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About the Story
Adventure waits for you in a procedurally generated Archipelago! Discover strange new lands. Make a fortune from trading. Swing a Really Big Sword at a dragon. Fight wild beasts – or turn them into your allies. Meet the puffins (if you're really lucky). With dozens of possible enemies, quests, and items, no two visits to the Archipelago are the same.
Winner - Tie, Best Use of Innovation - 2021 XYZZY Awards
An Exercise for the Reader
Overall . . . 4×4 Archipelago is a lot of fun. With tons of game content, not to mention three main quests and ten different starting classes, there’s enough to keep players engaged for hours. Surprisingly balanced for one that relies so heavily on procedural generation, 4×4 Archipelago is one of the best text-based RPGs I’ve ever played.
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Number of Reviews: 6
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Last year, the author released a game called 4x4 Galaxy, where you played a star fighter visiting 16 planets (arrranged on a grid), battling, gaining weapons, having different skills and different quests.
I really enjoyed it, but it got a bit tedious near the end of each playthrough.
This game is better than that one, though. This is a fantasy version and has more variety and more descriptive writing. Not only was I not burnt out by tediousness at the end, I was trying to find ways to extend my gameplay.
My character was a swashbuckler, and I focused a lot on combat. You start out with very few hitpoints and a couple of basic attacks, but enough to have some strategy (for instance, using a sword gives you the option to stun, while with a bow you can ignore damage reduction). By the end of the game, I had several legendary weapons, and could switch between sending out a half-dozen arrows from a giant's bow and using a finishing strike with 'the really really big sword'.
There are a ton of sidequests and they have excellent rewards. The main goal changes from game to game; mine was to assemble four pieces of a pirate's treasure map, and that involved things like becoming famous and defeating a pirate's ghost.
I did get really frustrated near the end of my several-hours playthrough when exploring the optional area (Spoiler - click to show)Coral Cove, which is a (Spoiler - click to show)maze with a kraken that attack randomly while walking around. I got very lost, and I gave up on it. In a future playthrough, I'd probably just map it out.
I don't think this game is for everyone; the opening is kind of overwhelming in terms of sheer number of options to try, and there is a lot of grinding, but I always enjoyed grinding fantasy RPGs as a kid.
There were a small number of errors. At one point </span> was used instead of <span>, leaving some raw code; a pirate threatened to conquer the land of [undefined], and a lot of dungeons that had events in their first room ended up overlapping the text compass. But these were minor in comparison to the very large amount of material in the game that worked great.
As a final note, the core gameplay here is similar to Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, so if you like one such game you might like the others.
In the author's forum, I had planned to start this review a different way. "This game's quite good, but the end was frustrating. I just couldn't figure how to beat the final boss. It was a lot of fun, but after a while, you just want to get through with it, you know?” I knocked off another shorter game or two, then came back to try just one more thing and, uh, wound up trying a few more after the final boss. I then wound up seeing if I could play through faster the second time through, and despite the shortcuts I'd learned, I spent about the same time overall, nailing down the quests I didn't quite solve before or maybe trying different reward options. Which will tell you how involving I found the game.
It's quite pretty impressive technically: a procedurally generated RPG where you bounce between sixteen islands on a grand quest that, itself, is randomly determined. There are thirty possibilities for each game: ten classes, based on a combination of two skills, and three big-picture quests. The Tragic Queen's Relics lead you to a randomly placed tomb you must ask the locals about. Another quest has four map pieces. A third has you ascend the Heavenly Spire to fix odd weather with black snow. There's variety in the classes, too. I started as an Explorer, which let me build up experience and silver by just talking to locals. My next time as a Battle Mage, I didn't have that quick start, but I had a lot of fun blasting enemies every which way. As of the end of IFComp, I had some clear favorites for winning quickly. I wound up playing 4x4 before games in genres I was unsure around. So, yes, I won with all ten and enjoyed the varying challenges. I was especially thrilled to find (Spoiler - click to show)a "bribe" sub-skill let me use that excess silver to get half-experience in combat, which saved real-world time. I tweaked my bribing strategy for a bit. And, as I replayed, I alternated between favorite non-fighting skills, or between ranged or melee weapons, each of which works better for different fights.
And this speaks to some pretty impressive balance in 4x4. You may have noticed "experience by talking to locals" above. Generally, when you think of information in an RPG, it's stuff you'll know the second time through, so why waste time clicking through the thought-bubbles? Well, a lot does carry over here, but more importantly, asking the right people for information gets you experience points, so you don't need to fight early on--and with some classes, fighting early is a bad option. You can barely beat Giant Rats. You can, however, drink repeatedly at the first inn you find to get enough advice/experience to get that first level-up.
