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A nicely-curated collection of limited parser puzzles, January 11, 2023
(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.