I have elected to only post public reviews of games that scored at least 4 on my rating system at this time, on the grounds that those scoring 3 or less mostly did so for reasons that could easily be fixed (either by IFComp update or in post-comp) and it’s fair to let the authors have a chance to do that before bringing those reasons to public attention. I have started sending these messages out, to give authors chance to review and make amendments as appropriate.
Note: unless otherwise stated, the reviewed version is the initial release. Games are listed in the order I started playing them, regardless of update patterns. If you are an author and see something you have addressed in an update I have not mentioned, please let me know so I can re-review it. (I reserve the right not to do so if either IFComp ends before I can get round to it, or I hit the two-hour limit).
Potential spoilers for all reviews, though I have tried to spoiler the really spoilery bits.
Finding Light - Abigail Jazwiec (review ready)
I played the original version, then the version updated: October 8, 5:07 PM (UTC), and would recommend anyone who had difficulties with the original version give the updated version a fair hearing if they have not yet hit the 2-hour mark with the game.
The introduction gives a good feeling about your character. All other characters are lightly sketched, with just enough detail to feel like distinct characters rather than cut-out characters. The central action of the game is used well, albeit again not with vast amounts of implementation detail; rather, it uses just enough to convey what is needed to fit in with the story.
The choice of a turn-limited initial action does a good job of giving an initial push to action, especially in the updated version with its improved clueing and acceptance of some synonyms.
The walkthrough took some getting used to but was very helpful once I got used to it. It’s laid out in sections and straightforward. Unwinnability protection is well-written in the update. I had trouble imagining the solution to one of the puzzles was possible. Nonetheless, the last two puzzles and the associated ending were exquisite. Definitely a game I am thankful to have had the opportunity to play.
Rating 9 (revised from the original version rating of 7)
Enveloping Darkness - John Muhlhauser, Helen Pluta (review ready)
Unusually for me, I tried opening the walkthrough immediately instead of waiting to get stuck. This was unfortunate as I could not get the walkthrough to open.
Fortunately, the game itself is quite enjoyable. It is designed to resemble parser, but is not in fact a parser game. There is workmanlike writing which conveys the story well, with accuracy but without dramatic flourishes. While I appreciate writing that soars the heights of language, it’s always better to have concise, clear prose than something that doesn’t make sense or is sloppily put together. The linearity shows quite prominently, so this is a good choice for people who like to play through once with confidence they’ve seen the most important parts of the story (I most often opt for games that are a bit less linear, but a well-executed linear story, which this is, also belongs in IFComp).
This game is completable but with some challenges (I don’t feel experienced enough in parser games to attribute labels like “easy” or “medium”, but I don’t think it would qualify as a “hard” game in the IF canon). I consider this game 11 minutes well spent. It didn’t stick with me as such, but IF that is fun in the moment matters too.
Rating - 7
The Libonotus Cup - Nils Fagerburg (review ready)
The premise is intruiging, somewhat grounded but also quite daft (I like games that meld the contrast between the serious and playful elements well). Set in a tropey version of the Caribbean pirate community with laugh-out-loud nerdy shoutouts that make the whole setting feel somewhat timeless despite having never existed (look out for spherical pirates).
I did have more trouble than expected finding my boat in the first place, but after that I had a lot of fun with the various challenges. Initially parser-based and then switching between parser and choice in ways that suit each puzzle. The interface handled the change so efficiently that I soon stopped noticing the switches in input requirement. The spelling corrector and presumably randomised movement of people in the background of town are both helpful - the former to spare unnecessary re-typing, the latter to give more of a sense that this is a real location that has a life beyond your goals.
This is a game I can imagine replaying several times, just to find out all the possible things that could happen.
Rating - 10
Furnicular Simulator 2021 - Tom Leather (review ready)
Intriuging premise, deftly-written characters. Interesting subtle background changes give a sense of time passing. Lovely subtle NewGame+ mode that builds upon the mystery in increasingly delightful ways. A rare good use of timed text. The ending was awesome.
If I don’t have much to say on this one, it’s because it’s something that needs to be experienced; something is definitely lost attempting to write its review.
