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About the Story
Another run. Another dive into the neon sea. A Cyberpunk Heist Game. Parser-based but with a hybrid interface (playable by typing or by links alone). Best played in a desktop browser (or on a tablet in wide-screen landscape mode).
Nominee, Best Setting; Nominee, Best Use of Innovation; Nominee, Best Use of Multimedia - 2020 XYZZY Awards
20th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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I beta tested this game.
This is a really technically impressive game that uses Vorple for a cool layout, a single graphic and some fun music.
Itís a cyberpunk world where people jack into cyberspace (presenting Wild West/Fantasy and Ancient Japanese settings in this game). Youíre asked to infiltrate a base, but chaos ensues.
The game is exceptionally well-polished, with very few bugs. Itís also fairly linear. Most conversations end up with you saying all available options, and most settings are constrained, with the most freedom being late in the game.
This makes the puzzles simpler, aided by the nice keywords, but comes at the expense of freedom. Iíve realized as I study the comp that players value both polish and freedom, so Iím really interested in seeing where this places!
+Polish: Looks great
+Descriptiveness: I liked quite a bit of the worldbuilding
+Interactivity: I found the puzzles enjoyable
-Emotional impact: I found myself at an emotional distance from this game, and don't know why.
+Would I play it again? I've played this game twice, and enjoyed it both times.
(I beta tested this game)
In my unreliable memory, cyberpunk used to be a pretty common genre for IFComp entries, but itís become a bit more rare these days Ė Sense of Harmony included many of the tropes, as did Move On in its implied setting, and I suppose BYOD is all about corporate hacking. Maybe the genre as a whole is less relevant as weíve all gotten used to the fact that weíre basically swimming in cyberspace 24/7 and corporate-run authoritarian dystopias donít really land as a scary unknown any more? Regardless of any of that, Shadow Operative is a cyberpunk adventure of the old school, as a rogue hacker with a cyberjack in, and a price on, their head infiltrates a megacorp to exfiltrate hidden data that could bring down the whole company. Story-wise itís a bit by the numbers, but satisfying puzzles and a slick presentation mean this one definitely scratches the shadowrunning itch.
Starting with that presentation, since itís the first thing you notice when starting the game, itís anything but a throwback: while written in Inform and fully playable by the parser alone, there are also a lot of conveniences in various sidebars, including a usable map, hyperlinks for important objects, a clickable list of common verbs (with ENTER CYBERSPACE first on the list, because of course), and a title image and music throughout. I played via typing, but this one should be pretty accessible to those who prefer to click their way through or who are less familiar with parser-only games Ė and it all really reinforces the mood of the piece, placing you in the shoes of an enhanced operative who can quickly figure out everything thatís going on.
As mentioned, the setting and setup are classic cyberpunk Ė after a botched job, youíve got hitmen after you, and while laying low you get sucked into doing one more job for an old friend. The emphasis is clearly on that one more job, though Ė the price on your head doesnít really connect to what youíre doing after the first five minutes of the story (and is resolved rather summarily in the conclusion). This maybe reduces the drama somewhat, but does perhaps better fit the mood, which is more easygoing than the typical cyberpunk vibe Ė it definitely starts out all edgy, but pretty soon your badass operative has crashed into the back of a garbage truck, and it pretty much goes on from there. I donít think thereís any way to die (though there is a way to make the game unwinnable: (Spoiler - click to show)donít drink away your upgrade money!>/spoiler>), and instead of a cold, geometric void, cyberspace is presented as rather cheerful medieval or feudal Japanese worlds with anthropomorphized programs. There are also rather a lot of jokes and in-jokes, which I thought mostly landed Ė Iím not sure the world needed another ďthe cake is a lieĒ gag, but Iím always down for an ďIím selling these fine leather jacketsĒ callback.
The action is all about the central job, and itís well put together and paced. Thereís a bit of preliminary work to do to get ready for the heist, then you go through the infiltration and a cyberspace misadventure before having to make your escape. The puzzles are fairly simple but reasonable and satisfying to solve, with the trickiest ones coming in cyberspace. Again, this is presented in somewhat cartoony fashion Ė defeating the megacorpís security primarily involves using musical instruments that I guess are really programs to overcome AI ICE that takes the shape of various guard-animals? Ė but it works well enough and doesnít require the player to absorb a bunch of technobabble. There is one really good twist, which I mostly saw coming but still landed well.
Itís all solidly implemented, too (the only issue I found is that you can pick up the bamboo tree Ė bit of an oops but no big deal), and the interface removes any guess the verb issues. Overall Shadow Operative goes down smooth and easy, and provides a good argument for why this old genre has some life in it yet.
When given the choice, I strongly prefer to play IF in a local interpreter rather than a web browser. Itís faster, uses less memory, and I can adjust the fonts to my liking. In the case of Shadow Operative, the author was quite insistent that I play the web version. So I tried it, and Iím glad I did.
Visually, the interface of the web version is really nice. The colours and fonts are somewhat similar to the Alien Night theme at intfiction.org, which, combined with the good looking cover art in the top right corner, sets the mood nicely. For further mood enhancement, there is also music, though it was impractical for me to listen to it while playing. The window is divided into three columns: the leftmost lists accepted verbs and available exits, the right column shows the inventory beneath the cover art, and in the middle we find the command window which works exactly as Iím used to from Lectrote.
Of particular note is that relevant nouns in the output are links. This makes it possible to play the game using only the mouse; I tried it a bit, but for me, typing was faster. The downside to this is that playing it in an interpreter would have been quite a frustrating experience, as most nouns are not links, and therefore not implemented at all. Iím not entirely sure this is the case; I tried a few non-link nouns and they were not recognised. Another consequence of this is that the play experience becomes extremely streamlined, the exploration limited, and the puzzles really easy with such a small noun space. As such, the challenge was next to none and I was able to finish it in less than an hour.
Still, the writing is decent enough to make Shadow Operative engaging for that time. The cyberpunk elements are stereotypical Ė including VR cyberspace, biohacking, and touches of Japanese culture Ė as is your eventual mission, but in a rather cute, nostalgic way. There is also a brilliant twist in the story that took me by surprise.
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