Trouble in Sector 471

by Arthur DiBianca profile


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
I, Robot Handyman, December 22, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

With the author's games, you have stuff you know you should expect and a whole bunch you don't, and both are pleasing. You know you're going to have a lot of whimsy, and some puzzles that should be basic but aren't, but they are fair. And you have limited verbs that say, okay, this is the puzzle. You'll have to combine them in some ways, and there aren't many commands, but there are enough that brute force just isn't going to happen. So come use process of elimination and a bit of intuition and solve it.

The subject matter is something else entirely. There will be something new, nothing you have to think too much about. That's saved for the puzzles. Here you're a robot in some high-tech area that's out of power. I assumed it was a spaceship, maybe because of "Sector (HIGH NUMBER,)" but the author noted that nothing made this the case in the text. He is correct.

Your official name is Exter-17, and you'd better do a good job here, or you'll be relegated to the boring stuff. You only have a few commands (COM to communicate and ZAP to zap) to start. The main spaceship doors are all shut, and without power, they're not going up. And all the other robots are out of power, so ZAP it is. This one's hard to bungle, and that's how introductory puzzles should be.

As power comes back on, you gain another abillity/command. You can interact with crystals, which (among other things) open doors. You'll gain a few more commands, so you can even be able to pick up items you find lying around, eventually! This is of course an amusing inversion of how TAKE is one of the first commands a player learns or uses, and TAKE ALL is an accepted early way to get your bearings. I won't spoil the actual command names, because they're nice small amusing surprises, as are the robot name abbreviations of the NPCs. These presented small puzzles to figure out (what do the first three or four letters expand to?) when I got stuck with the main puzzles. This is totally optional, of course, but it helps prevent you from feeling dumb or frustrated.

This all feels very simple, like learning very basic machine language commands (as with many DiBianca games) but there are production effects, as well. The first is what happens with text art that happens with power back on. I won't spoil it, but if you play for five minutes, you can't miss it. You also have an option of which background to choose, so that's very cool. I ran through all the options more than once.

Restoring power is the easy part. Destroying bugs is next, and it's tougher. Well, the first bug is out in the open. Then the next two are in rooms you need to solve relatively trivial puzzles to gain access to. Then, if you try to ZAP a bug, it evades you! There are thirteen total, and while no puzzle is too complex, you have to pay attention to your surroundings, or to rooms that seem like dead ends. Pretty much everything is useful, and you have to figure how.

You can win without exploring all the rooms in S471. This is a DiBianca staple: enough challenges to make you happy you got through it, then a hint you're missing something. In this case, there are a few rooms in the center that are unexplored. It seems two squares are pretty obviously needed to preserve symmetry. You get a small bonus on killing the last bug, and it's up to you how to use it that to poke around even more. Given the square map, you can figure where you need to look. There are also locked doors, or ones that won't stay open. There's even a robot that imitates you around a locked door, so toggling the door is out.

I enjoyed Sector 471 a lot. While I don't like rating it as opposed to other games by the author, I just would like to compare it to books of brain teasers as a kid, mathematical or otherwise. DiBianca's stuff seems to last a bit better. With the books, at first it was fun to say "Hey! I know how to do that!" but they got less fun when I knew all the tricks and realized I was only getting answers from what I already knew. I felt ripped off. I hoped for more out there. And I wanted more than problems. For instance, it's fun to solve "Two mathematicians were talking. One said the product of his kids' ages was 36. Then he told the other mathematician the sum of his kids' ages. It wasn't enough for the other one to decide their ages. Then he mentioned his oldest just had a birthday." It's fun to work through again after you've forgotten it for a while. But it is such a bummer when reading a puzzle book and getting a bunch of these not-new puzzles but you're aware these are rehashes. And I still remember the day I realized logic puzzles didn't have the satisfaction they used to, and I was probably avoiding mistakes more than trying or enjoying anything new. With the author's complete works, I don't feel that way.

S471 definitely has its own personality, and the general brevity works well -- the robot dialogue is odd and whimsical the right way, because robots shouldn't talk much like humans, and you can and should have a good laugh about it. It continues a nice string of works I'd have enjoyed as a kid, ones that would've boosted my confidence when the Zorks, no matter how much I loved them, left me baffled. As much as I enjoyed abstract problems, I wanted more, and I didn't know what. (I preferred this stuff to dirty jokes at 13, which did not make me at all popular.) These tastes feel less weird now I've played many such games and know others like to, too. While I don't need them any more, and the Internet provides other ways to explore my mind, I'm glad there's a repository for neat puzzles consistently blended with a fun story.

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