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A lovely puzzle smorgasbord, January 11, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I beta tested this game and didn't do a full replay before writing this review).
I am not much of a braggart by nature, and crowing over accomplishments in the IF realm is an inherently absurd proposition, so itís saying something that I was tempted to open this review by not-so-humbly pointing out that Iím pretty sure I was the first person on the planet to win The Only Possible Prom Dress. Largely this was by dint of being one of the beta testers, of course, but still, there were other testers and this is a long game Ė Iím guessing I put in at least 15 or 20 hours, even after getting some hints, and I often had to put it down for a while to let the puzzles percolate so my subconscious could worry away at them and hand my conscious mind some new ideas. Getting to the winning screen after putting in a fair bit of sweat equity over two weeks felt like an accomplishment.
This is not, I hasten to add, because the game is formally cruel Ė itís I believe Polite on the Zarfian scale, with any game-ending events only a simple UNDO away. Nor is it because the puzzles are unfairly diabolical. Donít get me wrong, many are pretty tricky Ė and there are at least two, both involving codes, that I suspect most players will need a hint on Ė but save for that diabolical duo, they feel on the level. When I solved one fair and square, I felt satisfied; when I stumbled into an answer through trial and error, I immediately saw the logic; and when I needed a hint, I slapped my forehead because I realized Iíd missed some solid clues that would have gotten me in the right direction.
Funnily enough, the puzzle-solving is also rendered more pleasant by the size. The game starts with many areas locked off, then twice opens up a new, large chunk of the map after surmounting a key obstacle Ė but even from the get-go, you can go a lot of places, pick up a lot of items, and make progress on a bunch of puzzles. At any given time you might have half a dozen different challenges in progress, and if youíre feeling stuck, often just taking a circuit of the mall and messing around with all the new stuff youíve discovered will be enough to make progress on at least one Ė or give you an idea in the meantime. Thereís also a good variety in the different things you wind up doing; the gameís ultimately a scavenger hunt, but between foiling security systems, decoding anagrams, navigating mazes (all of which I think have workarounds), messing around with devices, cheering up NPCs, and the good old-fashioned medium-dry-goods business of pushing things around and climbing through holes and inserting thing 1 into receptacle A, youíll never be bored. The scale of the game also lends it a sort of logic-puzzle vibe, as I wound up keeping a running inventory of the different puzzles Iíd encountered as well as a separate list of the different items or other possible puzzle-solving things to try, cross-referencing them and deducing which solution went with which barrier as I went.
Atypically, Iím fairly deep into the review here without mentioning the plot or the theme or the writing. Thatís because this is definitely and defiantly a puzzle-focused adventure game, and the plot is honestly something of a shaggy-dog story Ė the blurbís setup, that you need to find a dress for your daughter, isnít exactly a lie, but the steps to retrieving it from the near-deserted mall wind up taking you to some wacky places, with weird technology and more than a bit of magic getting into the mix without the protagonist making much of a comment. But the prose is well done, and the cast of supporting characters, one-note stereotypes one and all, are written engagingly and enjoyably, so theyíre fun to interact with even if their role as flywheels to set some of the cogs of the puzzles in motion can never be ignored.
All this is to say Only Possible Prom Dress is an old-school puzzlefest as advertised (albeit more late-90s than late-70s), but a good one, even I think for folks like me who arenít inherently drawn to the form. Itís perhaps ill-served by being in the Comp, though Ė this is one to savor.