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About the Story
Ezekiel Throgmeister, commonly referred to by the villagers as The Alchemist, has left you in charge of his currently-running experiment while he attends to other pressing business. Can you succeed in completing his task?
The Alchemist is a large text-only interactive fiction fantasy game, very much in the 'old-school' style. It was written from the ground up for the PC using qBasic64, and has a comprehensive and powerful parser. Included in the game are detailed HELP instructions.
Also included are in-game hints, accessed by the command HINT.
19th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Alchemist is a homebrew parser game, with a retro font and block-graphics sensibility. Retro puzzle-heavy gameplay too, as you are experiment-sitting for an eccentric alchemist, wandering around his mansion using magic and unlocking rooms!
I hit an early block with the parser dialect, where container/surface contents were listed, then made out of scope to subsequent commands without first removing them. Once I dialed into the command structure, I adjusted easily enough. It periodically re-intruded. You can jump ACROSS but not OVER things (or maybe the other way?) but I came away more impressed than not with the implementation. Given the daunting prospect of fifty years of parser technology to learn from this was the most complete effort I have yet seen. The QBasic implementation also was lightning fast, the command-results loop positively popped with energy. Between that, the ability to chain commands(!), and the insanely generous amounts of shortcut keys (including definable ones) the whole thing practically burst with propulsive momentum. I think I may be burying the lead here. A FULLY FEATURED HOME BREW PARSER THAT FLIES!
The puzzles themselves were zippy too - they were mostly pretty well signposted and clued as you went along, including an enigmatic but solveable clue book and robust hint system, which I really only needed for occasional dialect corrections. There are one or two spots of alternate solutions disappointingly ignored, but no real bouts of spinning on what to do next. One might be underwhelmed that the puzzles were fairly straightforward, but the choice pays off as the thing really moves!
Writing is solid, descriptive as it needs to be (though some unimportant rooms suffer lack of definition. There is a cupboard with no shelves or contents?). Sometimes you don’t get room exits, most times you do, but it's always just an X away in any case. There is light wit, particularly with the naming of the active machines and magic items, but its not really a chuckle-fest. All in all, the writing is completely transparent, rarely elevating but never distracting, which is kind of the Hippocratic Oath of Writers: First, Do No Ornamentation. Maybe heavier on the “repetitive recharge of expendables” sequences than I prefer, but more than compensated by multiple use puzzle elements.
Between the solid if straightforward puzzle design and lively, peppy pace it was seamlessly Engaging. Calling it Notably intrusive in parser dialect gaps, but easily enough accommodated and bypassed. All in all a great wrap for IFCOMP22, closing out on a high note.
Playtime: 2.5hrs, score 300/300, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Notable
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
This is the author's third effort with a custom parser, and if you've played the previous two, you probably have a feel for what it is. The parser is very old-school and attempts to recapture the good bits and cut out the most useless bits. It pretty clearly succeeds. And with each game, Older Timer's work has made technical and creative strides.
But I also saw the potential to hit a wall. It's one I fear I have, too, for what I write, but in a different way. We write about different things. But it's OUR different thing, and we care about it, and we're willing to take a risk that people say "yeah, yeah, I get it" and move on. And we don't try for a huge emotional effect. And I see those sorts of similarities which could be comfortable for those in the know, and a formula that works for enjoyment for the people who like this sort of thing, but then that comfort formula will eventually run out. That time may be a long way away, but it's still there, and it certainly lurks in the back of my mind. However, being able to enjoy efforts like this consistently reminds me that, yes, there are ideas ahead, ones I should work on, even if they pull from previous works, or you realize you've seen that general twist before.
You start off getting a letter from one Ezekiel Throgmeister, who has left you to do your own thing–and if you do it well enough, you'll gain his approval and see many neat things. The ultimate goal is to find a bunch of reagents to make an alchemical spell that, well, completes his experiment. So you know you're getting an adventure game with this all, and if this is not your thing, that's okay. It is mine.
