Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

…yes, yes, I know I haven’t finished off my 2023 review thread – I had some family health issues that thankfully have since resolved positively – and I promise I will get back to that one day soon, if only so that I can finally play Lady Thalia 3. But the lure of new IF is too great for me to hold off on digging into this year’s offerings!

I’m doing my normal approach; I’ll aim to review all the games, in randomized order, first running through the main entries, then the back garden, then the NG+ entries, and finally the games I beta tested.

I usually just dive right into reviewing and say I’ll do an index later, then I finally feel sufficiently guilty to make one around the 3/4 mark and it’s a giant pain, so this time I’m going to eat my vegetables and index as I go.

Alltarach, by Katie Canning and Josef Olsson
The Case of the Solitary Resident, by thesleuthacademy
Do Good Deeds…, by Sissy
Doctor Jeangille’s Letters, by manonamora
Dragon of Steelthorne, by Vance Chance
Octopus’s Garden, by Michael D. Hilborn
Potato Peace, by ronynn
PROSPER.0, by groggydog
Rescue at Quickenheath, by Mo Farr
A Simple Happening, by Leon Lin
Thanks, but I don’t remember asking, by Mea Murukutla
To Beseech Old Sins, by Nic June
The Trials of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska
The Truth about PRIDE!, by Jemin Golfin
Voyage of the Marigold, by Andrew Stephen
You Can Only Turn Left, written by Emiland Kray, Programmed by Ember Chan, Music by Mary Kray
Zomburbia, by Charles Moore, Jr.

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Potato Peace, by ronynn

It took me many years to figure out exactly how I felt about horror as a genre. I really enjoy some parts of it – ancient curses, hidden secrets, vampires and werewolves and ghosts all spooky in themselves but also metaphorically representing aspects of the human condition! – whereas there are other parts I find pretty unpleasant – gore, traumatic violence, bad things happening to nice people. After running through a bunch of different theories (maybe I just like certain subgenres? Maybe I’m getting squeamish in my old age?) I think I’ve landed on the explanation: I like the trappings of horror, but not the substance. My ideal horror movie is something like the Francis Ford Coppola Dracula: sure, there’s blood and madness and everyone on a ship gets torn apart, but that’s mostly superficial, the movie’s basically a – well, I was going to say “romcom”, except that would imply that its tortured romance and slapstick comedy were harmoniously integrated, which is not at all the case. But the point being that rather than dealing with the core themes of horror – man’s inhumanity to man, the terrifying threat of dangers that can strike without warning, etc. – it’s concerns mostly lie elsewhere, with the horror tropes sprinkled on top for flavor. And that’s okay by me!

I suspect something similar is going on with Potato Peace, a politics-themed visual novel with no actual politics in it. This isn’t because it’s set in a fantasy world – admittedly, the setup where people and slightly-svelter Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Heads coexist in an advanced society is pretty out there, but of course there are lots of opportunities to dig into real-world dynamics with that kind of frame. Nor is it because the game’s pitched as a comedy; plenty of political satire out there, after all, not all of it dark. It’s because as hard as I tried to figure out what was at stake in the narrative, I felt stymied: while the investigator protagonist has an opportunity to bring down a possibly-corrupt mayor and make a rousing speech straight out of the West Wing, the context for the action and the motivations of the various characters go largely unexplained.

The main way this plays out is in the relationship between the two populations (man and potato-man). There’s a thread of the investigation that brings you into contact with an activist type who implies that potatoes don’t have the same rights as humans, but this isn’t really specified, and the most powerful character in the game – that mayor – is himself a potato. It could be that there’s stratification within the potato-American community; well-dressed jacket potatoes taking advantage of the grievances of ordinary spuds, say. But without more detail the worldbuilding – and thus my engagement – felt thin.

Exciting gameplay or clever wordplay can help make up for a lackluster theme, of course, but here I found those aspects were similarly of middling effectiveness. The game is mostly linear until the final sequence (helpfully, it flags this to players, which makes replays easier); there are a few choices along the way, but they generally reduce to “advance the plot” / “advance the plot zanily”. The finale, meanwhile, has razor-thin margins between crushing defeat and overwhelming success; in my first playthrough, I went on with my climactic oration a bit too long, and the crowd turned on me for piling the rhetoric on too thick, but when I replayed and made the opposite choice, everything turned up roses. Meanwhile, on the writing front, the jokes often felt strained – there are some okay ones about things piling up “like a mountain of fries”, but I was hoping for something more like “in the land of the potatoes, the one-eyed man is king”, y’know? And these two strands occasionally combine when the prose makes the available choices unclear, as in this bit:

Will you stand idly by and watch as chaos reigns, or will you rise up and fight for the peace and harmony that once united humans and potatoes alike?

Attempt to intervene and debate the mayor.

Rally the town against the mayor’s tyranny.

Er, both of those seem like rising up and fighting for peace?

Possibly I’m giving Potato Peace too hard of a time; I work in a politics-adjacent field so I’m probably more disappointed by the lack of substance than the average player (I’m also probably way more disappointed by the lack of a Dan Quayle joke than the average player). In its favor, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the author does describe it as a testbed for a visual novel engine. Judged as a jokey technical proof-of-concept it probably does better; whatever hacks were used to make Ink look like RenPy were pretty well done, to my eye.* Still, regardless of the attention paid to coding, I wish a bit more effort had gone into sharpening the language and clarifying the conflicts the story presents – I didn’t need to see details of impeachment procedure or a run-down of the state of civil rights law in Potatotown USA, but knowing what wide impacts my actions had would have felt the story feel more political, even if it is just a paprika-sprinkle on top of a mound of starch.

