4x4 Archipelago

by Agnieszka Trzaska profile


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A full-featured CRPG, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Going into this year’s Comp, I knew that my time for IF would be limited, so I resolved not to get too sucked into any of the “longer than two hours” games on offer, to make sure I was able to play as many games as possible. Well, here I am, my resolve in tatters: I’ve probably put five or six hours into 4x4 Archipelago over the last few days, and immediately upon winning was tempted to start again to try a different one of the I think three possible main plots driving this slick, addictive Twine CRPG.

I call 4x4A a CRPG advisedly, not to imply it’s not IF – ugh to genre gatekeeping – but to highlight how far it goes to deliver the features you’d expect in a mainstream CRPG. As your randomly-generated adventurer embarks on a voyage across the 16 islands making up the titular archipelago, you’ll encounter a clever skill system that starts you with two skills out of a choice of fighting and noncombat options; a robust inventory tied to an economy that stays relevant throughout the playtime; a main hub boasting shops, services, a library, and more; a multi-step primary quest and numerous fleshed-out side quests; a host of dungeons and mines, many with a boss at the end; and random encounters out the wazoo. Oh, and an automatically-updating journal that puts all the key information you’ll need at your fingertips – seriously, this thing is better than the journal in any AAA CRPG I can recall playing. Plus it’s all randomly generated so replay value is high.

Of course, just as the game delivers so well on the CRPG genre’s positives, it also inherits some of the weak points too. It can feel grindy, with a few too many dungeons that are a few rooms too long. My main character was a magician, and I definitely wound up with a bad 15-minute-workday habit. Plus the early stages can feel a little tough, as you go from island to island building out a list of fun stuff to do but the ability to complete only like 10% of the tasks given how much of a greenhorn you are. But I can’t lie, there’s comfort-food pleasure even in these hoary irritants. 4x4A is the kind of game that isn’t always well-served by the Comp, since it’s long and a bit outside the genres that traditionally do well, but it’s super fun and I’m definitely looking forward to coming back to it post-Comp.

Highlight: The game sets out clear patterns and expectations around how side-quests work and the geography of the archipelago, but it also doesn’t hesitate to break those patterns to create some cool moments of surprise.

Lowlight: The writing here is actually better than it needs to be – here’s the description of one island: “The forests of Old Oak Island remember ancient times. They are dark and foreboding, and hide numerous secluded gorges and valleys. Many islanders are woodcutters, hunters, or pig farmers; local long-haired, black pigs are grazed in the oak woods, where they gorge themselves on acorns.” But it’s too bad that the well-crafted text really fades into the background as the gamier aspects take over and you visit the same places and encounter the same monsters over and over.

How I failed the author: Henry was having some rougher days sleep-wise whie I was playing this one, so after starting out the game and getting about an hour in, I didn’t get back to it until a few days later, only to find my saves were wiped (there may have been an update in the interim?) Too bad, Titus the Swashbuckler, but Letho the Tinkerer found the Heavenly Spire in your place!