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Michael Martin's Comp04 Reviews

by Michael Martin

Posted 16 November 2004 to

This looks for all the world like a totally deserted plaza, despite the fact that you know there are dozens of comp games battling it out. It is dead silent. Or is it?

Silence. Yes, definitely silence. You strain your ears, and suddenly a booming voice shatters the night, screaming:


You collapse dead from shock.

*** FATALITY ***

Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, REVIEW the competition or QUIT?


Right. So, this was the first competition where I actually played all the (Linux-capable) games: I'd sampled around the earlier comps (and played most of the games that were eventually deemed notable therefrom), and compared to what I saw there, here are my observations on the comp as a whole:

First off, it was pretty good. Six of the games fell firmly into my "Excellent" bin, with two more not falling therein solely because of a few problems that nevertheless significantly impacted its play experience. Truly awful games were outnumbered at least two-to-one.

Second, as kind of mentioned in my little lead-in, there sure was a lot of direct combat in this comp. I counted ten games where the point was to > ATTACK NPC in the right way, repeatedly, to wear them down or prove your mastery or whatnot. Sometimes this was incidental; sometimes it was the whole point. These games were scattered fairly evenly through the scores, too, so it's not like this is intrinsically bad or good, but it sure felt odd.

Third, We didn't get a half-a-dozen steampunk entries like Emily Short predicted last year. Only one game had any stylistic elements even remotely resembling STB, and, as near as I could tell, only one had a significant choice point, both of which end in widely varying but defensibly "happy" endings.

Mingsheng, by Rexx Magnus

(DISCLAIMER: I betatested this one, and was a loud and obnoxious beta tester, too.)

This game is trying very hard to be Chinese, and it's fairly obvious from the writing and the general attitude that this was written more by an enthusastic student of Chinese culture rather than a full member of it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and in my opinion a setting that thinks it's exotic is going to feel more exotic. (Even if the settings here aren't exotic to you, they're exotic with respect to the rest of the IF canon.) It wouldn't surprise me if certain of my Asian-American friends muttered unpleasant epithets at a few of the turns of phrase; however, I judge that this is their problem, not Mingsheng's.

Of course, if we travel all that way and find we're just on another treasure hunt, except a few of the Fabulous Valuables are now Ultimate Techniques, we might wonder whether it was really worth the trip. Fortunately, Mingsheng flips a few expectations here, too.

I'm mostly happy with the ending mechanic. I would have liked to see more "winning" endings—especially since > SCORE tells me that only I can rate my achievements — but that would make handling the expectation-flipping a lot dicier.

So yes. It's a nice journey, well worth taking. Go play it. Preferably on a system that can handle Chinese characters in Unicode. (Yay exercising unusual corners of the Z-Spec! Especially in good games!)

Score: None, since I was a beta-tester. It would have been an 8 if I had, though.

A Day in the Life of a Super Hero, by David Whyld

This is superhero parody, not the serious stuff. The backstory can't seem to decide between "sure, superheroes are everywhere and you're one of them" (from Frenetic Five at the low end of superheroism through City of Heroes at the high end) and "You poor deluded fool, thinking you're a superhero." Really, I prefer the first to the second, but the inconsistency is particularly jarring and ends up getting you the worst of both worlds.

I begin tied up to the top of a bridge. Despite being tied up, I can still take the seagull that's pecking through the rope. Despite the fact that I've taken him, though, the death-timer in the first scene keeps going. Then I still seem to be able to take actions after dying. And this is just the first scene.

Oh. That reminds me. If you have a section in the about text saying the game is never unfinishable (albeit possible, if you try really hard, to not get the best ending), don't include 28 ways to die. Especially not when one of them involves letting a timer run out in the first scene.

The conversation/menu system was incredibly buggy in SCARE, sometimes giving the generic "I don't recognize that sentence" error for the game in response to menu options, and sometimes selecting one at random for you without ever giving you a prompt. An unfortunate side effect of this was that I couldn't get the walkthrough to work, and thus never saw the actual end of the game. I do believe I made it to the final confrontation, though.

I can't comment reasonably on most of the puzzles; most seemed to be clued by "this happens, and you missed your chance, so restore and do it right", but it's hard to tell because I spent the first 90 minutes just in the first couple of scenes, and then spent the remaining 30 with the walkthrough.

