4x4 Archipelago

by Agnieszka Trzaska profile


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Number of Reviews: 6
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A wonder of twine and procedural generation, November 22, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.
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