The second game that I chose to play during IF Comp is CODENAME OBSCURA, a spy game set in 1980s Italy by @MikaKujala. I enjoyed it overall.
1. The graphics and design
I was mainly attracted to the game because of its graphics. The author notes that the images are low-resolution, as the game aims to imitate retro games. It also is meant to eventually run on the ZX Spectrum Next through the Adventuron engine’s built in compatibility.
I am not sure whether the illustrations will look this good on the console, but they look great right now. I am looking at the opening shot, admiring the shadows on the bed and curtains. I’m also thinking about the amount of effort that probably went into making the apple recognizable in the blocky still-life painting on the wall. Even if this was not drawn from scratch, the pixel editing is top-notch. See below:
I really like the shading in this area too:
Not all of the images are full-size: there are some 1/2, 1/3, and 2/3-wide images. This is a good thing, in my opinion. I assume it saved some time during the illustration process, but the differently-sized pictures makes the various areas distinct from one another as well.
Certain parts of the game, such as the crossroads and the facility door with multi-colored buttons, have art that seems a bit less detailed. But even the weakest art is decent, and you won’t be staying in those rooms for long anyway.
2. The story
As noted, this is a spy thriller. The story is played straight despite the fact that your spy agency has the slightly silly acronym T.U.R.T.L.E. There aren’t any twists or turns in the plot: you’re simply tasked with retrieving a diamond from a bad guy.
There is lots of flavor in the story, though, mainly in the form of set-pieces, one-time characters, and lots of Italian dialogue. There are also some references to religion, which actually serve as clues.
The author calls the game “fun and recreational,” but it’s nice to have those motifs/touches, even if there isn’t a grand message behind it all.
3. Gameplay and puzzles
Broadly speaking, the game makes use of three types of puzzles. The first are simple inventory puzzles. Some of these puzzles are solved by typing USE OBJECT at the right place, but they are intuitive and clever, and they did a good job of getting me hooked.
There are also some puzzles where you need to do a not-so-obvious action, and others where you need to input a password. I started to resort to a walkthrough for some of these, but I have no doubt that someone who is better at puzzle games than I am would find most of these intuitive as well.
There are also two timing- or turn-based puzzles: one at the end of the introductory section, and one at the very end of the game. I was completely at a loss for the second one — you can lose the game by throwing the right object at the right person at the wrong time. Fortunately you can restore your game, but losing the game seems unnecessary at this point.
The game does provide hints, which is nice. These are very brief, and they are mostly helpful for the simpler object-based puzzles in my opinion.
4. Input handling
I have only played a few Adventuron games, but I haven’t seen any that handle language as well as Inform-based games; CODENAME OBSCURA is no exception.
That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it is better if the game works within the engine’s limitations or defaults. Some puzzles in CODENAME OBSCURA are solved with USE [OBJECT], while others require specific actions. Varying precision in verb input, combined with a general lack of synonyms, means that some trial and error is necessary.
One thing that frustrated me was the fact that Adventuron’s save menu understood ‘Y’ as ‘YES’ while the game itself didn’t understand this. This gave me trouble during the horse betting sequence — especially since the game didn’t explicitly tell me how my ‘Y’ command was being handled.
I expect that players that are more familiar with older IF games might not be so thrown off by these limitations or shortcomings.
CODENAME OBSCURA takes place in Aurelia, a village in Italy. Each location feature something that you would expect to find in rural Italy, from Roman ruins and villas to marketplaces and monasteries.
The setting caught my eye because I recently tried out another game called Wheels of Aurelia, which is a top down racing and visual novel set in a place with (sort of) the same name.
This was a little surprising, since the real-life village that I assume CODENAME OBSCURA fictionalizes in is very small and seemingly not that famous. However, after further research, I see that Via Aurelia, Where Roads of Aurelia takes place, is actually a major Italian highway separate from the village.
So the coincidence might not be so extraordinary after all. Still, I wanted to bring it up, especially since both games have very nice art styles.
Both are worth checking out. I really enjoyed CODENAME OBSCURA, and, like all IF Comp entries it’s free. Wheels of Aurelia is a bit pricey for what it is, but it has been in some charity bundles. If you paid for Itch’s Ukraine 2022 bundle, you own it.
Update: I have added a link to this review from CODENAME OBSCURA’s IFDB page. Title: A mostly straightforward spy thriller with great visuals Rating: 7/10.