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About the Story
You and four others are in a race for survival. Only one of you can win.
42nd place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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(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)
Given that most IF Comp games are pretty heavy on the story, I quite enjoy a mid-Comp lagniappe of pure puzzling, and while I wasn’t expecting one to come from the team that produced the excellent heist comedy Lady Thalia and the Seraskier Sapphires – a standout entry in this year’s Spring Thing – it was a welcome surprise nonetheless. At its heart, Starbreakers is a collection of brainteasers, with only a bit of story connecting its different challenges. But both narrative and puzzles are generally strong enough to make this an enjoyable entry in the genre.
I won’t say too much about the narrative here, since unpacking exactly what’s going on is part of the draw, except to point out a clever touch, which is that when you fail a puzzle – and you will, since at the default difficulty there are time and move limits that even the cleverest will run afoul of at least once – you get another chance, but along with the puzzle-reset, the genre of the story can change, from medieval fantasy to space opera to tomb-raiding to pirate adventure. This is an intriguing hook, and also just a lot of fun – plus it plays a clever mechanical role in some puzzles, since often details change with the genre shifts so you can't just brute-force your way to victory.
The puzzles on offer here are for the most part old chestnuts – there’s a small crossword, a word-search, a couple of decoding puzzles, and a nicely-done classic logic puzzle. You’ll have seen almost all of them before, but they’re implemented well, incorporate some good jokes and clever design, and are satisfying to solve – and if any are giving you too much trouble, there are integrated hints and explicit solutions close at hand in the sidebar.
It’s hard to say too much more without diving into the details of all the puzzles, but hopefully from this description it’s clear that if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like Starbreakers – and even if puzzle-fests aren’t your usual cup of tea, the relatively short length and good-natured mystery threaded through make this a good one with which to get your feet wet.
Highlight: when approaching a collection of classic puzzles, I always have a sliver of fear in my heart because of the possibility that it will include the dreaded towers of Hanoi. I don’t want to spoil its appearance here, but the fact this is a highlight rather than a lowlight should convey how delightfully Starbreakers manages things.
Lowlight: I had an excessively tough time with the first puzzle – one of those lever-balancing jobbies where you have containers that all hold varying amounts of liquid and you need to pour things around to get the right amounts in the right places. It’s simple enough, but I think I ran into a bug that meant that the game said left-hand side was always lower than the right no matter how much liquid was in either container – so that put me off on a wild goose chase trying to figure out if there was a trick, and then once I realized that the puzzle was playing straight, I still managed to flail around and fat-finger my choices so I lost maybe a dozen more times – I failed way more on this first puzzle than on all the others combined!
How I failed the author: Despite there being an easy mode that would have removed the time and move limits, and despite the fact that I was as usual playing left-handed on my phone and couldn’t type quickly or take notes due to holding Henry while he napped, I stubbornly refused to activate it.
I don't think you're supposed to get what's going on right away, here. It seems like just an escape-the-spaceship puzzle with other terrain thrown in later. We've sort of seen the puzzles on offer, too, but in a different context. Each has enough of a twist to make Starbreakers a much bigger game even before the big reveal.
Certainly, when the authors throw a Zebra Puzzle/Einstein's Logic type puzzle at you, along with other puzzles (filling and emptying buckets) you hope there's a bit more. The authors themselves are experienced enough. The writing is good. So you feel there should be. And there is. The mystery unravels as you become privy to instant messages around you that don't seem to be relevant. And as someone who's just trying to get through all the IFComp entries I didn't write, I cut corners and missed a few clues I didn't see until I hit the game's end, where it helpfully recaps said messages, and you see how they fit. For the record, I recommend going with the flow of puzzles you've seen before. There's a strong enough story to complement the puzzles. Let's just say after playing this, I'm definitely interested in the authors' other collaboration(s), as well. I hope that's enough of an endorsement.
Part of the twist is that it'd be wrong for you the character NOT to be oblivious, though you the reader may see something clearly up. Fatal and non-fatal mistakes are punished in roughly the same way, with the game cycling back to the last point you were safe. The game asks you for your name with "You should probably report in too. You search for the words; your mind feels terribly foggy. Your name is... it's..." Typing in actual words is then reserved only for specific puzzles, such as breaking a code, which is less intimidating than it sounds. First, you get an easy one, then you get a variation on the theme. For others, such as Towers of Hanoi or the Zebra-style puzzle or even shifting water between buckets, clicking works and works well. Apparently, there's hard mode, but I didn't want to risk messing up and having to restart. I made enough mistakes in the name of expedience (I'll call it expedience and not mental limitations) and the "oops you died" message should have provided me with more clues.
Because you're trying to figure who the traitor is who sabotaged the spaceship, and weird things happen. Someone else dies and pops up again. There's subtler stuff, like the companion named Andrew who got too crossed up in various logic puzzles instead of actually doing something. (Err, no comment there! The authors assured me this wasn't intentional.) Everyone else seems to have their hang-ups, too. You seemed to be the one really doing stuff, figuring stuff out. All the while you were being watched by others. The game does some fourth-wall stuff like "this sure is a weird way to unlock a chest" but things probably won't be clear until the game's over, and you can read what's happening outside your spaceship.
As I mentioned above, the logic puzzles aren't just "look what I can code." The bucket-balancing one where you had seven total units of water to throw around required 3-2-2 distributions in buckets of size 7, 4 and 3. This is a nice twist that doesn't drown the players in complexities. For the Zebra logic puzzle, the clues are less brute-force than "person X was not in room Y" without getting too conditional. The first letter-replacement cryptogram--well, a solution can be written quickly in Python. What is all this leading to, though? And why are certain details not quite right?
Even without the twist ending I would have tipped my hat to the successful efforts to give old logic problems new life in unexpected ways. And I in fact misunderstood the plot and had a laugh, then another one when the authors said "this is what we meant." I was pretty close, and I won't spoil it fully, but it made me laugh because (Spoiler - click to show)a coffee machine is part of why everything goes haywire, and as someone who does not like coffee, coffee machines, people talking about how they need coffee in the morning, or people talking about what coffee is good coffee and bad coffee, or people who have had their morning coffee and suddenly switched to "why can't you be as perky as me" mode, or seeing coffee beans in a filter in the wastebasket, I was glad to see it as a quasi-villain. (Okay, I don't hate the stuff THAT much. But I sure have fun hating it. As hates go, I hope it's harmless. And my apologies to the authors if they actually like, well, that.)
The puzzles in this game are not like common IF puzzles. Most are more like puzzles you would get in a puzzle magazine. They occur in an ever-shifting storyline that throws you from one scenario to another in quick fashion. It gets more wacky and irreverent as it goes. I think most players will enjoy the humor. What's really thoughtful is the authors make it very easy to access hints and solutions for every puzzle. The choices are easy to make by clicking the links, although some puzzles are timed. You can play in an easy mode that turns off the timers. Personally, I was more curious to see where the story went than work through every puzzle, so I used lots of hints.
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