Trouble in Sector 471

by Arthur DiBianca profile


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- Max Fog, January 25, 2024

- Xavid, November 9, 2023

- k42write, October 28, 2023

- Zape, October 19, 2023

- nilac, September 12, 2023

- aluminumoxynitride, August 21, 2023

- wisprabbit (Sheffield, UK), July 1, 2023

- Cory Roush (Ohio), June 2, 2023

- Edo, May 18, 2023

- Jaded Pangolin, January 12, 2023

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A nicely-curated collection of limited parser puzzles, January 11, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Arthur DiBianca is surely among the few modern IF authors whose name has become a brand. While his games boast an impressive range of settings, genres, and gameplay styles, there are some distinctive elements that mean he offers something unique: they all have a limited parser, ensuring that guess-the-verb problems are never among the challenges a player faces; they all well-written but tight, setting-first stories; they typically last an hour or so, with a set of optional objectives for players who want to dig deeper; there are well-designed interfaces that cleanly present the information you need; and they’re all of a consistently high quality (ok, that last one isn’t unique to DiBianca, but it’s the reason why it’s worth commenting on all the others!)

Trouble in Sector 471 fits all of this to a T – this time out, you play a plucky little maintenance-bot, out first to restore power to the eponymous sci-fi facility, then zap the infestation of bugs at the root of the problem, and maybe help some of your fellow worker robots along the way. The gameplay twist is that there’s a light patina of metroidvania about proceedings – visible first in the slick automap that takes up half the playing window and orients you towards the places you’ve yet to explore, and then made more obvious as you collect new functions for your humble mechanoid: at first, you’re capable only of zapping bugs and opening communications with other bots, but reaching new areas and doing favors sees you win some important upgrades, including the ability to pick stuff up and interface with the various bits of machinery you find in the facility.

The open map is mirrored in the open gameplay structure; while there are definitely chokepoints at several parts of the game, you’re not funneled towards a final encounter or anything like that, and it doesn’t take long until you can wander over quite a large stretch of real estate, worrying away at half a dozen different puzzles as you track down the bugs and optional objectives. I admit that at around the two-thirds mark, even with all the supports built into the game I started feeling a bit overwhelmed, but found that once I started taking some notes the pieces fell into place quite quickly – there’s a lot to keep track of, but when you break down exactly what you can do and what barriers you’re facing, it isn’t too hard to run down your limited command-set and come up with some ideas for how to proceed.

This is a sweet spot for puzzle difficulty for me; progress feels nontrivial, but once you bear down it isn’t too hard to start feeling clever. There was one place where I needed to look at the hints – there’s a multi-step puzzle involving a museum curator-bot that I wasn’t quite wrapping my head around – and while I got most of the optional challenges, I never came across one, and found one involving unblocking pipes too fiddly to be enjoyable, but overall this is a smartly-designed and satisfying grab bag of puzzles.

Getting into critiques, though, it does feel like a grab bag, rather than the more unified puzzle sets of some of DiBianca’s other games, like the wordplay of Sage Sanctum Scramble or the RPG-aping Black Knife Dungeon. In fact, many of the puzzles feel like the sort of thing you get up to in more traditional works of IF – there’s a fair bit of unlocking doors, figuring out combinations, and trading items to NPCs – which I think make me chafe against the limited parser more than I usually do. In particular, I missed the ability to examine things; you can get more information about any object you’re carrying, but the set of grabbable items is pretty small, and there were more than a few environmental puzzles, or encounters with other robots, where I would have liked to get a closer look at the situation, either for hints to the puzzles or just to get better grounded in the world. As a result, while the different rooms are well-described and the charming cast of robots largely does a good job communicating their personalities through their one or two lines of dialogue, I engaged with Sector 471 largely as an abstract set of puzzles and systems rather than as a coherent place where a diegetic narrative was occurring.

There are definitely worse problems to have, and honestly most of the way through a very story-heavy Comp I found it kind of nice to immerse myself in something close to a pure puzzler – and this is a very well-designed, well-tuned example of the breed. So while I’d recommend other of the author’s games before this one to someone who’s trying to figure out what this limited-parser thing is all about, it’s still a worthy addition to his gameography.

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- TheBoxThinker, December 8, 2022

- E.K., December 7, 2022

- Bobsson, December 5, 2022

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Bureaucratic Botworld, December 5, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This is another nifty little puzzle game. You are a 'bot squashing bugs via a series of unlocking-style puzzles. Either explicitly unlocking doors, or unlocking new abilities needed to solve subsequent puzzles. The puzzle design is reasonably pleasant and seems to play pretty fair. It does require some logical leaps or guesses, even trial and error from time to time, but that is far from rare in IF, classic or modern. The text descriptions are succinct with a light, breezy feel that keeps things chugging along and doesn’t grate when you re-enter rooms multiple times.

