The Alchemist

by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)


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Number of Reviews: 5
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Custom parser, classic fantasy, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

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.