The most entertaining part of the game is a device that renews items. There aren't very many to renew, because even though The Alchemist is long, it doesn't flood you with items. But it's useful in some fun and unusual ways. Alchemy almost feels second to restoring a document or being able to refill a weightlessness or strength elixir endlessly, but then again, if alchemists exists, this is the sort of thing they would ultimately develop. And it's handy in-game, as if you make a mistake with where to use one of your elixirs, you get a small but not insurmountable penalty.
Another focal point of The Alchemist is a mirror that you walk through to visit new weird areas–fantasy staples such as a chapel. You find something new to do there, then move on. It's hard to hate on mirrors that transport you somewhere else, but having this magic contrast with seven-digit codes found on documents laying about didn't fully sit well with me. I wound up more with the feeling of accomplishment I got when I got a microwave or VCR working instead of "hey, I'm exploring a cool fantasy world." Especially since the game has you PRESS 1111111 and then PRESS ENTER–making the magic mirror feel more mechanical and less magical. There are some adherences to old- school parser that don't quite work for me. It's big and involving enough that this sort of busy work drains me a bit. Another nuisance was TAKE ALL/EVERYTHING FROM X, when a one-word verb like, say, CULL would be more convenient. But these are the sorts of things the author sanded down over time.
Sometimes The Alchemist feels a bit color-by-numbers, if you're an experienced player. And if you're not, it won't be for you. But it's fun for all that, and the author has craft. There are no great social insights to be had. It has a relatively low ceiling but also a high floor. It seems that, for non-parser players, just sitting down and going through the walkthrough could help someone familiarize themselves with how parsers work, both strengths and weaknesses. It seems universal but at other times a bit generic, with the various mirror codes. It clearly fell more on the "fun to play" side for me, though. And efforts like this probably will for a while.
A mysterious light
Burns all through the night
In that house where some people say
An alchemist dwells
With books of his spells
And a cat who scares children away
The game's mood is firmly set with this poem by Gareth Owen. The author picks up hereafter with a well-written introduction reminiscent of late 1800s Gothic Mystery stories.
You received a letter from your alchemist friend. (I want to rename our black cat after him. Ezekiel Throgmeister is a very cool name!) He had to interrupt work on an ongoing experiment for an urgent meeting with his colleagues in the arcane arts. The fact that apparently he did have the time to organize a scavenger hunt around his mansion, scattering clues all over the place instead of leaving everything in the lobby where you would immediately find them necessitates some fastening of the suspenders of disbelief. But this is just a flimsy frame for the true point of the game of course.
The Alchemist takes place in one of the most visited and beloved of adventure settings: the abandoned mansion. Despite the gloomy atmosphere, I felt right at home. Cozy almost...
Befitting the setting, the game is basically an old-school loot-and-drop quest. You need to find all components of an alchemical experiment and gather them in the laboratory.
Once the game proper starts, the writing leaves behind the elaborate Gothic stylings of the introduction. It becomes stark and sparse, efficiently describing your surroundings and the objects of note in them. The author mostly drops any unnecessary clutter, while still retaining the gloom of the shady mansion.
He accomplishes this by incorporating poignant details in the rooms, and by augmenting the descriptions with some random filler text and some rare and surprising timed sound effects ((Spoiler - click to show)I loved the purring cat!).
There is a large number of varied clues and puzzles. Common sense will get you started. There are devices to transform stuff, magical barriers and potions. A book found early on has a few rhyming riddles to figure out. None of this is too hard, and there is a good in-game hint system should you get stuck.
There is a clever trick the author pulls which creates a puzzle-barrier in the player's own mind. He gets you so used to a certain routine to follow and progress in the game, that the hardest puzzle for me was recognizing when to break that routine and try something else than I'd been doing. Very satisfying to break out of that box.
The map is large but not overwhelmingly so. It's subdivided into clearly alineated areas with their own collection of puzzles. I liked the click in the endgame when a part of the geography fell into place in my mind.
The Alchemist is a large and fun old-school adventure. Trustworthy and solid.
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