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Solid but dull, July 9, 2021
The stereotype of parser games is that they’re lightly-comic puzzle adventures crammed with jokey responses and groan-worthy puns. There are obviously so many exceptions they overwhelm the rule, but there’s definitely something to it, and so usually I enjoy it when I come across a game that commits to a different prose style, as long as it fits the story. So Return to the Stars presents a bit of a conundrum: it intentionally eschews the comic-opera standard in favor of stripped-down prose that’s completely apt given the military sci-fi tropes of the setting. I can’t really fault the writing for being dry as a piece of toast since it does help advance the mood, but since that’s of a piece with the straightforward plot and unexciting puzzles, the game feels duller than it deserves.
Right, so the setup. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’re a soldier in a sci-fi army, and you’ve been captured by the forces of your enemy, the awkwardly-named Shwabolians. After they stop checking on you, the moment’s right for you to attempt a jailbreak so you can escape their clutches and, like it says on the tin, return to the stars and your home. Standing in your way are a bunch of locked doors, a shuttle missing its ignition key, and a few of those evil lizard-people whose name I’m not going to attempt to spell again moving forward in this review.
There’s nothing wrong with a standard premise, but it can feel a little boring if you’re not careful, and unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the author is steering into this particular skid. The various environments you explore are plausibly-realized but generic – a stockade, various control rooms, a barracks, a briefing room – but at least poking around them could offer, say, an opportunity to learn more about the aliens you’re fighting. And you do in fact find something out about their culture as you kick around their digs: specifically, they’re very down on any unnecessary display or extraneous details in their living and work-spaces. A noticeable portion of the word-count is devoted to flagging things that aren’t actually there, as room after room is described as “sparsely-furnished” or having “no decoration.” And when there is some scenery, it’s almost always called out as generic, with “nothing noteworthy” about it. Again, this fits the mood – as a no-nonsense space marine I’m sure the player character isn’t especially interested in the fine details of furniture styling. But it makes for a pretty dull time.
When it comes to the puzzle-solving that’s the main focus here, things improve, but there’s still not much that’s exciting or novel. Like, if you’d guessed that you escape the cell you start out in by crawling out through a ventilation duct, give yourself a cookie. There are keycards to retrieve, launch sequences to initiate, and an RNG-heavy shootout that I had to abuse the UNDO command to get through. There are one or two clever pieces – I enjoyed figuring out how to get from the prison island to the main base, for example, and how to evade the force field – but also some read-the-author’s-mind bits. I figured out that I’d need to look for a keycard someone had inadvertently misplaced in order to get through a locked door, but the place where it can be found is so far away from the door it unlocks that I needed a hint to get me back on the right track. And the final step to turning on the shuttle was one of the worst guess-the-verb puzzles I’ve seen in a while, though it’s certainly possible I missed a prompt somewhere.
Implementation is solid for the most part, with a few nice touches. I liked the way the status bar updated with additional information once you recover your fancy armor, and once you find the enemy’s barracks you can wash yourself clean after you do things that make you dirty with various unpleasant substances. On the other hand, there are some minor bugs – I got stuck in the early stages when I typed CRAWL to get back into my cell after escaping, but then couldn’t CRAWL back out again, and the ignition-notch in the shuttle will accept anything you try to put in it, including the corpse of a large murder-lizard.
Even though I’ve caviled a lot in this review, I have positive feelings about Return to the Stars. It definitely passes muster as a solid slice of military sci-fi, and really commits to its premise in a way that I find admirable. I just wish it, and I, could have had a little more fun along the way.