*Actually, speaking of visuals, while there’s no mention of their source they sure seemed “AI”-generated to me – there were characters with inconsistent numbers of fingers on each hand, background writing was oddly-aligned and out of focus, there’s a non-Euclidean pie lattice… I know there are a variety of opinions about AI art, but speaking personally, it bums me out and I especially really hate having to second-guess what I’m seeing to try to figure out whether or not a person drew it. Again, I know there are different opinions on this, but I think it would benefit everybody if there were a really strong norm of disclosing the use of such tools so players can know what they’re seeing.

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in the land of the potatoes, the one-eyed man is king

I laughed at that harder than I probably should have. :smiley:

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The Trials of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska

I wrapped up my review of Spring Thing 2021’s The Bones of Rosalinda with a tossed-off wish for an eventual sequel, off the strength of its winning characters and engaging gameplay. Three years later, that wish has been granted, and it’s worth pausing for a minute to note how tricky sequels can be, balancing the audience’s desire for things to stay the same while also feeling different – characters should evolve but too much, the scope should broaden but not unrecognizably so, the gameplay should stay familiar but boast new twists and turns, and the plot should raise the stakes without undermining the original. With so many balls to juggle, it’s almost inevitable that one or two will fall, right? Yet Trials is a banger of a follow-up, delivering everything a sequel ought to and making it look easy.

The core of its success is once again the characters: double act of Rosalinda, a free-willed skeleton, and Piecrust, a wizard shapechanged into a mouse, is as compelling as ever, two plucky underdogs who use all their wits and heart to look out for each other. The supporting cast is even bigger this time out, though, and every one is a winner, including some returning favorites from Trials, like Teckla the conscientious ogre and Albert, a former servant of an evil wizard trying to make good. The newcomers make a strong impression too, though, with even some initially-antagonistic characters eventually joining team Rosalinda to help save the day.

Similarly, the story is much the same in its broad contours – there’s a naughty magic-user up to no good – but this threat feels distinct from the small-time necromancer of the first game. The villain has many more henchmen, and illusion-based powers that can strike terror into the hearts of all the living characters. The setting is also more engaging than the sometimes-samey dungeon of Bones; after an action-packed prelude that quickly shuttles between environments, the meat of Trials plays out in a haunted forest that’s grown up around a ruined magical city. It’s a standard fantasy locale in some respects, I suppose, but it’s enlivened by compelling images like an atmospheric underwater sequence where you need to swim among the city’s fallen buildings to recover an artifact.

Also in the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it camp is the parser-like choice-based gameplay. Once again, there’s a linear tutorial that carefully walks the player through the key elements of puzzle-solving, which involve switching between Rosalinda and her detachable, independently-controllable skeleton-limbs and Piecrust with his ever-growing magical powers. It’s a fast-paced affair, jumping around to a few different locations and introducing a new faction of overzealous religious warriors, which winds up pushing Piecrust more to the fore, as Rosalinda’s capabilities tend to require more set-up to be useful; regardless, it’s an effective refresher that benefits from a clear UI that makes it easy for the player to navigate a suite of options that could otherwise feel overwhelming. It helps that the puzzles are well clued, and progress in the main forest area carefully constrained, so that the player usually has a clear sense of where they need to go to advance the plot, and has a manageable two or three obstacles to work on at any time.

The writing throughout is unpretentious but effective; there are occasional passages where the tendency of each noun to have exactly one adjective starts to feel awkward, and a few typos (largely places where the past-tense narration slips into present tense), but the dialogue is strong, with each character having a distinctive and appealing voice. And while this is no indie platformer screaming I AM AN ALLEGORY, there are some pleasing thematic resonances between Rosalinda’s e pluribus unum puzzle-solving body and the way the larger group of characters bring their own unique skills and personalities to bear to support each other; it’s also no coincidence, I think, that the few truly irredeemable villains are the ones bent on controlling other people for their own ends.

So yeah, another Rosalinda game, another triumph. This is about as good as this strand of IF gets; if you added graphics and told someone this was a lost LucasArts demo, they’d believe you. I’m not as unconflicted about calling for a sequel this time out, largely because of a plot development that’s satisfying here but might make future installments tricky (Piecrust’s transformation back into a human, I mean – wizards are fun and all, but they’re not mice, now, are they?), but I’m more than willing to be convinced.

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PROSPER.0, by groggydog

(Much of the interest of this game comes from the way its mechanics are introduced, tweaked, and woven into the narrative; spoiler-blocking all of them would add too many redactions to this review, so I’m leaving them unmarked and will just caution that you might want to give the game a play-through before reading this review).

I’ve grown increasingly wary of “worldbuilding” as I age – in sci-fi, it often feels like techno-fetishism substituting for political analysis, and in fantasy it often feels like it’s just sanding the interesting bits off of history – but every once in a while, I nonetheless stumble across a sentence whose understated implications send my brain whirling off into speculation about what kind of society could create it. “There is unfortunately no room for art of any kind in the Database of Subsumed Cultures”, the introductory text to PROSPER.0 tells us; we don’t know how those cultures got subsumed, why your employer, CORPOTECH, is compiling such a database, and whether “there is no room” is a technical constraint or a value judgment.

