Number of Reviews: 8
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A lush world, but if you aren't a fan of ASK and TELL, I'd steer clear., February 4, 2012
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.