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About the Story
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter is the first game published by Textfyre. You are a fourteen year old orphan in the northern town of Toresal. Minding your own business, about to sit down with a recently stolen apple, a group of mercenaries begin combing Grubber's Market for you. The chase begins!
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter, Interactive Fiction Review
So, I found myself playing Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter this week. I was excited and apprehensive. I was trying to give the engine the benefit of the doubt. I'm a professional programmer and some of the rumors I've heard about the development of the technical parts haven't sounded very flattering. I ended up really frustrated and conflicted about the game that I found, even though I approached it cautiously. Some things about it are really good, and some things made me want to throw my computer across the room, repeatedly. [...]
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Alan De Smet
Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter is the story of Jack, an orphan with an unknown past living in a generic fantasy renaissance town. It's probably not a surprise that Jack is destined for more. The story begins with mercenaries searching the market for Jack. Jack must discover why and eventually becomes entangled the town's politics.
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Adventure Classic Gaming
As the story begins, some mercenaries come looking for Jack. Why are they going to such trouble and expense for a nobody like Jack? To find the answer, Jack must learn about the politics of Toresal and Miradania and not get caught (or worse!) during the investigation. The political struggles of the day have a surprising connection to an orphan's dead parents.
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Number of Reviews: 3
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So here we have Textfyre's first finished product, the first serious attempt at commercial interactive fiction in a long while. The story is of a street urchin who is destined for greater things in life in a generic non-magical medieval world. This is part 1 of 3 and the story ends in a cliffhanger, so expect to pay for the whole trilogy if you want to see a full story.
The custom-made FyreVM interpreter imitates a book spread where the text is on the left page and illustrations on the right page. Mostly the picture page shows just the main character and occasionally locale pictures, and most of them are what look like halfway-done sketches. At the moment the illustrations are not much more than a waste of half the screen. Apparently Textfyre is adding more pictures for the upcoming versions so this is likely to change. The map spread is nice though, it's like a built-in virtual feelie. I was hoping it could be printed out to make it a real physical feelie too.
The puzzles are mostly trivial and the solutions are usually spelled out by the story or accompanying NPCs. The player is left to type commands given more or less explicitly in the previous paragraph. This is arguably more interactive than "press enter to continue" but not much. From this naturally follows that the story is not only so easy that it could even be called puzzleless, but also heavily railroaded. Locations are mostly void of anything else than the one thing you need for the plot to continue and in many places there's nothing else to do than the glaringly obvious action that advances the script.
The main character is suffering slightly from a lack of personality other than the ability to be nervous of everything. The (Spoiler - click to show)cross-dressing aspect has potential to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the narrative never leaves the comforts of reinforcing gender stereotypes (and this game has no "heteronormativity off" command!). This is of course understandable when considered that Textfyre intends to market the game to schools and libraries, but that doesn't make the underlying attitudes any less annoying.
That's a lot of nitpicking for a game that's still far better than the large bulk of amateur work, but if you're aiming high, you'll be judged against higher standards. For a commercial venue there's a surprising amount of rough edges, for example standard "You see nothing special about x" replies to examining many things.
There's a silver lining here: easy puzzles, handholding from start to finish, and flashy interface make this a perfect game to introduce someone to interactive fiction. I would not hesitate to recommend it to someone new to the medium if they are willing to pay for it. The only minus in this plan is that the most freeform non-railroaded gameplay is right at the beginning which might put off some people.
The existing IF community is not the target audience of The Secret Letter and it shows. Last time I wished for a version made for children - now I find myself wishing for a version made for adults. It's hard to predict how Textfyre's potential customers will react to the game. The expectations of a greater audience are often not the same as a niche group's so there's a good chance that it will find fans from outside the current IF community. It'll be interesting to see how the company and its products evolve over time. The next publication is supposed to be more to the tastes of current IF players, so I'm looking forward to that.
This is a great adventure story for 10- to 14-year olds. Heck, it's a great adventure story for all ages. If it were a board game, I'd label it 8-99.
"Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter" is not, however, great IF.
I've seen reviewers that would recommend this game as a good introduction to the medium for newcomers to interactive fiction. I would not. "Jack Toresal" does not give the player that sense of engagement, immersion, agency that is so important in interactive fiction. Even though it is an exciting adventure story, the player does not get to do any adventuring. Examining and searching locations and objects yield well-written descriptions but no discoveries. There are no puzzles to be solved, not even the kind of bigger-picture-understanding that goes with most puzzleless IF.
