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About the Story
Varkana is the name of a region in a world with a timeless, mildy fantasy/sci-fi setting (some technological and magical elements are present at this moment, but not prevalent), with the city-state of Arg Varkana as its major outpost of civilization. There are several Persian and Mesopotamian inspired elements in there, some of which might sound familiar to those who are acquaintanced with those cultures.
Winner, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Individual PC - 2007 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 8
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Varkana is a tale of arty diplomacy set in an earthy yet glamorous fantasy kingdom which feels like it is populated mostly by women – though empirically speaking there are probably as many male characters as female. The city of the game breathes with interesting life and detail, but it's hard to stay immersed in a story as alternately widespread and wandery as Varkana's when the game doesn't do enough to direct the player towards the ends that are really useful in its conversation system.
In the rawest terms, your progress in this game is heavily dependent on your ability to TELL and ASK the right people about the right things at the right times. If, like me, you don't even like the TELL/ASK system, I would not recommend Varkana to you. And even if you do like lots of conversation, there is a significant bug in Varkana resulting in NPCs ignoring important topics unless you make a nonsense query of them first. This bug is documented by the author in her README, and the game will always be of lesser quality than it could be so long as the bug is there.
In spite of these troubles, I found myself significantly immersed in Varkana's attractive world for about half of the game's duration. The opening backstory tells of ambassadors from another kingdom visiting your native Varkana, and of the political wiggling which ensues. There is a lot to take in, and I had to re-read the intro a few times to make sure I had got it. Then I found myself in the position demonstrated by the game's lush cover art by author Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot: That of being a glamourous bookcrafter woman named Farahnaaz, giving a boost to my equally glamourous friend Nivanen so that she can peek through a window.
We were spying on the new arrivals in town, but I immediately had trouble conversing with Nivanen, not sure what I should be asking her about, or whether I had asked her enough questions before I put her down, and whether I was interacting with a bug at times or whether she just didn't know what I was talking about. I had thought we were on a mission, but pretty quickly after our attempt at spying, all the main characters relaxed, and could be found chilling in the local bathhouse and having their hair done.
So much information had been presented initially that I had the sensation at this point that I might be doing something wrong, or just not know what I was doing… but it turns out that this part of the game is meant to be observational and meandery. There are citizens and a spunky cat wandering around, and exotic props and buildings to check out. The physical environment has its own logic which makes it feel real.
Unfortunately it takes a while to work your way back into the intrigue plot, and the further you get into it, the more you have to ASK and TELL judiciously. Sometimes you have to repeat conversation commands several times in a row just to extract all the information from individual characters. Bumping against the interface and trying to follow the sense of all the politics was arduous for me, and I eventually lost interest. Unfortunately the walk-through did not work transparently for me, so I was unable to complete the game.
Varkana presents the details of a world vividly, but its direction as a game is vague. Whether a player can become involved in its politics or not will depend on how much they like this kind of conversation-based progress in IF and whether they can persist with a less than ideal implementation of such conversation. Also, the backstory is very full before the player even starts the game. This fact could be mitigated for folks whom it might stress out by the hook of the initial spying-over-the-wall scene… but potentially immediately unmitigated if the first command typed in the game produces the first of many failures to communicate, as it did for me.
This is a romantic fantasy adventure in what I believe to be the style of writers like Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce. The game relies a lot on its world-building, and it is an interesting setting to be sure. As a result, however, there is an initial avalanche of exposition that is overwhelming and causes things to get off to a clumsy start as you have to remember a host of fantasy names to inquire about. The style settles down, though, as you are firmly directed into a series of tasks. The story is mildly engaging, with decent writing and minimal (but a few) typographical errors. The author is forthright about a bug that interferes with the questioning of other characters, but this is only a minor nuisance once you are aware of it. There is a sudden, jarring leap into overdrive near the end of the story that seemed somewhat out of place, but may be good to know about up front if you find the early parts too slow.
N.B.: I play in text mode only, so I cannot comment on the art, but there is a very convenient ASCII map for which I thank the author.
The key to this is setting and aesthetics. Most of the gameplay revolves around running errands, finding a cat, meeting your friend for lunch and so on, but you're doing it through sun-dappled vineyards and grand old libraries. It's (somewhat girly) high fantasy, which isn't really my genre, but it was a very pleasant space to inhabit nonetheless.
Plot-wise, the game ends just as the action begins, which is sort of an anticlimax; it feels like the intro to a much larger game. "More please" is hardly excoriating criticism, but as it stands the grand-scale political intrigue and the closing action scene feel like a distraction from what the game's good at.
There are a few pieces of art, which are effective as far as they go; there aren't really enough of them to contribute much to the game proper, though, so it's probably best to think of them as cover art.
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