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Masterful technical craftsmanship, but in service of what?, April 4, 2015
This is one of those rare pieces that knows exactly what it's doing, and does it extremely well. Whether that thing is worth doing is another question.
DiBianca is clearly a talented programmer with an eye for detail and a specific vision for how Excelsior should feel. The game embraces the classic Inform/Z-code aesthetic, but tightens up its look and behavior in numerous subtle ways. From the moment the game loads, everything is "just so": the statusbar, the banner, the parser. A few moves in, the game announces its Zarfian cruelty rating, indicating familiarity with IF conventions.
The biggest change is the parser, which has been pared down to just moving, examining, and a generic "use" command. This has its drawbacks: I often ended up typing commands like "use statue" without knowing exactly what I was telling the parser to do. (Take the statue? Climb the statue? Swear at the statue in Dwarvish?) It does simplify gameplay, however, and the implementation is extremely clean, although there are a lot of problems with unimplemented scenery objects.
The game itself is classic explore-the-big-abandoned-fantasy-tower-and-solve-puzzles fare. This is an old-school puzzle game through and through - there's even a maze (with a special trick, of course). As the "use" verb suggests, many puzzles are of the find-x-use-x variety, but with enough clever twists to keep things interesting. The result is vaguely reminiscent of Scott Adams, if Scott Adams games were wordier and less likely to kill you for touching a doorknob or something.
Less interesting is the environment. The geography is expansive and creative but minimally-described, and there is no real narrative direction beyond "GO DO STUFF NOW." Excelsior shares some genre similarities with The Dreamhold and other fantasy-exploration pieces; but in Dreamhold, all the fantastic environments are tied together by a sense of age and meaning. Here, the fantastic environments just exist, because fantasy. ("Here's a pedestal with an orb on it. Do something with it.")
This is not necessarily a problem; not all IF needs a rich, layered narrative. But most IF is improved by it. At any rate, DiBianca clearly knows what he's doing, and I look forward to seeing where he takes his technical talents in the future.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in the technicalities of unusual parsers, or die-hard fans of old-school puzzlers.
Not recommended for: Anyone with more literary tastes.