Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter

by Mike Gentry and David Cornelson

Episode 1 of The Miradania Series

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Not perfect, but a rolicking good yarn, May 28, 2015
by prevtenet (Texas)

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.