Any set of answers you imagine to those questions makes this a dark setup: the nameless protagonist has to scour an intergalactic factbook in the wake of a computer error that’s corrupted some of the data, tasked with deleting the occasional eruption of poetry into the realm of pure statistics. If you’re inclined to rebel and say “I would prefer not to”, of course there’s a supervisor monitoring your terminal and ready to fire you if you step out of line; between the surveillance, the bland corporate-speak of your directives, and a UI that’s functional in both senses of the term, the task of evaluating information about species as exotic as the Drumnisllonans, “humanoid beings with shelled-octopus parasites for heads” and who live more than half a million years, becomes the purest bureaucratic tedium.

After a few go-rounds demonstrate the blithe disregard the system takes of permanently erasing these species’ contributions to the lyrical arts from the database, though, a mysterious interlocutor contacts the player’s terminal and opens up the possibility of resistance – and likewise opens up PROSPER.0’s central gameplay mechanic. You’re now able to “harvest” the words in the poems by clicking them as the database’s automated deletion routine runs, at which point you can use the rescued words to write something that will be preserved: either recapitulate the original, now-lost poem as best you can, or reconfigure the language to create something new (or anything in between).

The interface for all of this is generally well done. The writing UI, in particular, thoughtfully adds buttons for common punctuation and line breaks, which allows for finer control of meter and a more elegant visual presentation of your creations. The harvesting interface is a little messier, though – while there are some configuration options that allow you to tone down the difficulty, I found the default deletion speed was relatively fast, and attempting to click on particular words was very challenging on my trackpad. As a result I generally just clicked on from the beginning of each poem as quickly as I could, which sometimes felt awkward as my browser sometimes interpreted double-clicks as an attempt to highlight things, but did seem to maximize my crop of vocabulary.

The game doesn’t judge your creations – that would be quite the trick – but it does provide some prompts and context that I found made the mechanic more engaging than just fiddling with magnetic poetry. I generally found myself trying to capture the poems word for word, seeing my task as basically a historical one, but later in the game you face harsh limits on the number of words you can collect, or write, for a particular poem, which pushed me to take different approaches.

I haven’t talked much about the poems themselves yet. I liked them, but found them elusive, I think intentionally so given how they were produced (the author took public-domain poems and chain-translated them through several languages before coming back to English; they’re also stripped of much punctuation and any line breaks). This provides the player with enough of a blank slate to make alterations while preserving some of the imagery and force of the originals, but I found it also smeared out subtleties and made them sound oddly similar, which was at odds with the conceit that these were the products of distinct cultures. The game makes sure you get the facts about the species of each poem’s author, but these never felt all that connected to the texts. Like, can you tell this poem was written by an authoritarian tree?

In front of me now I see him rise… A face that has been snowing for seventy years With winter, where the kind blue eyes While hospital fires are lit: A little gray man who had a big heart, And great with learned knowledge of necessity; Heart, the harsh world has served its purpose, That never stopped bleeding.

Or that this metaphysical excerpt came from a notably materialist culture?

Some will accuse you of taking it away from them. Verses that may inspire them that day When the ears become blind, they become blind. The lightning left me and I was able to find it. There’s nothing to sing but kings. Helmets, knives, half-forgotten things Like your memories.

The game lampshades this, to its credit – in one late-game dialogue with your mysterious benefactor, it asks “Do you think that these poems, created by the races themselves, truly encapsulate the entirety of the spirit of their own people? We’re all simply doing our best to reflect back the most miniscule portion of existence in a way that rings true, aren’t we?” Which is entirely fair, and again seems to be giving the player permission to muck about, but does underplay the importance of culture in a game that otherwise makes quite a big deal of it.

The final set of challenges are in fact notably freeform: the user who’s been contacting you (it’s a rogue AI, because of course it is) tells you you’re part of its plan to bring down the evil corporation, and asks you if you want to join the plot. If so, the last “poem” is actually a bit of computer security code that you can delete and reconfigure into free verse. It’s an arresting idea – a digital equivalent of flowers growing in the ruin of a tank – but in practice I found it less engaging, because the words that make up the program are pretty dry. More resonant for me was the branch where you say no thank you to the revolution; in that case, you go on a tour through all the previous poems you’ve made, harvesting pieces from them in turn in order to create one culminating valedictory work.

I’ve been doing more describing of the game here than I usually do in my reviews; partially that’s because it uses a novel mechanic that’s worth explicating in detail, but partially it’s a sign that I have mixed feelings about its effectiveness. I found PROSPER.0 interesting and worthwhile, but ultimately I think it awkwardly straddles the line between story and toy (which the inclusion of a separate “arcade mode” allowing you to just mess around with the poetry without worrying about the plot perhaps acknowledges); the relationship between the poetry challenges and PROSPER.0’s rebellion isn’t sketched in enough to feel compelling, and the poems, and the picture we get of their authors, are too chilly for their loss to truly register as a tragedy. But if the game is slighter than it could be from an emotional point of view, it’s nonetheless of considerable intellectual interest and an impressive achievement in game-ifying poetry – in fact I’m eager to jump over to the thread where folks are posting their poems so I can share my own inventions – and I’d be excited to see this mechanic used in other games that take an earthier approach to things.

