Steam and Sacrilege by Phil McGrail
[spoiler]I should begin this review with a disclaimer. I am not a fan of the steampunk genre. I find 19th century history and works set in that time period particularly fascinating and I do not need armies of clockwork robots and retro-futuristic steam-powered machinery to spice it up. Having said that, since this game is mostly set in the present it managed to avoid many of the steampunk cliches which usually proliferate in works of this kind. Yes, the sinister mechanical hotel was built in the late 19th century and the opening scenes take place during that same period, when the hotel was a shiny new technological marvel, but the game is set in the present day when the hotel is a quaint relic slated for demolition, unless the protestors keen to save the historically significant building get their way.
I found the premise novel and intriguing but was somewhat frustrated by the implementation. I’m a big fan of puzzle-heavy parser games and so I’m not averse to spending some time tinkering with a game to find out what works and what doesn’t, but the objects which could be interacted with were so sparsely implemented and the ways of interacting with them so specific that it really slowed down gameplay. The first section of the game (set in the past during the hotel’s prime) was fraught with guess the verb and noun issues with synonyms very sparsely implemented. I also spent ages trying to interact with the glass panels by pushing or pressing them to no avail before picking up the paperweight and attempting to place it on them, a move which seemed needlessly clunky.
Once in the present day there is a long breakfast scene where you are essentially waiting around for something to happen before going to work. You are not told that you need to wait around and there is not much you can do in the meantime, apart from mess about with the array of, mostly useless, items on the kitchen table. The pace does pick up a bit when you get to work and events start to unfold, but I was still having trouble following the story. After wandering around for a while, stumbling into an unmarked store room which contained an object crucial to completing the game and getting lost in a maze of alleys, I ended up in the hotel. I went there, not because I had been given any clues that my husband had been taken there, but because there was nowhere else to go and it was indicated as the scene of the action. It was in attempting to gain entry to the hotel via the fire exit that ai came across what I think was the game’s most blatant case of command specificity. I had the tool necessary for unfolding the fire escape but had to check the walkthrough for the precise command required.
Once in the hotel things got better, there were still issues withhaving to wait around and trying to figure out what to do next, but the tension was far higher and the hotel’s interior was well-described. Unfortunately, by the time I entered the hotel, I had already used up most of my judging time and was forced to revert to the walkthrough so I could complete the game in time. This meant that I had a lot of unanswered questions by the time I finished to which I may have discovered answers if I had had more time to explore. I never figured out why my character’s husband was being held hostage there, what the angel of death was doing there and just what sinister forces were running this establishment. I would have loved to have read the job advert the caretaker responded to. Do you think it mentioned that his duties would include kidnapping innocent citizens, dodging homicidal robots and trying to prevent apocalyptic forces from breaking loose and destroying humankind? I certainly hope the pay was good.
It sounds like I’m being very negative here, but there were a lot of things I enjoyed about the game, The setting was interesting and effectively rendered. The writing was strong and evocative and I got the feeling there was a strong narrative running through the game which I might have uncovered had I had more time to explore the hotel more thoroughly. I think a bit more rigorous play-testing would have gone a long way to help make this game more player-friendly rather than asking players to guess the very specific actions the author had in mind. I would love to play a post-competition update of this as it shows a great deal of promise.
I have one very minor pedantic point which I have to get off my chest. I wouldn’t usually pick up on one minor spelling mistake in a large body of text, unless the game is riddled with such errors, but there was one mistake made in the description of the very first room which bothered me to such an extend that I was quite far into the game before I could quite put it behind me. Anyway, here goes. In the, evocatively and effectively described lobby of the hotel the description states that the lobby includes a reproduction of Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvius Man’. This should obviously be ‘Vitruvian Man’ or, at a pinch, ‘The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius’ would suffice, but as far as I know ‘Vitruvius Man’ is just wrong, though an art historian may want to correct me.
Apologies for all the nit-picking in this review, I really did enjoy the game and felt it had great potential and was clearly the result of a great deal of imagination and hard work. A little more polishing and stream-lining and I feel it could easily realise that potential.[/spoiler]