Copper Canyon

by Tony Pisculli


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A mine-r pleasure, April 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I didn’t have “Old West YA adventure” on my Spring Thing bingo card – and wasn’t shedding tears over its absence since neither are my favorite genre – but lo and behold, here’s Copper Canyon and it’s a lot of fun. This Ink game is canny about deploying its tropes: the player character is a plucky, appealing youth in a mining town whose life is upended by an inciting incident (a big earthquake that apparently kills his dad and shuts down the town’s raison d’etre), and who gets a team together to fight back against the black hats who take over in the resulting power vacuum. There’s nothing too surprising here – there’s a shocking twist or two, but they’re the kinds of shocking twists you’d expect to see in this kind of story – but there can be a lot of pleasure in playing the classics so long as they’re done well.

Fortunately, Copper Canyon does it quite well indeed, largely on the strength of its choices. There aren’t too many of these, but I found a high percentage of them to be tough, engaging decisions. One of the best comes early on as Tom, the player character, is gathering his team: one of the other teenagers who’s been invited to the meeting is your classic heel, bad-mouthing everybody’s plans and generally irritating the group. When given the choice whether to kick him out (because he seemed like a liability) or to keep him in (since better to keep tabs on him than have him angry and likely to blab to the baddies), I actually stopped for a couple of minutes to think it through. And most of the choices are like this, getting good dramatic milage out of only two or three options.

Making this even more impressive, I was surprised when I replayed the game and tried making all the opposite choices that not very much changed. This does mean there’s not as much branching as you think on your first play-through – I believe the choice of whether to be brave or clever in the opening determines who becomes your main sidekick, and I was able to die at the end by making what were pretty clearly dumb choices. But it also allows the author to keep control of this tightly-paced story while still making it feel like the stakes are high and the player’s decisions are significant ones.

As for the story itself, it’s workmanlike enough. Again, you’re pretty much looking at tropes all the way down, but it’s still fun to play through e.g. a sequence when you drive a dandyish gunman out of town by ruining all his suits. And the game does occasionally touch on some more serious and darker emotions – largely through the prism of melodrama, but it still gives Copper Canyon a note to play besides Boys Own Adventure (not to say that there aren’t female characters, as the Chinese-American Lin was my favorite of the sidekicks).

The prose supporting the game is sometimes over-verbose – we’re introduced to Tom as he’s “carving a face into an old apple as a gift for a girl he thought he might be interested in” – and there’s the occasional typo or anachronism, my favorite being the description of a drunk old coot of a miner as being recently “let go,” though it’s mostly good enough, and zippy enough, to keep things moving. But really it’s not the writing but the choices that provide the real motive force here.

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Victor Gijsbers, April 9, 2021 - Reply
I find this very interesting: "This does mean there’s not as much branching as you think on your first play-through." I didn't replay the game, because I thought it was obvious that there was basically *no* branching going on; for instance, if you don't kick out the bad boy, he quickly leaves anyway and sulks about not being allowed in your group. Perhaps the illusion depends on the choices you make?
Mike Russo, April 9, 2021 - Reply
Maybe! Though in this case, that decision was actually one of the ones that made me think there'd be more branching: (Spoiler - click to show)when that kid later comes back with the black hat, I was able to appeal to his conscience and he died fighting to protect me, which I figured was only possible because I'd been nicer to him early on. But no, turns out when I replayed that you can do the exact same thing even if you kick him out.
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