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I should probably play it and find out, but is this presented similarly to esoteric programming languages like Chef, which represents a program as a recipe?

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Thanks so much for your thoughts, Mike. Always appreciate a thorough read-through of the work I’ve done.

I do want to clarify for folks, however, that if you go into Settings you can slow down the speed of the poem deletion mechanic. Should help make things a bit easier!

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Octopus’s Garden, by Michael D. Hilborn

Octopus’s Garden has a lovely premise – octopi in real life have been known to crawl out of their aquariums and get up to shenanigans, so getting to play as one who’s bored of the view from their tank makes for a delightful spin on the parser-game-set-in-an-apartment theme. There’s also a lot of creativity in the implementation, down to the ability for you to wear a baseball cap and play with squeeze-toys just because that would be fun, and a short set of puzzles that lean into an octopus’s strengths and weaknesses, with one that made me feel quite clever when I sussed it out (getting the undergarments from the clothesline). There are some elements that are a bit of a stretch – the octopus has a much greater understanding of human behavior and the environment than you’d think, and there’s a subplot about the apartment owners’ sex lives that turns out to be plot-important but is maybe slightly ill-judged. I wish I could say this adds up to a short but engaging romp – but sadly Octopus’s Garden is also weighed down by a bunch of gameplay niggles, design oversights, and typos.

Some of these are actions that seem cued but go unimplemented; they’re not game-critical, sure, but they shook me out of the fantasy of playing as an octopus. The description of the filtration unit in your tank says you disassembled the previous one, for example, but DISSASSEMBLE isn’t recognized as a command, nor do PULL, OPEN, TURN, or TAKE FILTER get you anything but the disappointing default Inform responses when you try to fiddle with scenery. Similarly, if you check out the plastic pirate and treasure chest on the aquarium’s floor, it says it opens automatically, and OPEN CHEST tells you it’ll happen soon if you just wait – but it never does (can’t TAKE or THROW it either, though once again the narration says you liked to do that to previous tank decorations). And you can’t PLAY with your toys.

Similarly, there are some inconsistencies in object names – “tub” is unsurprisingly an acceptable substitute for “bathtub”, but if you try to turn on the water you have to distinguish its faucet from that of the sink, and in that case the shorthand is rejected and the player’s forced to type out “bathtub’s faucet.” A window is described as locked, but you can only X LATCH, not X LOCK. There’s an area where the location description doesn’t tell you which direction the exit lies. And while there aren’t many flat-out misspellings, there are a fair number of missing words or other grammar issues.

Admittedly, these issues are comparatively niggling, but I found my frustrations multiplying as I got into the endgame. While the main part of the game simply involves exploring the space, you eventually find an object that, if your owner finds it, will convince her to move, and therefore get you a fresh view (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that while I think the chain of deduction that you go down to figure this out is clever, it’s nothing an octopus could ever understand; it’s not the biggest deal in a lighthearted game, but it is the kind of tension the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” was coined to describe). Trouble is, after I’d found the item, stashed it somewhere she would be likely to find it, cleaned up after myself, and secreted myself back in my tank, the game stubbornly refused to end, or give any indication of what I was missing.

Thankfully there are hints included, so I was able to get back on track – turns out the goal state involves the owner coming into the room to find the item, which requires you to lure her into the room with a loud noise. But as far as I could tell there’s no in-game indication that this is required, much less any suggestion that the owner’s in the apartment rather than having gone out to go to work or run some errands. That wasn’t even the end of my troubles: you aren’t given enough time to sneak back into your aquarium after triggering the noise, and while the obvious solution is to leap off a dresser rather than clamber down it step by step, JUMP is just mapped to GO DOWN and JUMP OFF and its variants go unimplemented. After consulting the hints again, it turned out that I had exactly the correct idea, but for some reason the only way to make a precipitous descent was to close the dresser drawers under me and then try to go down, instead of directly trying to jump.

Here’s the thing though: just as an octopus’s distributed consciousness allows its limbs to act semi-independently while still being part of a single organism (seriously, they have nervous tissue throughout their bodies, octopi are really cool), I have a suspicion that this litany of complaints, from holes in implementation to occasionally-clumsy writing to the read-the-author’s-mind finale, actually boils down to just one oversight: nobody appears to have tested Octopus’s Garden besides the author.

I might be wrong, of course, but there’s robust ABOUT text with thanks to the creators of Inform 7, so if there were testers and they just went uncredited, that would be an odd oversight. If that’s the case, then I have to admit that this is an astonishingly impressive achievement; when I see a parser game without testers I expect game-breaking bugs, broken English, and a sophomoric plot. Octopus’s Garden’s flaws are minor in comparison, basically adding up to a low-level annoyance that some of the standard impedimenta of parser gaming got in the way of my cephalopœdal frolics and made them less enjoyable than I wanted them to be. Even in the form we’ve gotten it it’s a fun, unique game – but I’ve gone on so much about its negatives because I’m disappointed not to have played the superior version we would have gotten if it had followed the number one rule of writing parser IF.

octopus mr.txt (169.9 KB)

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You should definitely play it and find out – for all that some aspects of the game didn’t fully click for me, there’s a lot that’s interesting in PROSPR.0 – but no, it looks to my untrained eye like standard C-ish code (idea for the sequel: instead of poetry this time Inform 7 code is being deleted, and you can’t progress unless you can make a program that actually compiles from the words you saved!)

