Wolfbiter reviews IFComp 2023 (latest: finished with reviews, wrap-up thoughts)

Magor Investigates . . . by Larry Horsfield
Playtime: 31 minutes

TLDR: The king has called upon the player-character-slash-court-advisor-slash-distiller’s knowledge in this short, light puzzler. Now if you could just find your spectacles . . .

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. You can save and undo (but are not particularly likely to want to). I had to download “ADRIFT Runner” to play the game file, but once I did that it was easy. Also I learned from reading the other reviews that there is a task list available. Which I totally missed.

[ + ]

  • This game occupies the space between cozy and fantasy. Puzzles include: making tea! and watering your plant! I was charmed by this glimpse at the life of a guy who seems to have good friends in the castle, an herb garden, a flourishing whiskey distillery, and not too many sources of stress. He knows how to cast fireball and mostly uses it for seeing in the dark!

  • This game endeared itself to me with the idiosyncratic touches of a labor of love (ok, big surprise at the IF competition), like text in cyan, magenta, and yellow; a reminder that appeared every turn for a while to use “lumino” if it’s too dark to see, and the option to prompt the game for lore from the other games (that you don’t need for this game).

  • The puzzles were a bit easy, but I probably prefer that to too hard. It’s pleasant to be given a series of accomplishable tasks and accomplish them.

[ Δ ]

  • It’s a slight game, the length estimate probably needs to be adjusted downward.

  • This game is overly restrictive in stopping you from doing stuff. I can mostly understand fencing the player out of hallways they won’t need (although why are so many of these mentioned then?), but the game won’t even let me gather extra herbs from the garden? I’m a parser player! Those are my emotional support herbs!

also one implementaiton issue with that

When I went to add the peppermint leaves to the mug, the game would not recognize “peppermint” or “leaves” although I eventually got it to take “mint.”

  • One thing that might amp up the player engagement level is zhushing up the dialogue to be more individual for each character and convey personality. A lot of it currently is a fairly workmanlike relating of plot. E.g., “Yes, indeed.” Kelson says. “That means that Alaric must have Haldane blood in him and we must be related in some way.”
6 Likes

The Vambrace of Destiny by Arthur DiBianca
Playtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes

TLDR: Dungeon crawl? In this extremely cleanly implemented game we ZIP through the dungeon while solving puzzles and recovering fantastical loot.

Gamemechanical notes: A “limited parser” puzzler where pretty much all navigation and gameplay is handled by pressing a single key on the keyboard.

[ + ]

  • This definitely feels like the apotheosis of its genre (not that I wouldn’t love seeing sixty thousand more!). With the tyranny of the return key overthrown, it’s amazing how fast you can blitz across the (actually pretty huge) map and solve puzzles.

  • The whole UI is really optimized to provide a fluid and seamless experience. We get a map (that displays the current location!), we get the option to call up lists of relevant commands / items. I’m such a fan, such joy, such vim.

  • investigrab, my beloved <3 (I just also appreciate this nod to, yeah, it’s that kind of a game, if there’s an item in a room, you’re gonna want to either investigate or take it, let’s cut to the chase)

  • The final boss fight was really cleverly designed. Makes the player learn a bit, but then rewards them with the feeling of acing a final exam

[ Δ ]

  • OK, yes, I am a little bit that person making puppy-dog eyes in the drivethru at Wendy’s like “please can I have a taco supreme” BUT—what if: we had a smidge of character work on top of our delicious puzzle salad? Just the tiniest shaving? What if I could tip my Krotonian pal one of the treasures I found? (My dude earned it for sure.) What if I could have a conversation with the rogue librarian—negotiate a bit? Take their side? Would love anything in this direction.
8 Likes

Thanks for taking the time to play my game and for the great review! I’m very glad you enjoyed it.

And also thanks for describing the weaknesses so well. For the post-comp update, I’m going to revisit those points and ensure that I do better!

1 Like

Thanks for writing the game! I had a lot of fun with it.

1 Like

Barcarolle in Yellow by Victor Ojuel
Playtime: 1 hour

TLDR: Perhaps you’re an actor being stalked across Venice in this moody thriller, or perhaps something else is going on . . .

