Return to Ditch Day

by M.J. Roberts profile

Collegiate
2004

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Power Animals and Quantum Chickens!, March 14, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Puzzler

Return to Ditch Day is a puzzling experience par excellence. Challenging brainteasers/-breakers with an engaging storyline.

It starts with a great introduction. An easy puzzle in an atmosphere-rich environment. It's completely linear (apart from some amusing things when you try to resist the railroading), but it's the perfect way to get acquainted with the mood of the game, the sort of puzzles to expect, your own character and, last but not least, your nemesis. (I swear, you'll wish you had a phaser set to "burn to a crisp" after a few turns in his company.)

Some time later, you are sent to CalTech, your alma mater, as a headhunter trying to get a brilliant student to work with your tech-company. And who shows up with exactly the same purpose? You got it. The need for payback on this character in your PC is great enough to spill out of the computer and into your mind. You want to beat this guy as much as your character does. Excellent motivation to tackle this puzzle-romp of a game.

It turns out this brilliant student has turned the tables on you: instead of a normal interview where you ask the questions and set the conditions, you are invited to solve his Ditch Day-stack. He will sign with the man who solves it first. This task will lead you to hilarious situations, complicated puzzles, and a good amount of science and engineering.

Ditch Day is a CalTech tradition where the seniors leave campus and block their rooms with clever puzzles. The challenge is to solve the puzzles and get in the room (where there are treats as a bribe not to trash said room). This means that the gamespace, CalTech Campus, is bustling with activity. There are stacks (i.e. puzzles) everywhere in the dorms, the students are gathering in the hallways and in front of doors trying to solve them. This lively atmosphere gives the game a lot of energy, making you keep wanting to engage with it.

The campus is a big and complicated place so mapping it thoroughly is necessary. (I read in her review that Emily Short did not and made her way through anyway. I'm not Emily Short.) There are no mazes as such, but especially the dorm-area is twisty enough to lose your bearings. I actually started this game about ten years ago, but I quit halfway through because I didn't know where I was half the time. (That bend through the dorm-library is a cruel inside joke of the author, I'm sure of it.)

There are many NPCs. You can only talk to a few of them, but all the others seem like real persons too, concentrating on the stack of their choice or exchanging hints and clues with each other. The ones you can speak to are mostly limited to the problem at hand, giving you objects or clues. The way they act and talk to you is very personal though, giving them each their own identity. (I really liked Erin.) And although your nemesis doesn't answer any questions, he does have a snide comment ready to everything you do around him.

The writing is practical. It focuses on clarity, describing where you are and who/what is there. There is a lot of situational and action-comedy in the game, but this never becomes the main focus.
The writing is also very, very good at controlling the pace and steering the player in the right direction through clues. The size of the map and the sheer amount of puzzles you encounter on your first exploration can be overwhelming. It's important to know and remember that this is actually a very friendly game. It doesn't want to frustrate you (too much) or deliberately mislead you. If you take it slow and do things in the order the clues show you, you'll discover that there is a completely logical sequence of puzzles that build on each other towards the endgame.
But! Beware! There is a storyline that diverges from this main puzzle-sequence. It is not necessary to win the game, but it is for getting full points. It's also a lot of fun. And you get to search the steam tunnels under the university!

And now for the meat and bones of Return to Ditch Day: the puzzles. I surprised myself by not needing to look at the hints except one time, when it was (to me) underclued how to get a student to help me with an object. And I am not a great puzzler. However, I did what I wrote before: slowly going from clue to clue, without letting myself be overwhelmed by sidetracks. (I did save at a certain point, went on an exploration and experimentation rampage through campus and found tons of fun stuff and fruitflies and a solvable computer-code puzzle. After that I just restored and went on my methodical way.)
Many different puzzles, many different strategies. Some require reading and learning. Sometimes you need help from others in a tit-for-tat way. There's a puzzle where you have to manipulate NPCs by learning a bit more about them. There are gadgets and machinery to be played with. And ultimately, there is codecracking. Glorious, in-your-face-nemesis codecracking...

I spent three evenings captivated by Return to Ditch Day. Hours of reading, thinking, laughing. This game is great.