One King to Loot them All by Onno Brouwer
Let me come right out and say I don’t like the title of this game. Sure, I get the The Lord of the Rings reference, but, first of all, this game has nothing to with post-Tolkienian fantasy (precisely not!) and second, the suggestion that this king is just out to loot is totally wrong. The title sets low expectations that don’t do justice to the remarkably fun game we actually find.
I don’t think the main character is ever named, but we’re obviously playing Conan the Barbarian as written by Robert E. Howard. It’s perhaps important to emphasise that Howard’s Conan is not stupid and does not overcome his foes through brute force alone. He’s a cunning guy who manages to become king and isn’t at all bad at ruling, even though some of his subjects resent his origins among the barbarians. Brouwer follows these ideas to the letter. I’m almost certain that there’s a Howard story that starts exactly like One King to Loot them All, with Conan as king being surprised by some magical assassin whom he defeats; but even if I’m wrong about that, our game is pitch-perfect Howardian Sword & Sorcery. Even the prose is Howardian, which is admittedly not an unreserved compliment – Howard tends to indulge a bit too much in long sentences and rare words that do not quite add up to great prose (although not as much as his friend and fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith). There’s something of that here too, which is especially noticeable in the error messages, that are too long to be easily scanned and mentally discarded.
It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom when playing One King to Loot them All, because both are restricted parser games with a barbarian protagonist. But actually they do not have much in common. S. John Ross’s game is a geographically open puzzler involving quasi-RPG-style character progression, whereas Onno Brouwer’s game is a tight story-line with no real puzzles to speak of. Perhaps even more importantly, Ross’ barbarian really is stupid, and the limited verb set is used to streamline puzzle design. Brouwer’s Conan is pretty smart (he has no trouble explaining the logic he used to get through the paths of order and chaos) and the limited parser is used to… yeah… mostly to tease the player with some intentional parser frustrations, actually! One’s inability to open the wine bottle is pretty funny, as is the fact that this puzzle solution if given away in the Help text, where you probably won’t notice it. (Though I did. Right when I was about to give up in the Pit.) There are some real parser frustrations, though, which don’t help. (E.g., “water” is not a synonym of “waters”, the two guards cannot be disambiguated by the adjectives the game itself applies to them, etc.) I can imagine that some players hit their head against a wall. A pit wall, perhaps.
But they really should keep playing. For what had been an entertaining if far from perfect sword & sorcery romp, suddenly turned into a game that had me play it with a giant grin on my face, a grin that grew bigger and bigger when I realised how far I could undo, and then, that I could save the priestess, and then, that everything after that also subtly changed (including the nice scene where the priestess points out that she should be the sacrifice), and… well, yes, it was just lovely. The final fight with the necromancer was a tad confusing (I never really understood how the interception worked), but otherwise it was so much fun. Including the revelation about the three chosen ones.
The one thing I think is a little sad is that you can’t actually start UNDOing when you’ve just opened up a new game. Famously, you can win Slouching towards Bedlam on the first turn, but by taking an action that you only have reason to take once you’ve finished the game and know what’s going on. One King to Loot them All could also allow the player the freedom to start on the winning path immediately; if anyone stumbles upon it without preparation, that’s fine too!
Anyway, really nice game.