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All-time great parrot, December 9, 2020
(I beta tested this game)
I have given the randomizer a lot of grief over the course of our five weeks together, bemoaning its feast-or-famine tendencies and bewailing its perverse glee at stacking like five sexmurder games right at the top of the Comp. But it did me a solid in the end, since it’s hard to think of a better way to play off the comp than Magpie Takes the Train, which is about as pleasant a piece of IF as you’re ever likely to find. That word “pleasant” can be double-edged – sometimes it’s a way of sinking in the damning-with-faint-praise shiv – and sure, as a one-and-a-half room spinoff game, it’s not aiming to be a barnburner or an epic. But when that one room is so cozily realized, lushly implemented, and entertainingly peopled, that’s not much of a complaint. MTT is great fun, from the main event – a satisfying, multi-step jewel heist – to the smallest incidental detail.
As mentioned, this is a spin-off from 2018 Comp winner Alias the Magpie – that was by J.J. Guest, but the present author offered an authorized sequel game as one the prizes that year, so here we are. While if you know the respective authors, you can definitely tell the difference – MTT uses the conversation system employed in many of Brian Rushton’s other games – and there’s no specific plot continuity, the writing and overall vibe are definitely of a piece with the earlier game. Which is great, because Alias the Magpie was delightful! Just so here, where the eponymous master-of-disguise is bent on infiltrating the private railcar of an American magnate and lifting an enormous jewel right off her lapel.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that – there are somewhere around half a dozen sub-puzzles that need to be solved before you’re able to successfully lift the rock and abscond, including foiling a rival's disguise and making friends with a cantankerous parrot. Almost all involve some quick-change artistry, as you’ve cleverly brought along a suitcase full of disguises and the occasional tunnels offer just enough lightless moments to change from your professor’s togs into, say, a waiter’s getup, or a maintenance man’s coverall. The various characters in the car react to you differently depending on your garb, and certain actions that would arouse suspicion if performed when incorrectly attired can be easily accomplished while wearing the proper uniform.
None of the steps involved in solving the puzzle are that challenging to work out – and in fact there’s no penalty to simply trying to take the jewel, which will prompt you with a hint towards the most immediate barrier to your larcenous designs. But nor are they too simple, either, or too wacky. I generally felt like I was half a step ahead of the puzzles, which is a very pleasant (…that word again) state to inhabit, as I usually had an idea of what I should be doing, but hadn’t fully worked out every step such that implementing the plan was drudgery. And in fact you miss out on most of the fun if you just rush for the win – there’s lots of entertaining dialogue to be had with the other characters if you try talking to them in all your various outfits, there’s a whole drink-mixing system that leads to entertaining combinations, and there’s tons of incidental detail that rewards poking about with some fun jokes.
Unsurprisingly given the legion of testers – I was among a nigh-numberless host – the implementation is as smooth as butter. There are lots of thoughtful conveniences, such as allowing the player to skip to the next moment of darkness if they’re too impatient to wait for the next chance to change outfits. The prose is typo-free, and just about every strange thing I tried was anticipated. It’s possible to make the game unwinnable, but it’s kind enough to tell you that and end, and I think a single UNDO will always retrieve the situation. Indeed, given its compact length, inviting setting, and robust implementation, MTT could be a nigh-perfect game for bringing new players into the IF fold – but it’s certainly got a lot to offer veterans as well.