I would suggest, first, that the author decide on a specific tone and world-model for his work, and keep it consistent through the game. It's more important to have a clear reason not only to do the things you do directly to solve the puzzles, but also to do the things that make it possible to do those things. (That is, the Big Goal puzzles are well motivated, but they require access to items that you do not have motivations to acquire.)

Score: 2

All Things Devours, by half sick of shadows

I am filled with dread by the title, until I end the game in one move and then see where the title comes from. OK, I can live with this. Let's see...

Nice, simple goal. Obvious failure condition. Nested failure conditions. Maybe this isn't such a simple goal after all. The primary widget is awesome, sez I, as is the mechanic. It's almost too complex for the competition, but there's just enough there to keep me busy for the judging period.

All in all, absolutely fantastic. The notes indicate a new version will come out with extra puzzles and more unforgiving timing. I can't wait.

It appears that there was a crash bug involving the lab doors, but I didn't run into it during my judging period.

This was my favorite game of the competition.

Score: 10

Identity, by Dave Bernazzani

A solid little piece, with good puzzles marred by somewhat weak writing. Only this weakness keeps this from falling into the "excellent" category.

I don't really have a lot to say here because it stands pretty well on its own, and the implementation seemed quite robust as well. As such, the only recommendations I can make to the author are (a) try to get someone with a good ear for prose and storytelling to help you check your prose, and (b) write more games, because I'm greedy.

Score: 7

Die Vollkommene Masse, by Alice Merridew

OK, so a drow being held captive by something from Slayers. Grammar and spelling are terrible, the high concept is vaguely disquieting in a "hormone-drenched 13-year-old-fan-fiction" sort of way, > PUT ALL IN BACKPACK has you strip down almost totally, the map is convoluted, and the walkthrough commands involving the fairy don't work. I have to consider the game unsolvable, and what I saw either didn't excite me or actively disquieted me.

Things that need to be done: Get a native speaker to proofread it. Don't openly derive stuff from fanficcy sources; you could have filed off all the references without changing anything. Test your provided walkthrough to make sure it actually works. Clothes are tricky, and should be invisible if they aren't named explicitly.

Score: None, as the author has pulled it from the competition. The score would have been low due to incompleteness, but it seems unsporting to explicitly rate that given the circumstances.

Gamlet, by Tomasz Pudlo

Yay! Troll!

Score: 1

OK, but we might not know that if we don't read the newsgroups or the ABOUT text. So, I wandered around the house for awhile, found that the thing I sought was gone, and that I then could not do anything of importance, and no more hints were to be found. It's also potty-mouthed and pretentious at the same time.

It turns out then that there is an undocumented WALKTHROUGH command, so I could then see most of the rest of the game. Most of what I discussed above still holds throughout the game. There's also the issue that following the walkthrough kills you, guaranteed. Solving the final puzzle then has it insult you for four or five screens, then crashing you out to the prompt.

Which is really, all told, a way of saying that I don't have to change my assessment.

Score: 1

Goose, Egg, Badger, by Brian Rapp

Very, very strange. Innocuous actions put abstract entities into your inventory. Your inventory includes an "urge" that, when examined, gives context-sensitive hints about your current goals. This is fantastic.

The puzzles baffled me, but the duck puzzle at least seemed reasonably logical. Wow, that's a really long walkthrough. After the fact, some of them made a bit of sense, but the puzzles really do boil down to "do this because it needs to be done, even if it is midnight."

The variant verbs are great. That it gives you "style points" for using them is greater still. Unfortunately, I didn't know they even existed until I checked walkthrough 2. That kind of dampens the effect.

Is the title a veiled Hofstadter reference?

... Yeah, it is. I just tried > XYZZY. Hee, sez I.

Score: 6

Stack Overflow, by Timofei Shatrov.

OK, this is random. And incredibly poorly written and implemented. Even the author notices this, as one of the room descriptions reads "Why oh why, you are stuck in such a boring place?" Well, I know who I'm blaming.

XYZZY response is a Gostak reference. That's a bright spot, at least. It would have been brighter if I'd xyzzied deave unheamily, but I suppose one can't have everything.

Oops. I walk into a room, and cannot leave it, because the room was not given any usable exits except a closed door that I cannot refer to. That's generally my cue to just stick to the walkthrough.

