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A satisfying grab-bag of puzzles with a soupcon of mystery, January 3, 2022
(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.