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About the StoryUtopia Technologies. Industrial giant, economic powerhouse, the world's greatest scientific superpower, and the organisation most responsible for eroding civil liberties and personal freedoms. They're an all-powerful capitalist megacorporation that you despise completely and utterly, yet you're perfectly willing to join their ranks.
The paperwork has been filed, and you're on the way to the California Archipelago in a transport shuttle. There's no turning back now. Tomorrow morning, you'll be a citizen of Utopia, based in the Arcology -- that overcrowded, polluting eyesore of gargantuan proportions. You'll be a mere immigrant worker at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but your stomach still churns at the thought. Your motives for going may be pure, but that doesn't make it easy.
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The plot and setting of Inside Woman are hardly original. The story takes place 150 years into the future, where global warming, biological warfare and globalisation have all left their mark. The protagonist is an Asian superspy, sent into the capital of another corporate state which is bent on becoming a total monopoly, in a quest to discover their plans. The game begins on a transport craft about to dock at this city, a giant pyramid, and Lo and Behold - puzzles ensue.
So, not a groundbreaking scenario. But playing the game is a real treat as the theme works so well. The writing is often just a bare description but comes across as fleshed out and vivid. And of course the player expectation for a game where the character is a hot female superspy is that it should be fun, and I felt that the author succeeded in this as well. A memorable highlight is when the you are required to win a virtual reality arcade game where you are... a hot female superspy (on a bike!). You will find yourself trying every over-the-top action movie cliché to score the maximum points. It was firmly tongue in cheek, and very entertaining.
As I mentioned earlier the puzzles are not quite as hard as some of the previous games Andy has released, but there are still plenty of times where you will be really challenged. There are a lot more hints around for you to find, many of which are implemented through the player's sidekick, which has made the game more approachable. I managed to get over two thirds through the game with just a couple of hints from other people, before getting totally stuck on one particular puzzle. Fortunately there is a hints file available now, which is how I got past this stage. There are several instances where syntax or the correct verb are important, but at least they are rare.
For anyone new to puzzle-based IF, the key things to remember are - examine and search everything (sometimes more than once, as they might change with no notification), read the descriptions and conversation carefully for subtle clues and think outside the box. With this in mind, if you are up for a challenge you will really enjoy this game.
And then, at the end, bitter disappointment. A sudden time limit for the entirety of the endgame. The need to find five codes. The weight of all the puzzles I hadn't been able to solve so far, and always thought I'd need extra equipment which I'd have in time - and here's me, needing to solve those puzzles, but still no extra equipment, no extra insight.
This was all too much, and much like Andy's previous games, it stupidly came near the end. Andy, please. PLEASE. By the end of ANY game the player is tired enough already, but by the end of your games he's frickin' EXHAUSTED. Ease up on us, will ya? I gave up on this game because of this. I've done enough, the game kept exorting me to go further and further and I went, I played along, but to spring this on me at the end? I cry fowl. I quit. I move on. Just like that, I have no further wish to involve myself in this game.
Well, now that that's out of my system...
...which doesn't mean it doesn't belong in this review; at this time, the feelings I've just described are the strongest feelings I have regarding this game, therefore they certainly belong in a review...
...let's talk about this game. Andy Phillips has created another monster of a game, and has not forgotten some of his staples like gratuitous puzzles here and there (so much so that the player's sidekick starts commenting on how excessive they are - amusingly, that makes them easier to bear), genre writing, a certain imagery that's very vivid, almost comic-book-ish, and a grandiose story.
I have to say this is his best *game*. His best puzzles may be in Heist; his best-crafted visuals definitely in Heroine's Mantle (in fact, this game lacks a bit of the pizzazz that so characterised Mantle, but it's a different game, different atmosphere, and anyways we still have six thematically-identified female antagonists, so I guess that makes up for the lack of heroine antics)... but as a game? This one shines. The way it gradually opens up to the player; the way you quickly realise that each level of Utopia is pretty much a puzzle in itself, and you can mostly solve it without resorting to other levels; the nature of the puzzles themselves, always clued but never obviously so; and the way those subbuteo pieces keep cropping up everywhere (I'm actually sorry that wasn't merely a comedic touch, because it worked brilliantly just like that), as a sort of comic relief...
