Fall of the Achilles

by davidesky2

Mystery
2023

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You only came here for the loot..., February 28, 2023

...and found drama instead.

You are BG Jackson, a smuggler in search of valuables. Your next target is an exploration vessel called the Achilles that went missing months ago, and you finally managed to track it down. Signs indicate that it has been abandoned, but experience knows that it is never quite that simple.

Gameplay
Fall of the Achilles features a gameplay structure that I call “free range of movement.” The term is when a Twine game (or other choice-based format) mimics a parser by allowing the player to move throughout a map and interact with items within it at their leisure. In other words, freedom to navigate a space. This game is a perfect example.

It begins upon your arrival at the Achilles. You are in the Corvus, a personal ship run by an AI named Sahil. After docking the two vessels, you explore the abandoned ship while communicating with Sahil. He does everything from friendly reminders to disabling locked doors. The objective is to acquire the code to the massive warp engines aboard the Achilles. Apparently, the code is worth a lot.

The screen is organized so that a list of actions and a list of exits are always neatly displayed on the lower left which enhances the feeling of a parser. You are still clicking on links, but the links are organized to feel like an arsenal of commands that you would otherwise type into a parser game.

—— ACTIONS ——
Look at the bootprints.
Talk to Sahil.
Use your blaster.

——— EXITS ———
North is the Achilles' bridge.
South is your ship, the Corvus.

The room title is listed at the top of the screen while inventory items and health points are shown on the left-side panel. These features create a parser-like Twine game with notable user-friendliness.

Be prepared: There are moments where you must make a judgement call. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) whether to kill Trace so she never poses a threat, or to spare her with the possibility that she will provide help later. I feel that this weighing of the pros and cons is a defining feature of the gameplay.

Puzzles
This game is full of puzzles but not quite a puzzle-fest. I never "needed" a walkthrough (I don't think there is one at this time), but there is enough in-game help to work around parts where I did get stuck. Sahil may not be a fancy AI, but he is quite helpful.

Generally, the puzzles are well-designed with a few exceptions. The puzzles for (Spoiler - click to show) filling the jug* in the mess hall and reaching the console in the warp drive were a bit tedious. You get injured at random and scurry back to the medical bay to heal yourself before trying again. The puzzle in the science lab was cool, though. The goal is to reach the end of the room while the space is influenced by deadly time warping properties. In truth, a mistake only gets you sent back to the front of the room where you started. A reasonably tame “red-light, green-light” game. The warp drive puzzle was a shadow to that.
*But the joke was on me instead: I could have just filled it in my own ship! I did not figure that out until the game lightly suggested that there was an alternate solution.


Also: There was one bug in the gameplay. (Spoiler - click to show) In one case, after I restarted the game, I was able to open the science lab door immediately after defeating Trace. It still had me punch in the password, which I remembered from the previous playthrough, but I don't think that was supposed to happen. I recall only having the password input box appear after you speak with Luisa. A similar thing happened again in another playthrough. Besides that, I did not run into any issues.

Story
About the drama… (Spoiler - click to show) There are two (human) survivors on the ship: Luisa Romero and Elias Zeres. They are on opposite sides of the big controversy that went down on the Achilles months prior. They also control the remaining ship systems. Since the protagonist insists on getting the warp drive code, you must choose to help either Luisa or Elias. Each character functions as a “quest” that shapes the gameplay which adds incentive for replays.

No matter how many questions you ask, there are unknowns about the story. The Achilles was an exploration ship where the crew members lived with their families. (Spoiler - click to show) Upon receiving a strange signal, the ship sent out a probe which came back carrying a strange sphere called the Crux. Everyone on the Achilles split into two factions and- as indicated by the carnage we find- waged war with each other. Embrace the Crux or reject it, those were the sides.

I’m not entirely sure of the dynamics between these two groups. Where did all the violence originate? Dead bodies are everywhere. Were people dragging each other to be thrown into the Crux? Who shot who? We see bodies of Star Patrol officers on the bridge who likely came to investigate. At least we know that they were shot by Trace after she was reprogrammed. The title is Fall of the Achilles. I want more info on the “fall” part. Plus, the ship’s name carries nice symbolism.


Everything accumulates to one key moment: (Spoiler - click to show) Deep in the storage bay, you see a weird probe carrying a sphere, from which voices- people- ask you to join them. There are people in there. Moving closer activates a hologram of someone kneeling before the device only to have their brain lasered in half.

I have to admit, the Crux is not doing a particularly good job at selling itself. Can you trust the voices?

