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Back in the fold and loving it., August 30, 2016
by davemarylandFirst text adventure I've played for several years. The medium seems to have come a long way since I last played. Finally getting round to writing up some reviews of the few games I've played over last couple of weeks.
Anchorhead - I had heard good things but was really impressed by the level of detail and immersive experience of it all. The puzzles are tight and nicely integrated. I had a couple of verb guessing moments when I had to go on line - I was on the right track but wasn't quite there.
Occasionally I felt I was wandering around looking for something to do - but, then again, you could probably attribute that to the my text adventuring rustiness from so many years away.
I do like gruesome Lovecraftian imagery and Anchorhead didn't disappoint.
Star ratings are hard and comparative. I think four. Especially given the next two games I played.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:Not for the squeamish--but a little more romance, please! , July 25, 2016
by IFonthebrainWhen I downloaded this game last month, I kept putting off playing it because I thought it would be JUST an interactive novel, with very few puzzles--even the author in his opening notes suggested that the puzzles 'weren't very hard'--so I had it sized up to be a very easy game. In fact, I kept it on my computer while I went along playing one or two other games--as I tend to prefer games with lots of hard puzzles. Finally, I threw up my hands and said that this game wasn't going to play itself, I might as well get it over with.
I was so wrong about this game.
First of all, the game area is SPRAWLING. If you are a 'puzzle-ey' guy like me, you might not be used to starting out being able to explore large areas(many 'rooms'). My instinct when I begin a game or new area in a game, I map all available rooms. In Anchorhead, just about the whole town is free to explore from the start(except a number of not-yet-available places). This almost overwhelmed my compartmentalized male mind. But then I reminded myself that this game is not so puzzle-driven as it is plot-driven. Let the story guide you, I said. Nevertheless, I continued to map the entire city, before even meeting with Michael.
And yes, it did kind of startle me to find out that I was playing a female protagonist, especially as I was (Spoiler - click to show)having fun envisioning myself as Inspector Clouseau, with my trenchcoat and umbrella, climbing through the window of my real-estate agent's office. I don't recall any mention of the protagonist being female. So to me, this promised to make for an interesting experience for me.
It was encouraging to be more or less guided by the events in the story as to what area to address--ie. 'what to do' next--however, it's very important to explore all available areas, examine EVERYTHING, read everything, look behind and under--and in--all things, and know your inventory. There were a couple of things in this game that I missed, that I thought were easy to miss. The author was very descriptive in this game, but there were a couple of spots I thought needed more description. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)I had no idea that there was a book of matches in the kitchen, because the description of the kitchen was so spare, I didn't think to look in the cabinets. The other major thing that I think could have used more attention was (Spoiler - click to show) the study--this was the whole key to the wine bottle problem--apparently you have to be able, at the right time, to follow Michael's movements through the house, and if you do not know to be in the study immediately after you wake up on the third day, and how to get into the secret passageway there, you will be unwinnably stuck--I found this out the hard way. I talked to Michael too long and I made him storm out of the house, and ended up beating my head against meaningless wine bottles. I finally gave in and looked at a walk-through, and got that betrayed feeling like this was something I could have solved had I noticed these little things, capped off with the thought that I just cheated. But more description could have been used there. It would have saved me from (Spoiler - click to show)constantly hitting my head on the wall in the dark area of the asylum, because I didn't find the matches in the kitchen cabinet with which to light the lantern, after I escaped from the rubber room. I was constantly being chased--and eaten--by the madman, because I thought I had to somehow manipulate the light in the stairwell to get light into the rooms downstairs, only to find out from a walkthrough that there were matches in the kitchen that could have been found on Day 2. But then, this is all a part of the territory of IF adventure--part of the challenge. These games have things like SAVE and RESTORE; real life does not. So as IF adventurers, we are actually having it easy.
Otherwise, the game is RICH in description. The atmosphere is excellent, you really get the feeling that you are there. The characters are full of life, even the 'bum' near the wharf. There is even a subplot that is touching. Were I actually a female, I might have wanted a more romantic tone, and I kind of expected the train to play more of a role in the game, at least as a puzzle or the solution to one. I even hoped that (Spoiler - click to show)at the end of the game, while the town was being sucked into the vortex, Michael and I would run with careless abandon, and with perfect timing, the train would speed through and we would jump and perfectly land on a flat car and ride our asses out of town. But such was not to be.
However, the horror angle was NOT underemphasized. This game is not for the faint-of-heart. Scenes of violence and gore--including violence done to the protagonist--are incredibly graphic. One must wonder at the imagination of the author. I did feel a certain vindication at the (Spoiler - click to show)lifelessly prone body of the asylum orderly, though I wish somehow (Spoiler - click to show)the bum, and even William, could somehow have been spared. But then, this is horror. It's the reverse of fantasy land.
In reading some of the reviews for this game, I frequently came across comments that the puzzles on Day 3 had time constraints. Well, yes they do, but I think the author was kind in that he makes the story advance only after you complete each puzzle. In the final sequence, you do have a limited number of moves, but it's logical and intuitive. Be encouraged that (Spoiler - click to show)once you get handcuffed to the rock on the island of flesh, there is NOTHING you can do, so you can pretty much figure that solving this puzzle has to do with what you do with the mirrors BEFORE you are taken captive. I thought that this was the perhaps the best of the puzzles. The epilogue was a bona fide horror ending--(Spoiler - click to show)when the protagonist(s) survive, there is the promise of MORE horror!
