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A buggy, over-ambitious homebrew, December 20, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

I had my issues with Hawkstone, but full points for honesty. The game’s introductory text straight-up tells you that “you will travel to far off imaginary lands with your avatar and attempt to command yourself with basic English sentences; All the while while upping your stats by fighting gratuitous monsters and looting pretend valuables so you can stuggle to the end and earn the magical McGuffin for defeating the game.” The unpretentious humility of that disclaimer made me root for the game even as the typos and expectation-management sent out warning signs – not that it takes an especially sensitive antenna to pick up on such signals when that opening blurb also says “I’m sorry the game isn’t as good or polished as I wanted, but I was down to the wire and needed another week to implement everything I intened. I worked really hard and hope it’s good enough for you.”

Points too for content. I feel like often games written in homebrewed systems are often on the shorter side, since so much of the author’s time has to go into developing the engine, but this adventure-RPG hybrid has complex mechanics (there’s a full character-development system that gradually increases a bevy of stats as you adventure, as well as separate adventure-game and RPG-game inventories) and, from a quick glance at the long walkthrough file, a giant map bursting with puzzles.

There’s obviously been a “but” hanging over those first two paragraphs, so I’m just going to rip off the band-aid: but the game is still a bit of a mess, with technical issues up the wazoo and a mystifying lack of clarity about what’s going on. Without any real plot to speak of to pull me through the rough patches – you’re just an adventurer who washes up on a strange shore and starts solving puzzles and picking stuff up for the heck of it – I bounced off this one fairly quickly.

By far the biggest usability challenge I ran into was the game’s issues displaying text. The interface keeps the location description constantly available at the top of the window while commands and responses fill in below. This isn’t my favorite approach, since it can involve a lot of looking up and down the screen, but it’s made far worse here by the game’s tendency to resize its window, making them narrow or wider in response to what I typed, and sometimes triggering scroll bars that I had to click through in order to get back to the action prompt (there are some suggestions in the readme that helped make this issue somewhat less pronounced, but it was never fully resolved). Making matters worse, sometimes new output would overwrite previously displayed text, leading to stuff like this:

—What now?–>look gate

—What now?–> ocked gate closely.ck up the plant pot above gate.

You rattle the gate hoping it’s only slightly locked. Turns out it’s very locked.

Even when the display is working properly, I still found it hard to understand what was happening around my character and what, if anything, I’d done to trigger these particular results. The RPG statistics are the worst example of this; while I like the idea that you increase your attributes by doing things (shades of Quest for Glory!) it didn’t seem like there was any link between the actions I was taking and which stats were going up, and the specifics of what different attributes did didn’t appear to be explained anywhere. Sure, strength is probably self-explanatory, but making sense of stuff like this is much harder:

—What now?–>look fishing line Search[TM] without perception and a shovel.

You examine the fishing line closely.

It goes down into the ravine. You can use it to check if the tinker has caught any supper yet.

Moved smelly kipper to location.

You check what’s on the line.


You have discovered ONLINE SHOPPING

The parser is often fairly obtuse; despite a solid five minutes of struggle, I couldn’t figure out how to light a candle with some matches, which is what eventually tipped me over into putting down the game. Occasionally I have enough patience to just key in a walkthrough to see what a game has to offer, but as mentioned, this is a really big game, and I think I’d just get more frustrated if I tried to power through it. That’s a shame given the amount of work the author clearly put into Hawkstone, but hopefully my response exemplifies some good advice for folks entering the Comp: if you think you need another week to make the game you want to submit, you probably should wait for next year (or another festival) because you likely need way more than that week. If you’re homebrewing or creating an intentionally retro experience, think hard about why you’re doing that and what the upside will be for the player’s experience. And if you need to choose between expanding your game and polishing what you’ve got – which eventually you will have to do – polish is almost always the right answer. Entering any game into the Comp is an achievement, and I hope to see more games from the author after taking onboard some lessons learned!

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