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. You can save and undo. I played once and think (?) there are multiple endings.

[ + ]

  • I loved the title and cover art. They really set the mood and built anticipation. Very Silence of the Lambs-poster vibes

  • has a promising setting and concept. We’re in an interesting time period! We’ve visiting colorful film sets full of unusual people! We’re going to Venice! Cutthroat film sets! Murderous stalkers! There’s a lot to work with here

  • I was very engaged the whole time. Getting murdered was effective at building tension, and I was getting some of the intended feelings of paranoia, fear, etc.

[ Δ ]

  • I finished the game (ending C) and although an explanation was presented, I still could not explain to you what was going on. [spoilers about the ending] I was undercover? Did I have some kind of backup? If so, where were they when I was getting strangled and pushed off a bridge? Why does the game open with me talking to the police?

  • When I saw in the description that we were tackling pulpy ‘70s exploitation films, one of my immediate questions was “so, how are we handling the misogyny?” On that note, there were a couple of pieces of narration that notably sexualized the player character in what I read as a “sexy victim” way:

Trembling, you peel off your soaked dress. If this was a scene, the camera would be sliding down as you do, catching the goosebumps in your soft skin to emphasize your vulnerability, and ending with the wet heap on the floor. But it’s not a scene.

You run a hot bath, waiting until it’s half full to slide in, with a sensual moan of pleasure. Again, if this was a scene, the camera would catch you from behind, lingering on your nakedness as you raise one leg, then the other, and ease into the steaming water.

These bits both seemed gratuitous to me–the player character is alone and she presumably doesn’t find changing clothes to be notably erotic. All that said, I appreciate that the game includes a female protagonist—I really enjoy seeing female characters in fiction and I hope I don’t discouraging anyone from writing them.

  • As others mentioned, the gameplay suffered from implementation issues, and I had a lot of the same problems. I think the thriller concept is good and the elements chosen to carry it out could be very engaging, but that fast-paced concept is really hurt by unfriendly / buggy implementation that kills the momentum. If I’m fighting with the game about how to grab a bridge or turn on a projector, it throws me out of that high-immersion state.
6 Likes

The Witch by Charles Moore
Playtime: 1 hour, 43 minutes (did not finish)

TLDR: You begin the game. You don’t know it yet, but you’re in a map with 49* locations. “help” you type. “There’s no help for you,” the game replies.
(*actually more than 49, that’s just how many I had seen when I stopped)

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. You can save and undo and you will need both. If you type “score” the game will score you, but more importantly, it will tell you if it’s still possible to win. Score frequently, score often, friends.

[ + ]

  • I came in with some moderate meta-game knowledge and with it, I had a good time! Sometimes one just wants to explore an area, make a map, collect all collectible items, and see what puzzles one can solve with them. It probably took 1 hour, 20 minutes of casually tooling around before I finished my naive ideas for what to do with each item and started to feel stuck. If you, like me, find that kind of exploration satisfying for your hunter-gatherer brain, you will probably also like it.

  • I did the chairlift puzzle and the mine puzzle on my own and they were both fun!

  • Riding the chairlift was also pretty fun. wheeeeeeee

  • I liked how under-implemented it was. I’m here to solve puzzles and chew bubble gum, and I’m fresh out of bubble gum. So yeah, thank you for respecting my time. Me: “get gems” Game:“They’re just for decoration.” Whabam.

[ Δ ]

  • I mentioned I came in with some meta-knowledge. Although I’ve generally been avoiding reviews until I’m done with my playthrough of a game, I had picked up that (1) it’s possible to make the game unwinnable without noticing and (2) “score” will tell you if you can still win. These two facts are pretty important and should be stated up front! My experience would have been very different if I’d invested a few hours before realizing how to use “score.” Barely a hint for those who haven’t played: There are some environmental deaths, but not really any total jump-scare type deaths. The ways you can make the game unwinnable are not that subtle, it’s mostly by destroying / misusing / wasting plot-relevant items. So if you did something that consumed an item, that would be a good time to check if the game is still winnable. And I think there’s also a 600 turn time limit, per @mathbrush, although I didn’t make it that far in any of my discrete attempts.