In a word, I thought it was fantastic. Would I recommend it to a beginner? Some of these puzzles are tough, and at the beginning of the game, one might be misled by the number of locked doors/hatches, especially if you are puzzle guy like me who sees every locked door as an immediate challenge. I would recommend it with a little guidance--don't be discouraged by having to go back to (much) earlier saved positions, save often, examine everything to the hilt, make an accurate map, and let the story guide you, especially in such story-driven games as this. But then, the author provides this advice in his opening notes.
Four stars--but then I am a romantic, I wanted a (Spoiler - click to show)train-ride ending! And more description in certain places!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:Amazing, March 31, 2016
(Spoiler - click to show)like how "pouring" the fish oil was not the same as "putting" it on the rusty hinges, but overall it has been one of the most exciting and engaging pieces of interactive fiction I've ever played. The story is gripping, the atmosphere is almost literally to die for, and the residents of the town have some of the best quirks I've seen in a game like this.
I should point out that I've found a few glitches in the game, such as (Spoiler - click to show)asking the workers in the pub for whiskey made the game tell me that the librarian only served books, and (Spoiler - click to show)trying to enter the paper mill gate in different ways made the game throw a huge fit and essentially forced me to restore a previous save...seriously, try it out, but the fun I've had in the game far outweigh these relatively minor inconveniences. One of the best games I've ever played, IF or not. I can't wait to see how it ends.
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful:A decent Lovecraftian story, but a little frustrating for an IF novice, December 3, 2015
by chairbenderI'm pretty new to IF (though I'm no stranger to video games). I chose to play this game because of the high rating it received. After playing it through to completion, I'm slightly surprised at how it could've gotten such a good rating, given the experience I had with it. The writing in this game is on par with any good Lovecraftian horror story, but as for the actual gameplay, I encountered a number of frustrations and issues that I'm not used to in the other video games and few IF games I've played. Ultimately, my experience with this game was one of frustration and annoyance, but I suspect if I had a few more big IF games under my belt, or I wasn't so used to the fast pace and instant gratification of modern video games but not the pace of IF, it might've been a much better experience for me. That said, I can only judge the game based on how much fun I had with it and compare that to how much fun I have with other games. I took some notes on the parts I had trouble with - I'm sure some of these "issues" are due to my own lack of familiarity with IF, but perhaps it's interesting or useful for future reference to see how someone of my level of experience (and with my addiction to constant stimulation brought on by modern video games) felt and thought as they played the game.
My main criticisms with this game tend to involve failures of the parser, the lack of sufficient description, a lack of describing "affordances" (or what you are currently able to do in a given situation, a necessary feature when your only interface to the world is text), and several glaringly bad puzzles that usually fail due to parser issues, lack of description, or a failure for the game world to do what you want it to do and having to guess what the author wants you to do. It's hard to really get a sense of the problems with the game without pointing to specific examples. The frustrating experience of this game is caused by many little small, specific issues rather than glaring, generic flaws. So, from here on, I'm just going to go through all of the specific, little problems and issues I noticed as I played through the game, and most of it is going to be spoilers. Just know that knowing a few story points or puzzle solutions isn't going to hurt your experience of the game. If anything, it'll make it better.
At some point, you will notice a locked room in the house attic. (Spoiler - click to show)This door is locked, but it has a keyhole, like so many other doors in the game. You may assume that, as with the other doors, this door will not open until you discover a key somewhere else. Also, if you've been paying attention to the writings, you'll know that, at one point, William was kept in here, locked away from the rest of the family. You won't find a key, though. You are supposed to first decide that you should look in the keyhole. You almost NEVER have a reason to do this anywhere else in the game. There's a hint that light is coming through the crack under the door, but that doesn't immediately make you notice that there ISN'T light coming through the keyhole itself. The absence of this keyhole light isn't noted by the description, but, even if there were light coming through the keyhole, you probably wouldn't expect the parser to say something like that - it's just an irrelevant detail. So, it's very unreasonable to expect the player to think to look through the keyhole. Furthermore, you have to perform several actions before you even look in the keyhole. You look at the door, then the lock plate, then the hole, the you look IN the hole. Why make someone go through all the trouble, risking losing some percentage of players at some step in the process as they decide, oh, everything checks out, no reason to keep looking here.
Furthermore, you have to jump to the conclusion that, because the keyhole is dark, it's because a key is in the hole. That's a very unlikely explanation. First of all, why the hell would a room that's been used to lock somebody inside it have a key stuck in the hole on the inside? Second of all, perhaps there's a piece of furniture or covering over the hole? The description hardly hints at all that the hole affords sticking something inside it, if you're even fortunate enough to realize you can look at the keyhole in the first place. Also, if you've had any experience with keyholes in 1999, you'd probably notice that they don't typically go straight through the door. So you wouldn't really think anything of looking in a keyhole and seeing black - you'd think you're looking at the back wall of the key receptacle for this side of the door. Anyway, once you somehow figure out that there's a key in the hole and you can push something in the hole to push the key out, it becomes a good puzzle.
My main criticism with this puzzle is that it's really not hinted at enough and doesn't really make sense in the first place (because why would the key be inside the door, anyway?). In the context of a text adventure where you have many, many rooms to explore, this dramatically magnifies the problem. You don't even know that you CAN open this door at this point, so you might spend your time wandering and wandering elsewhere, spending countless hours of your life seeing the same descriptions over and over again, making no progress. If this was a self-contained puzzle where you had some knowledge that you were supposed to be able to get into the room in order to make progress, that would be fine. Or, if the description of the door hinted more towards the solution. Like, instead of asking the player to look at the door, then look at the keyhole plate, then look at the keyhole, then look IN the hole, just put all that info right there when the player looks at the stupid door.
