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Reviews by Wade Clarke

IFComp 2015

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The War of the Willows, by Adam Bredenberg

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The world would be better off if it really was this tough to kill a tree., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Python, IFComp 2015, fantasy
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)

War of the Willows is a combat game, requiring a Python interpreter to run, in which you must put down a giant, killer willow tree that's menacing your kingdom. Put it down mano a mano.

I doubt that anyone would have guessed this about the game based on its IFComp blurb

"Did you see the clean air of the hilltops? Wind waves tumbled down through the trees, tore the drift of lavender smoke... Did you see then, in the cinder that glowed in the pewter cup, did you see how Death would wrap its roots around our throats?"

except perhaps for the presence of that subtle pun about the roots wrapping around our throats. It's like that moment in the original Resident Evil when Chris Redfield, having polished off a building-sized carnivorous plant, says, "I think we got to the ROOT of the problem." (His emphasis, not mine.)

War of the Willows wraps a randomised combat game of obscure mechanics one that at heart is not entirely unlike the kind of thing that appeared in David Ahl's 1978 book BASIC Computer Games with a poetic and sometimes heavy-leaning text delivery. When a game starts by quoting a chunk of Edicts from the Bible, that's heavy. The original prose that follows flows in a similar, stansa'd vein. Poetry + combat = a novel entity, and once you get stuck in, you'll probably be hooked on trying to win at least once. But the game throws up tons of very obvious design issues. Primary amongst them: requiring the player to deal with way too much repetition of prose and key-mashing.

I believe that I am a poor reader of poetry-poetry, but I enjoyed picking my way through the figurative language of War of the Willows to learn about the woes of my kingdom and its apparent comeuppance at the hands of nature and such. At least I enjoyed doing it the first time. After I had tried to kill the tree about ten times, died as many times and mashed RETURN to make it through all of the same prose ten times, as well as answering the questions I had to answer on each playthrough to get to the battle, my right hand was ready to fall off and I was displeased at this design weakness.

Also when you type in a god's name, you have to capitalise the first letter or it's not understood! And double also I often experienced buggy code dumps in the middle of the prose. Maybe they're related to my version of Python. They didn't wreck anything, but seeing blocks of code from the game appear during the game was not an endearing quality.

The upshot is that when you get to the combat, you'll become interested in the combat, and all the unvarying material preceding it then just becomes a delay at getting back into the combat on replays. This applies to player death, too, which also requires a fair bit of RETURN-whacking to end proceedings.

The combat itself is significantly frustrating, but still compelling. The mechanics are hidden, but the prose does give feedback on your actions. Seeing new phrases appear suggests that your last action might have brought them about. There are logical ideas about useful ways to string together the available actions like strike / evade / advance, etc. that are likely to occur to any player, but as I say, it took me about ten plays to score a victory over the willow. It's hard to know what effect your pre-battle choices of god and desire have on the proceedings; I was having so much trouble killing the tree once, I never swerved from the walkthrough's advice (the walkthrough is purely advice) that one always choose certain combinations. I went with Vordak and Power.

I think the author has hit on a strangely original idea with this game, but it's a pretty user-unfriendly incarnation of that idea.

Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
In which you play the bad guy., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, IFComp 2015, horror
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)

This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)

Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.

Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.

The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.

The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff like the trick to getting through a certain door is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.

The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.

5 Minutes to Burn Something!, by Alex Butterfield

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Toasters are not the greatest thing since sliced bread., November 17, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2015, Inform, comedy
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2015 IFComp.)

In 5 Minutes To Burn Something! you've got to start a fire in your apartment to cover the false alarm raised by your toaster before the firemen arrive, thus avoiding a false alarm fine. Sure, this is a damagingly uncivilised course of action, but the whole game leans obviously to the silly.

5 Minutes is an incarnation of the most staple of staples of the IF Competition: A parser game in which you have to solve an impractical physical problem in a closed environment using a disparate bunch of props before a time limit runs out. Other staple factors include the environment being the player's apartment, a wack approach to humour and the prose's fixation on the PC's crummy ex.

5 Minutes does all its basic stuff right and exhibits some touches of advanced mindfulness: Certain commands don't waste your precious turns, there's a complete and context-sensitive hint system, some text is formatted in colour, etc. It's an old school-leaning adventure in the sense that the relationships between the puzzles and the solution objects can be pretty abstruse; it certainly requires a try everything on everything mindset embracing kitchenware, bathroomware and miscellaneous apartment crap. The implementation is too fuzzy for the fiddliness of the puzzles, leading to some guess the verb problems and uneasiness about whether you've really investigated each prop thoroughly.

I did come to feel that I knew my apartment very well during play, but the PC's constant harping on her ex-boyfriend through the lens of object descriptions tired me. This was the primary means of giving the PC some character. The danger with this game's kind of wack tone is that it can easily blanket all of the content. If I found the conjured boyfriend to be a caricature of a jerk, I found the PC to be a caricature of someone who dated a jerk and then never shut up about it. So I didn't find the game to be as funny as it probably hoped it would be.


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