Rating - 10
This Won't Make You Happy - Mike Gillis (review ready)
Warning: this game contains some flashing, that does not feature a content warning.
At the start, it looked like a video game metaphor, so I was looking forward to understanding more about the metaphor as I played. There was a potentially satifying initial loop.
I had trouble getting the plot to cohere. Other reviews lead me to believe there is some sort of meta-plot going on, but I did not understand it from my playthrough. (I did wonder whether it was trying to see the game from the character’s viewpoint, but I couldn’t put enough pieces together to confirm or deny that). It is possible that there was information I needed in the flashing bit that I couldn’t read. Eventually I got stuck in a loop and couldn’t figure out how to get out of the loop.
Rating - 4
The Library - Leonardo Boselli (review ready)
I played the original version, and then the updated version from October 5, 3:08 PM (UTC).
Firstly, I like the interface. While I am aware it has been somewhat divisive, the concept of dragging words onto each other makes intuitive sense, and worked well for me - especially given the game’s theme. This sort of experimentation matters in IF and should be encouraged.
I also like that the game is bilingual (there’s an Italian version as well as an English version). As I am in the middle of managing translations for a visual novel, I can imagine that a lot of extra hard work went into making a competition game that is accessible to more gamers than would otherwise be the case.
I needed the walkthrough to get through the first puzzle. Said walkthrough is serviceable, although not as neatly presented as Finding Light’s, and got me quite a long way into the game. Unfortunately, the movement instructions in the walkthrough do not always appear to be correct, so I got stuck partway through.
A little extra polish would make for a considerably better game, but what is presented is already worthwhile.
Rating - 6 (revised from 5 for original version)
Codex Sadistica - grave snail games (review ready)
The premise is a lot of fun, and it’s obvious from the descriptions that grave snail games had lots of fun with the descriptions. The result is that there is a strong feeling of inhabiting the character’s world and worldview (complete with intense, bluntly-expressed feelings - when the content warning says “Not for children”, believe it). The content warning is definitely accurate. The genre metal mechanic has logic to it, though it helps if you are at least somewhat familiar with metal genres in the first place (to reduce trial-and-error). The solutions to problems make sense once they are found, although some hunt-the-verb is in play here (particularly when trying to reach the bar).
The hints section is interesting, though for some reason my computer crashed the first time I tried to use it. I could not replicate the fault, so if it happens to you, just try again. I could not burn the poster despite following the walkthrough.
A promising game with exciting concepts, let down by significant implementation problems. This is a game screaming for a post-comp version (which I will happily review once it becomes available).
Rating - 4
The Last Night of Alexisgrad - Milo van Mesdag (review ready)
I played the October 4, 11:07 AM (UTC) updated version and only saw the first screen of the original version.
Experimentation in IF is to be applauded. I have never seen this method of implementing multiplayer on any game (let alone IF) before. Two players pick a side, each of which has a viewpoint character (my opponent and I flipped a coin, on the understanding that we would swap sides for a second playthrough on the same evening). You both read your text, which is different for each player (so probably best to have each player use a different browser-capable device). Then, you select an option, get the code which appears and give it to the other player. They usually give you a code, and you select this to get your next text. There is at least one situation where this does not happen, but instructions are given at the start to cover this scenario (basically, carry on as if it was regular IF).
It is clear that much careful thought was put into implementing this technique. Codes do not reveal anything about what will happen as a result of that choice. Every code is unique, so you can’t accidentally click on a code that referred to a previous or future section. The codes start sequentially, so you can get the initial confidence that you are, in fact, in sync before the possibility of different paths having different numbers of choices comes into play. If you do happen to mis-click, the undo button is enabled. Perhaps most importantly, the two players’ codes have different naming schemes, so you can’t accidentally put in your own code when you should have put in your opponents’. Other games which want this style of multiplayer would be well-advised to study this game carefully, to make.