  • Some of the puzzles were underclued / a bit unfair. Specifically, (yes, this list is based in RATIONAL OBJECTIVE criteria and not just whatever I couldn’t figure out, why do you ask?) there should be some indication to give the teddy bear to the Widow, the beaver should be more prominent (well, also should exist, see below), the command “climb up” should work at the tree instead of just “up,” you shouldn’t have to climb into the peach tree to see that it has a peach. Oh, related to that, does anyone know if is there a topographical explanation for the tree-climbing puzzle? When I saw the walkthrough for that part I was like, hmm, if it’s doing more than button mashing I don’t get it, so I went to the tree and mashed up and down and successfully got through it that way, but I saw people referring to that as a “maze,” which makes me think there is some internally-consistent way of conceiving of its shape. Although the 2D maze is breaking my brain a bit?

  • Really my biggest issue is that once I’d exhausted free explore time and wanted the walkthrough, I found I couldn’t finish the game because the beaver didn’t seem to exist anywhere. This is probably a bug, although honestly it also feels sort of deserved in my unworthy heart because I [spoiler for a different game] killed that beaver in To Sea in a Sieve. I applaud that there was a walkthrough, but it is also important that it be possible to finish the game ¯_(ツ)_/¯

7 Likes

Yup. I think you can find it as a map somewhere. Go up a certain amount to get to one checkpoint, then down to get to the next, etc.

1 Like

Hmm, see I guess this is what I mean by it breaks my brain. I assume “up” goes up some fixed number of units, and “down” goes down the same number. So if I’m at 20 ft on the tree, then I go “up” I’ll be at 30 ft. If I then go back “down,” now I’m exactly where I started at 20 ft so I haven’t changed anything . . .

1 Like

Have you seen the map? It really is just more simplified …

1 Like

Hmm, will have to check out the map, thanks for the tip.

1 Like

Hawkstone by Handsome McStranger

Playtime: 47 minutes (did not finish)

TLDR: Explore the world, complete quests, and level up your stats as an adventurer in this RPG-inflected game.

Gamemechanical notes: This is a separate (C++?) game application. It was pretty easy for me to play (on Windows)—downloaded all of the game files, ran “Adventure.exe.” Once in the game, it’s parser based. There doesn’t seem to be a way to save or undo (although at times I wanted both).

PAGING ALL PLAYERS, PLEASE BE APPRISED:

(1) When you “look,” the description of what you see appears and updates in the TOP PORTION of the screen. It’s nowhere near the command line (don’t ask how long I spent thinking that several locations were so dark that “look” resulted in no information . . .)

(2) “x ____” does not work, but “look at ___” or “look ____” does work.

[ + ]

  • This must have been a very ambitious project to code from scratch. I admire the chutzpah

  • I enjoyed the RPG elements. The idea of putting in quests (I was definitely picturing an exclamation mark over the NPCs’ heads) and returning to complete them is a fun, creative idea I haven’t seen in very many IF games.

  • I also enjoyed the combat, the automated calculation made it pretty seamless (sadly, it doesn’t seem like there’s that many things to fight? At least in the early areas I managed to explore there’s only 3, only one of which seems to really be a plausible option. I could see enjoying it if there were a more farm-y area).

  • Look, the idea of grinding for levels is very much in my wheelhouse. The Number Go Up is very pleasing! (Although I didn’t really make it far enough to feel like I was seeing much payoff from the stats.)

  • I enjoyed the author’s sense of humor, e.g. “Many leaves. Pretty leaf,” as an area description.

[ Δ ]

  • I’m not sure what was intended, but putting the “look” descriptions at the top, but also putting text the player needs to read at the bottom right next to the command line (for example, the descriptions of the results of an action are at the bottom) makes the player move their eyes back and forth the maximum amount each turn.

