I’ve never been a big fan of puzzle-heavy games, both because I find myself more drawn in when the ‘F’ part of IF is the most prominent, and because I’m just no good at solving the things unless I’ve got a walkthrough handy. But David Whyld’s The Warlord, the Princess, and the Bulldog is, simply put, the best Adrift game I’ve ever played. It’s also one some the best IF I’ve ever played, taking a place in my mental ‘Top Five’ list that until now has never been graced by a single pure puzzler. Poor David may well have shot himself in the foot with this one, because any of his future games are inevitably going to be compared to it.
While technically the sequel to A Spot of Bother, a game I had played previously and had been rather underwhelmed by, WPB can (and probably should) be enjoyed with no knowledge of the original, and when you start it up it’s evident almost from the very first room that it’s lightyears ahead of its predecessor.
In fact, David’s done so many things right with this one that I hardly know where to start. The game was an entry in the Spring Thing and thus is quite a bit larger than average, but despite the size the writing is solid throughout, and except in a few minor cases mercifully bug and typo free. I can’t even imagine the work that went into testing this one, let alone writing it in the first place.
To begin with, let’s talk about aesthetics. The game just looks GOOD. In fact I never realized how blah the default look of Adrift was until I played this one and saw how much of an effect taking a little care with the fonts and presentation could have. There are also little touches like clearing the screen for every new room, an oldschool convention I’ve never really cared for, that somehow work here and add to the overall impression of professionalism.
But okay, I know, real IF aficionados couldn’t care less about APPEARANCE; it’s all about the gameplay, right? Well, I’m happy to say that WPB delivers in that area, too.
You play the part of Stavros ‘the Bulldog’ McGrogan, in the author’s words “the hardest man the SAS ever produced” though it soon becomes clear that that’s a hell of an understatement. The main character rarely has much of a personality in the more puzzle focused games, usually serving as a mere cipher, but that’s definitely not the case here. The Bulldog alone contributes a hefty chunk of entertainment value to an already entertaining game, and despite the brilliance of most of the puzzles it just wouldn’t be the same without him.
Oh, and there are lots and lots of those puzzles, but thankfully they really ARE brilliant, that rare mix of challenging but fun. Two of the things I dislike about puzzles in general is how just for the sake of having puzzles, they’re often crammed in where they don’t belong and stick out like a sore thumb, and how they can ruin your enjoyment of an otherwise great game by forcing you to bang your head against a brick wall for hours and hours, making not one iota of progress.
WPB circumvents both of those problems. First of all, the plot is a simple one, mostly involving infiltrating a fortress, and all of the puzzles feel like a natural part of infiltrating that fortress. Some are fairly straightforward, some are more complicated, and ALL of them are fun. I never once felt like Action A was just a tedious and unrelated chore to get to Room B.
Secondly, David made some unique design decisions that keeps players from running into the other problem I mentioned. It really does seem like it would be difficult to get stuck, even for ‘solution-challenged’ people like myself, as just about every major puzzle has an alternate solution, sometimes several, and you don’t even need to solve every one of them, as there is plenty of bonus material and multiple paths to the end. (Though only the more difficult one may lead to the the optimal ending, I still managed to accomplish two out of three of the main goals my first time through, and only needed to consult the hints twice.)
Then, of course, there’s the fact that many of the ‘alternate solutions’ might be as simple as bashing your way on through the opposition. The Bulldog starts off with a certain number of ‘life points’, which I know isn’t a term generally associated with IF, but it works so well here I wonder why more games don’t use it. Every time you take the easy way out and solve a puzzle with brawn instead of brains, there are painful (and usually amusing) consequences for the Bulldog, which eat up a number of life points. All life points gone = game over, but by making good use of the Undo command (which can be accidentally disabled in the most hilariously cruel way ever, though it’s through a command I always try in the first room, so no big loss there…) I never even came close to dying until the final confrontation at the end.
Compared to the rest of the game the epilogue seemed slightly weak, or at least disjointed, but it’s not really an issue, and the only reason I mention it is so that I can have SOMETHING in this review that qualifies as criticism. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting the sequel.