Escape from Cluster Zeta

by Paolo Jose Cruz profile

Science Fiction
2013

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Creative concept but lacking in design, August 14, 2022

You are an Ensign on a ship called the Invisible Hand. Its mission is to ferry goods to different locations, but the last job ran into some issues. The cargo is a sentient gelatinous substance call Lumen Fish. It is extremely valuable which means the reward for delivering the cargo will be high. Unfortunately, a group called the Lex Evisceratum heard about this and now hunting the Invisible Hand. To make things worse the ship's FTL (faster than light) drive has been damaged, leaving the ship vulnerable in space.

Gameplay
The goal of the game is to fix the drive. The player can explore different rooms on the ship although the rooms themselves are usually minimal in interactivity. Most locations consist of a room redescription and a character although a few have objects you can interact with. Some characters have prerequisites for interacting with them, or for entering their spaces, which form most puzzles. A fun bonus is the achievements at the end of the game which is nice since it gives incentive to replay.

The weak point of the game is its premature endings. The first one that left me confused is (Spoiler - click to show) the Bio-Purification Unit in the infirmary. If you examine it the game ends without describing it or explaining its function. Is it a human-sized version of a garbage disposal? The protagonist just keels over in pain and that is that.

Similarly, the game (Spoiler - click to show) randomly ends if you examine the beast in the lab. There is not even an option to return to a checkpoint. Nor is there anything that says, "the end" or "game over." It gives the impression of a broken link. If it is meant to an official ending is extremely under clued. All you did was examine the beast. It escapes and causes chaos but there is no story structure behind its escape. It has absolutely nothing to do with repairing the drive or delivering the cargo and could have been implemented more smoothly.

Story
The story is a bit one-dimensional. It follows a familiar model of the genre: recognizable archetypes of crew members, a premise of transporting strange cargo, and a dispute between galactic powers, in this case being the Laissez-Faire Trade Federation vs the Lex Evisceratum. Then again, that model is also part of the allure. It may be familiar, but the author can always add a unique twist.

Escape from Cluster Zeta is light on background material. It does not weigh the player down with detail about planets, politics, and logistics. Such detail is desirable but for small games it can be overwhelming. This game balances length with background content. The immediate story could have been more fleshed out. There is not much content on the protagonist or any elaboration on the cargo's bounty and the Lex Evisceratum, but it is still enough to make the player curious enough to play. There are also Star Wars and interactive fiction references (plus other subjects) sprinkled about. If you enjoy these things, you may find humor in this game.

Visuals
This Twine game uses a black screen with simple white text. A notable feature is the awesome photos of characters. The editing for most of the alien species looks a bit corny and overedited but I appreciate the effort of making them more diverse than just having humans with secondary alien characteristics. The stylizing for the human characters, on the other hand, adds just enough flair without overdoing it. I am curious to know how the author produced the graphics.

Conclusion
Its strong points do not quite make up for its weaknesses but is still an interesting piece none the less. If the game focused more on story structure and the cause and effect of player choices the piece would much stronger. Though it is rough around the edges it is not a sloppy piece. The author clearly has clearly put much care into its creation and the eagerness shows. I would be curious to know if they ever produce a game in the future.