Uh. So, in the end game you must put in THE SECRET 4-DIGIT CODE or you lose. The hints indicate that they'll give enough info to figure this out. The only info they give is that you must put in THE SECRET 4-DIGIT CODE. Right. Good thing I'm already in "just follow the walkthrough" mode.

OK, so, upon experimentation, you hit on THE SECRET 4-DIGIT CODE by chance. But that's still no excuse. And then there's an extra endgame that makes no sense whatsoever.

Score: 1

Typo! by Peter Seebach, Kevin Lynn, and Flavorplex

This isn't really a game, it's a tech demo with a cute ending. I'd really have rather had a full game based on the kind of situation that was appearing in the endgame. That would have been a very nice metapuzzle.

As it stands, this is technically IF, but not much F there. The tech demo is quite impressive, but I really can't feel good about rating thus much above a 4.

Score: 4

Order, by John Evans

John Evans has had a knack for making conceptually complex mechanics and then not implementing them thoroughly enough to be completable. Order has a nifty mechanic, and the game is completable, so that's worth a cheer.

Unfortunately, the nifty mechanic isn't quite as general as it should be; I was at a loss in the final two challenges, and the hints implied I should have been creating much more modern entities than I'd been using to that point. Also, the Wind puzzle was much less clear, and the failure message didn't really clue me into what was actually going on, and why I had failed.

Other than that, this is a solid, but not particularly remarkable bout of villain defeating.

Score: 6

Blue Chairs, by Chris Klimas

This is a fine adventure in the modern-surreal vein. I did end up hitting the hints a few more times than I should have, but I only needed to do this at the beginning.

Despite initial hostility to the tone, I was drawn in quite quickly and played on my own to the end. Then I checked the walkthrough to see what I missed, and saw that everything was completely different. I then played it through again just to see the other elements—and I got a different happy ending. Wonderful. The game told me at the beginning I had a lot of free will; I'm going to have to explore this one a bit more once the comp is over.

My only real quibble is that I can't refer to the "anime comic book" by its correct name "manga". I'm cool with the protagonist not knowing the word, but the parser should.

Score: 9

Who Created that Monster? by N.B. Horvath

The game blurb (and, indeed, prologue) is as follows:

Baghdad, 2026. The work of the Allies here is nearly complete, and so is your work as a journalist. Major institutions have been rebuilt and the historical record set straight—almost. There is but one unanswered question. Few dare even ask it.

So, what kind of game is this? Here's a few guesses I had, all of which could have made excellent (or at least entertaining) games:

Unfortunately, here's the kind of stuff we get:

Ironically, as near as I can tell, most of the information regarding Iraq's history you acquire in this game is actually basically accurate: the West, and particularly the US, played Hussein against Iran, sold him dual-use stuff that could be made into chemical weapons, looked away when he used them, and eventually turned on him when he got uppity. A few missing events I thought were relevant; I didn't see the imposition of UN Sanctions, nor the imposition of the no-fly zone. It's kind of too bad everything else is ludicrous BS that's failing to be satire, because this begs the player to dismiss the truthful parts as equally fanciful.

Score: 3

I Must Play, by "Fortytwo".

Solid, but unexceptional. It's an IFArcade in a box. Competently implemented, reasonable operations, but a few actions were unclued and the concept of "linked games" didn't really work for me. I think I may have smirked once or twice while playing, at points where the author wanted this.

Score: 7

Trading Punches, by Sidney Merk

The text style strains so much it risks hernias. This is also the third game I've played so far that involves skipping stones. (I betatested Mingsheng.) Is something in the water? Besides the stones afterwards, I mean.

The interludes require EXAMINE commands to advance the plot, as near as I can tell. This is officially Not Cool.

This is a long story; I am buffeted by the forces of history, but never really feel in control. I have a simple task to perform, and I do it, and in the end it all comes to nought. Very dense, a fair amount of world creation, but still all ultimately unsatisfying.

As a novella, I'd have been happier (though the ultimate futility of everything is a downer, and the casual acceptance of doom seemed a bit unbelievable). As IF, I found it far more distancing, as the actions I the player controlled were all ultimately meaningless.

Score: 4.

Luminous Horizon, by Paul O'Brian

It's harder to write a fair review when your expectations are already through the roof. I loved the first two E&S games, so my expectations for the conclusion were very high. I wasn't disappointed, but I also wasn't entirely enthused.