All this talk about the concept and I haven’t got to the story yet. Well, there are two sides, one of which is probably about to be defeated. This makes side selection important, because it becomes apparent almost immediately that you have quite different objectives. Most of the writing is very good, and I felt the account of how the weaker side got that way to be particularly skilfully done. This helped with inhabiting characters that might otherwise have got lost in the novelty of code-swapping. The way the descriptions are written also rewards careful reading.
Unfortunately, I cannot give this piece full marks because there was one critical decision on one side that felt forced, out-of-character and was not indicated by previous choices. My opponent and I agreed that it should have been a player decision (albeit we would have taken different approaches). A bit of restructuring would have been needed to accommodate this, though, and getting an interesting 10-meaningful-decision IF piece working this way is already a very impressive achievement.
One final point for anyone wishing to expand on this multiplayer concept. The biggest sticking point is finding someone else to play it with. This is especially difficult if hoping to get attention for the IF piece outside places like this forum (where finding an opponent is a realistic prospect, especially as there is some replay value). Implementing some sort of AI option (perhaps with it selecting random choices) would likely help games like this get a wider audience. After all, humans may be the most interesting and challenging opponents, but single-player with AI beats not being able to play at all hands down.
We may be looking at a new sub-genre of IF here. This is a worthy flagship game.
Rating - 9
Mermaids of Ganymede - Paxton (review ready)
I was surprised at the beginning to be met with a password request (said password is provided, however). However, every choice after that makes sense. The first (of five quite different) chapters was the strongest, with the choice being the ending of a sentence that describes what you do.
Chapter 2 was moving around a location and conversing with what appeared to be placeholder NPCs. The NPCs in later chapters get a lot more detail and apparent agency. Apart from Chapter 2, dialogue was the strongest aspect of Mermaids of Ganymede, so I would have appreciated a bit more detail and depth to the conversations there to bring it into line with the very high standard set elsewhere. My favourite line is “This isn’t your high school yearbook - GET ME THOSE PICTURES!” (I will leave you to discover where it’s said).
Chapter 3 is a more extended conversation with one specific NPC, which made a great job of conveying the tension and conflicting pressures such a situation would expect to have. Chapter 4, which involves exploring an iceberg, is one of the few sections of a choice-based games that would benefit from mapping. Alas, it has no auto-mapping (though directions are well-clued and players can trust the information they are given). Manual mappers won’t require much paper/screen space: 3 boxes wide and 11 boxes down will do, and people with very good visual-spatial ability could plausibly map the location in their heads.
Chapter 5 brings some major revelations that change at least some of the emotional tenor of the story substantially. I’ve seen some differences of opinion on this, but for me the payoff was awesome.
Failing any chapter (which for the last two chapters is likely to happen at least once each) will take you back to the start of the chapter rather than the beginning of the whole piece, which is welcome. There’s also music that builds like a wave (plus volume control right there on the story screen) that adds to the atmosphere.
While I do not use neutral pronouns myself, I appreciated the choice of neutral pronoun for the main character. In works where pronouns are used and not chosen, that are in English, this is a good approach to the issue of aiding identification with the character. Much about the viewpoint character is clearly set in the first chapter, which helps with understanding why certain later choices are not available (they’re simply not things this particular character would think to do).
Mermaids of Ganymede is strongly recommended for those wanting to experience a rollercoaster of feelings and modes of play.
Rating - 9
The Waiting Room - Billy Krolick (review ready)
I tend to be a bit oblivious to text-described horror, so this review is not going to get into whether this game was horrifying. Despite this obstacle, The Waiting Room was one of the better games I’ve played in IFComp so far.
There is some flashing text which I would have appreciated being added to the content warning.
The introduction neatly combined atmospheric concerns with the realistic worries of the viewpoint character. The trick is to balance empathy and safety - which makes perfect sense for the occupation the player inhabits, as well as for the elements that make The Waiting Room a horror piece. Both modes were rewarded in a way that made sense for the setting.
There was one room that did not update when I took an object from it.
This is not formally adventurous IF, but it feels like a story that needed to be told, from a viewpoint rarely heard, and it was told very well.