  • There were quite a few rough implementation spots—items that had to be referred to extremely specifically, uneven labeling of NPCs, puzzles that are unintuitive and drove me to the walkthrough early (the swing loop [or any other item] doesn’t work to knock down the plant pot, only one specific rope?). I would also prefer we not implement the least fun elements of classic RPGs, like an extremely restrictive carry limit (especially given that you have to use items lots on things like in-game currency and gold), although ymmv about those elements.

  • Because there was no save or undo I ended up restarting the game a few times and found it pretty hard to get into (when I thought I couldn’t see anything, to see if I could loot items from the worm [but although item drops were listed it never seemed to be possible to pick them up]). I also restarted once after dying in combat (although I think from later reading the walkthrough that dying may actually be an intended part of the game progression, but that should perhaps be better signalled to keep people from giving up).

4 Likes

Out of Scope by Drew Castalia
Playtime: 30 minutes (did not finish)

Gamemechanical notes: It’s a game with a unique interface (written in unity?). I had some issues, see [ Δ ] for more.

[ + ]

  • Some of the writing is really good. (E.g., “when two people are silent together, it’s like a song”)

  • In particular, the writing is effective in that horror-adjacent way of sharing seemingly simple, but deeply unsettling information that makes you want to know more about what happened in the past. This was definitely working to engage me and make me curious.

  • The concept—the player character returning to their old home, gutted in a mysterious fire, to reconnect with their sister, with whom they share a conflicted backstory—it’s compelling stuff. I wanted to find out more.

[ Δ ]

  • Gameplay / implementation issues kept me from finishing the game, which is unfortunate because I was curious where it was going. Others have mentioned several issues already, so I’ll just say that for me, the biggest issues were (1) when a text bubble appeared, it seemed that it would take several seconds to be clickable, and (2) the inability to tell whether a certain bubble was ever going to become clickable (I initially thought that was what black borders and gray borders indicated, but I think I saw black borders that never became clickable for me). I have a hard time with timed text in general, and that combined with not knowing if it was even possible to interact with the thing I was clicking made this game feel like trying to read a novel with a 5-second ad spot between sentences. I tried it online and wondered if that was causing some of my problems, but I had the same issues with the downloaded version. The concept for the UI is ambitious and unique. I take it it’s supposed to feel sort of unsettling—you don’t know where you’re looking, you can’t see everything at once, looking one direction causes you to not see anything else. I commend the boldness of the approach and some of that was definitely working.
8 Likes

Creative Cooking by dott. Piergiorgio
Playtime: 22 minutes

TLDR: Let this game gently guide you through collecting ingredients from town in a fantastical alternative universe.

Gamemechanical notes: I wasn’t sure how to start this game. No, in the most literal sense, I wasn’t sure what application to use to open the game file. But I saw in @mathbrush ʼs review that he used Gargoyle, so I downloaded that and it was easy from there.

[ + ]

  • This game is drawing on the cozy pleasures of gathering edible ingredients and preparing a meal to share with friends—and these are some good pleasures! I like them! (And I was charmed by the game’s reason you cannot enter the public house—they’re hosting a communal meal you already declined in favor of hosting your own, competing, event, it would be too awkward.)

  • The puzzles weren’t hard, but that was fine by me. This was very much a relaxed “take a stroll through this village and learn something about the worldbuilding game,” and I was glad it didn’t intrude on that by adding a finicky sequence where I had to select the correct recipes from the cookbook or similar.

  • This game is probably 75% worldbuilding, which was hit or miss for me, but mostly hit.

  • If there’s a book in a game, I’m gonna try and read it, and I do get a little thrill of joy when you can. As is the case here!

[ Δ ]

  • The length description for the game should probably be lower, it’s a very short game.

  • OK, a few bits of the world building that were a miss: (a) at some points, it was very apparent that the information was just being delivered to the audience. For example, at one point the narrator thinks “The Kirune physiology, that is, my physiology, is carefully described.” If I ever hear someone say “The human physiology, that is, my physiology, is carefully described,” I’m going to assume they’re a skin-stealing alien. Also (b) I didn’t love that for the one fantastical species I picked up on the most about, the characterization seems to be (1) they love eating meat and also (2) stealing. And the player character’s perspective on that species seems a bit “aww, those child-like creatures who don’t know any better.” If that’s not the read I was supposed to get, maybe tweak those descriptions. If that was the intended read, what if we also learned something else about that species to errr, humanize them? What would that character say about it? Do they view private property as the real barbarism? Etc etc

  • Big “hmmm” at the game only accepting “THROW the yardvine” [into the pond] when the instructions claim that the game has implemented “put ___ into ____” and “place ___ in ____.”

