The Alchemist

by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)


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A solid but only lightly-themed adventure, December 5, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I remember the first time I heard about post-modernism; I would have been about thirteen (this feels late, especially now – surely kids these days suck post-modernism with their mother’s milk) and my mom, who went back to finish college once we kids were off at high school, was taking a class on the media. I was curious about she was learning, since the idea of my mom taking classes, much less a class not being “English” or “Physics” but “the media”, seemed bizarre to me, and while most of what she related seemed understandable enough, post-modernism was elusive; it had something to do with things that comment on themselves? “It’s like if a hotel were called ‘Hotel’”, I remember her saying at one point, or words to that effect.

The Alchemist is the kind of hotel that could be called “Hotel” – or more to the point, the kind of text adventure that could be called “Text Adventure.” This is I think the third game I’ve reviewed by the author, and in fact it has a lot in common with the previous one I played, the ParserComp entry Uncle Mortimer’s Secret – besides the fairly robust qbasic engine undergirding both titles, there’s a missing acquaintance (there an uncle, here an alchemist – the titles are getting the job done here) whose wacky mansion serves as a hub, via a strange device (there a time machine, here a magic mirror), allowing you to travel to different realms (there different historically-important time periods, here standard text adventure locations like a church or a mine or a lab) to solve riddle-y puzzles and collect clues to unlock the next realm, before eventually reaching the endgame and being reunited with your uncle/friend.

From that comparison, I think it’s clear that I enjoyed Uncle Mortimer’s Secret more – the time-tourism conceit is more distinctive than The Alchemist’s rather generic take on the premise, even if nothing is especially lavishly described in either game. But this one is solid enough too – the main quest is a collectathon and there’s nothing resembling a character or a plot, but the puzzles are pretty easy while being satisfying to solve, and the thing moves at a good clip. Technically, the parser continues to have the quirk where you can’t interact with items in containers or on supporters until you take them, but there’s no inventory limit and by now I’m used to hoovering everything up as soon as I see it – and other than that one foible, it seems like it can do everything Inform or TADS are capable of. Like I said, call it Text Adventure because if you like text adventures, you’ll probably like this one.

Sure, there are things I could call out as especially nice touches – there’s one clue that says “play safe, remember the Battle of Hastings” which I thought was a prompt to wear eye protection (Spoiler - click to show)(it's not), and I’m always a sucker for a game with a narthex. On the flip side, having to type in the key combos that unlocked each realm got more and more annoying as time went on, leading me to check the hints once or twice to confirm that I didn’t need to do any backtracking. And the central puzzle, which involves collecting various bits of quotidian lab equipment like tubing and a beaker, is a pretty underwhelming take on alchemy (though perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hadean Lands and, in this Comp, According to Cain).

But all that’s besides the point; The Alchemist is a text adventure working through a series of puzzles set across a mid-sized geography, and the puzzles are pretty good. It’s a cop-out for a reviewer to say “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that you like” – but in this case it’s true! And hey, maybe I can rescue things by pointing out that self-consciously ending a review on a reviewer’s cliché sounds pretty post-modern to me.