Rating - 9
Off-Season at the Dream Factory - Carroll Lewis (review ready)
The premise is interesting - it’s quite rare that an orc gets to the the star character of any game. Said orc is believably useless. The puzzles are somewhat oblique, but not so oblique as to oblige me to use the walkthrough. Said walkthrough is fairly basic but gets the job done and does not appear to have any errors, so if I had needed it, I would not have been stuck. (The points guide at the end would be useful to anyone replaying the game).
Some descriptions are slightly too long for the screen, which is a pity because the descriptions are excellent. The word choices were interesting and added to the atmosphere. While there’s a lot of Lewis Carroll theming going on (to be expected given the author’s name), it’s perfectly possible to complete the game without having read any of his books if you use “adventurer logic” on the provided quotes.
There was one puzzle which was jarring and didn’t seem to fit the mood of the piece, although it made sense in retrospect later on. The theme of “trying to make a better future in the context of grinding obstacles” was strong, and I felt the ending made sense given established setting characteristics. It also felt good to have brought the orc through this journey from disrespected pacifist to powerful “good boss” who could still be a pacifist.
If you like parser IF and are in the mood for a game that may need 2 or 3 sessions, I recommend making time for this one.
Rating - 9
Starbreakers - E. Joyce (review ready)
I played the original version of the game, then the version updated October 18, 9:27 PM (UTC).
Firstly, I would like to thank E. Joyce for giving the option to turn off timers. I like the idea of using Twine for puzzles and the core implementation looked solid. Unfortunately, even with the in-game solutions, it wasn’t always clear to me what I was supposed to be doing, and for one occurrence in the first challenge, the “solution” turned out to be wrong - if the alien is nearby, hiding will not always save you. The walkthrough is comprehensive but basic, and has the same problem with the first solution as the in-game hints.
Rating - 4
Fine Felines - Felicity Banks (review ready)
The premise is good. There are some lovely turns of phrase in the text, my favourite being the no-Starbucks town. It is a beautifully sweet and kind-hearted game, with many adorable illustrations of cats that seemed in-character for the cats they illustrated. At several points, I found myself laughing enough that one of my relatives got curious about the game. (He was put off when he realised the game was at least partly about raising cats - his loss). I say partly because the protagonist must also look after their health and finances.
If you’re looking for a fairly light game with a big heart, this is an excellent choice.
Rating - 10
Hercules! - Leo Weinreb (review updated 21st October)
I have only played the version updated October 11, 7:22 PM (UTC), and have not seen the original version of this game. Note that this is the second version of the review, following walkthrough troubleshooting (thank you to Leo Weinreb for assisting with the troubleshooting process).
This parser Greek pastiche has a clear sense of humour, which comes through clearly in almost every scene. I can now confirm the standard of humour holds up throughout the game; my favourite part was the “50% off on Tuesdays” quip for a place that clearly doesn’t get many visitors any day of the week. It looked solidly implemented and most of the characterisation was good (with a couple of “are you sure this makes sense for the character?” moments).
(The original review mentioned problems making the walkthrough work. Turns out it is possible to get through with it, thus substituting with the following:) Although the walkthrough’s basic layout makes missing a step easy, the information in it turned out to be correct. Unfortunately on the playthrough leading to my original review, I (most likely) misread it.
The puzzles are well-clued and designed more towards the “beginning/emerging adventurer” set than experienced IF puzzlers. This, too, makes sense in context.
Hercules! is a pleasant way to pass 30-60 minutes.
Rating - 7 (revised from 4 on the original review)
And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One - B. J. Best (review ready)
This game felt like it had a lot more to offer than I could access. The introduction went by too fast for me to read, and then there was a pleasant little parser-based mini-challenge “house”. Got stuck in the second house The walkthrough is creative and definitely prevents accidental spoilering, but also completely unhelpful to me because none of the clues got me any closer to solving the problem - I cannot give the gem to the thief if I cannot find anything to unlock the chest containing it in the first place.
There could be a good game here, and I would be keen to see the slight amendment of either the in-game cueing or the walkthrough necessary for me to find it.
Review - 4
I have over 40 more games to get through, and am unlikely to get them all done before the deadline. Further games that score at least 4 on my rating system will be reviewed later in this thread.