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Quite agrueable (I'll stop), July 9, 2021
(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)
I copped to my inexperience with Zork in one of my earlier reviews for this Comp, but of course, even though I’ve never played, I know pretty much everything about it. Partially this is from reading things like the Digital Antiquarian’s series on the early days of Infocom, but largely it’s because of parodies. By my count there have been approximately… (checks IFDB) four trillion games riffing on all things Zorkian, with the violent, kleptomanic tendencies of its notional hero coming in for a kicking as early as Enchanter, and the heroic journey of progression inverted and parodied in Janitor and Zero Sum Game. Gruesome cleverly combines and re-inverts these parodic tropes, placing you in the shoes (claws?) of a noble grue trying to help a mob of violent, dull-witted adventurers complete their quests so they’ll leave the poor denizens of the dungeon alone.
This is funny, but it’s still a one-and-a-half joke premise at most, and throwing in a reimplementation of Hunt the Wumpus doesn’t do much to change things up. Yet Gruesome really works, on the back of solid puzzle-design and jokes that do the work to be funny, rather than just gesturing at something that happened in Zork and calling it a day.
Let’s start with the funny business. There’s a broad array of humor on display here, so I have to imagine at least some of the jokes will land for most players. You have your direct Zork jokes, sure – and these are good, from the opening line to “It is bright white. You are likely to be slain by an adventurer” – but also silly puns (“Handel’s Opening Number” is my favorite, because when you look at it, it’s an awful pun, but when you think about it some more, you realize there’s an additional, even worse pun hiding in plain sight!) as well as a whole bunch of physical comedy as the adventurers blunder around in the dark.
And save for the cute-as-a-button Wumpus, the adventurers are really the stars of this particular show. They each skewer a specific heroic archetype, like the mighty-thewed barbarian who “hails from the frozen wastes of the far northlands and, in accordance with Jones’s Law of Sartorial Inversion, dresses in a few leather straps and a tiny loincloth,” and they’re modeled with stunningly realistic AI: just like real adventure-game heroes, the bastards wander around at complete random and get into fights at the drop of a hat. My first time through the game, I was informed that one of the dopes had snuffed it, and I thought it must have been because the dragon had got him, but no, the pugnacious %#@#$ had picked a fight with one of his fellow hotheads and wound up pushing daisies – like a Zork-themed remake of No Exit, the dungeon in Gruesome may have monsters, but hell is other heroes.
Speaking of my first playthrough, it ended with all the adventurers save one dead in a ditch. That’s all right though, not because they deserved it (though they did) but because the game’s a giant optimization puzzle that’s meant to be played more than once. As you do your initial round of exploration, you’ll slowly work out the rules of the game and solve some of the component puzzles. Mostly these involve creating and extinguishing light, as the surface-dwellers unsurprisingly flee the dark and seek out rooms where they can see, which allows you to manipulate their movements. Invariably, solving the individual puzzles – which are a pleasing mix of simple object manipulation, maze traversal, and lateral thinking – will lead to an adventurer going somewhere they oughtn’t, and my initial impression of the game was a bit overwhelming, with chaos breaking out everywhere. But once you get your oar in and start considering how to sequence your actions and fit the pieces together, the meta-puzzle isn’t actually too hard to crack, though it’s very satisfying to come up with the final resolution.
Is there room for improvement in Gruesome? Sure – the climax and denouement aren’t quite as compelling as the main body of the game, for one thing, and there are some puzzles, like the one involving the dwarven foreman, that can feel a little perfunctory. And the lack of grue puns beyond the title is a real missed opportunity – like, your protagonist should feel grueful after allowing one of the adventurers in their charge to perish, or let out a self-congratulatory “gruevy” upon accomplishing a task. Or if you play your cards right in the attic, perhaps you could have finished the game as a bride-gruem. Come on, these were lying right there! (Perhaps the author considered them, but found them egruegiously bad).
Don’t let this significant flaw keep you from enjoying Gruesome, though. It’s a fun, funny farce whose jaundiced view of the typical IF protagonist doesn’t make its parody too acidic (I kind of want the slice-of-life sequel where you just hang out with Jessica the orc and the Wumpus), and it’s got some of the best puzzling of the Comp – plus the implementation seems quite smooth, though of course given I’m not playing with fresh eyes, I’m not best suited to make that judgment. If all Zork parodies hit this level of quality, keep ‘em coming!