Yes, I did notice that, and should have been clearer that that’s one of the adjustable options I mentioned. I didn’t take that course because I felt like tuning down the difficulty in that way might have undermined the themes, but that’s purely a me issue, not the game’s :slight_smile:

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turns out the goal state involves the owner coming into the room to find the item, which requires you to lure her into the room with a loud noise. But as far as I could tell there’s no in-game indication that this is required

I think that whether this is intuitive depends on whether you’ve stumbled on the noisy TV to begin with.

Long before I got to the end game, I had experimented with the timing, the possibility of returning to my tank, and the possibility of hiding over and over again, so much that I figured it would come into play later.

However, the TV is kind of out of the way, and I only noticed it because it was in the hints section. Given how familiar you need to be with it, it should probably be highly visible right away from the tank rather than hidden inside the dresser description.

I have no idea how you figured out the clothesline puzzle … I never would have guessed. Maybe I’m not trained to X SELF enough.

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Dragon of Steelthorne, by Vance Chance

I had some trepidation going into Dragon of Steelthorne, born of my previous experience with a fantasy-themed ChoiceScript game – in 2023 IFComp entry One Knight Stand (colon part one colon the beginning of the end), the character-creation process takes the better part of an hour, and requires you to set such minutiae as the color of your favorite mug – so I was pleasantly surprised to see that here it was just a matter of picking a gender, picking a name (entertainingly, “Maurice” was one of the default options; I couldn’t resist), and choosing your class among fighter, cleric, and… engineer?

What distinguishes this mostly-generic fantasy realm, you see, is that it’s a little bit steampunk – the protagonist is a military commander in an empire that’s mastered construction of armored landships, and is using them as the backbone of a campaign of expansion. With a city-management minigame that kicks off once you establish a new base, a combat system where you leverage your previously-generated resources and manpower to win battles, and the usual Choice of Games coterie of friends and advisors with whom to curry favor, Dragon of Steelthorne would risk feeling overstuffed but for its pacing, which whisks you to the next bit of the plot whenever things start to drag. It’s all well enough executed, but bland prose and an even blander story, which doesn’t execute well-worn tropes so much as it just gestures at them, mean that the game didn’t leave much of an impression on me.

The deadly flaw of Dragon of Steelthorne is that it rarely gets specific. Here, for example, is the description of your character’s travel to the abandoned city they’re tasked with recolonizing for the empire:

Time seems to fly as you pass a seemingly endless stretch of flora and fauna, with day rapidly turning to night, night to day, and day to night again.

A bit later on, you get a choice of spending time building your relationship with one of your advisors. I picked Chang, a mercenary from the awkwardly-Asian-themed empire next door – they’re obsessed with honor, have a Great Wall, and their emperor has as one of his titles “Mandate of Heaven”, it’d risk coming across slightly offensive but for the fact that the “western” empire is a similar deracinated hodge-podge of signifiers. Anyway unlike some of the other characters, who include other officers you’ve been serving with for a long time as well as your sister, Chang is a stranger, and from an alien culture, so surely this would be an opportunity for an interesting exchange of views and getting to know each other better? Nah:

Chang initially seems surprised when you strike up a conversation with him. Nevertheless, he spends the afternoon talking about his adventures, while pointing out interesting bits of scenery every now and then. As evening finally approaches, he thanks you earnestly for your company before heading down.

In fairness, Chang does at least have a tragic backstory, which he parcels out over further meetings; most of the rest of the crew lack that, coming across as mildly-flavored bowls of oatmeal, ranging from a plucky servant to a reckless commander. The only one of your group who struck me as an actual character is your sister, who’s lazy, violent, and treacherous (this is of course the personality type that feudal aristocracies actually produce, of course, so kudos for accuracy there).

I also found myself not very engaged by the two minigames. In both city management and combat, you’re given incomplete information about your capabilities – you know the cost of new buildings and which stats they’ll increase, but not by how much, and you’re likewise given numbers of the different troop types, but their relative strength is only rendered in qualitative terms, and it’s not clear whether there’s any rock/paper/scissors effects impacting their effectiveness. This means that they’re not very satisfying as abstract games – I felt like I was making decisions based on insufficient mechanical information. That could have been an intentional choice, forcing the player to read carefully and base their decisions on narrative factors rather than openly-disclosed statistics, but if that’s meant to be the case I found the game’s loose allegiance to realism undermined the effect. Like, in the tutorial combat, I was faced with a horde of cavalry, so I sensibly decided to counter with my pikemen; to my horror, I read that rather than setting themselves against the charge, instead they decided to try to chase down the horsemen, and then to my greater horror I read that this actually wound up working okay.

Fortunately, then, these strategy elements wind up being so-much opt-in busywork – all of the fights are easily avoidable, and in fact in all but one case it was obvious that peace was the far better option, so the only reason to engage with the combat is if you’re role-playing as a short-sighted hothead. And since as far as I can tell the only narrative impact of the city-builder stuff is how many troops you get, the stakes are low there too (admittedly, I was playing on the Easy difficulty; things might get trickier at the harder level, but new players are strongly pushed to avoid that one).