In the town, you will come across a bum holding a key. (Spoiler - click to show)The bum turns out to be the obstetrician who birthed Edward and the abomination William, something you can discover by asking the bum various questions after giving him some alcohol. I don't really have a problem with this part of the bum puzzle - I thought it was fun to try asking different questions to try to figure out what he's talking about and cross-reference it with the various documents I had read up to this point.
Eventually, though, in order to get the key, you are supposed to convince him that William, who he thought was dead, was not actually dead. I thought that showing him the pages of the Anna's writing found under the child's bed would be sufficient, because it explained exactly what had happened. And I figured my character would be able to fill in the details. But no, it treats it as if you had shown the bum any other useless item, instead of offering a hint like "the bum isn't convinced by what is written" or something to that effect. So, you need to go to the crypt and open the coffin, which you've probably already found at this point, and grab the bones. Now, why would anyone think that showing some random animal skull to somebody, when that person doesn't know where it came from, would have any effect of convincing someone? I could've just brought any old animal skull. Better yet, I could've just told the bum what happened; it's not like showing the skull offers any more solid evidence than my words.
The worst part, though, is that showing the skull is not even enough. Wouldn't your character be able to explain it to the bum? No. You have to keep asking different questions. The types of questions you have to ask are VERY restrictive, and you don't receive any sort of feedback that "it seems he is starting to realize something" or anything like that. I tried asking lots of different things and they kept getting the same responses. How are you to deduce that you're on the right path? You freaking can't. It makes me mad. It's almost laughable when you finally say the "magic words" and then get a large text dump. Why not just let me show the skull and be done with it? Why force me to guess what I'm suppsoed to do? The only challenge is due to the parser not being able to translate what I want to do into actions. How am I supposed to guess the exact way you want me to phrase the question, you stupid parser? It's just making a game challenge by forcing me to get around the limitations of the interface. This was terribly frustrating.
Here's a more general problem with the game - an occasional, but critical, lack of a clear description of the available exits. There's several spots where a room description utterly fails to inform you about an available exit. And there's no "exits" command. Even worse, a few rooms WILL tell you where the exits are when you go in an invalid direction, but many rooms will simply say that you can't go there and that's that. This causes frustration at several points in the game: When trying to find your husband near the start of the game after getting the manor keys, (Spoiler - click to show)the room just south of the pub doesn't tell you that you can go west, which is where you need to go to get to the college. I wasted a bunch of time thinking I had already explored everything because I assumed that the descriptions were exhaustive. And later on, (Spoiler - click to show) when you get to the path near the slaughterhouse with the stump and the trampled sapling, there's no indication that you can go SW (or SE or wherever it was). You NEED to do this in order to make progress. Why is my character able to go there, but not able to see that they can go there?
In general, that class of problems is frustrating because it's only challenging because the author didn't include an adequate description of the room. You generally trust those descriptions, though. So now, if you decide not to trust them, you have to try EVERY possible direction in EVERY room, lest you miss some possible exit. It's a boring, tedious, time consuming process. If you don't happen upon this realization, you'll be stuck wandering around irrelevant areas of the game, thinking you've explored every option and there's some solvable puzzle in one of the rooms you need to do in order to advance. But no, you just made the mistake of trusting the room description. There should've been an accurate representation of the exits, or at least some indication that there's possible exits not in the description, or an "exits" command.
Here's another small gripe - having to close and lock doors before you go to sleep. I understand how it adds to the atmosphere of the game, about not feeling comfortable and feeling vulnerable in your own manor. But, in practice, it just turns out to be WAY unnecesarilly tedious. It starts with you remembering that you left a door open. So you try to leave the room. You idiot, you have to get up first. So you get up, then leave the room. You idiot, you have to put on some clothes for some reason. So you put on clothes and find your way back to the door. "Lock door". The door is open, you idiot, so you can't lock it. Close door. Lock door. Back to bed. How about this, instead - I go to bed, then I get a brief description describing how my character does all these steps for me, which I would have to manually do anyway? It's just unnecesarry tedium and it doesn't add anything to the game that wouldn't be there with just a simple description. This would give the author opportunities to embellish these descriptions to add to that atmosphere. At the very least, if the only way my character can leave the room is to put on clothes, get me the hell up, put on my freaking close for me, and leave the room. I don't care about losing control of my character, I care about having fun, and Mavis Beacon (or even Super Mario) Teaches Typing is always there for me if I want to have a blast typing words that I'm asked to type.