You also can get experience solving nonviolent quests. This experience can be pumped into five minor skills that improve luck, HP, MP, strength and magic power. They start at zero, and the requirements for the next level double until you hit level 5, when it's capped. Or you can bump your main class skills up to the maximum of level 2, or you can also pay for a third skill. One really cool thing I noticed on replay is that you need a balance between quick improvement and saving your experience for level 2 main skills. And also after a few plays I enjoyed understanding the game well enough not to need a third main skill. At first I found these caps restrictive, but soon I realized they signpost how you don't need to grind too much.
That's not to say you should ignore good quick ways to grind. 4x4 allows you to make silver pretty quickly. Several islands have markets that sell one of food, luxury items and/or crafting materials and buy the other two, one at an extra markup. So establishing these trading routes early is good, and yes, the Trading skill makes things extra lucrative. I remember being so thrilled I could make any sort of profit that I missed a way to maximize. It involved, quite simply, having a small 4x4 grid of what market sold what. I expanded it to other things the useful in-game journal couldn't quite organize. It felt about right--I didn't want everything done for me, and I liked having my own shorthand to target where to go. The journal's a neat way to keep track of stuff, and while it wasn't too wordy, it was still neat to be able to search the text for what I needed, even something like whether a dungeon was cleared. Between it and the auto-saves when you moved between islands or visited a mine or dungeon, I was really happy I didn't need to backtrack or remember annoying details. It also lessened the intimidation of having a lot dumped on me as I explored islands.
Perhaps the neatest bit is something I didn't see until replay. You have a chance for quests and incidents when you travel between islands, and "explore the island" can also give random encounters. Some are one-time, which means experienced players have to decide what to buy and how much to save. While save-and-restore is a possibility if you get a quest you're not prepared for, micromanaging briefly ruined the game flow for me, and I had to decide what was worth retrying and what wasn't. But you also have rumor-quests, eight of them, from a pool of twenty-four. Every island has rumors to check. Some are random. Others lead to the quests. Many of these have several ways through: you can fight or expend equipment or use skills--noncombat ones are prominent here, which is great for balance, and using them also fleshes out storylines you don't see if you just clobber the baddies bothering the villagers. Some, you can buy your way through with the right materials. The tougher quests might require a lot to avoid a tough fight, but the random unique rewards for solving them makes each playthrough interesting. The easier quests often give you a choice: renown, silver or experience. The harder ones give renown, experience and a great unique item.
Renown? Well, it seems useless but is key to the game, although silver and experience are more important and accessible early. You get renown for, well, actually acting like a hero, or defeating very tough enemies. Some random adventures give it. For instance, if you have crafting materials and run across a stranded boat, you can demand payment, or you can just give what you've got for renown. First-time players probably should just take the more tangible rewards, because they can't get going that early, but more experienced players will want renown in order to get quick access to the adventurers' guild on the main island. It can sometimes be quite random how much you get, based on your rumor-quests and when certain quests show up, but there's a way to prepare, and more importantly there are two cute ways to buy renown. They are (Spoiler - click to show)donating to the Academy, which is a heck of a quid pro quo, and paying minstrels to write a song about you, which is self-promotional in its own way. One thing I find amusing about renown and solving quests in general is that 10+ renown lets you rest free at inns--this isn't a game-breaker, but combined with one-offs where people recognize you and give you powerful items for (for instance) defeating a mist-monster at sea, the attention is almost slightly embarrassing, especially once you have more silver than you could ever spend.
But it takes a while to get there, and in the meantime, I liked how 4x4 made it so it was hard to be fully busted. As you travel between islands, you may gain or lose MP or HP, or tradeable items may get washed out from your boat or onto it. Your fortune stat (aka luck) controls this a bit--I think. You may also find NPC (mer-folk when sailing, hunters on the island) willing to sell you special armor or goods to trade for a profit or buy at a discount, and sometimes you just get small experience boosts for avoiding traps in the small dungeons. With all the random quests, you also have places that reliably give fights, though exploring may give experience and good items quicker. There are three such places (bandits, beasts and undead) placed on random isles, and you can visit the easy or hard sector, so they keep their value without screaming "GRIND HERE."