Also on the plus side, while I found the gameplay and the characters somewhat soporific, the core narrative, while likewise feeling quite generic, has some moments of excitement and twists and turns that, while tropey, land reasonably well. To its credit, it avoids the post-Game of Thrones thing of having war crimes be edgy and cool; at one point, a character violates the laws of war and it’s clearly a mistake, generating disquiet and a loss of trust from previously-allied characters. That sets up the finale, where I found the momentum faltered at last; the narrative suggested that I’d have a bunch of options, including allying with various factions or attempting different stratagems, but in the event I could only kowtow to the bad guy or flee ignominiously. I suspect this might have been because my approach to relationship-building was to spread out my attention and shore up weakness – I tried to spend more time with people I was afraid would backstab me – so I never triggered “high relationship” with anyone, which I think cut me off from those previewed options. As a result, I missed out on the possibility of a stirring conclusion that tied things together; my playthrough of Dragon of Steelthorne mostly just petered out, which I guess is of a piece with the rest of it.

For all that, I should say that for someone who likes generic fantasy more than I do, or who’s better versed in the CoG house style, this review might be better seen as praising with faint damnation than damning with faint praise; the lack of specificity and straightforward gameplay do make the game go down easy, and it isn’t afraid to get to the point, with most decisions feeling like they have clear, quick impact (again, it’s much better on this front than One Knight Stand!) But even by those standards I think Dragon of Steelthorne would have improved by a more distinctive prose style, more memorable characters, more robust gameplay, and a little more creativity and willingness to get weird or difficult.

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Do Good Deeds…, by Sissy

Lately I’ve been thinking about my approach to a reviewing for an article I’m working on for The Rosebush, and in particular my hesitation about reviewing games submitted to the increasing number of excitingly-themed jams. These are often shorter games by newer authors, and I think are frequently trying to do things other than just competently execute standard IF tropes, all of which should be up my alley (for evidence see my just-written review of Dragon of Steelthorne, where I spend 1,200 words moping about an entirely competent bit of IF!) But I know that jam games are also typically written in a short period of a time, might be pretty narrowly focused, and are sometimes more about communicating one key idea or trying to provoke one specific response rather than building out robust implementation. Which is all fine, but really at odds with my reviewing style, which tends towards the overly-detailed, the nitpicky, and (above all else) the verbose – it seems unfair and unedifying to subject that kind of scrutiny at games that are not really asking, or designed, for it.

All of which is to say that I’m going to try hard here to play against type and write a short review that doesn’t excessively harp on my complaints. So: Do Good Deeds… is a relatively compact Twine game that tells a sweet, fable-like story of an unlovely elf who makes friends with a bunch of animals who are initially wary of him. He helps a hare escape a hunter’s snare, comforts a rat who’s afraid of his own shadow, rescues a drowning porcupine, and more, all illustrated with appealing cartoon-style pictures. There are some light puzzles, like picking the right object to use to resolve these various situations, but there are no penalties for guessing wrong, and all the choices reduce to either being helpful or ignoring the animals’ distress, so the overall vibe here is very gentle.
It’s the kind of game that might be good to introduce a younger kid to IF, in other words – for them, the moralistic, didactic streak might even be a strength? – and even though that’s obviously not me, that’s still something I can appreciate. But there are two disastrous issues. First, the prose is riddled with typos, infelicities, and confusing verbiage; per the last paragraph, I’m not going to pick on any specific examples, but trust me that every single passage led to me furrowing my brow at the language at least once. I’m not sure whether the author’s primarily language is something other than English, which might explain some of these issues – and I recognize that’s a hard problem – but there are also a bunch that a basic spell and grammar check would have caught, which would have drastically improved the game’s readability.

Second, Do Good Deeds… uses more timed text than any game I can think of off the top of my head. Again, it’s in just about every single passage, and it is very slow, with no facility for altering the speed. The game also has a small readable window, with no visible scroll bars, all of which combined to make progressing through the game frequently tortuous, as I clicked on links, waited for the timed text, realized it had moved past the window, tried to drag-scroll down the page and overshoot, then tap the arrow key to try to scroll back, only to see that the timed text was still crawling snail-like to the end… it’s excruciating, and as a result it probably took me an hour to play this 15-ish minute game, since I ultimately starting alt-tabbing away to kill time doing other things in between every click.

As with Octopus’s Garden, I can’t help but feel that having just one or two testers would have made a world of difference here; their feedback could have hopefully helped the author recognize where some changes were needed, which would have made for a far better game. So I’ll close this uncharacteristically-terse review with three uncharacteristically-terse pieces of advice for what seems to be a new author who shows some promise: 1) always get testers (this forum is great for that!); 2) always spell-check; 3) never used time text without a really good reason, and recognize that “it’ll make the player slow down and really concentrate on the writing!” is not a good reason because you’ll actually achieve the opposite.

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@DeusIrae Thanks for the review. There is definitely plenty of useful feedback which I can apply to future projects.

I’ll probably just add that the city management minigame can pretty much be ignored on easy, there are only consequences on hard.

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Rescue at Quickenheath, by Mo Farr

I hope nobody reading my reviews is under the misapprehension that I ever strive for, much less achieve, objectivity, but I figure it’s probably worth acknowledging when I’m coming to a game with an especially large bias: I am a complete sucker for 18th Century stuff, and this game’s Blurb With Frequently Capitalized Words, use of “&c.” for etc., and broadsheet-style fonts are speaking one of my love languages. Now, this can sometimes be a double-edged sword, because it means I started playing with high expectations and a nagging dread that they might be dashed. Happily, that is not at all the case, so much so that I’m quite sure Rescue at Quickenheath will delight even those benighted souls who don’t have strong feelings about perukes, coffee-shops, and Tristram Shandy.