Your kitchen has a pantry.(Spoiler - click to show) That pantry leads to a wine cellar with a puzzle involving bottles, which could've been fun had it not been so poorly implemented. The actual puzzle involving rotating the bottles is actually pretty great - especially with how you have to use the information you learned about the family history. But, in context of the larger game, there's a glaring flaw. I discovered these bottles earlier. I KNEW that this lead to a hidden passageway because the bottles were fixed in place. So I tried all sorts of different commands to try to get my character to thoroughly search these bottles, to no avail. If I was there in real life, I would be pulling, twisting, and feeling every single bottle. But there was no way to get my character to do this. So, having exhaustively tried all sorts of options, I decided there was nothing to be gained here. Later, though, after your Michael uses the wine cellar, your "look" command reveals some new information. Argh. I had already written off this room because I thought I had exhaustively searched it. Plus, if that really was how you got into the room, I would think there would already be a noticeable difference with the bottles even without Michael using it (since obviously people used it before) - at least a different amount of dust or some scratch marks on the floor or hearing a hollow thud when hitting it. None of which happens. So I wasted a bunch of time, as always, exploring other areas of the game because that's what the help text told me to do. But I got nowhere. This should've been hinted at more when you initially explore the bottles, otherwise you may end up just writing them off and forgetting about them. Also, the dream says that "michael is doing something in the basemenet". But the room from the stairs in the pantry is called the "cellar", not "basement". So you may think you need to find some OTHER passageway. Maybe there's an exit in one of the rooms that the description neglects to mention, as has been done so many other places in the game? Time to waste some time...
Let's talk about the librarian at the library. The interaction here is godawful. (Spoiler - click to show)It's possible to discover this information in another way, but it doesn't excuse this small, stupid puzzle. Let's not even talk about trying to get Michael's ID. It's another "magic word" puzzle, because the parser absolutely fails to produce the desired result, even after trying so many different commands. No "librarian, give book", no "ask librarian about book" (replacing book with the full book name). The actual command that worked for me was "ask librarian FOR book". This is a problem, to me. At no point in the game do we know we can use "ask person FOR". Up until then, we can only say "ask person about", like with the bum. So, to expect the player to know to use "FOR" instead is absolutely rage inducing, ESPECIALLY considering that you get a sense that the parser is not very robust to inputs after trying so many different commands here. So you CERTAINLY wouldn't mess with the established practice by using "for" instead of "about". But no, you have to. You may not even think that you CAN get a book from the librarian, because the description hints that the librarian is a strange fellow. Maybe they'll just always ignore you? This one made me mad.
At some point in the game, you may discover a musical instrument. (Spoiler - click to show)The interaction with this stupid flute is also terrible and clunky. First of all, it took me quite awhile to figure out how to even cover the different holes. I didn't realize I could even do so, after trying so many different commands and not receiving any sort of useful feedback. The description doesn't hint at this. It tells you about holes but doesn't say how you can interact with them. In real life, this wouldn't be a problem, but in a text adventure you need to describe the affordances of the interface. So it fails on that front. Even then, when you figure out how to cover holes, the interaction for covering and uncovering them is woefully inadequate. As far as I could tell, there's know way to tell what holes are currently covered. It could've simply said what holes are covered every time you covered or uncovered one, or told you what's covered when you look at the flute while holding it or use the inventory command.
Then, there's my most hated puzzle in the game. It involves a hatch that you're trying to open. (Spoiler - click to show)In the sewer, there's a rusty hatch that you need to open late in the game in order to get north of the bridge. When I first encountered this hatch, earlier in the game, I assumed rust was the problem and the solution was using the fish oil. So I "put fish oil on hatch", or "put fish oil on hinge". It tells me that "putting something on the hatch wouldn't accomplish anything". Okay, guess I have to maybe open the hatch from the other side or something...NOPE! Wrong! You have to first OPEN the tin, THEN you can use "put fish oil on hatch" to loosen it up. This is unforgivable. The first message makes you think that you shouldn't try anything else, so look elsewhere for a solution. But you literally have to use that EXACT command, it's just that the fish oil tin was in the wrong state. Why not at least say that you need to open the tin first? This puzzle is the true horror of this game.
There's a few random nitpicks I had with the interface for reading documents. Sometimes, while reading a document, the description will shift from the text of the document to a narration of your personal reaction to that document. But there's nothing to distinguis those blocks. Addiitionally, when the length of a document exceeds the length of the screen and you need to press space to scroll, there's no indication of where you left off, so you'll probably spend a moment having to figure out where you should resume reading from.
At some point, there's a wheel you want to turn. (Spoiler - click to show)It's too hot, though. So you have to wrap the towel around the wheel. Again, the parser utterly fails. There's all sorts of commands that totally make sense, like "wrap towel around wheel", "wrap wheel", "grab wheel with towel" or something like that but none of them work. You have to use "put towel on wheel". Ugh. I don't think "put" is a very descriptive verb for what I'm trying to do, and the only time I had to do it earlier was when I wanted to put things inside another thing. If someone told me to put a towel on something, I would just fold it up and set it on top of that thing. A frustrating waste of time that could be easily solved with a little bit of hinting or better description of affordances.
On the third day, towards the end, (Spoiler - click to show)you'll get a key from a corpse. You're supposed to use it to unlock a locked drawer in the real estate office. How are you supposed to know that there is a locked drawer there? Of course, the description for the room doesn't give you any indication that there's a locked drawer. I've been in quite a few offices and I've rarely seen locking desk drawers, so I would assume that a locked desk drawer would be called out in the description. Heck, some desks don't even have drawers, so I would expect that fact to be called out in the room description (it never is, with the few desks that appear in this game, the opening of which is required to make progress). Even then, you would assume that the key on the corpse is just the key to enter the building, which is locked at the start of the game. And it would be a big leap in reasoning to assume that this key ALSO unlocks a drawer, because that's not usually how keying works.
There's a few areas where the unlocking of doors is needlessly complicated. For example, if I'm in front of the lighthouse and I have a key, I can't simply type "unlock lighthouse". I have to type "unlock door". I shouldn't even have to do that - it should just unlock doors whenever I try to enter them, if I have the key. It's just a simple quality of life improvement that prevents breaking up the flow of the game.
