I am, as usual, late to the party but unable to resist adding my two cents. In fairness, I did start writing these reviews right after the comp began, but the month of October really got away from me (how is it two-thirds over already?). Anyway, on to the reviews!
Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder
[spoiler]In this game, you are the human first mate to a rodent pirate captain, trying to gather up some of the treasure you’ve plundered before your ship sinks. “Collect loot, get points” games used to be a staple of text adventures in the days when they were still called text adventures, but I don’t see a lot of them these days. Unlike most of the older games in the genre, though, this game doesn’t require a lot of puzzle-solving in order to get the loot–a few items, particularly more valuable ones, have a few basic steps that need to be taken before you can get them, but in most cases grabbing a particular object is no harder than typing “get [object].” The real challenge is figuring out what’s most valuable and how to prioritize your actions in order to maximize the money that you get, which can only be done across multiple playthroughs. Replaying didn’t feel like a chore, though; the game moves very quickly due to the limited number of turns afforded by the rising water, and the humor and charm don’t wear thin too quickly, at least as long as there are new things to find and thus new content to be had. I imagine it would get less interesting once you manage to wring every bit of text out of the game, but I didn’t keep going quite that long.
The implementation seemed good and gameplay was smooth, although I didn’t try anything too crazy. I also liked the nautical vocabulary definition function–it’s never necessary for gameplay or reading comprehension reasons to know what all the funny words mean, but it’s a nice bonus.[/spoiler]
Verdict: A fairly lightweight game, but a well-constructed and fun one.
[spoiler]Games constructed around a single wordplay-related mechanic seem to be Andrew Schultz’s stock-in-trade, and Threediopolis is no exception. However, whereas last year’s Shuffling Around was pretty straightforward about what you needed to do to solve the puzzles, the biggest challenge in Threediopolis is figuring out what the main gameplay mechanic is. I understand the decision to do this, but it really front-loads the player frustration, which is dangerous–I was this close to throwing my hands up and quitting without having really seen any of the game’s content when the proverbial lightbulb finally went on.
Once past that hurdle, the game is good, solid fun–the puzzles are still challenging once you know what the mechanic is, which is not always the case with games of this type, and there’s a nice scaling of difficulty between the shorter words, which you can generally figure out in a flash of inspiration, and the longer words, where you may have to resort to breaking out a pencil and some scratch paper and writing down possible letter combinations. I did, anyway.
The humorous techno-dystopian flavor adds some charm, but the messages get a little repetitive if you spend as much time aimlessly wandering as I did. That may not be the game’s problem, though. Additionally, the flavor text you get after solving a puzzle sometimes felt a bit phoned-in and bland, which did detract a bit from the game for me–solving the puzzles is its own reward, of course, but I’d also like to get something a little more interesting when, for example, I find one of Ed Dunn’s friends than the same message I’ve seen five times already with a different name in it. I did like some of the game’s responses to words that were not puzzle solutions, but fit the parameters–those were nice little easter eggs.
The ending of the game has this same problem, writ large. You solve all the puzzles, you return to your employer, and the game just kind of… stops. I know it’s not a story-heavy game and I wasn’t expecting a huge cutscene, so to speak, but having what amounts to “You show Ed Dunn all the stuff you’ve done and he says ‘Good job,’ the end” felt really anticlimactic.[/spoiler]
Verdict: A rocky beginning and a lackluster ending, but what comes in between is very entertaining.
[spoiler]This game combines a Cold War-throwback nuclear nightmare with alchemy and Gnostic theology, which is a pretty disparate collection of elements. That in itself is not a bad thing, but I felt that Solarium never quite made me feel like they were all working together in service of an overarching theme. The Cold War bits seemed to be exploring something about war and nuclear weapons and personal responsibility for atrocities (although, to be honest, there was nothing there that I haven’t seen in more “normal” Cold War fiction many times before), and the Gnostic bits were saying something about faith and its dangers, but it just didn’t quite come together. In the end it mostly seemed muddled and a bit try-hard.
The game does have a more personal, emotional aspect in the narrator’s search for a lost love who was also involved in the government project that led to the nuclear apocalypse, but I was never very emotionally invested in it. I think that partly it’s because so much of my attention was taken up by trying to figure out what was going on with all the alchemy and possession and global thermonuclear war, and partly it’s because I found the writing style a bit distancing. Which was probably an intentional stylistic choice, but when the search for said lost love is the driving force of the story, the detached style is a bit of a drawback.
The interactive aspect mostly consists of “click link, learn that you don’t have the item needed to progress with that link, go back, click a different link until you find one that you can do,” which is not a bad thing but also not especially great, but towards the end there are a few meaningful choices that lead to different endings, and I appreciated that. Also, I’m not really used to having to talk about aesthetics in my IF reviews, but I should note that Solarium’s images and text design worked well to contribute to the overall stark and oppressive atmosphere.[/spoiler]
Verdict: It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s trying to do a few too many things at once and it just didn’t work for me.
Bell Park, Youth Detective
[spoiler]Bell Park is a light spoof of kid-detective stories. The twelve-year-old eponymous heroine has apparently solved a few small mysteries (things more on the order of Encyclopedia Brown than Nancy Drew, I get the impression) and is now thrown headlong into a murder case, courtesy of a tech conference organizer who doesn’t want to jeopardize his event by calling the police in. The game repeatedly shows that she’s in over her head and not really equipped to deal with anything worse than someone’s missing lunch money, but she still does play a key role in solving the mystery, presumably because she’s the protagonist.
The cast of characters are all appropriately over-the-top and ridiculous–I particularly enjoyed the pretentious futurist droning on about the Singularity being nigh; I’ve read a few things that could have been written by him. The plot eventually takes a sudden left turn into actual science fiction, which in a serious murder mystery would have felt like cheating, but Bell Park is silly enough that it works.
The worst I can say for Bell Park is that it could have used a more thorough proof-read; it’s littered with minor typos and grammatical errors that distracted me, nitpicker that I am, from the rest of the story. That said, while it was funny and enjoyable, I didn’t quite love it; I have a hard time, though, putting my finger on what it was that left me cold. In the end it might just have been a little too arch for my tastes.[/spoiler]
Verdict: Good fun at the expense of kid detective tropes and weird tech industry types, though it could have stood just a tad more polishing.
That’s about all I have time for at the moment, but more reviews are certainly forthcoming at some unspecified later date. Possibly next month, at the rate I’m going.