6 Likes

Artful Deceit by James O’Reilly, co-written by Dian Mills O’Reilly
Playtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes

TLDR: You’re an old-school gumshoe investigating the murder of your rich, art-world client in this retro puzzler.

Gamemechanical notes: OK, more of these than usual, so:

  1. Having already used my “I wasn’t sure how to start this game” joke, let’s just say that, having never emulated a Commodore 64 game before, simply opening the game was a puzzle for me. In case anyone else is in the same boat, after downloading the VICE emulator, you need to open the game file from the x64sc.exe file (found in the “bin” folder of the VICE materials). There’s a short note about this on page 5 of the Artful Deceit manual, I also skimmed this video before I found that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Mfu1kOC4Bw

  2. Thanks @Denk for making some suggestions to make the game run better on the emulator. I don’t understand the details, but following these instructions reduced delays for me. Artful Deceit - emulator settings

  3. I would recommend saving, my game crashed once and I needed to reload a saved file.

  4. Once I figured out how to run the game, I went straight in and started playing. Learn from my cautionary tale because that was the WRONG choice. Instead, you want to start by reading the game manual, the “Feelies” (?? not a term I’m familiar with), and the command list before you start playing the game. All of those are found in the downloaded files that came with the game.

  5. Finally, I presumptuously assume you will want to know the following:

(i) there’s an “analyze ____” command (this is listed in the command list, but cannot be over-emphasized)

(ii) there’s a second location you can visit (the gallery) using the command “drive to ___” while at your car (you can also drive back to the house)

[ + ]

  • This game has a fun vibe (the opening description “as dusk gives way to the inky darkness of night, a luminous moon casts an eerie glow over the sprawling, luxurious community . . .” really working to set a noir mood)

  • The concept of “investigate these pretentious rich people’s art-adjacent murder” has a lot of promise (see Glass Onion, sort of?).

  • I quite enjoyed the flashlight filter puzzle. At first, when I saw the circuit breaker in the house, I was like “hmm, I wonder why the game wants me to think about turning off the power” and it was fun to see that played out.

[ Δ ]

  • I was intrigued to hear at the beginning that the player character is noteworthy for being disheveled and having people underestimate them, but I didn’t really see this reflected in how the NPCs react to the player character.

  • Interviewing is certainly important in the game—I would have enjoyed going even deeper/hearing even more colorful material from the NPCs. There were enough topics that weren’t implemented that it sort of discouraged spending a long time trying to talk to the NPCs.

  • My gameplay notes above probably raise several inferences about the roadblocks I hit with the game. (That’s what we call “environmental storytelling.” This writing thing is easy.) I think without those roadblocks I would have had a quite fun experience. As it was, I still had a fun experience, but one frequently interspersed with “!?!”

5 Likes

6 posts were split to a new topic: The Purpose of Feelies

I admit the mistake in having kept more or less as-is the stock AGT instructions…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

1 Like

Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Max Fog
Playtime: 1 hour 30 minutes (did not finish)

Note: I’m a big fan of the books but have never played the Infocom game.

TLDR: Continue the absurdist adventures of Arthur Dent in this complex puzzler.

[ + ]

  • I had fun revisiting the Hitchhiker’s Guide setting. We get improbability calculations! We have a babel fish! Slartibartfast shows up! There is a Guide item and you can look things up in it! A towel makes a plot-relevant appearance! This definitely felt like it was made with the same love that I have for Douglas Adams.