Here's one that also had me pretty annoyed. On the final day, (Spoiler - click to show)once you break out of your padded cell, you don't have any of your items. Oh hey, there's actually a closet right next to your door that wasn't mentioned in the room description that has all your stuff. What? First of all, why would the cultists bother to even keep my stuff so close to my room? Second of all, and more importantly, WHY THE HECK IS THAT NOT IN THE DESCRIPTION! I NEED MY STUFF IN ORDER TO BEAT THE GAME! ARRRGHHHH!!!!!
Another small annoyance I encountered at the very end of the game - (Spoiler - click to show)when Michael asks you for the mirror, even if you have the "treated" mirror, and you say "give mirror", it doesn't bother to ask which mirror you were referring to. It just gives him the working one, which you would have NO motivation to do. Also, why doesn't Michael notice that you're holding one mirror but taking a mirror out of your backpack and giving it to him. It's the conclusion of the game, so I'd expect it to be the most polished part of the writing, but there's this big, glaring plot hole. This Crosius guy or whatever his name was has lived for a long time, certainly he is observant enough to detect trickery.
Finally, also at the very end of the game, (Spoiler - click to show)how are you able to physically get the needle from your jacket while cuffed? You're probably not going to happen on this solution if you correctly assume that this simply isn't possible in a reasonable amount of time. But no, you have to use the needle.
Finally FINALLY, I really am not keen on the game's insistence on "save scumming" as the only way to make progress at certain parts of the game (especially towards the end). In general, I'm fine with games that rely on saving and reloading, but only if that interface does an excellent job of supporting that use case. Needless to say, this game doesn't. You're going to have to save often and you're going to have to name your files really descriptively, or else you'll end up in a state where the game is unwinnable. You'll have times where you have to replay through sections you've already been through. It's like if a book or a movie asked you to re-read or re-watch the same scene over and over again before letting you watch the next one. Designers should think more about how decisions to stick to certain generic conventions, like save / restore, affect the enjoyment of the player, instead of just going with them because that's what everyone else does.
That's it. I'm done. That's all the stuff I noticed. Thanks for sticking it out through this long review.
To sum up my thoughts on this game: it's ruined by an abundance of frustrating situations that hamper the enjoyment of the story and the enjoyment of the few good puzzles. I know there's an interesting Lovecraftian horror story in there, but, if that's what you're after, let me let you in on a little secret. There's this site, Amazon, on which you can buy books. These books allow you to experience the story without having to solve frustrating puzzles or re-read the same pages over and over. In fact, there's an author called H. P. Lovecraft who writes stories similar to this, and there's even books that contain his entire works.
Anyway, to avoid these issues in future games, I believe that developers could do a few things. First, more play testing, by people that don't already know the game. During this testing, make sure to collect enough info so you an re-play a player's session and see what problems they ran into. Second of all, be mindful of the concept of affordances. It's a text adventure, so you have to make it clear what somebody can and can't do. This means things like making obvious exits clear and providing feedback on how you can interact with objects and NPCs. This ALSO includes things like making sure all the relevant elements in a room are in the description. If you don't trust your ability to do this entirely through the description text, then provide procedural ways to list the state of a room - like listing all the interactible objects or something. Third, when designing a game, at least for someone like me who wants to enjoy playing a game, actually consciously think about the enjoyment of the player at each point in the game. For every decision, try to maximize player enjoyment. Don't just include generic conventions from IF because it's an IF game. Include them because they make the game enjoyable. Remove them because they suck and make the game frustrating. Avoid saving and loading-based gameplay unless you have a really solid interface for that, because people don't usually like to do that because it hurts immersion when you die and reload. I'm not saying that you should compromise your artistic vision or your message in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator - think about the enjoyment of your art or aesthetics as one aspect of player enjoyment - I'm just saying that there's some design decisions you might be making "on autopilot" that can have devastating impacts on the game. In this case, it took an entire person's many hours of effort and toil and turned them into something I wished I'd rather not played.
In short, if you're an IF novice or you're used to the fast pace and instant gratification of modern video games but not IF, I do not recommend this game. However, if you're new to IF but you generally have a good time with games regardless of whatever problems others might have, I would definitely recommend this. For me, though, it gets two stars because, at least, it's a decent Lovecraftian horror story and quite a few of the puzzles are fun. If it weren't for the frustrating moments throughout the game, it would've received a much higher rating. But, a few major frustrations can completely sour the experience of a game - it doesn't matter how GOOD the good parts of a game are if the bad parts are really, agonizingly bad.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:Probably the best piece of IF - should be recommended to IF newbies, September 16, 2015
by mjhayes (Niagara Falls, NY)On every new computer platform, it's only a matter of time before somebody writes an IF interpreter for it. After downloading some interpreters for some new devices, the first game I reached for was Anchorhead. It was a new game at the time I was a lurker on the IF scene, and I remember all the rave reviews it got even then.
To this day, I can spend hours at a time replaying the game to look for alternate solutions to puzzles, or to see how somebody will react to something I hadn't tried before. Although Lovecraftian horror seemed to be a too-common theme among IF writers of the day, and I'm certainly not a Lovecraft connoisseur, I enjoy this game for its integration between being an "open world" game with a lot of real estate for an IF title, and its ever-deepening mystery.