Kneeling before a strange device surrounded by corpses sounds like the most obvious insta-death you-have-lost-in-the-worst-way-possible ending that you just have to be a sucker to fall for… but you'd be surprised……

Someone takes your hand.

......that's all I'm going to say.
(Except that I wish the game gave us long enough to hear what Sahil had to say. I really wanted to hear him finish his sentence. Shame he couldn't come with.)


If anyone is interested in further discussion, see the section after the end of this review.

Endings
Fall of the Achilles does not have endings in the form of "Ending 1," "Ending 2," etc. Rather they are general outcomes underscored with secondary events and objectives. These general outcomes are determined by (Spoiler - click to show) whether you sided with Luisa or Elias, of which there are variations. Secondary parts range from (Spoiler - click to show) your success in acquiring the warp drive codes to whether you depart alone. All of this creates additional incentive for multiple playthroughs, especially since it is enticing to mix and match different outcomes.

Now I don’t mean to be morbid, (Spoiler - click to show) but there is a technicality about the fate of Captain Yamashita that kept bothering me. Her body is in a medical capsule designed to heal the patient inside. By default, the end of the game says, “You failed to (mercifully) end Captain Yamashita's life.”

She’s already dead. The medical console reports that "The patient's prognosis is terminal. Brain functions have been inactive for 63 days and are unrecoverable." Sahil summarizes this as brain dead. And therefore, incompatible for the Crux. The capsule is trying to heal a corpse. Opening the capsule to reveal her body (it is not graphic, just sad) is the equivalent to giving her a merciful death, but that seems to have occurred before we even arrive on the ship.
A little more explanation would add clarity to this scenario.

Writing
I want to quickly acknowledge the writing. Fall of the Achilles is not an eloquent masterpiece, but it has the occasional descriptiveness that enriches the gameplay. My favorite was when (Spoiler - click to show) you are searching the captain’s quarters for a DNA sample.

A quick search seems to turn up nothing—until you find an oiled wooden brush with large, thick tines like a comb’s. A long strand of black hair weaves through it like the solution to a maze.

It’s not, “oh, you found a brush with a strand of hair in it. DNA.” Instead, the captain’s quarters are personalized and goes the extra mile to make the action more meaningful.


Finally, the genre is science fiction, but there are horror elements that come to life partly thanks to the writing. Arguably, the biggest horror moment is (Spoiler - click to show) the cramped (at least in my mind, it is a cramped space) storage bay. It contains stacks of bodies and a weird object. Everything reeks of death. It's probably really hot in there, I imagine. See how easy it is to visualize this scene? "Stacks of bodies" may not impress you, but this scene was genuinely creepy. There's gore in this game, but mild gore that occasionally turns it up a notch for scenes like this. It always felt like there was thought put into it.

Characters
The game is not crawling with NPCs, but there are some interesting ones. Let’s explore a few.

Sahil
Sahil feels like a concrete NPC, although the game keeps his personality mostly neutral. What I love about his character is the convenience he provides for solving puzzles. Some form, a lot of function. He speaks up when something is worth noting and automatically incorporates bits of accumulated info from the gameplay into his explanations. It’s like having a polite notetaker following you around.

The AI’s assistance is streamlined and avoids feeling like, “talk to me for a hint!” I value games that use that approach, I really do, but I sometimes feel like the character is judging me a little when I ask for the answers. Sahil tells me what I need to know without making me feel lame. (But truthfully, I am thankful when authors incorporate in-game hint systems.)

Trace
Our first main obstacle in the gameplay is when we tangle with an android named Trace. She is referred to as the "universe's only sentient android.” That surprised me.

Sahil seems sentient. He may be a ship AI, but I feel like an AI could be dumped into an android body, or something to that extent. If the game's world possesses sentient AI technology, I'd think that sentient androids would be more common. I am drawing broad conclusions, but that leads to my next point: I wish there were a little more worldbuilding, particularly with the story’s technology.

I especially want to know more about Trace’s backstory as a sentient android. It is brief. (Spoiler - click to show) Trace was created by the “Sisters of Infinity,” a group of exiled scientists whom she refers to as her “mothers.” Cool! I’d love to explore that character feature. She is also a member of the *Interstellar Patrol with superhuman abilities for combat. We get a glimpse of that firsthand.

When you first try to access the main deck, Trace stands in your way in battle mode. There are two solutions. If you want to skip the frequency puzzle, you can just battle it out. However, the combat mechanics could be a little tighter. It follows a rock-paper-scissors style of combat where you choose between shooting, activating a force shield, or using a physical attack while managing health points. That was cool.

