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When being chased by a surgical robot is not as scary as it sounds, March 13, 2023
The Vanguard is humanity’s first interstellar ship, and it has an emergency. For some reason, the ship is not responding to any Earth-based communication, prompting the dispatch of a team to investigate. You are part of that team.
This was a new experience for me. Not in genre or story, but style of gameplay.
The first portion of the gameplay is about exploring and seeing what bites, starting at the shuttle bay. Soon after, everything is turned upside down when a scenario card is automatically drawn by the game to introduce a scenario that shapes the remainder of the gameplay. As of this review, the game only ever has one scenario, but it is AWESOME.
Essentially, the ship’s original AI is squashed by a malicious, new AI who does not want humans on its ship. It proceeds to use the other machines to hunt down your team. I don’t consider that to be a spoiler since it is the premise of the game, but I will continue discussion on the story later.
Scenario 1 - A Change in Command
Suddenly, a synthetic-sounding voice cries out over the ship speakers. "Hurry, there isn't much time! Another AI has taken over the ship and killed the crew. I cannot hold it back much longer. I have had demolition charges delivered to the Upper Deck Landing. You must destroy the ship before it has a chance to-"
A female voice takes over. "Ah, that's better. Now to get the last of you meatbags off my ship."
Now, that’s a story. Exploring a ship controlled by a computer who wants you gone? Sounds exiting. But the gameplay surprised me. It was something I never really encountered before. Fate of the Vanguard is, to borrow the game’s own words, a board game emulator.
You drew an event card!
Off-Balance: The room lurches around you. Is it in your head, or is the ship really moving?
During the gameplay, the game draws cards and rolls dice automatically for every character as if everyone is sitting at a table playing a real board game. But here, the PC is the only one with an IF player seated in front of a computer. There are player stats for Speed, Strength, Courage, and Knowledge that determine your success with dice rolls.
The game displays the activities of every character, which ends up flooding the screen with text. It’s not too much of an inconvenience but can still be distracting. Besides you, there are three other characters who get “turns” in the gameplay: teammates Erick Rivera and Anne Hartley, and the evil AI who controls five other robots.
--- Enemy's turn ---
Prototype Combat Robot spends time powering up...
Load Carrier Robot moves east to Systems Monitoring.
Delivery Robot moves south to Chemistry Lab.
Analyzer Robot moves east to Galley.
Analyzer Robot moves east to Systems Monitoring.
Surgical Robot moves north to Explosion Site.
Surgical Robot attacks Anne Hartley! Surgical Robot rolls a 4, and Anne Hartley defends with a roll of 4.
The fight is a draw, and no one is damaged.
Except for each character.
You know their movements, what dice they rolled, what card they picked, whether they are battling it out with someone several decks below. I am pleased that the game strives to keep the player engaged and informed, but sometimes this translates in the screen being flooded by discoveries.
After Scenario 1 takes over, you are given a list of objectives to be carried out to win the game. Here’s the secret: (Spoiler - click to show) Have everyone do the work for you.
I’m partly kidding, but there is some truth to it. During my first playthrough, I did NONE of the work. I contributed NOTHING. Now, the objectives for the scenario were to retrieve some explosive charges, place them in target locations, and then escape to blow the Vanguard out of existence. But first time through, I was completely lost with the game mechanics and the endless assault of text filling the screen. Everything was new to me.
For this first playthrough, all I did was run like a maniac throughout the ship without any regard for the events around me because I was busy making my own map. The game has a simple built-in map that expands as you explore, but I wanted to make one out of fun. Plus, it is a great way to familiarize yourself with large layouts. The Vanguard has four decks. I counted 63 rooms total.
Of course, it was only until later that I realized that the game’s map is randomized. And I did all this with the intent of taking the next playthrough seriously. But then:
--- Anne Hartley's turn ---
Anne Hartley is waiting for you in the Shuttle Bay.
She did everything for me! On one hand, yay. On the other hand, the player’s role in the story seems diminished. Is this good or bad? I want to be clear that often Rivera and Hartley are killed off before they carry out the scenario’s parameters. I like how your teammates set an example for what to do, but since your relationship with them is so detached, you are just left there thinking, uh, thanks?
Helpful characters aside, you generally have limited control over the gameplay action. The only concrete choices you make are moving from room to room, picking up and using items (often passively), and arming explosives.
You drew an item card!
Painkillers: Powerful pills for dulling pain.
With the items, all I did was carry them around, although some players may be more skilled at putting them to use. Everything else- dice rolling, card flipping, etc.- was done by the game. And that makes sense since a real board game would also involve randomized action. But a lot of it was chaotic.
Eventually, it became clearer. As I played, the mechanics and objectives had more context, and I could understand what going on. Now, it was fun! There is something inherently fun about a sci-fi interactive fiction game where you run rampage through a spaceship with your friends and/or colleagues. Everyone breaks off and scatters in different directions.
However, I never needed to strategize with many of the creative features that the game has to offer. It comes down to this: (Spoiler - click to show) Zip up the central staircase to the upper level, grab the explosives left behind by the previous AI, and run around until you find five of the eight possible target rooms that you can plant explosives in. I ignored the combat. Ran right past the robots trying to kill me.
Surgical Robot attacks you! Surgical Robot rolls a 3, and you defend with a roll of 3.
