Number of Reviews: 6
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Clever but underdeveloped, December 11, 2020
One of SAD’s co-authors also co-authored Vain Empires, and so is almost single-handedly supporting the supernatural spy-thriller IF subgenre. There, it was angels and demons; here it’s time-traveling druids which is an even fresher premise. Some solid puzzling makes this a pleasant enough entry, but I found SAD a bit underdeveloped, both in terms of the worldbuilding and especially in terms of the characters, so it doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Starting with the worldbuilding part of that, the introduction does a good job of creating urgency – apparently a cult of fire-worshippers managed to destroy the world (hate it when that happens) but the “Federal Bureau of Druids” is able to send a single operative (guess who) a couple days back in time to stop things. You don’t have a Q-style array of gadgets, but almost as good, you have a magic cocoon whose threads can take you to different time periods, along with some additional powers, with the only caveat being that you need to feed various mystical plants into the thing to unlock its abilities. While the playing area is relatively small – a dozen or so locations in and around the cult’s lakeside compound – you can ultimately access four timelines (one for each season) so there’s a lot of ground to cover.
This is more than enough to get the player up and running, but I felt like I wanted a bit more to chew on. The whole “Federal Bureau of Druids” thing set me up to expect a fantasy/modern mash-up, but as far as I could tell things are pretty much pure fantasy save for the incongruous appearance of an orange traffic cone. The cult seems to have some odd beliefs – they’re very into hand tattoos – but the narrative voice doesn’t comment on whether any of this is familiar to the player character, or how they should understand it. Late in the game, there are intimations of a third faction at play, but despite the ending text indicating that they’re a known quantity to the player character, there’s no in-game indication of what their agenda might be and how it intersects with the player’s – which is disappointing, since deciding whether or not to aid them is an important part of determining which ending you get.
Exacerbating this issue are the other characters. There are I think five other people running around between the various time periods, all members of the cult. Oddly, none of them seemed especially upset to see someone in the uniform of their enemy wandering around their base, beyond barring access to a few especially high-security areas. And in fact you spend a bunch of the game doing small favors for them, fetching them snacks and so on, which they reciprocate like they’re happy to be good chums with you (the cult’s ringleader will even make an attractive commemorative plaque to memorialize how you helped him out this one time). Curiously, you don’t share a language with any of them, though, so you can’t communicate – even more curiously, though, you’re still able to read the documents they write. This comes off as a game-y contrivance to minimize the difficulty of implementing conversation with too many NPCs, which is fair enough, but it also means that the world felt underbaked and I was often unsure of my mission – like, these people all seem nice enough, maybe this apocalypse is just a big misunderstanding?
Really what it all comes down to, then, is the puzzles, and here SAD is on surer footing. Steadily increasing the power of the cocoon and opening up all the timelines, and then new powers, makes for a very satisfying progression. And most of the puzzles are reasonably clued; a few leaned a bit more heavily into comedy than I was expecting (Spoiler - click to show)(pulling a hat off somebody’s head with a fishing rod, interrupting a why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road joke in progress), another sign of some of the tonal issues here, but the hints and walkthrough do a fine job of keeping you on track. I did feel like the time-travel aspect of things wasn’t used to its fullest – there are only a couple of classic “do something in the past to change the future” puzzles, which are usually the draw of this kind of thing – but again, what’s here is solid enough. I did think there was some misleading clueing around one puzzle (Spoiler - click to show) (unlocking the rainbow lockbox, where finding the orange pentagon drawing made me think I’d need to find clues to the combination one by one) but stumbling onto the real solution wasn’t too tricky.
Despite the challenge of keeping track of all the different timelines, implementation is smooth throughout, and it’s fun to be able to just type WINTER or SUMMER and be whisked away to a whole new world – as in Vain Empires, there’s an attractive and helpful map always visible at the top of the window, and it changes to match the season which is really helpful for staying oriented. Location descriptions and scenery implementation are both a bit sparse, but that does help keep things streamlined.
Again, I had fun with SAD (irony!), and I know in the Comp it’s usually better to deliver a more modest and solid game than go too big and risk a fiasco. Still, I wish the authors had been a bit more ambitious throughout: they go big with the endings, with eight available, but that felt like too many given that the loose worldbuilding hadn’t given me sufficient stakes or grounds to decide which direction to go. With more love devoted to the setting, and characters who invest the player in the world and establish the impact of their actions, this could have been a real standout – as it is, it was still a pleasant find as the Comp is winding to its close.