What makes this game so enjoyable is that it progresses in difficulty throughout the story, as any game ought to do. Many other IF games simply throw difficult puzzles at the player from start to finish, making them unenjoyable, in spite of how well-written they are. First, this game captivates the player with an excellent description of a generic backwater New England coastal town, and has room descriptions that usually avoid simply telling the player "you can't go that way." By the time the player has settled into the town as much as the main character has, then it's time to ease into uncovering the mystery. That's the other thing that makes this so enjoyable. Instead of being presented with a collection of puzzles to solve, progress at first is made through extensive research, both into the family history as well as the town's folklore. The vast amount of reading material keeps me interested in the game even when I'm not playing. Finally, there are often "second chances" at solving various puzzles. This also leads to the replay value, as it creates interest to find out what the other solution is, and also to find out what would have happened if you had left something undone.
Only recently, I stumbled across a bug, which made me interested to find out whether there would be another revision. As it turns out, the author has a "director's cut" in the works. I hope I don't have to wait until November 2017 to try it out in its entirety.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful:One of the best text adventures of all time. Fun even if you use a walkthrough, April 5, 2015
That said, this is a very hard game. I'm not sure how anyone could solve the (Spoiler - click to show)telescope lens puzzle on their own.
However, the depth of the game and the quality of the writing is such that it is still enjoyable even if you have to resort to hints from time to time. Many of the best moments are also the easiest puzzles.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:Some Tips for Prospective Anchorites, March 7, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)(I know you're now imagining a one-room IF, playing as a walled in anchorite from the 13th century.) Anchorhead is a classic work of IF. You should absolutely play it. It's perhaps the work to study for creating a consistent atmosphere and a heavily detailed world. Every object in the game, whether a background object or one you can carry around, has a description. And every description in the game is in service to its bleak and disturbing setting. The game is enormous in both number of locations and in length of play, but presents a very cohesive geography and well-structured sequence of events.
That said, some of the puzzles in the game are somewhat unfair, and it is (I believe) still possible, even with the updated Special Edition, to choose an action (or fail to complete an action) that makes the game unwinnable; a situation that you don't discover until much later. Correct me if I'm wrong and I'll update the review, but (BIG SPOILERS HERE) (Spoiler - click to show) you can't get back into the church to retrieve the real estate office key if you've failed to get it, and you can't get back to the green door if you've crossed the rope bridge more than once. Other puzzles in the game sort of circumvent some IF conventions that seem to be more common in recent IF offerings, so I thought a list of (spoiler free) tips for prospective players might be helpful, particularly for those of us who are relatively new to the IF scene:
0) SAVE OFTEN USING A NEW SAVE EACH TIME! I generally would have a master save at the beginning of each chapter, then do a new save after each major puzzle solution. (And this still didn't prevent me from having to replay some chapters from the beginning several times.)
1) Take everything you find with you all the time. You must be a kleptomaniac, stealing everything that isn't nailed down. Your trenchcoat is a hold-all with infinite capacity, so there's no reason not to just have everything with you. That innocuous object you found in the first act may well save your skin in the final one.
2) This game has separate results for 'examine' and 'search'. Make a practice of examining every object in every room, including objects that are only mentioned in room descriptions. Then examine any new objects that turn up in the 'examine' descriptions. Then 'search' everything that you might consider searchable.
3) There are places where scenery objects (that is objects that appear only in room descriptions) can be manipulated. This felt to me like making a puzzle by hiding an object in the wallpaper. Read room descriptions carefully and don't be afraid to try using what you find there to create logical solutions to your predicament. The puzzles in Anchorhead are generally logical; they just are often well-hidden.
4) Ask every character you meet about themselves, e.g. "Ask the clown about the clown" This can help get a conversation thread going.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:wonderfully spooky and challenging, October 14, 2014
The map is so involved it really helps to draw one to avoid getting lost or stuck - the directions can be a little confusing. I'd also recommend taking notes as you go (Spoiler - click to show)because there are some "research projects" that are fairly labor-intensive. Also some scenes only show up once.
It makes you think!
I wouldn't recommend it for brand new players, but once you understand the genre, it's a blast. This isn't a "power-through-it-fast" game, so take your time and enjoy!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:Great, March 15, 2014
by Macaroni-cheese (The Village)Ive played this game maybe about a dozen times now and it never gets old. This game should be on everyone's top 5 games to play.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:Long-standing champion in the IF Horror genre, March 1, 2014
by OtisTDog(Note: Would-be players are well-served by other reviews; this one is for would-be authors.)
There aren't really that many works of horror IF. Well-known works are fewer. Award-winning works pretty much come down to a handful, with Anchorhead being the first and only for at least a decade.
What makes it so hard to write horror IF? My usual argument is that it comes down to the problem of controlling pacing, which is critical to building the player's mood, and which is extraordinarily difficult to manage with the toolkit of interactive fiction. Control it too much, and the player is likely to feel "railroaded" and thus cheated of the promise of interaction. Control it too little, and the player will inevitably dawdle and poke about in the world you've built, which has the effect of constantly draining away the tension that you're trying so hard to keep on the rise. The player may enjoy bits and pieces of the experience but will not come away with the whole you envisioned.
Mr. Gentry seems to have very consciously grasped the challenge here and created a number of subtle innovations that go a long way towards overcoming both it and other obstacles to translating the methods of horror into IF. It is well worth examining these innovations in detail to try to understand what they solve, how they work and how they might be improved.