There are lots of technical experiments in Luminous Horizon, and those are mostly pulled off with style. The continuity questions at the beginning were well-handled, and I played with them a bit to determine how they influenced the introduction. Character changing was flawless, which was a good thing, given the puzzles; if it hadn't been, I don't think I'd be able to solve the game.

Using TALK TO as a hint system was a cute concept, but I don't think this experiment actually worked. This was for three reasons:

I mentioned tightly timed puzzles. Oh, yes. Most of the climactic puzzles are actually superpowered battles, and these are well written and—in my experience — incredibly unforgiving. There must have been alternate solutions, but the ones I found actually failed if I wasted any moves at any point, or even if I started with the wrong character. I found myself longing for the ability to give commands to Austin and Em at the same time.

The ABOUT text indicates that the game can't be made unfinishible; I must assume that there were thus alternate solutions to the Part III battle that I didn't find.

The conclusion is satisfying and works out very well, in my opinion. All in all, this is a worthy conclusion to the series.

Score: 9

Murder at the Aero Club, by Penny

A cute little mystery, though I had enough evidence to identify the guilty party before the game thought I did. A few improbable actions are necessary to get the best ending, so I needed to hit the walkthrough after I'd worked out what was going on.

Score: 6

Zero, by William A. Tilli, Santoonie Corporation

I'm a goblin, we've been raided by marauding chicken people (oh, excuse me, "the fowl humans") and I need to take stock of the damage and set things right. I wandered around and freed someone and clothed them, then died of hunger. Never once did I see anything resembling food (well, except the spy, whom I couldn't eat.) Restarted, played a little more, and found that they'd implemented several ways of quitting, involving objects in the game. Who am I to deny what is the obvious course of action?

Score: 2

Chronicle Play Torn, by Algol

It wants to be atmospheric and spooky, and in a way it is; I did spend most of my time experiencing the environment. However, I also couldn't advance without following the walkthrough nearly exactly, and the writing would have benefited from another four or five rounds of editing.

Score: 4


Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby give you the best line in this comp:

The trout swings through the air, making a swishing noise that bodes bloody carnage.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't even begin to live up to this. The grammar is sometimes awkward, but it's recognizable English. I didn't notice typos, but I moved on to skimming rather quickly. Line breaks were highly inconsistent; I can't tell whether or not this is the author's fault or Alan's, but no word wrap was occurring.

No plot to speak of. I'm imprisoned by bad guys, so I escape and kill them and take their stuff and escape. For full points, the completeness of "take their stuff" is quite extreme; I missed full points my first time through for failing to sample everything the coffee machine in their break room made.

No real puzzles. No coherent plot. Several extremely nasty guess the verb situations. Legendary failure to implement nouns. The concept of first-level and second-level nouns is well known; to properly complain about 01 I must bring up the concept of zero-level nouns. These are nouns that appear as objects in their own right in paragraphs at their own at the end of descriptions, looking for all the world like an automatically generated object description. 01 has some of these zero-level nouns unimplemented, and this goes beyond sloppy into actively offensive.

Score: 2


An extremely short tale with no meaningful choices, and, in my opinion, no meaningful impact either. The tale jumps through time, and a conversation happens, or you wander through a scene, and then it jumps again, and after a couple of these, you're done.

The writing jumps between the high end of mediocre and the low end of good, but the biggest problem with this is that there's just not much there, in time, space, or concept.

Score: 4

Redeye, by John Pitchers

Not terribly well written. Lots of guess-the-syntax. The plot, such as it is, doesn't really do much for me. Small cultural note: delis aren't really specific to Australia.

In several locations the only way to advance the plot is to repeatedly attempt unwise actions until we are beaten senseless. This really doesn't motivate one much.

Oh, and I can't > ASK AGENT SMITH ABOUT NEO, but the fact that I even tried is probably a good sign that I wasn't all that engaged. That said, I didn't seem to be able to ask Agent Smith about anything other than the one thing mentioned in the walkthrough.

The ending plot "twist" was so telegraphed as to be offensive. Maybe the PC is shocked because he's been beaten senseless so many times.

Score: 2

The Great Xavio, by Reese Warner

There sure are a lot of murder mysteries this year. Fortunately, this one is a lot of fun. Dr. Todd is hilarious—and the Darkness message made me laugh out loud, as did his response to anything that the parser doesn't understand.

