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Prepare to feel very clever, then very dull, December 12, 2020
This is a hard review to write – both because my transcript didn’t wind up getting saved so I’m bereft of notes, and because my take on the game shifted a fair bit over the course of my time with it, and I’m having a hard time reconciling my views. If you’d asked me an hour in, I’d have said Vain Empires was a commanding Comp front-runner, with clever puzzles that lead to lots of self-satisfied “aha” moments, an archly funny tone, and a diamond-bright polish on its implementation. By the time I finished – which was about two hours later, after I’d locked in my score – though, some of the bloom had come off each of those roses. The first half is legitimately great, and it was compelling enough to keep me playing after the two-hour cutoff despite 70-odd more games still waiting for me, so I don’t mean to undercut what’s a significant achievement, but I think some of the late-game missteps are worth drawing out too.
Let’s lead with the good, of which there’s rather a smorgasbord. The conceit is that the player is an incorporeal demon, a lawyer-spy on the front lines of a supernatural Cold War who’s been tasked with cleaning up some codebooks from a spy-post that’s been compromised by their angelic opposite-numbers. Said codebooks are all hidden in spiritually-inviolable containers, requiring the demon to enlist various humans to its cause, by judicious use of an intention-planting mechanic that’s inspired (with attribution) by Andrew Plotkin’s Delightful Wallpaper.
To give a (made-up so as not to spoil any puzzles) example: say you’d discovered that one of the codebooks was hidden in a closed piano, but the piano player has the DRINK intent and is just pounding down cocktails instead of doing their job. You might nip out to the sidewalk, see a child chalking hopscotch squares in the sidewalk, and take the PLAY intent from them. One GIVE PLAY TO PIANIST later, you’d have solved the puzzle.
This is just a simple example, but the puzzles even from the off are significantly more complex than this. Most involve manipulating the intentions of two or more characters, out of a list that starts around half a dozen and soon grows even larger. The second major segment adds an additional complexity (mechanical spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show)adverbs), and timing and sequencing are critical, and so while the concept is simple, there’s a lot of satisfaction in looking through your tool-belt and figuring out how to best manipulate the sheep, er, humans, around you. The game also does a good job of keeping each codebook puzzle relatively self-contained – while there are ultimately a fair number to find (one I think is optional), they’re segmented into three major sections, and within each section you can generally solve in any order you like, with the humans you need for a particular puzzle clearly grouped around the codebook you’re going for.
The puzzles are definitely the main draw here, but the writing and implementation are highlights too. The protagonist has a devilishly sly voice (go figure), intent on its mission while taking time to comment on the incomprehensible foibles of the humans it observes. The metaphysical Cold War idea is not fully novel, but it’s a spry premise that makes good sense of the gameplay, and the authors offer some clever repurposings of supernatural tropes into the new spy-thriller idiom (Spoiler - click to show)(using the bell, book, and candle as a direct line to a hellish Q knock-off was an especially fun touch). The mundane setting – a glamorous hotel and casino – is described with just the right amount of detail, and the implementation is as smooth as butter. You can be sure just about everything mentioned in a room description will be available to examine, without drowning the scene in detail; and there are some nice implementation touches, like the way the game limits the combinatorial explosion inherent in the mechanics by saying that some intents only impact a human “vaguely”, implying that this isn’t a fruitful avenue to pursue. There’s also a gorgeous blueprint map always visible on the top of the screen, which helps make sense of the fairly large world.
If I’d stopped after the hour and a half that’s listed on the tin – I think about the time I finished the second of the main segments – that would be all she wrote, and I’d have stamped “MODERN CLASSIC” upon its brow and we’d be done. Sad to say, there’s a lot of game after that second segment – a full third area, then a transitional escalation sequence, before a multi-part finale. And here, things don’t feel quite as polished. On a prosaic level, that’s because I suddenly started seeing some typos and missing scenery, which earlier had been notable by their absence (for the typos; for the scenery I suppose notable for the absence of their absence?)
But the plot also takes a turn for the more earnest and raises the stakes, in a way that didn’t feel particularly well-aligned with what had come before (Spoiler - click to show)(if there was a major arms agreement happening in the hotel, wouldn’t there have been some sign of that in the hotel and casino areas, or some mention made before arriving there – or even some relationship to the boring trade deal that you actually wind up engaging with in the third segment, which seems a weird thing to be doing on the sidelines of something like this? And isn’t it awfully coincidental that the compromised demonic spy-den also just happens to be the site of said conference?). Plausibility is one thing, but this also shifts the tone: instead of a cynical, omnicompetent operative, the protagonist becomes a self-righteous hero (Spoiler - click to show)trying to preserve a delicate détente against Heavenly adventurism. Again, this feels like a left (or rather, right) turn from what’s come before, and is less fun and funny to boot.
All of this would be forgivable but for the way the puzzles tip over into overcomplexity. Whereas most of the puzzles in the previous sections have clear, physical goals that you can achieve by manipulating two or at most three characters, the puzzles in this next section were an order of magnitude more challenging. Partially this is just the accretion of intents – these aren’t used up as you go, so by the end you’ve got a huge inventory to juggle. While in the early going, punny or non-obvious interpretations of intents led to some fun moments of lateral thinking, in the late stage they become de rigueur, which made me resort to rote trial and error (for a flavor of this, (Spoiler - click to show)giving OPEN to a diplomat leads them to want to start negotiations, while EXPLORE makes them want to simplify the language of a potential trade deal by looking at different wording options). Combined with the added system I mentioned above, this means the player is often staring at a giant toolbox and not sure what any of it will do.
The situations themselves also become less concrete (Spoiler - click to show)(such as concluding a three-party trade deal or sabotaging a diplomat’s speech), and the descriptive text setting up what’s happening in each also starts to get less useful (Spoiler - click to show)(I still don’t really know how the briefcase made it onto the chandelier, or why OPEN and FOLD are used to start and stop the speechwriter’s radio feed). By the end, I was using the hints copiously – and even then got stuck on one of the finale puzzles for half an hour because I wasn’t sure exactly how to do what it was saying (there’s no walkthrough, just the hints). It doesn’t help that the finale also feels like it goes on too long: twice, I solved what I was sure was the final puzzle, only to groan when it only opened up another, even bigger, puzzle.
I don’t like wrapping up my review with grousing, since Vain Empires at its best is very very good indeed, and it stays at its best for a long time. And even when it hits the weaker final part, I’d still say it’s quite good! But it’s hard to avoid feeling like there was a missed opportunity here, and that with some judicious cuts and tightening this’d be one for the record books. My advice? Walk away after finishing the hotel segment, vanishing into the air like all good spies should (and await, perhaps, a post-Comp release that brings the latter sections to the same high polish as the first).