The issue was with trying to gain an advantage. She has more health points than you, although you have the option of sneaking off mid-combat to heal yourself in your ship before running back to resume the fight. That felt comical, and Trace was really testing my rock-paper-scissors abilities. Fight a few turns, run to the bridge, run to my ship, heal, run all the way back. She’s literally standing there saying, “do you want to resume this fight?” She can do this all day long. And she knows it.

I only did this approach to see what outcome it would lead to. I learned this: stick with the frequency puzzle. It'll take her out the same way. Then, you can decide whether to kill her. I don’t see a reason not to spare her, but you will have to see why. Even though the combat was not a highlight of this gameplay, it is always interesting to see how authors implement combat into the Twine format.

(*Just what is the extent of humanity’s space-faring capabilities and technological advances? For instance, the “Interstellar Patrol” implies that humanity has branched out of our solar system. When the game uses phrases akin to “bring the Crux back to human civilization,” I think of Earth. A few extra sentences for context would be welcome.)


Anyway, this section was longer than I planned.

Visuals
In a nutshell: Ergonomic, standard issue visuals that consist of a black background, white text, and blue links. But slightly different from the “default” Twine appearance of black background, white text, and blue links. I hope readers know which style I am talking about.

It is a super simple look that functions just fine. I want to make a special note about the text which is always well organized. That may seem like a trivial detail, but when text placement is a mess, that’s all you notice. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here. If anything, it sets a good example for text organization in Twine when you have a moderate word count.

The only flair is the helpful map on the panel at the left side of the screen. It’s a nice reference point.

Final thoughts
In conclusion, Fall of the Achilles is a potent sci-fi experience about a smuggler who found more than they bargained for. The trope of wandering a spaceship after it was purged of life from an incident is common but never one that grows old for me. I have a feeling that fans of the genre will feel the same way. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly a polished and high-quality piece worth playing multiple times.

I approach it partly as an example of the flexibility of Twine to create parser inspired gameplay even though it is ultimately a choice-based experience. If there are any readers skeptical about Twine’s potential with sci-fi adventures, consider Fall of the Achilles.

If you like the theme of exploring a lost and seemingly lifeless spaceship with a story wrapped around the ethics of mind-blowing technology in the hands of humanity, consider Reclamation. It's an Adventuron game where your task (as a corporate employee, not a smuggler) is to investigate a research vessel that went missing amid a vital experiment. You even get your own AI although he is definitely a different character from Sahil.

Discussion corner
(Spoiler - click to show) Time to bring out the big question: The game assumes that the death and violence aboard the Achilles will only spread if Luisa brings the Crux to humanity. Would that happen?

It's not the Crux itself that is dangerous (unless you kneel in front of it, of course). It just sits there. It's not a weapon. What caused all those deaths were the fighting between people about what to do with it. Ideally, if you had it in a nice little area in a garden where people could join if they wanted to or otherwise carry on with their day, things would be fine. But the likelihood of that occurring- if the ship is any indicator- would probably be miniscule. Plus, Luisa does not field this subject well.

Captain Tomomi Yamashita authorized Elias to be the acting captain if something were to happen to everyone in command. Her final instructions are for him to make sure that the Crux never reaches human civilization. Meanwhile, Luisa managed to weasel her way into becoming the acting captain instead, forcing Elias to camp out in the corner of the ship. She also (poorly) preprogrammed Trace against her will. It is kind of established that Luisa is the “villain” in the game. But does that sentiment apply to the Crux as well? Does it bias the player? There is no easy answer.

On a brief side note as I wrap this up: One of the voices coming from the Crux is Elias’ parents wanting you to tell Elias that they want him to join them. It’s painful. I really, really, really wish the player could do that. He probably would not agree, but that’s understandable. When you go back up through the morgue, Elias is waiting in the medical bay. I just wish there were a way of saying, “your parents asked for you, specifically,” and then leave it up to him. Oddly enough, if you join the Crux instead, you have no way of talking to Elias’ mother about him even though she is your tour guide for the rest of the game.

Thank you for reading!

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davidesky2, March 1, 2023 - Reply
Just to say, I could not imagine in my wildest dreams a more thorough and thoughtful review of my game. Thank you so much, Kinetic Mouse Car! You've also given me a bug to track down and some adjustments to carefully consider!
Kinetic Mouse Car, March 5, 2023 - Reply
You are welcome! As for the thoroughness, when I go to review a game I think, “okay, this will be a short review.” And it almost never happens.
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