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Truly amazing game, August 20, 2011
(Warning: This review might contain spoilers. Click to show the full review.)City Of Secrets starts quite ordinarily: you're on a train on your way to a wedding. The train runs breaks down and is forced to stop in the city of the title (which never seems to be referred to as anything other than ‘the City’) and the train company, nice people that they are, put you up in a nearby hotel until the train is fixed. You're not especially happy about this but as you’ve no choice you go along with it.
Most games that start without giving me any real idea of what I'm supposed to be doing don’t generally go down very well with me but City Of Secrets gets away with it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it looks like a really professional work. The left side of the interface is given over to a panel which displays a few custom images and, below that, a handy little compass system showing which directions you can go (no need to wade through a lengthy location description just to know where the exits are!) The right hand side is the main area of the text and the panel across the bottom contains either plain text compass directions or, if you're in the middle of a conversation, dialogue options. This made such a nice change to the other interactive fiction games I play these days – lines of text scrolling up the screen without a smidgeon of decoration to spice things up – that I found myself having nostalgic feelings for the games I used to play as a kid. The professional interface impressed me so much that I suspect I might have enjoyed playing City Of Secrets even if the rest of the game had been bad. But it wasn’t. It was good. Very good.
I'm not sure if the interface is the same for every version of the game. One review I read commented on the fact that the left hand pane showed a description of how the player was feeling at the time which I certainly never saw.
It’s an easy game to make progress with at first and I probably spent a good hour just wandering around playing the part of the tourist and familiarising myself with the way everything worked before I got down to the task of actually doing anything. My pleasant little stroll around the city ended when I was mugged and after that bout of unpleasantness, the game seemed to start properly as I found myself in the middle of a power struggle for control of the city.
City Of Secrets is a vast game. The city itself is a large, sprawling metropolis (although, saying that, the number of locations it contains, while large, is only a fraction of what I'm sure would exist in a city of these proportions) and there are few, if any, wasted locations. Each seems to have something in them to either use or simply examine, although not all of them are apparent at first. There's a tremendous sense of depth in the locations as well; often it seems like the city is a real place and it’s easy to forget you're wandering through a fictional place and not something that really exists somewhere in the world.
The idea behind the game is a power struggle within the city by Thomas Malik (the current ruler) and a mysterious woman called Evaine (who might well be the city’s true ruler). I was quite minded to throw my lot in with Malik when I first met him, despite the fact that there seemed something very suspicious about him, as this was following an encounter with a ruffian who it appeared Evaine had set on me. He beat me unconscious and stole my money. Strange behaviour indeed for the agent of someone who I believed actually wanted my help!
My first wander around the city impressed me greatly. The effort expended on making the locations seem alive – complete with NPCs who flittered about to give the impression you weren’t alone in the city (as happens so often in games set within cities) – is evident, although I’d hate to see how much hard work it was. On the down side, the NPCs who populate the place and make it come to life could have been handled quite a bit better. I tried speaking to them or examining them and found I wasn’t able to as there don’t seem to have any responses coded for them. In short, they're just pieces of scenery which move about to make you think there's more going on in the game than there is. To a degree it works well, but it would have been nice to talk to a few of the NPCs.
Then again, there are a considerable amount of NPCs you can talk to and the range of conversation options is quite staggering. None of them are what I’d call classic NPCs (i.e. they're not particularly memorable) but they serve their purpose adequately enough. A handy feature of the game that impressed me no end is the “think about [name]” command which lists all the bits of information you’ve managed to discover about certain people from speaking to other people about them. Quite ingenious (even if most of the stuff it remembers isn't especially helpful or even useful). There's no score as such but “summary” provides a list of things you’ve done during the game. Some of these are a little on the pointless side (is there any reason to tell the player he’s been wandering around tired?) but, again, it’s a nice feature.
It’s not a game without problems, though. The conversation system in particular seems especially buggy. Quite a few times I was partway through a conversation and suddenly an option would come up which seemed to have no real relation to what had been discussed before. More annoyingly, a conversation would end (the conversation options section would be blank) and yet when I tried to restart the conversation I’d be told the conversation was still progressing so I couldn’t say anything else! This happened in almost every conversation at some point and quickly became tiresome. I wasn’t sure afterwards if this meant the conversation options had been exhausted and there was no reason to keep speaking to the NPC in question, or whether it was just a failing on the part of either the writer or the system.
There were also problems with the city itself. I wasn’t able to examine a temple despite the fact that I was standing right outside it at the time. (Funnily enough, when I was standing one location west of the temple I was able to examine it perfectly.) Nor was the river examinable. I also couldn’t figure out to get through the green door into Malik’s office. I unlocked and opened it – minus any kind of key – but then was still unable to enter as there was “nothing beyond the green door”. Trying to ‘go door’ hit me with:
[** Programming error: East Alley (object number 1600537) has no property <number 0> to read **]
The alley runs east-west.
which I'm guessing must be some kind of system message in Inform for when you try something the writer hasn’t thought to cover. In a game where so much time and effort seems to have gone into it, the bugs with the green door were jarring to say the least. But then I guess no one’s perfect…
Inevitably, as always seems to happen when I'm playing a game (particularly a big and ambitious one like this), I got stuck. I had spoken to everyone in the city I could find to speak to, uncovered numerous items (very few of which I seemed to be able to find a use for) but then seemed to hit a brick wall in that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. For a while I just wandered around and hoped something would happen. A couple of times I returned to the hotel and tried to sleep as previously this had moved the game on and opened up other events, but this time I was just informed that I was awake and would be staying that way.
There was a hints system, and a lengthy and very detailed one it was too, but unfortunately it wasn’t so much a hints system (despite being accessed by typing “hint” or “help”) as a guide to playing the game. While this was all well and good, it wasn’t a whole lot of help to someone who had reached as far in the game as he was able to get and didn’t know what he was supposed to do next to progress the game any further. Admittedly part of that problem with progressing any further might have been my own fault – turning down Malik’s offer to work for him probably didn’t help and nor did refusing to help the urchin who approached me – but in the end I seemed to be wandering around the city without a clue as to what I was supposed to do next. Perseverance managed to get me to see Evaine but after that I really came undone. I was sent out to get myself arrested in order to bring me closer to Malik. How was I supposed to do this? Beats me. I attempted to kill every NPC in the city, smash things up, even threw items at the bots repairing the roof of one of the buildings – nothing.
But while it has its fair share of problems, City Of Secrets is a pretty amazing game all things considered. It’s huge in scope and the writing is excellent throughout. The back story is an interesting one and could probably form the basis of an entire novel in itself. And the city impressed with no end with its sheer depth of character.