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

How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title by John Ziegler
Playtime: 1 hour 50 minutes (stopped after getting a horse before getting horseshoes)

TLDR: Join a knight on a mission of mentorship in a rich, detailed pre-modern-history-inspired world.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. Moderate puzzling, strong story/plot elements (also a lot of text to read). Seems to be one main path to progress down.

[ + ]

  • excellent UI design, a lot of attention has been given to the details. There’s specific instructions, a verb list, the commands “locate [item you saw once but now forgot where]” and “travel to [place you’ve been to]” have been implemented. Really takes pains to provide a good player experience. (While there is an in-game map, I would recommend opening it separately because it doesn’t tell you where you are / is too complicated to remember much if you are switching back and forth.)

  • this game definitely has the feeling of entering into a work of similar scope to a novel. A lot of careful attention has been paid to worldbuilding, the setting feels fleshed out and grounded. We get detailed descriptions of the construction of buildings, how hayricks work, the lifecycle of fruiting trees, pre-modern construction tools, etc.

  • given that the focus in this game is really on the world and characters, rather than say, player choices or puzzles, it’s important that it work as a novel-esque piece of writing, and it generally does. Prince Quisborne (PQ) in particular is a really excellent character. He’s whimsical and charming, frequently interspersing his favorite facts about animals, etc., or composing limericks inspired by what you’re experiencing in the game. PQ has a really good character design that could definitely support a novel, etc. and it’s fun just to travel around with him hearing what he has to say. (OK, I didn’t save much of PQ’s dialogue, but “fizz-honking horse gizzards” is just the start). Do note that you pretty much just get drive-by dialogue from PQ that the game provides automatically–although some of it is pretty long and fleshed out–the player is never really in charge of conversation.

  • the puzzles in the prologue are well-designed so the player is near everything they need to succeed, but still gets to experience a few locations. Also, I got to pet a dog! OK so I died immediately after, but it was worth it.

[ Δ ]

  • I quite enjoyed the prologue, but found that feeling didn’t fully carry through to the parts after. For context, I spent about 50 minutes in the prologue and about an hour after:
how wolfbiter the judgmental passed her post-prologue hour (spoilers not marked further)
  1. Wander around looking at stuff, going to different locations arbitrarily, reading the entertaining descriptions. This is fun!

  2. Gradually realize that, although there’s a lot of locations to travel though, in most of them you don’t seem to be able to talk to anyone / interact with anything / talk to PQ about anything we see. Hmm.

  3. OK, if we’re not really supposed to be interacting with things at these locations, better head north for that quest item. Walk north as far as possible until encountering the icy river.

  4. Unable to traverse icy river. Naive idea: I should probably make snowshoes or crampons or something. But I don’t recall seeing any trees that seemed like they would let me interact with them. (Does the player character . . . not carry like a hunting knife?)

  5. Checks hints about how to traverse river. Hints say to get a horse. (me: a horse? That’s gonna solve the icy river issue? Are we thinking of the same finicky, anxious animal? I sure hope this river is frozen really solid etc etc)

  6. also me: Oh, this means I have to . . . search every location on the map until I find the one game-relevant horse, I guess.

  7. Eventually find horse. Seems like it needs to be lured with an apple or something. Not immediately recalling anything like that, and feeling less rapport with the game, consult hints again (side note, part of the puzzle here is that I guess the player is supposed to identify that these plants are carrots: “You’re no horticulturist, but amongst the weeds south of the byre, many seem darker green and more feathery than most of the wild grass. They’re thick, spreading over several dozen square yards, averaging in height about up to your knees.” It strikes me as a bit surprising that the player character, who was just teaching PQ how to forage for nuts and berries, can’t be a bit more helpful here if that’s going to be important, but I digress)

  8. Having obtained and ridden horse etc etc back to the icy river; game: actually the horse can’t handle the ice either. Me: THAT’S WHAT I SAID IN THE FIRST PLACE

[here ended the travels of sir wolfbiter]

  • One issue I had with the parts after the prologue is I wasn’t sure if the map really needed to be so big. Generally, in say, a video rpg, I expect that if I have to walk across / navigate a bunch of locations the purpose this will fill in the game is providing intermediate payoffs at various locations, like questgivers, resources, etc. Possibly this was a skill issue, but I didn’t really find much to interact with on the map while I was wondering around. For example, one entire town is described as: to you, it “plays little more than the role of a crossroads.” Hmm. OK, if there’s no one there to have a conversation with, or help, or bargain with, then maybe the player character doesn’t need to walk through this location multiple times on the way to plot-relevant places?

  • I think the other issue I had with the parts after the prologue is made it more obvious that the part of the story that I’m the most interested in is actually the “guiding / helping PQ and developing a relationship with him,” but that’s the part that the player has zero control over; the game handles it all. And occasionally it handles it in ways I found pretty jarring, e.g.:

[first the game has player character tell PQ to run laps, then] “You feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when the gangly youth spews his lunch all over the ground and crumples in a heap, refusing to budge. Once he resuscitates, normalcy resumes.”

Actually I don’t feel satisfaction! That’s just being an asshole, player character!

(I’ll put this at low-grade assholery because insofar as we can sense PQ’s attitude, he’s cheery enough and aspires to live up to whatever the player character wants [even deeper voice of overthinking: “but isn’t that how you would act if you were isolated from your normal support network and totally reliant on this one guy?”] anyhow PQ doesn’t seem like a particularly good actor)

Setting that aside, it just threw me because it wasn’t what I would have told the player character to do, but it’s sort of presented as a barely-worth-noting detail. (Also, does the player character also physically condition himself, or does he only tell PQ to do so?) And there was some dissonance to putting the game in charge of what strikes me as the most important element while I’m in charge of . . . navigation, which I’m really bad at, because I don’t know where anything plot-relevant is.

  • Finally, as hinted at by the above, after seeing in the description that we’re on a quest to improve the prince, I was really curious about what values the player character was going to seek to impart. Restraint? Displaying courage to the populace in the face of danger? The mental toughness to make difficult decisions and carry on when they turn out poorly? An understanding of how the economy / other polities / bureaucracy function? Self-confidence? There are a lot of directions this could go. The game’s main focus seems to be on physical toughening / asceticism. I’m not against physical toughening but it seems neither necessary nor sufficient to being a good ruler. (To be fair, at one point the player character also tells PQ “to be a king . . . is foremostly to be a servant,” although I would have liked it if that were followed up by the two of us serving some people, which could have allowed for some interesting side-quests. Also at one point PQ expresses the joy and meaning he’s found in being self-sufficient and working for things he wants, which was a nice moment.)