Number of Reviews: 7
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H. P. Glulxcraft, February 29, 2008
Dead Cities is an interesting bit of IF that runs on a Glulx interpreter - it comes with some black and white drawings by Lucy Gatfield and a separate window for your inventory - kind of an "IF plus" setup. It was written by Jon Ingold (of Mulldoon fame) for a contest about H.P. Lovecraft, each entry being based on a snippet from the horror author's Commonplace Book (a sort of writer's diary).
Dead Cities is an exercise in mood, and it pulls off a creepy feeling straightaway that it manages to sustain, for a while anyhow. You play as a solicitor who has arrived at an old man's house to audit his collection of rare and spooky books, a setup that should have Lovecraft fans rubbing their hands together in anticipation. Things happen fast, and during the first section of the tale you are mostly reacting to the events going on around you. After a few major developments there's a lull where you can exlpore for a bit, although there's not much to see.
This game really has to be enjoyed as a story, and not as a traditional IF. For one thing there are no compass directions (which was kind of refreshing), only places you can enter and exit. For another, the game world is small and not really interested in indulging you as you try out different things. The parser here is rudimentary compared to Ingold's other creations, and doesn't anticipate you unless it's over-anticipating: Early in the game, the old man asked me to fetch a book from an upper shelf. I was seated in a chair so I typed STAND, which sent me rushing out of the room and into the hall against the old man's protests. There are a number of important details (like how the bookshelves are supposed to be refered to) that will only become clear if moves are made in just the right order. I found this out after getting stuck and playing through a second time. If something is happening, it's best to let it happen and try to anticipate what the author expects you to do each move.
The interface, which might be designed to draw in players less familiar with IF conventions, has some good and bad points. Being able to always see your inventory is quite appealing, and its a tactic that more games should use. However it's a bit buggy. On more than one occasion, NPC dialog appeared in my inventory rather than the main window where it should have been. The hint system is also questionable. It consists of a blue bar at the bottom of the screen that suggests possible next moves. This seems like a perfect tool for brand new players, but I wasn't helped by being told I should "look around" or go through various nearby doors, or even (while outside) "pull coat tighter". Add to this the lack of any solutions or walkthroughs, and you quickly see that you're pretty much on your own.
Again, these quirks which might wreck a more traditionally styled IF can be looked past here as you concentrate on the story, which is nicely poetic and eerie. However it is either very short, or I missed something important, because after the game does its thing and puts the reins back in the player's hands, there doesn't appear to be more to do. I managed to get the game to end, but there was no indication as to whether this ending was successful, or whether there were better ones to be had.
All in all, Dead Cities is puzzling in a lot of ways, and even experienced players will be in for a few stumbles, but it's worth a playthrough for eldritch horror fans.