The Beast of Torrack Moor

by Linda Wright

Mystery
1988

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Pretty Surprising Given Its Age, February 24, 2014

I spent a large part of the day tinkering with some very old school games, and when I saw this one had an Inform port, I jumped at the chance to see if it would hold up to modern standards with a better engine.

The answer is "sort of"; the world and implementation are solidly three stars, but the unfairness of some of the puzzles makes it hard to appreciate. It's pretty obvious that the game is designed to take a couple of weeks of exhaustive searching to solve, but the plot really wasn't interesting enough for me to want to devote that much energy to it.

It must have been an innovative game by the standards of the time, with NPCs who move around on schedules and a plot that actually drives the exploration and advances as you play. The puzzle of managing your heroine's time isn't overly difficult and adds life to the world, but the NPC dialogues are unfortunately limited and fiddly, and often require very specific phrasing to trigger the required result.

(Spoiler - click to show)And I don't know about you, but after crossing a moor in a rainstorm, climbing down a steep, muddy cliff, crossing a raging river, reaching a safe place, lighting a fire, and heating up some grub, I INSIST on walking all the way back to town because I forgot to order coffee at noon and thus lacked a spoon. Eat with my fingers? What am I, a barbarian? This is even funnier when you find out that the heroine is so frail she collapses from exhaustion if she spends the night without a blanket.

I'm proud of myself for finishing it, even though I had to dig into the source pretty hard to find a few hidden items (I somehow didn't think to search, look at, and examine every single piece of scenery in every single room just in case a plot item might be hidden there. And each action uses up a minute of game time).

It's not the game's fault that gamers expect a lot more today, but it still has to be judged against modern games because those are what it's competing with for a gamer's attention. And I would say this is worthy of your attention, but don't be surprised if you have to sneak a peek at the source eventually.


Comments on this review

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chris00, March 20, 2015 - Reply
I think perhaps you are being harsh here. Perhaps you are approaching the game from the wrong perspective.

It is inaccurate to assume that everyone must have been exposed to Infocom games in the 1980s. I didn't play my first Infocom game until 1992. Many authors of that time were adults from depressed areas or children or people with very little money.

A good portion of UK adventure lovers did not have access to a computer that could even play the Infocom titles. The ZX Spectrum retailed for 140 GBP, and could be had for half of that later in its life (on the used market). The Commodore 64, which was the cheapest popular machine that could run Infocom titles retailed for 399 pounds. The Spectrum was a roaring success compared to the Commodore 64. And most of the adventures released on the Spectrum - were written with a Spectrum. There is a Galapagos situation that went on with the Spectrum adventure scene for that very reason.

Infocom adventures generally required either lots of memory, or a disk drive. The ZX Spectrum had neither. You can now play a subset of infocom titles on the spectrum via rom hacks and disk images for later model spectrums, but at the time, there were zero options for Spectrum gamers to play Infocom titles. We simply didn't know what we were missing.

You had a lot of amateur authors of Spectrum adventures that had never sampled even the worst of Infocom. Men and women, boys and girls alike that leveraged the primitive tools on the market to make simple adventure games, self publishing using tape to tape recorders and photocopied/xeroxed inlays, selling for tiny sums of money. The market was largely tiny and amateurish. It was also charming.

The market for adventure games was small, and became smaller over the lifespan of the machines. I did not even hear the terminology IF until just a few years ago - we called them 'adventures'.

My point is that for most of the 80s, with some exceptions (Level 9 games come to mind) ZX Spectrum adventures were following the 2 word parser model via tools like "The Quill". "PAW" made it easier for amateur authors to have a quality parser without being an assembly code programmer. It introduced a lot more gameplay possibilities with support for 128K. Many commercial adventures also used Quill as their game engine of choice so two word parsers were what you mostly expected from adventures.

I think Linda Wright (who wrote "The Beast") did an excellent job in presenting a non-trivial story with interesting descriptions and characters.

Was it perfect? Of course not. Was it up to Infocom levels of writing? No. But for someone to create this by themselves, and to create a good sense of atmosphere by themselves. To find a publisher and get it published by themselves. I think it is an outstanding achievement. The Beast is a fine little story.

Myself, I bought this game back in 1988 after reading a review in Your Sinclair. I was looking for a story driven adventure with a decent parser, and this seemed to match my requirements. I enjoyed the text, the graphics, and the sense of Englishness about the whole thing. So many games were set in exotic landscapes, but there are few places more welcoming than a stereotypical English village. I enjoyed experiencing the story in this setting. Being able to explore a place familiar to me, with complete freedom, role playing as an adult was such a pleasant experience. I wasn't playing something fantastical, this was what it was like to be an adult and to have agency.

Implementation issues, well, I don't know. I think it is certainly possible with all the time-based events to get the game in an unwinnable state ... but so many older adventures have the same problem. And Infocom games are not short of implementation flaws either. There is a website dedicated to them. Also, it's not like Linda Wright had a testing department to test all paths through the game, and some games are designed so that the player must learn the path through the game. She was a sole developer, and I think she did an outstanding job with the game.
forgepoet, February 24, 2014 - Reply
I see your point about Infocom, and I actually revised my review slightly on that point earlier after I double-checked some release dates. Maybe I didn't play enough of the right sort of games as a child, but I'm pretty sure I would have been blown away by the moving NPCs and the time management aspect.

I'm not sure what you mean about the adjectives (they didn't seem excessive to me), and I thought the writing was fine. The tone seemed about right for a cozy mystery set in England. The plot was pretty thin (I think I referred to that in my review) but it was acceptable for a three hour tour, if not nearly as creepy or exciting as promised. I don't think I'd have been happy with it if it took me two weeks to solve, of course.

Not every game can be Planetfall or Trinity, and I'd argue that if those were four or five stars and the bulk of games are two stars, this is solidly three stars - a mixed bag, but fun enough. Wish they'd implement half stars, but it is what it is.
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