Admittedly, part of what makes the game work is that it doesn’t wear its setting too heavily; this is a fantasy-tinged take on Georgian London where the fae have an embassy, for one thing, and the author’s note disclaims any pretense of historical realism. Still, there are enough authentic touches to lend some nice flavor, from the sensationalized news coverage that relates the backstory (you’re a highwayman whose partner in crime has been nabbed and is slated for execution in a few hours – thus the need for the eponymous rescue) to the acknowledgment that the execution really should be happening at Tyburn Cross rather than the titular Quickenheath. The language also strikes a solid middle-ground; the prose eschews complex18th-Century sentence structure in the interests of readability and pacing, but the entertainingly flippant narration still seems a fit for the story, like this description of a prison:

In all your years of highway robbery, you’ve never been captured or arrested, so this delightful little escapade marks your first view of the inside of a prison. You can’t say you think much of it. It’s a little bit damp, and not even with the poetic, angst-ridden kind of damp, merely the boring kind.

(OK, that dig at poets is maybe aimed more at the Romantic era, but it still works).

The characters are likewise relatable without feeling like they’re jarring with the setting, albeit it helps that the only ones who are fleshed out are the main duo of outside-of-society criminals and a number of faeries. These latter don’t have the alien, cruel bent that characterizes the oldest fairy stories, but they are an appealing bunch nonetheless – my favorite was a bewhiskered fairy who responded to my overly-audacious plots with a litany of “don’t say that!”s and “dreadful, dreadful.”

The gameplay also takes a middle course. While Rescue at Quickenheath isn’t a full parser-like choice game, for the first two-thirds of the story can you can freely navigate between different locations, and there are puzzles to be solved – a couple inventory puzzles, a riddle or two, a hidden password… The game does a good job of implying that there are high stakes for getting these right, though after having failed a couple, I think this is something of a bluff, and even if you fail fate will contrive to keep you on course – which is appropriate to the game’s easygoing vibe.

Do I have some quibbles? Of course I do! There were a few times where I wished the game did take its own conceits a little more seriously –in particular, there’s one moment towards the end that seems to undermine a key plot element having to do with your unfortunate partner (after having made such a big deal of True Names, surely it’s not great that you blab out their new True Name in the middle of a hostile crowd?). And since much of the real drama of the game turns on the two main characters working up the gumption to reveal their feelings for each other, I felt the lack of any real barriers that would have prevented them from doing so earlier.

There are minor, minor complaints, though, ones that I noted in passing out of a sense of intellectual rigor, but which did nothing to reduce my enjoyment of the game. Rescue at Quickenheath is a pure romp, accessible while remaining true to its inspirations. And hey, it might even work as a gateway drug for people who are 18th-Century curious…

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thank you very much for playing and for your review - i really appreciate it! i had a great time dipping into the 18th century for flavour but it’s not one of the periods i’m most familiar with, so i’m glad to hear the vibes hold up okay despite the many liberties taken :smile:

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Zomburbia, by Charles Moore, Jr.

In my experience, an amusement park appearing halfway into a game that hasn’t previously established said amusement park as part of its premise is typically a sign that the author has given up on their own theme (OK, my experience here starts and ends with Sorcerer). So I have to confess I winced when I stumbled out of Zomburbia’s haunted bayou and came upon a zombie midway – but then I smiled when I got to the description of the bumper cars, where zombies wearing trash cans ran around bumping into each other while burbling motor noises with their decaying lips. Sure, this is a bit old-school for my tastes and maybe not great game design in some abstract sense, but it’s so good-natured and entertaining, it’s impossible to stay mad.

To subject Zomburbia to a degree of pretentious literary theory that it is probably too innocent to deserve, the midway could be synecdoche for the whole: this is a decidedly 80’s style adventure, complete with inventory limits, hair-trigger unwinnability, and a find-the-deed-to-the-haunted-mansion-you-just-inherited plot (someday one of these games will inform the heir that if getting the deed is going to be too much trouble they can just go to the county registrar to get a replacement; sadly SUE ESTATE LAWYER FOR MALPRACTICE goes unimplemented).

I am typically somewhat allergic to such things, and I have to admit that I gritted my teeth the first couple of times I borked a playthrough by not knowing the exact right actions to take in a five-move timed section, or found myself juggling items between my pockets, my backpack, and the ground in an area I wasn’t going to be able to revisit. But Zomburbia’s bark is worse than its bite – notably, there’s an option to allow the SCORE command to tell you whether you’ve made the game unwinnable, and typically an UNDO or two will be enough to get you back on the right path. There are roving zombies, but they’ll typically ignore you for at least a couple of turns, and again a single UNDO will rescue you from their clutches. Similarly, while the game suggests that there’s an overall time limit setting a clock on your adventures, this is either a head-fake or just set at an absurdly generous level so that it adds flavor without frustration. And eventually its goofy enthusiasm won me over.