The multiple puzzle solutions were nice; I found a few of them.

We seem to be Berkeleyites. It's too bad I can't ask him about The Big Game or whatnot. (I also can't ask about the professors I took my own CS classes from, but then, I didn't really expect to be able to.)

This was by far the most engaging mystery of the competition.

Score: 9

Sting of the Wasp, by Jason Devlin

You, an aging matron of the glitterati, are caught in an indiscretion with the help, and must con and blackmail your way into recovering and destroying this evidence before your marriage—and, more importantly, your access to your husband's vast, vast wealth—is destroyed.

It's well-constructed for what it is; but I can't help but think "Wow, this is just like Varicella, except instead of a murderous force of ambition and justice, obliterating rivals far nastier than I am, I'm just a spoiled conniving bitch."

Also, some of the text didn't really seem to fit the character quite right:

Ugh, that's what roses smell like? Where's the
benzaldehyde? the phenetol?

I'm supposed to be one of the idle rich, not a chemist. For the most part, though, slips like this are rare. (I guess we can also add that Primo Varicella had taste, and Julia only thinks she does.)

All in all, it's a fine piece of work, but it left me cold and sneering at the PC.

Score: 6

A Light's Tale, by vbnz

One of the themes in A Light's Tale is an actively hostile and controlling narrator: instead of "You can't go that way," for instance, you get "I won't let you go that way." Done well, this could be an interesting conceit to explore; however, in this attempt, it's lost in the spotty grammar, pointless actions, incomprehensible universe, and puzzles that are only solvable because the narrator gives clues—all choices are "go the way I want or die, even if I hint that the way I want is the 'die' way."

A modest example of the writing and the world logic:

You exhale in the direction of the Gorrary, and the fire roars. The plant magically comes to life! It is now bright, vivid red. The plant has come to life! You have saved the planet! Tim rushes to you and says: "That was so awesome! Thank you for saving all our lives!"

(This is, incidentally, in an otherwise unremarkable flower shop, not at the roots of Yggdrassil or anything.)

Now I'm facing three thugs, named Thug1, Thug2, and Thug3. At this point I should really say "If you don't have enough time to give your characters decent names, I don't even have time to follow the walkthrough," but I'm feeling unusually generous.

This is quite a surprise! This looks just like a fully-furnished room! There is a bright white cabinet down here, and a bright white chair. Wait a second... every furnishing in this room is white! There is no light down here. The only reason you can see the things is because they are all white!

Being terrible doesn't make us laugh. In fact, it severely undercuts the otherwise interesting "hostile narrator" approach—the lines like "I won't let you go that way" come across just as an additional case of bad writing.

The descriptions have a bit too much stuff in them that aren't description, too:

You stand in front of what you now know to be Fernando's Headquarters. This is a moment of truth. As soon as you open the door, you will be forced to somehow stop Fernando. You are still not even sure why you are fighting against Fernando. You will soon learn. For now, you should probably figure out how to move this massive door.

OK, I guess I'm not feeling so generous after all. I will say that it is notable in being the purest form of "Mary-Sue" I've ever seen in IF. (I refer, of course, to the Blue Room here.) May I never see anything purer.

Score: 1

The Big Scoop, by Johan Berntsson

The opening scene involves an extremely tightly timed sequence and not one but two commands with extremely finicky syntax, and mistaken syntax causes you to lose immediately.

Now there's a viewpoint shift, but I have to go to the hints to actually realize this. > X ME has changed but isn't actually inconsistent with my initial state.

Conversation is standard ask/tell, with the addition of a > TOPICS command to list all relevant things you can ask about. However, the topics list gives away way too much, and permits me to ask about things that I can't possibly know about. This needed more care to work properly, especially for a mystery. The dialogue also isn't generally present:

The policeman tells you he doesn't like cats.

I am to enter a code on a keypad, but the parser will not let me enter the key '1', instead interpreting "push one" as push the door. Ditto "Push 1". As it happens, I can "PUSH" the entire code, but this should have been tested.

This could have been decent, but it needs much clearer syntax checking and perhaps some slightly less tight timing. As it stands, even if clues are given, you can only learn by losing the game repeatedly.

Score: 5

PTBAD 3, by Xorax

Boring and incomprehensible, and a few items mysteriously edible. You seem unable to do nothing of import.