  • I thought several of the puzzle designs were really creative and interesting. For example, I thought the cupboard swapping puzzle was a really fun concept, and what you were supposed to do was clued well through the in-game text by the descriptions of the first-class passengers all with glasses of sherry and the cupboard saying “you don’t have anything to replace that with.” Likewise, the morpher puzzle concept of playing spot-the-difference in the rooms is unique and enjoyable. I didn’t quite finish it, but I think the one I was on was going to be reading the letters spelled out by the shape of the map, which is also a good concept. Clearly a lot of effort and thought has gone into generating the puzzle concepts.

[ Δ ]

  • I would have enjoyed more time with the grace notes of the setting. For example, I wanted to hear Trillian, Ford, Zaphod, and Marvin say entertaining, in-character things (I talked to them at a few points but they didn’t have a lot to say). There’s also things like the blank menu at Milliways and the blank stage at Milliways that feel like they could be filled in with a fun, colorful element even if it wasn’t plot-relevant.

  • I liked a lot of the puzzle concepts but several of them had rough spots that increased friction in how they were implemented. I think a few tweaks to make them a bit more player-friendly would go a long way to increasing engagement. For example, I got the cupboard puzzle concept on my own, but I seemed to get into some kind of “no cupboards will open” bug after I gave the cupboard the sporfe? Or maybe because I left and entered the kitchen too much? I had to reload to resolve it, and after that I decided, like a coward, to just open the walkthrough and use the exact item swaps in there, but that was less fun. Similarly, I wasn’t sure what to do in the ship with the gun, but as soon as I opened the walkthrough and saw that area was called “morpher ship” I got it, I just needed a smidge more cluing in the environment to expect things to morph. I think if just a few more on-ramps were provided for the puzzles the game would play a lot smoother. The puzzle difficulty feels compounded by the fact that the in-game hints have a somewhat hostile tone—when the player is desperate enough to seek hints they’re at a low point in their experience! They seek encouragement!

  • I wish there had been somewhat fewer trips through the dark / repeat visits to locations.

5 Likes

My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition by Bez

Note: I’ve been sitting with this one for a bit. It definitely spurred a lot of thoughts, and although I’m still not totally sure how I think it works as a game, I did want to share some reactions.

TLDR: The author shares his memories and artifacts from his life during a period of mental health recovery in the format of a virtual museum exhibition. (I understand that the “frame” we’re given here is factual, in contrast to some of the games in the comp with fictitious framing stories.)

[ + ]

  • I was surprised how effective the simulating of a physical exhibition space was for me. The transitions screens (with footstep sounds), the pane showing an overhead map, the ability to walk between the displays in whatever order I wanted, it was working for me.

  • This piece is full of raw and unfiltered autobiographical material, which has a gripping “can’t look away” feeling. That compelling feeling of honesty and real life is one of the strengths of the game.

  • The author is a keen observer, and has the ability to relate incidents from his life in a way that both has the weight and specificity of actual experience, but also connects with the player through universal experiences. For example, in one of the bits that I was most affected by, we learn that the author had been considering committing suicide and leaving a last gift for his sister, but then says “And I realized (thanks to, as strange as it sounds, a YouTuber’s critique of Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2) that leaving a final gift for Eliana and then killing myself would be kind of a dick move.” I’ve never been in that exact situation, but I’ve been turning that moment over in my head since, reminded of the many times in my life that a piece of media that is objectively extremely mundane has spurred a deeply personal revelation.

[ Δ ]

  • This is a quibble, but when I wanted to move quickly through the exhibition (for example, to go back and look at something I’d been looking at earlier) there was a bit of friction because the physical placement of the movement options shifted up and down. It would have been easier to navigate if, say, all 4 directions had been permanently present in fixed locations (perhaps with the impossible directions grayed out), so that the player could just click “north” “north” “north” without having to move the cursor.

  • It would have been nice to have a sense at the beginning of how large the museum was—when I visit museums irl I find that helpful to marshal my resources

  • I don’t know if this would be logistically possible, but it might have added a fascinating depth to include contributions from anyone else involved in the author’s journey (e.g., twin, friends).

7 Likes

Thanks for writing this review! I’m very glad you liked the puzzles.

2 Likes

Thanks for writing the game! I had fun with it.

2 Likes