The Alchemist

by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)


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Number of Reviews: 5
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1-5 of 5

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.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
New QBasic Parser? Hold my Beer., December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

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.

Played: 11/13/22
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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
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.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Ezekiel Throgmeister, October 14, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

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.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Explore odd friend's big mansion filled with portals, magic and machines, October 10, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

There are a ton of ways to author IF. One way I've seen is to experiment with different styles in an attempt to find what players like, and respond to feedback by making big changes in future games. Another style is to keep making exactly what you like, making games that are all alike, consistent with each other. There are other ways, too, of course.

The games by this author seem to fall in the latter category. Each of these games is written in qBasic by the same system and features a large building that contains different areas containing diverse historical or other themes, often accessed through portals, minimal descriptions of areas, potions or elixirs, riddles and codes, and multicolored devices. The idiosyncrasies remain the same as well, such as objects in containers not being 'in scope', so you can't examine or take things in an open container directly, instead requiring the command TAKE ALL FROM ____. The author has a type of game he enjoys making, and I appreciate the consistency.

I played around for 10 minutes or so then went to the walkthrough, as I knew from experience that this game would be hard to finish in two hours without doing so.

I ran into some trouble with the parser. For instance, 'STAND ON LADDER' or 'STEP ON LADDER' didn't work, but 'CLIMB LADDER' did. In a room described as having many books, X BOOKS said it didn't understand, while X BOOK said 'you don't see the small book', an object I had yet to encounter.

This game is best enjoyed by enthusiasts of text adventures that prefer the pixel art/command line look, like puzzles over story, and want something long and tricky but fair to digest. An author with a similar feel is Garry Francis, for those looking for even more.

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