Score: 1

Ruined Robots, by nanag_d

The directions on this walkthrough don't seem to correspond to actual things in the map. And there's a hunger daemon. And there's a flashlight daemon. Also weight and item limits, though I can fit the garden sledgehammer into my knapsack. Random events are rampant, they cost you points, they're buggily implemented (the beaver, for instance, has longer and longer action lists as time goes on), and the writing is uninspired at best, and "You are in a place called gapwest. The exit is to the southeast." at worst. And I eat a spinach sub and become so muscular that I cannot leave the room. This seems to imply some kind of mutable "strength" attribute. Random exploration locks the game off without warning. Oh, and there's something that very much resembles a maze.


This game is either a subtle troll or it was tested on masochists. Or it was sufficiently incomplete that it never reached the testing phase at all.

Score: 1

Escape from Auriga, by Florin Tomescu

I'm a soldier, I'm trying to escape from a doomed ship full of Giger-style aliens, and maybe heal and rescue my fellow crewmates and throw the self-destruct sequence.

Well, it was supposed to feel like an Alien movie, but it really felt to me more like the old Sega game Alien Syndrome. This is something like the eighth game I've played so far involving battle sequences, and there's more weapons in this thing than your average Quake level. I'm really starting to tire of it.

There's an EVIL WRONG password sequence that requires techniques I don't think are fair—Stack Overflow and A Light's Tale did it too, but there was some context to help figure it out. It's still evil and wrong.

But I do miss Alien Syndrome.

UPDATE: Yeah, it was supposed to feel like an Alien movie, to the point where it was DQed for violating Rule 1. And Alien Syndrome runs pretty well on DosBox, but wasn't nearly as great as I remember it being. So it goes.

Score: 5

Kurusu City, by Kevin Venzke

Manga/Anime style adventure, in the Feisty High Schooler Saves World vein. The puzzles, individually, are solidly implemented, and the writing is more than servicable. Suspension of disbelief gets a little difficult when (a) most people seem happy with their Robot Overlords, and (b) said robots will summarily execute minors for entering the shower while clothed. Then again, this is also a world where "celebrity revolutionaries" shrug off having limbs blown apart.

But neither of those things really bothered me. Things that did bother me:

With a little bit of rethinking and reordering of events, and perhaps the addition of some alternate solutions, this would be top-notch.

Score: 6

Square Circle, by Eric Eve

The first puzzle (involving said 'Square Circle') is more an excercise in sophistry than geometry, but the conversations surrounding it worked pretty well for me.

Most of the rest of the game felt pretty painfully arbitrary though. A lot of the information that I needed to know in order to take proper precautions came too late to really be helpful.

This is also the second game in a row involving "psephology." Well, I've learned a new word this comp. Yay, I guess. The document including the term this time around had me snickering for some time.

All in all, though, most of the game felt workmanlike. Nothing obviously terrible, but nothing to grab me and make me cheer either.

Score: 5

The Realm, by Michael Sheldon

Man, talk about having your expectations raised hugely, then seeing them come crashing down. I stumbled into the first solution to the Armorer's puzzle with a lucky guess, and thought that I had found an amazing simulation of a legitimate "guess-the-noun." Then I tried to do the same trick to get the sword, and was stalled. It's still a nice puzzle, but I wasn't as impressed as I had been. (A version of it appeared in "Eric the Unready," too, and its nature there was much fairer, but also more obviously constrained.)

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the game was very bizarre. I can't say "unclued," because everything was adequately clued, but "unmotivated" to the point of wondering why on Earth I would actually consider various actions to be productive. I found the hamster in particular to be most unsporting. And un-other-things. Yecch.

Not quite surreal, not quite lighthearted; but it's definitely a complete game. The ending was nicely understated. Deadpan is good.

Score: 4

Magocracy, by Scarybug


Um, um, um.

So yeah. As I've said, there's been a lot of combat this comp. This game is nothing but combat. It's really quite well-mechanicked combat, and the large number of spells is pretty cool, but you're just too outclassed for too much of the game for this to not just be a ridiculous UNDO-fest.

"Amputar the Barbarian" is the best name ever. Definitely stealing that name for my next game of Nethack.

This mostly works out its own logic. No plot other than "ensure death of all others. Take their stuff. Gain power and use it to smite the others." As such, it's kind of like Typo. It's really neat, but I wasn't really having much fun. And it seriously needs to be rebalanced.