The procedurally generated text works well, too. There are possibilities for all sorts of contradictions if you try for less generic text, but they don't really pop up. The island descriptions are fun, as are the stories you can get from locals, and having them around really complements the strategic parts. The quests have a lot of hidden jokes, too. One random rumor quest has an arm-wrestling contest, and if you have maximum brawn, the organizers bribe you to let their son win in the final. Another lets you bribe a Red Knight's squire to find the knight's weakness before a fight. I forgot to mention that you can acquire allies who help (marginally) and one of them knows a bit about the history of the Archipelago and informs you when someone is telling a lie. This is all very vague, but I don't want to spoil the fun of discovery.
What encapsulated 4x4 for me, though, was finding ways to go faster and enjoying them despite missing out on side-quests I enjoyed. You see, it's possible to win the main quest without doing nearly everything. A sea serpent has more HP than two final bosses. One quest in particular involves a Wanderer who visits all sixteen isles. She tells you the terrain of her next isle, and you can consult the journal or the main page that displays them all--the islands are attractively drawn, clearly similar by terrain but not identical. So it's a fun mini-game of chance. It's rewarding to try and solve a bit quicker than you expected, and the choice of items she gives you at the end is very powerful. It helped me before I really figured how to get epic weapons and skills early. I also miss the Coral City, a place you can only find by luck until you have access to the Academy. It's a maze with nonreciprocal paths, but it works very well, and I don't want to spoil more.
Add all this up, and you can guess I really enjoyed 4x4A, both as a player and someone who enjoys learning about design, and both for the novelty of the first couple playthroughs and the enjoyment of honing strategy later. Strictly by the rules, it was probably a bit long for IFComp, but I was glad it was in there--it boosted me between games that weren't in my genre. I felt almost a bit guilty reporting bugs I only saw because I was really paying attention. So I really recommend it. It's quite well-balanced, and the randomization makes each playthrough different enough that 4x4 never quite get old. Each time I've sat down to play, it's fun to uncover quests and islands I've seen before, as something always pops up that I'd half-forgotten.
This game was really addicting. I didn’t expect to finish it in one sitting (nor should I have, given the hour), but I did so anyway. What can I say, I like watching numbers go up.
This is a huge game with a ton of content, and based on other reviews and comments, I don’t think I’ve explored nearly all of it. It is a wonder not just of procedural generation, but also of twine in general. It is a full-blown RPG, with a central quest, sidequests, character progression, a combat system, and an economy. The initial character and quest are randomly generated, as is the titular 4x4 archipelago, where all islands have a geography, dungeons, sidequests, and random events. Some character builds are easier than others; combat is obligatory so characters with combat or magic as a skill will have an advantage. The “gathering stories” subplot is very good for starting out and is only available to players with charisma. I do wish the trading and economic aspects got some more love; it’s very easy to totally exhaust all trading opportunities.
There was an article by Emily Short about “procedural oatmeal” (riffing off an idea from Kate Compton), which was the idea that procedurally generated content is often just plain boring. It’s like pouring bowls of oatmeal with the same flavors, but just with the oats shifted in position. Basically, a lot of times procedurally generated content doesn’t matter; it’s just there for show, to pump out content, and all of the content feels the same.
4x4 Archipelago is, for the most part, not “procedural oatmeal”. Even ignoring the procgen aspect, it still works as a story and a game; the game systems are very good, and the writing is also quite good, and also the scope is limited so repetition is harder to see. It’s hard to even tell that the game was procgen, which I suppose is a compliment? The only part of the game that seemed “oatmeal-like” for me were the island stories collected as part of the charisma sidequest (they were just background decoration, it felt like). Some of the island descriptions also kind of blended together for me.
Overall, the game reminded me of Voyageur in how the story and mechanical pieces fit together with procgen content (Voyageur also has a “collecting stories from different places and selling them at the university” mechanic; I wouldn’t be surprised if the author had played Voyageur). Unlike Voyageur, 4x4A is limited in its geographical scope. A single game is confined to 16 locations; it’s not potentially infinite. This is for the better imo, as it avoids the feeling of repetition and oatmeal-ness that crept into Voyageur towards the end.
I was a little confused by the fact that all travel takes the exact same time across the archipelago (my instinct was to visit the closest islands first). But I understand why this makes sense for gameplay and implementation reasons.
At some point, the game started to feel like grinding. I kept playing because I wanted to finish, but it started to feel like busy work instead of fun. The combat system is a little tedious, and I was annoyed that I was missing most of my attacks. This is not really the fault of this game in particular, as pretty much all RPGs and “open world” games have this problem, but part of why I’m into interactive fiction is to get away from that, to experience more compact, self-contained stories.
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