t really know who this guy was). But they don’t take advantage of the time-travel premise – there’s no betting on who’s going to win the World Series or anything fun like that – and most of the approaches I found involved swapping item X for object Y, or giving character A thing B so you can abscond with item C while their back is turned.

There’s not really anything wrong with Entangled – the implementation is good throughout – and I enjoyed wandering around its atypical setting and interacting with its pleasant residents. But I couldn’t help thinking that it could have taken its premise and characters more seriously. Like, I never managed to have a conversation with Sam, nor did the scientist who kicked this whole thing off because he wanted to explore 1980 ever pop up after his initial appearance. The time-travel stuff is fun, but again it only goes so far: I couldn’t help noticing that the local fortune-teller charges you a buck to get your palm read in 1980, and it still costs a dollar in 2020. Inflation was 13.5% in 1980! There’s clearly something about this place, these people, and this time that’s meaningful to the author – there’s a lot of loving attention lavished on its creation – and much of that comes through, but I was left wanting a little more.