Score: 4

The Orion Agenda, by Ryan Weisenberger

I don't want to talk much about this game, because it really was quite well done. Reactive and somewhat self-willed NPCs, good writing, mostly fair puzzles, and a XYZZY response that works into the plot without screaming HI, I'M AN INJOKE. It's also just about the perfect length, if you explore the branching paths.

I have two quibbles with it, both of which are instances of the same problem.

The game begins with a flashback. In a sense, the flashback is handy; it gives you a striking sense of where you're supposed to end up, and then moves you into the story's true beginning.

Quibble One: You can apparently die during the flashback sequence (I didn't, but the hints indicated that the stuff I did as a matter of course was necessary to avoid dying.)

Quibble Two: You're offered a Significant Choice that's the sort of thing that branching plots can often only dream of pulling off—complete with reasons why going either way would be a good idea. Except, because of the flashback's context, you clearly picked one of them already. Furthermore, attempting to go the other way closes the game off immediately.

The important factor for changing the endings was adequately clued, but given the existence of the Significant Choice the effects of these actions really should have had a slightly smaller role.

Despite this, this is still an excellent game. It's just on the low end of "excellent", which means...

Score: 8

Splashdown, by Paul J. Furio

The "feelies" distributed with this made me chuckle a few times, so this is a good start. In fact, the sample transcript solved an argument I had had with some other compatriots involving how to abbreviate when mixing fore/aft/port/starboard with north/south/east/west (solution: use "SB" for starboard). While SB is implemented, F, P, and A weren't. I missed them.

The actual reason for the crisis had me laughing maniacally.

However, I found the layout highly confusing and needed to go to the walkthrough just to figure out how to interact with things I knew were around. The hints need to be a bit more explicit to make this work, I think, as well as make clear how to shut down the global timer that begins the game.

But in general, this is a pretty fine and very "crunchy" piece of work.

Score: 7

Bellclap, by Tommy Herbert

This is probably the most hilarious player/narrator/PC relationship I've ever seen. Of particular hilarity are the "I have no idea what you said" message, the replies to > JUMP (and followups), > PRAY, and > SCORE all had me laughing out loud.

It's really excellent at handling rhetorical questions, as well.

Unfortunately, its cluing is terrible. There's an ingame clue to indicate what you should be ordering him to do, but try as I might I could not trigger the cluing until the correct course of action had already been performed.

As this is really the only puzzle that counts in the game, it pretty much makes the walkthrough mandatory, so I can't in good conscience count it amongst the "excellent" games. Once the cluing issue is resolved, it will be an excellent, if very short, game.

It's not listed in my own "Excellent" class, but you really, really, really have to play it anyway. Certain ironic aspects of it are enhanced if you're listening to suitably epic music (I had The Battle of the Pellenor from the RotK soundtrack going) as well.

Score: 7

Blue Sky, by Hans Fugal

Heh. A nice, if somewhat slight, little piece about being a lost tourist in Santa Fe. I actually have been to the area they're talking about here, and got an extra warm feeling from the food. (Not for the same reason our daring hero did, either—they make "tourist salsa" for those such as myself that hope to live to our old age with our taste buds intact.) There were fewer llamas involved in my trip, though.

I can't help but think that my life would have been way easier if, having seen my tour group walk into a place I can't get to, I merely waited by the door to rejoin them.

So yeah, the puzzles were poorly motivated, but I enjoyed the trip anyway.

Score: 5

Ninja, by Dunric

This was a compiled GW-BASIC program, and as such ran in DosBox. Generally not worth the effort though. EXAMINE was unimplemented. You are in a shrine, told the exit is to the south, and it replies to > SOUTH with "The path is blocked. Say > EXIT SHRINE instead." It will not let you > QUIT. Though this doesn't matter as you get randomly slain after a few dozen turns.

Score: 1

Getting Back To Sleep, by IceDragon

I couldn't get this to run, even on my XP partition. Bad C#.

The README did spend a lot of time talking about how awesome the parser is. I'd approve, except that everything it described is the default for every authoring system out there (except ADRIFT), so crowing over having a tokenizer and a real state-machine parser is kind of like an action game crowing about joystick support.

Score: Not Rated

This article copyright © 2004, Michael Martin

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