The fight is a draw, and no one is damaged.
Surgical Robot waits.
‘Scuse me, just passing by.
Nor did I experiment with the inventory items because I did not need them. Well, I played with them a little since they have cool names like Goo Sprayer and Emergency Teleporter, but I often forgot that they were in my inventory. By now, the gameplay had shifted from extremely confusing to being overly easy.
Easy in the sense that many of the features felt unnecessary. This change felt unbalanced. That might be a possible place for improvement.
We’ve gone over the story already, but let’s explore it a little more.
One thing I had to come to terms with is that the story is structured differently from most interactive fiction games I’ve played. If this game were anything (and no doubt there is much I have yet to experience in the IF world) but a board game simulator, I’d be complaining about how we never get exposition or story content to explain how an evil AI managed to get its mitts on the ship.
We don’t know much about the ship’s mission or the crew. Heck, you cannot even talk to your own teammates. Story scarcity is also present in the setting. I like dissecting my surroundings (and yet there are cases where I miss obvious things, as some of my readers are perfectly aware of) for story morsels.
Thus, I was not a fan of the fact that the rooms in Fate of the Vanguard were featureless- devoid of room descriptions- aside from other moving characters, dropped items, and the occasional dice roll/turn count encounter unique to a particular room.
Before the end of your turn, you may discard an item here with the "discard <item>" command (where <item> would be replaced by the name of the item) to gain 1 Courage.
Destroyed Room is east of Incinerator.
Most locations only had a title and a list of exits. For instance, the location titled “Equipment Lockers” has no lockers to rifle through.
However, if you try the game, you can understand why the story is so scarce. With a board game format where everything is move-by-move, you have no room to be frolicking about the with room description and chatting with the other characters. That’s the whole point. If I did not like it, too bad for me.
The game follows a specific structure that will either be your cup of tea, or you will pass and do something else. I love science fiction, which made the game more appealing to me, but I confess that I was hoping for a more story-intensive game.
Though the board game model is not my first choice, at least I tried something new.
Erick Rivera and Anne Hartley are your fellow human teammates. There is no story attached to them or dialog. Just stats that appear if you examine them. They move around independently and function like another player even though this is a one-player game. Keeps it simple.
The evil AI that takes over the ship is reminiscent of the malevolent AI in Porpentine's Cyberqueen. It follows the same principle: AI's ship, AI's rules. If humans don't belong, they don’t stand a chance. Although the AI in Fate of the Vanguard is not nearly as terrifying as the one in Cyberqueen.
I was disappointed with the fact the AI did not cackle incessantly at the player during the gameplay as they scurry through the ship. It would have built on the atmosphere that arises when Scenario 1 kicks in. Clearly, it does not want humans on the ship, and I would like to see more of its attitude.
I understand that my inexperience with this game’s board game concept probably does not show the game in the best/fairest light, but there are obvious bugs. Some playthroughs were nearly seamless. Some, however, just tangled everything together. I am sharing this with the hope that it provides constructive feedback.
FYI: I played Release 1 of the game if that makes a difference for anyone.
(Spoiler - click to show)
The game had a habit of freezing. Frequently. And would often force me to restart the game when it happened. I would get two types of pop-up windows when this occurred.
One was grey and said, “This page isn’t responding,” and “Fate of the Vanguard – Parchment,” with the options of waiting or closing the page. Sometimes waiting would work, other times the game would freeze permanently. After a few minutes of using the “wait” option, the game showed no change, prompting me to start over by refreshing the page. Could this be a browser issue? My knowledge of this is limited.
Then there was a pop-up window that was white with a red border. It read, "Error: exit not yet implemented" and "Clear autosave and restart.” And I would do just that. If I’m not mistaken, that had to do with Parchment, but would appreciate a second option on that. I’m no expert. This was just something that kept cropping up.
The other bug with be with error messages. Things like, “Fatal programming error: I7 arrays corrupted,” and “Run-time problem P50: Attempt to use list item which does not exist.” I don’t think that’s meant to occur. The fatal one would end the game.
If reading this is starting to scare you away, I suggest this: SAVE the game if you do not want to lose your place. If was forced to start over, I would do so and then restore. Just play the game.
You know, I had fun with Fate of the Vanguard. Partly because it was a bit of a novelty for me, but also because I was drawn to the story despite being heavily gameplay oriented. I recommend trying the game if you are curious about a board game style of gameplay and/or a fan of science fiction.
As I’ve mentioned already, this game could use further development. Especially with the bugs. I did not see any testing credits or any author statements within the game. Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions, but if this game is meant to be a “prototype” or a basic framework for a larger idea I would say it’s a strong start. Fate of the Vanguard feels finished in the sense that it is playable and can be completed as intended but needs work before it can shine.
I hope it continues to grow. The explore-the-abandoned-spaceship trope is not one that I’ll be growing tired of anytime soon.
Fate of the Vanguard reminded me of Into The Sun, another Inform parser game with the concept of being hunted while exploring an abandoned spaceship. This time, you are a looter who wants to grab as much stuff as possible to sell so you can repair your own ship. Unlike Fate of the Vanguard, it does not follow a board game format, but exploring the ship’s layout draws strong similarities. As is the hoarding of useful items. Both games are worth a shot.