Anchorhead is patterned after the works of H. P. Lovecraft, which typically feature a protagonist who, beginning in a relatively humdrum setting, discovers previously-unsuspected horrors and subsequently struggles (often unsuccessfully) to retain his sanity as he grapples with the redefinition of his reality. In following this formula, it is first necessary to establish a starting point of normality, and Mr. Gentry clearly went to great lengths to do so. The "normal" presented in this work differs significantly from what is typically found in interactive fiction -- it's closer to actual reality in several ways.
First, as Emily Short notes, Gentry's prose offers players a multidimensional sensory experience that is far above-average in its quality, and which is delivered with amazing grace and economy. Not just sight, but sound, smell, touch are all intertwined throughout the room and object descriptions. The work that went into all of this writing was enormous, but with it Gentry achieves an important goal: As a player, you feel much more immersed in the environment than you would in most games.
Second, there are nuances of interaction that faithfully mimic the mechanics of reality in ways surprising to long-time players. Most notable here is the implementation of a model of the PC's hands -- the game keeps track of how she's holding her inventory and interacting with objects, causing failure of some actions when neither hand is free. While this level of realism has the potential to be a major annoyance, Gentry's coding skills ensure that, for the most part, you won't have to worry about it, as the PC will automatically shift things around on your behalf. The mimesis is somewhat broken here by the presence of a "holdall" object with unrealistically large carrying capacity, but since inventory limits are anathema to most players, this is an acceptable tradeoff. From time to time, the lack of free hands or pockets asserts itself in a realistic manner, once again reinforcing an underlying normality that brings you another step "into" the game world.
Third, again surprising, is the implementation of the weather. The game's storms are almost as annoying in Anchorhead as they would be in real life, prone to interfering with your inventory in ways which, though not hyper-realistic, manage to catch the essentials of the situation(Spoiler - click to show). That hurricane lamp you just walked outside with? It's out. That box of papers you had? Well, you still have the box. A well-implemented umbrella, working in conjunction with your hands, deals with most of the hassle, but Gentry has cleverly managed to make it just real enough that you have to worry about it as a player, elevating it above mere background description and again forcing you deeper into the PC's situation.
Fourth is the implementation of NPCs. I agree with Peter Pears that this is an exceptional example of the potential of the ask/tell system in the hands of a good writer, which makes talking to people feel like real interaction. The topic depth here is again evidence of hard work done with great skill; NPCs respond to topics that many players might not think to ask, if they haven't been paying attention to all of the minor details presented elsewhere in the game. This has a positive feedback effect for you as the player in that you are rewarded for making these connections in a way that does not affect the game's playability but once again draws you further "in". (Incidentally, this is a great variation of the "show, don't tell" technique for confirming the player's understanding of the situation, as such connections are rarely noted by the PC.)
Last but not least, the handling of the PC strikes an excellent balance, leaving enough AGFNCAAP-like interaction to allow anyone to project themselves into the lead role while retaining a narrative voice that colors the whole experience in a meaningful way. From time to time, the PC's mentality injects itself unobtrusively into the game, always in a way that reinforces immersion and enhances the player/PC connection(Spoiler - click to show). I am especially fond of the PC's unwillingness to go to sleep with the doors unlocked the first night in the house. Though it means having to get back up, put your clothes on, go downstairs and deal with it, it also makes sense that the PC would be too agitated about the situation to go to sleep without doing so, and I love how it's presented as though you simply forgot to do this -- even though wandering around leaving doors open is perfectly normal behavior in most IF. Again, this is a very restrained and subtle reinforcement of the game world as "real" that is amazingly precise in that it doesn't quite annoy you as a player.
These efforts to enhance reality don't really affect the gameplay very much, but they do affect your experience as a reader. After investing a lot of work to align the player's perceptions and mindset into an expectation of realism, Gentry is able to start introducing the surrealism that is the backbone of Lovecraftian horror. Gentry's success in this effort springs from the insight that underlies the Lovecraft quote which opens the game: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
Mr. Gentry's first key perception was understanding that the right place to develop tension is in the mind of the player, not the mind of the PC. Despite the trials of the experience portrayed, the PC has almost no observable emotional reaction -- if there is an emotional reaction, it comes from you, and it's achieved because the player/PC identity alignment has been so carefully managed. As the situation becomes more desperate, the PC becomes willing to do things that either explicitly or implicitly would have been balked at normally(Spoiler - click to show). Examples: stealing her husband's faculty card, spying on her husband, "hacking" his computer, stealing the mechanic's key, crawling through sewer pipes. Since many of these actions are necessary to advance the plot, in effect, the way the PC's reactions are modified to suit the mood that has been targeted almost acts as an emotional puzzle structure that ensures you feel the way Gentry wanted you to at each point(Spoiler - click to show). I say "almost" because not all of these actions are necessary to "win" (though they are to achieve maximum points).
Gentry's second vital intuition was in understanding that the way to keep the tension from dissipating is, unintuitively, to build it very slowly. Since no number of exclamation points is sufficient to induce a surprise reaction in the player, Gentry instead uses the technique of scattering numerous small clues to the central mystery throughout the game world. As Peter Pears phrased it you build your understanding "piece by piece" from these brilliantly interlocking clues in a way that makes your uncomfortable comprehension seem to well up from the dark recesses of your own subconscious instead of being handed down from above(Spoiler - click to show). I particularly like how this technique interacts with some of the "red herring" ideas introduced during the library research portion. As a player, you're not sure which to expect to materialize in-game. Notably, there are multiple clues for key information, making these realizations easier to achieve for the player and reinforcing the realism style. Even more notable is Gentry's craft in writing some of them. The "visual" clues (Spoiler - click to show)(i.e. the paintings in the gallery) are so well-written that I can recall them to my memory as though I had seen an actual image.