In this one, you play an Asian SuperSpy. Well, in Heist you majored as a SuperThief, in Mantle you played a SuperHeroine... Phillips is clearly going in a certain direction. One is unsure of whether he's parodying the style, making it serious, trying something new or enjoying the staples of the old.
You know what? I don't care. There was a comic book charm about Mantle, and sometimes a kind of Charlie's Angels charm to this game (although more spy-themed; though there's definitely a Charlie's Angels motorbike section...). It's enjoyable, and staple or not, it's fun, and has a kick to iy. So maybe some of the prose falls flat - invariably when the PC is making a moral assessment of some sort. For most of the game, these assessments are in the voice of the sidekick, and that works wonders. Then they migrate to the PC's voice, and that works... less well.
I do so wish Andy would stop doing that, by the way. It's rather typical: an author who wants to explain things a bit too much, lay it on a bit too thick. The first three quarters of this game prove that Andy writes well enough WITHOUT that; the situations he creates provoke the reaction he desires in his players. It's only when he goes one step further and actually VOICES that reacting through the PC that it gets less enjoyable. It's possible this difficulty is simply the difficulty in creating a PC... because Andy proved that, when keeping those reactions to an NPC, it works wonders.
Another issue is the main theme - the supercorporation that creates a 1984 society. It's rather done to death, so for the author to bring it up in 2009 it means one of two things.
A) The author believes it's still as relevant as it was before;
B) The author gets a kick of these exaggerated, overly dramatic settings.
Personally, I tend towards B), and I don't mean this in a bad way. There's a lot of fun, a lot of potential in such setting, and Andy plays them to the max. Power to him.
I was revved up to really finishing this game without hints, and like I said, I got a very long way. I even endured the two worst things in an AP game: the "puzzle as the reward for a puzzle" (man, it gets tiring) and the gratuitous puzzle (in the casino, I actually groaned. Three times). It was always worth it; I've just spoken badly of the Casino puzzles, but actually solving them was a real treat. The act of *solving*, I mean. Not the frustration of *trying and trying and trying* to solve them.
And near the end, here they are - the codes. I really hoped Andy had done away with them. If you have codes in your game, then unless they are fairly obvious, or just not too cryptic, the game stops. Halts. Completely. If you're cryptic, and Andy is, then anything and everything in the game can look like a code. What about that year? Is that significant? That player's High Score? Hang on, here's a date... Maybe count the number of words that character said? "Break both legs", is that a nod towards number two? Or number eleven? No, they're broken, maybe 77?
I mean, GAH! Authors, this is my pet peeve with these puzzles. If you really want to include codes and safe combinations, please do not make them too arcane to solve. You saw where my mind started going to? DO NOT LET IT. Provide me enough clues to KEEP ME on the RIGHT TRACK. Thank you.
I hardly know how to end this review, so I might as well end it here. Bottom line: I was loving it, even when I was fighting it. Then the game sprung too much on me at once (did I mention the puzzles I was leaving to solve till later, having done all I could for the moment, only to find out I had to solve them NOW without any extra insight? What can I try I haven't tried before? With the extra aggravation of me now being royally sick of those puzzles). I'm moving on, leaving this one unsolved.
Oh, one last thing. There's a plot twist that passed me by completely unnoticed. This is because it was presented in such a way that I thought it was a villain trying to trick me. It was quite a while before I realised that no, it was the truth, and I, the player, was supposed to have been shocked at the revelation, and adjusted my world view accordingly, instead of refusing to believe it. So, a very important plot twist that the player hasn't noticed... not the author's finest hour. Though it does prompt you to replay a certain section of the game and be highly amused at the results you'll get.
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This is version 1 of this page, edited by Emily Short on 9 May 2009 at 1:22am. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item