Make no mistake, there are some rough edges here – there’s a lot of unimplemented scenery, some guess-the-verb issues (PSA: you can’t POINT or AIM the laser pointer at anything, instead you have to SHINE it), at least one read-the-author’s-mind puzzle (or at least if there’s a clue about how to get past the muscle zombie, I missed it), and I found a couple bugs, though the author was responsive about fixing the one I flagged (details on the others are in my transcripts, including a game-breaking one where the steamboat didn’t start sinking even after I blew up the boiler – fortunately I had a convenient save).

But look, this is a game where a skeleton band plays “I Left My Heart (in the Other Room)”, which boasts an actually good dumbwaiter puzzle, a giant alligator out of Peter Pan and ooky spooky ghosts out of the Haunted Mansion, and the world’s politest hedge-maze (it has a sign out front telling you you don’t need to bother mapping it!) If you have any affection at all for throwback puzzlers, Zomburbia is a great excuse to put on a headband and a Member’s Only jacket, slide a Van Halen cassette into your boombox, and enjoy a nostalgia trip that’s actually better than we had it back in the day.

zomburbia mr 2.txt (208.2 KB)
zomburbia mr.txt (175.4 KB)

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TANGENT

I do have to ask…does Sorcerer really have a theme to begin with? I fully admit that themes and motifs are not my strong suit in reading or in writing, but Sorcerer in particular didn’t really feel like it was about anything the way Spellbreaker was.

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I just meant theme in the loose sense of like genre + vibe, but yeah, I agree a fortiori there’s nothing like a literary theme (couple good puzzles, though, I have to admit!)

…I just realized Monkey Island 2 does this too, and it’s also not a great move.

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The Case of the Solitary Resident, by thesleuthacademy

So this is a slightly strained parallel, maybe, but you know Evil Dead 2? The title makes it sound like a sequel, but actually it’s more of a remake, taking the same basic ingredients from the first movie (cabin in the woods, Necronomicon, first-person POV zombies, Bruce Campbell) and redeploying them with significantly higher production values. It’s the same story with The Case of the Solitary Resident, which is recognizably of a piece with Last Vestiges, the author’s IF Comp entry from last year, sharing a locked-door-murder premise and a focus on forensic deduction while moving to Twine, incorporating visuals, and better communicating its expectations to the player. While even in its more accessible form this gameplay paradigm is still a bit dry, the end result is a satisfying intellectual puzzle.

I sometimes struggled with Last Vestiges because it looked like a more conventional mystery than it wound up being – in particular, there were a series of standard adventure-game logic puzzles that gated progression, which made it seem like solving those would likewise solve the mystery. However, that just provided the raw clues; actually understanding what happened also required bringing medical knowledge to bear, and while a police-inspector NPC was on hand to provide some of that information, their expertise wasn’t clearly telegraphed, and accessing that information was made challenging by the open-ended parser interface. Solitary Resident improves in both areas, eliminating the out-of-context game-y elements to focus on its core competencies, while using the affordances of its choice-based interface to make clear what kind of data you need to gather and how you can get it analyzed.

The real strength here is the high level of detail; you can search for blood, hair, and fingerprints in each room of the victim’s apartment, as it becomes clear that poison may have had something to do with her demise, you’ve got lots of tools to come to grips with what’s happened, including sending samples off to the crime lab and two different keyword-driven reference manuals. Beyond that, you can also get formal statements from half a dozen or so suspects, and then question them to push on key elements of their stories (this is the one place where the otherwise-smooth interface falters – I was stymied for a bit after launching my first interview since I didn’t realize that I could go back for Q+A after reading the initial statement). Chasing down every single lead requires paying close attention to everything you’ve learned, and a few use text-box input to make sure you can’t just lawnmower your way to victory – I felt very satisfied when the game told me I’d found all 16 clues after finishing the game and aced the multiple-choice test where you lay out your theory of the case, since I’d had to use my noodle to get there.

My only real critique is that the forensic side of things feels like it far overwhelms the personal elements of investigation. The suspect interviews are much more straightforward than the evidence-gathering gameplay, and none of the characters – the victim very much included – never threaten to feel like real people. That perhaps fits the author’s design goals (the game is tagged as “educational”, and a few references within it suggest that it’s at least partially intended as a more-engaging experiential-learning alternative to textbooks), but does feel like something of a missed opportunity – a few more colorful characters to liven things up wouldn’t undermine the pedagogical possibilities, I don’t think. This head-down approach to detective-work also winds up making the solution to the locked-door mystery easier to guess: when the thinly-sketched suspects are a son who needs money but clearly could have just asked for it rather than tried to hurry his inheritance, an old business associate who had a moderately-intense falling-out with the victim a decade ago, a neighbor who has no conceivable motive whatsoever, another neighbor who had a strained relationship with the victim since she was annoyed by his smoking habit, and a near-comatose ex-husband, it doesn’t take too many little gray cells to realize this was an accident and not murder.

If there’s a third game in the sequence, I think I’d enjoy it more if it paid more attention to the personalities involved and created as much suspense around the question of who did the killing, as around how it was accomplished. A full-comedy installment a la the third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, is probably not needed here, though – the authors have cracked their formula and there’s plenty of room to keep playing with it.

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Thank you for the thorough review, and for playing! Glad you enjoyed it, and kudos to finding all 16 clues! Will take note of the suggestions for improvement for future works. There should a dialog box that pops up after taking the first suspect’s initial statement to let players know they can click on a side-bar button to interview the suspects, but perhaps it still wasn’t clear enough…?