Overlaid onto the plot is a well-formed "scene" structure that divides the game world both chronologically and geographically. While the division of time into day and evening cycles is a bit too crude to be completely believable(Spoiler - click to show)(see Brian Uri's Augmented Fourth for a similar but more granular and thus more effective treatment), large portions of the game world are only accessible during certain times, giving a very dynamic feel to the story compared to games that depend solely on spatial barriers to enforce the plot structure.
In addition, there are a few timed or "action" sequences sprinkled throughout the game to add variety to the pacing. With respect to these, I found very effective Gentry's technique of giving the player the opportunity to explore certain spaces in advance of action sequences that would take place in them. The first time you are in an area, your exploration (unrestricted by time) advances your understanding of the plot. The second time there, the application of timing restrictions seems perfectly fair, as you've had a chance to develop the knowledge needed to "survive" them and your attention is not diverted by the need to explore the environment(Spoiler - click to show). My personal favorite example is the slaughterhouse scene, in which the two modes occur back-to-back in the same area. It is a vividly cinematic sequence, though it is marred by the rather ludicrous (if effective) presence of the crayon drawing and inconsistent use of the verb "hide".
As a last note of praise, I admired the way that the author found a couple of interesting ways to discomfort long-time players via subtle manipulation of expectations(Spoiler - click to show). Example: The fly in the real estate agent's office is a persistent presence in the prose, but can't be interacted with as an object. It's irritating and disquieting since generally for IF prominence in the text equates to prominence in the object structure. Example: The inability to explore the house due to darkness on the first night. A touch of pseudo-realism that doesn't quite fit in the typical IF experience -- having gained entry to the house you, as a player, expect to get to check it out. I think it is small details such as this that left me not quite knowing what to expect from the rest of the story while still feeling grounded within it. This slight disorientation is the mark of encountering something new (which is very, very rare for long-time players), and that, more than anything else, is what makes this work stand out in my mind.
All of the above is not to say that Anchorhead is perfect. I actually felt that the introduction (pre-arrival at the house) was quite poorly done. I had tried this game before and put it aside after 50 moves a couple of times, but this time I gritted my teeth and powered through it -- and I'm very glad I did. In addition, there are quite a few small bugs and places where the polish wears off towards the end of the game(Spoiler - click to show). For the nitpickers interested in a tour of these inconsistencies in the otherwise very high implementation quality:
* There seems to be an unintentional "last lousy point" issue due to a sensitivity to the order-of-events between researching birth and death dates and reading about the Verlach family in the library book. If you read the dates first, you make a connection and gain a point when you read the book, but not the other way around.
* Messages about flute resonance can sometimes call both columns the "right-hand column" in the mound.
* The madman in the asylum mimicking your voice doesn't seem to work correctly. I got garbled text that I am fairly sure should have been repeating back what I had typed.
* The way the magic word "ialdabaoloth" is handled is problematic; quotes don't work and the failure of commands like "say ialdabaoloth" and "door, ialdabaoloth" make it an unintentional guess-the-syntax puzzle.
* Examining the lighthouse after it is destroyed shows it still "there" from multiple vantage points.
* Trying to push William off the bridge gives a default politeness-based refusal that definitely does not fit with the situation.
* The bum's corpse still seems to be treated as animate after his death; you get default NPC responses for many interactions.
* Michael's corpose seems to be absent as an object.
* The luggage default message stays the same no matter how crazy the situation gets. So does taking a bath.
* Automatic key logic doesn't take into account keys not on the keychain -- very noticeable in the madman chase scene.
* There are a few disambiguation issues in conversation topics, e.g. "the book" or "the professor".
Beyond these, there are some places where design choices seem antiquated today even though they are closer to the norm for 1998:
* gratuitous mazes, though small and at least one can be bypassed
* darkness in the hallway during the madman scene; this turned into an annoyance for me and screwed up the pacing of the scene because I didn't have a light source, though this doesn't seem like an intentional "puzzle"
* the torn square of canvas being semi-hidden though it would clearly have been visible to the PC is strange and requires a careful search in a sequence otherwise oriented around a fast escape
* the climactic puzzle with the mirrors has many problematic details (Spoiler - click to show)(Why can you only mess up a replacement? Why doesn't Michael/Verlach notice the label on the replacement mirror? Why can't you "touch mirror" with an oily finger to get the same sabotage effect?) and definitely took a walkthrough for me
. Most likely, this is due to the scale of the work being so large that a) Gentry's skills in writing and coding improved over the course of its development and b) playtesting to perfection would take more hours than were available from volunteers. Space constraints may also have been a factor -- this work was developed pre-Glulx and must have stretched the limits of the z8 format.
Perhaps the greatest criticism I can muster is that Anchorhead very nearly succumbs to the pacing problem that kills so many attempts at IF horror. This is most obvious during Day Three, where I wanted STORY, not puzzles, and my patience for them was wearing thin enough to start consulting the walkthrough.
My natural rating for this work would have been 4 stars, or "exceptional" by my scale. I'm compelled to give it 5, however, because, in my experience, it is the king of the genre, far surpassing its Infocom-produced cousin, The Lurking Horror.
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