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Immersive and lovely, July 10, 2021
(I was a beta tester on this one, and as the below review will hopefully quickly make clear, you might want to take my opinion with an even bigger grain of salt than usual).
There are some things that as soon as you encounter them, you realize that theyíre for you (where by you I mean one, though I certainly hope that you, the person reading this review, have found some of these things for yourself!) Ideally you fall head-over-heels without losing the ability to understand why others might not be as into this thing as you are Ė it isnít so much a matter of retaining a critical perspective, because of course you have none, but of preventing yourself from becoming a spittle-flecked evangelist, a John the Baptist who wonít take no for an answer until some kindly dancer-with-veils sticks your head on a plate. Look, the metaphorís getting away from me: all Iím trying to say is that I have hopefully gotten to the point in life where I understand that e.g. some people think early Tori Amos is overly precious, or canít stand the way Tristram Shandy never gets to the point. I can walk my brain along the paths that lead to those conclusions, and through force of intellection sometimes even see that the complaints proceed from real flaws in the works at issue. But none of this can shake my unbreakable adoration for these things that feel like someone made them just for me.
I have to confess that I havenít fully replayed The Faeries of Haelstowne since I tested it a month or so back. Partially this is because itís a very big game, and after the past week-and-a-bit of playing and reviewing, I really need to get back to my IFComp work-in-progress. Partially this is because the thought of having to solve the darkroom puzzle again intimidates me. But mostly itís because I enjoyed my first playthrough so so much that itíd feel ungrateful to replay it, like I was asking for even more joy than it had already given me.
I can recite the issues a player might have with the game chapter and verse: itís so big it can be hard to get and stay oriented; the Adventuron parser struggles to keep up with this ambitious a level of detail and interactivity; the Merrie Olde English milieu is twee and more literary than historical; itís hard to figure out how to make immediate progress on the missing-vicar case the policeman protagonist is notionally investigating, so progression requires solving seemingly-unrelated problems just because theyíre there; and the puzzles require a precision that can veer into pixelbitchery (I know the author did yeomanís work smoothing out issues since I did my testing, but from a quick glance at the forum traffic and itch.io comment threads, it seems like some of these issues remain). Itís not too hard for me to imagine the review that gives it a right old kicking for all this.
But look, I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest, or at least I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest to me (let me reassure you that, as I write these words, my garments are not made from camelís hair, and I have not lately fed on locusts and honey). Itís a commonplace to say that the best works of IF are worlds you can get lost in, and part of what makes Faeries of Haelstowne so lovely is that you can and will get lost in it. It conjures a completely and idyllically realized interwar milieu for your immersive pleasure, but part of the trick is that the map is too big and awkwardly laid out; that youíll need to look carefully at every single patch of vegetation and confusingly-labeled bottle of photographic fluid; that youíll have to get the match out of the matchbox, and light the match, and realize you didnít put the candle on the candleholder, but then by the time youíve done that the match has gone out, so you need to start the whole process over again; that youíll hang on every word every NPC says, not because theyíre finely characterized (though they are) but because youíre desperate for some guidance. To play this game is to be a well-meaning bumbler who eventually succeeds through a bit of cleverness, sure, but mostly through perseverance, luck, and aid from some more-competent allies Ė and thatís as true for the player as for the protagonist.
The reason I call it a trick is that this kind of thing doesnít always work Ė Iíve given up on games with far fewer frustrations, and my closing thoughts were not of how immersed I was in the fictional world.
Here, itís the writing thatís the secret ingredient and makes the magic come off. There are a lot of words in this game, and pretty much all of them are perfect, calling out just the right details to delight the player while communicating exactly what kind of place Haelstowne is. Like, hereís the kitchen of the vicarage where Arthur, the protagonist, is staying Ė thereís nothing at all special or concealed here, this is a simple quotidian description:
"The kitchen was a warm, busy space looking out on the path that ran along the west side of The Vicarage. The plain whitewashed walls held residues and aromas from centuries of cooking and had been privy to all the usual intrigues, plots and scandals that hatched in the average kitchen. There was a venerable old range set into an enormous alcove where once the fire would have roared and various pots, pans and utensil hung upon the walls. A heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak served as the kitchen table and general worksurface."
Yes, this is what this kitchen would be like!
Or a small strange occurrence, from when Arthur has started to attract the attention of the eponymous fair folk:
"A pair of field mice tumbled from a nearby bank and scurried across Arthurís shoes as he passed. The little animals paused and seemed to observe him for an instant, before disappearing into the long grass on the other side of him."
Itís all very homey and exactly right, and even when other characters are getting snippy with Arthur or thereís real danger in the air, I still found myself grinning as I read, so pleasing is the prose.
Thereís much more to do than soak up the atmosphere, though: there are puzzles here, and some of them are pretty hard. Partially this is due to how large the map is Ė while much of it is initially locked off, thereís still quite a lot of real estate over which to range, all the more so once Arthur is able to find transportation to the village. Partially itís because the authorís hit a nice balance between open-ended sandbox and time-gated progression and there are a whole host of puzzles that can be solved before itís strictly necessary to do so, which means there are a lot of objects and a lot of sub-objectives at play at any given time. And partially itís because, admittedly, the parserís foibles can make it hard to know whether the problem is with your thinking, or with how youíre typing your actions in. Once I realized that if the game gave me the kind of unhelpful response that Iíd understand as telling me I was barking up the wrong tree were I playing an Inform game, here I might want to persevere with some synonyms or alternate syntax a little longer, I had a much easier time. And there are two levels of hints available to help get players unstuck. Still Ė itís likely youíll need them at some point!
This review is already far too long and I suppose I should start trying to bring it in for a landing. Thereís so much more Iíd love to highlight Ė like Ottoline, Arthurís eventual partner in faerie-fighting, who quickly became one of my favorite IF allies ever. Or the climactic puzzle, which involves one of the best, most satisfying figure-out-the-ritual puzzles Iíve played. And Iíve barely mentioned how drily, understatedly funny it is. Iíll simply have to have faith that these things will all be discovered and appreciated as they deserve.
Maybe all this has put you off, and as youíve read this review youíve weighed the positives Iíve mentioned against the negatives Iíve acknowledged, and decided that the balance doesnít come right for you, which is completely fair. But if your interest is piqued, and you have the time and space for it, I really encourage you to block out a few hours, pour yourself a big mug of tea, resolve not to look at hints until you really need them (and then to consult them posthaste), and jump into Faeries of Haelstowne Ė I can guarantee (I canít actually guarantee) youíll love it.