Starting a new IF-game, I always enjoy that exhilarating feeling of controlling my character in this new world. Here, that feeling quickly wears off to the point that entering commands actually lessens the immersion in the story. It becomes a chore to make Jack do the glaringly obvious when I would have rather just flipped the page of a novel and read on.
That said, the story really is good, and the characters in it are lively, well-written (to the point of caricature, but I don't mind that in this kind of tale) and they have lots to say.
Since the story is the first part of an intended series, it stops with a cliffhanger. If anyone hears the call of the IF-gods to write a sequel, I'd love to read/play it. With a bit more adventuring, that is.
-The first chapter does not suffer from any of the criticism above. It's a good and funny self-contained exploration puzzle.
-I found an extremely annoying bug that would have made me QUIT if this weren't such an easy game:(Spoiler - click to show)The game won't let you out of the library without the secret letter. The letter is in the chandelier. So if you enter the library without having lowered the chandelier from the room above, you're stuck.
Anyways: good story, bad IF.
Jack Toresal is a criminally overlooked game. It's the last release from an acclaimed IF luminary, and a major studio release in an era when major studio releases were thought to be extinct. But is it fun?
Yes. It's not perfect, but it's fun. Now that it's free, it's definitely worth a play.
(Side note: I played the Glulx version, not the full graphical FyreVM version.)
Story: Whatever else you might say, this story is fun.
It's like a rolicking boy-adventure novel, with elements of romance and character drama. Running along rooftops! Exploring secret passages with your crush! All told with the breathless uncertainty of a plucky but out-of-their-depth orphan, who doesn't quite know if they will make that jump... The twists are all pretty obvious, but really, what did you want to happen? This is how stories like this are supposed to go. It's a pulpy children's adventure story, and it sticks to the mold.
Some themes are surprisingly mature for a work aimed at children: (Spoiler - click to show)infidelity, murder, and so forth. The player is also expected to engage in (Spoiler - click to show)rampant theft, the repercussions of which are glossed over. It's an odd choice, but an interesting one: you can't win by being a Good Honest Hardworking Fictional Orphan.
But, fair warning: the ending is frustrating. Jack Toresal was intended to be the first in a series, so it intentionally ends on a cliffhanger. In some ways, though, the irritation of the ending is a testament to the strength of the game: I really wanted to dive back into the world of Miradania, but I couldn't. Now that Jack Toresal is free, though, this might be a prime candidate for the sort of fanfic-franchising Marco Innocenti did with the Andromeda series. Write me more Jack Toresal, and I will play it.
Writing and setting: Gentry is a talented writer, and it shows. His knack for mood and slow revelation, made famous by Anchorhead, is evident here.
NPCs are strongly characterized, but their quirks sometimes feel overdone to the point of caricature. The arms dealer is sullen and shifty; the butcher gesticulates enthusiastically with his cleaver. As a genre convention, this isn't necessarily a problem, but after Bobby winks and grins for the nineteenth time it can become a little tiring. More depth emerges as the game proceeds, however.
Environments and objects are heavily condensed, to the point where an entire mansion might consist of five or six rooms and a few objects. Actions are also condensed - to take a bath, you needn't fiddle with taps; just type TAKE A BATH, and the entire event happens at once. This has pros and cons. It's much easier to implement and debug, and can allow for more artistic focus, but loses a sense of depth and free exploration.
On the flip side, Jack Toresal illustrates that immersion doesn't necessarily require detailed simulation. An single artful room description can make a location feel more colorful and crowded than a flock of fully-implemented NPCs.
Technical: On a scale of "unusable" to "bulletproof," Jack Toresal is "Ikea." It's well-designed and holds together well enough for everyday purposes, but it's uninspired and sometimes wobbles a bit.
Right off the bat, I encountered a guess-the-verb problem. (Spoiler - click to show)"Climb the boxes" doesn't work, but (Spoiler - click to show)"up" does. A bad first impression, but for the most part, problems like this are rare. Gentry puts a lot of thought into making things easy for the player: if you enter a room by going SE, for example, you can usually exit by going W or N as well as back NW. Fairly complicated commands work seamlessly.
There is some unimplemented scenery, mostly things mentioned in passing (e.g. "covered by a sheet"). However, players learn quickly that scenery is rarely important, so this does not break mimesis as much as it might.
More beta testing on first-time IF players would have been helpful; for example, there were a few times where you'd have no idea what to do unless you Examined the right thing. An experienced IF player would never have a problem with this, but a newbie might, particularly since the rest of the game sends the signal that Examining is rarely necessary. There were also a number of times where I knew what do to, but it took a lot of fiddling to figure out how to do it, which is not an ideal situation.
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