It does a few things really well. For one, I really dug the ascii maps. They were easy to parse, eminently useful, and exuded an old-school vibe that matched the text tone nicely. The game seemed to disconcertingly read my mind at one point. I realized there were a few interesting items littered about behind me, but I really didn’t remember where and was not looking forward to exploring to find them again. No sooner did that sour thought form than BAM I unlocked “ITEM mode” on the map to helpfully point them out! Had to be a coincidence, right? The alternative is super creepy.

While the game did not really implement deep NPCs (most are one-response once their puzzle-state responses are exhausted), like the room descriptions their dialogue is short and to the point with a splash of personality. Since they are bots anyway, this doesn’t really jar - making a strength of its limitations! Same for the limited vocabulary - as a relatively simple bot, there isn’t really an expectation of full autonomy and the limited action palette feels pretty natural. Between the marriage of form and function, the enjoyable puzzles, crisp page and map layout and snappy writing there were plenty of Sparks of Joy. There was however also a friction-y design choice and one small but really annoying bug.

Bug first. It’s a parser game, and the web implementation autoscrolled on command entry for a while. Until it didn’t anymore - instead, it autoscrolled whey you typed the NEXT command. What this meant was, you would go say W(est). The descriptive text of the new room would appear below the bottom of the screen, and only after you input a character THEN it would scroll up for you to see. This had the effect of needing to type something/anything after your command, then maybe erasing that and putting the real command in. Eventually I figured out I could hit Enter-Backspace to force the scroll but man was it annoying. I don’t really have a bead on if it was the author’s bug or maybe the web implementation.

The second was in command choice. This is a parser game, but it implements very few commands. It tells you what they are, that’s fine. Most of the frequently used commands (cardinal direction, look, wait) are implemented as single letters. This has the effect of keeping things light and moving quickly. There are some mode and status commands which are full words, but as they are rarely used that’s not impactful. However, the special powers you accumulate, and use all the time (sometimes in elaborate sequences), are 3 letters. Now, you are instantly thinking less of me because I am going to complain about three letter commands instead of 1. While that is 300% more typing, I accept your scorn. But in a game this light, with a vocabulary this limited, having to repeatedly type the same 3-letter words just starts feeling unnecessary. Especially when all of the ones I unlocked could have started with unique single letters!

The cumulative weight of these frictions led me to a point where after a particularly involved surprise side mission (which I had mistaken for a ‘core’ mission) I didn’t feel compelled to finish the game. So, definite Sparks of Joy, short of Engagement. As I look at the ‘intrusive elements’ above (buggy text scroll, why can’t I type less?) while it for sure informed my experience they don’t really rate as ‘notably buggy.’ Just a spot where more lubrication could have been applied. Hey-O, that’s what sh… no. Just don’t.

Played: 10/30/22
Playtime: 1.5hr, did not finish
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? doubtful, got the gist

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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- Spike, December 3, 2022

- Shepard Niles, November 25, 2022

- EJ, November 21, 2022

- OverThinking, November 16, 2022

- Pegbiter (Malmö, Sweden), November 16, 2022

- Karl Ove Hufthammer (Bergen, Norway), November 15, 2022

- Brad Buchanan (Seattle, Washington), November 13, 2022

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Very nice, comfortable puzzler!, October 30, 2022
by f-a

I have not yet finished the game, but this adventure resembles Inside the Facility, another DiBianca production. I love the “limited commands” idea, gives the author some space for clever puzzles.

Simple description, an ingame ASCII map and the above mentioned limited input makes this also a great game to get acquainted with IF for new players.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Minimalism with robots; metroidvania lite, October 29, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours

This is a fun medium game. The author has a long-running series of games that feature a limited parser, where only a select few commands are recognized. In fact, you could say he's a pioneer of the field.

I've come to learn how to play these games, although they're still pretty hard for me. So I was looking forward to playing this game.

You play as a robot that has to go around zapping bugs who have infiltrated a robot factory. It kind of reminds me of the MO factory in adventure time, if it was working well (the only similarities are single minded robots, but still...).

It's kind of a metroidvania situation, as you gain new abilities and items as the game progresses. There are also codes, waiting games, patterns, etc. However, there's no sequence skipping possible like in a lot of Metroidvanias.

I did better than I usually do, completing all the optional tasks and getting all but 1 of the bugs. But man, that last bug was nasty; I looked at every hint and then had trouble. It was the (Spoiler - click to show)sculpture bug. It was fairly clued, I just forgot some capabilities, which shows how complex can get.

I liked the characters in this game a lot; they were simple and often dumb but it makes sense for a collection of bots.

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- Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.), October 16, 2022

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