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About the StoryMarooned in an alien, airless wasteland -- your starship fractured -- your crewmates missing. Can an apprentice alchemist learn how to survive?
Nominee, Best Game; Winner, Best Setting; Winner, Best Puzzles; Winner, Best Implementation; Winner, Best Use of Innovation - 2014 XYZZY Awards
"This game is undoubtedly one of the best works of IF in the Infocom tradition. Its puzzles are all based on a system of admirably complicated alchemy that naturally emerges from the world and its story. The result is an engrossing, fun gameplay experience that has a kind of consistency and momentum comparable to games like Portal 2 that also have a strong central puzzle mechanic. And it takes place in a world rich with detail and fascinating to explore, conveyed through distinctive writing. It all adds up to an intensely immersive experience that will easily last you 20 hours, if not significantly more. The bottom line is that Hadean Lands makes great strides towards perfecting the classic adventure game Ė not just the text adventure."
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In the process of solving Emily Short's Savoir-Faire, I made a list of all the items I had discovered, eventually including every single object in the game. Its system of magic linkages afforded a lot of possible combinations, you see, and I didn't want to overlook any of them. Hadean Lands will make a similar list for you automatically, and then again for several other categories if you wish. In fact, you might say the ship in this game is severely listing, judging from all the multi-line outputs you'll see while playing. You might say it's the long-awaited sequel to Andrew Plotkin's 1996 opus Lists and Lists, if you were the type to belabor a joke.
In seriousness, though, I detected traces of Delightful Wallpaper (automatic note-taking and lists of known obstacles) and Dual Transform (ritualistic symbol manipulation), but the alchemy on display here is all-new and is clearly what most of the work went into. This is a game that wears its systems on its sleeve, and for good reason. There are many locks, many more keys, and enough alchemical steps to give anyone's hand a cramp if they had to write it all down themselves. With Plotkin's note-taking, item-remembering, and ritual-automating systems in place, you can focus on managing your resources and sorting out the causal chains, although I do have three hand-written pages of additional notes for things the game wasn't tracking to my satisfaction. I don't think the scale of the problem-solving actually changes that much--in other words, the point of the automation is to avoid tedium, not to free up brain cells for bigger problems--but you do start to think of solutions in larger chunks, and to my knowledge no other text game has attempted this. The overall feeling is one of being a technician running around the innards of a giant machine, initially following the instructions step-by-step so you can put the gears in motion and let the automation take over. Then, later, you have to go back and make manual adjustments when you realize things aren't quite set up properly. In the same vein, Hadean Lands repeatedly gives you that drug-like feeling of unlocking new areas and having a new set of possibilities to consider. This game infected my sleep. I ran through loose ends and ritual variations in my dreams. I found it to be tough but logical, with several "Aha!" moments of insight and ingenuity, and only a couple gripes about undercluing. The obstacles and tools are always clear, even if the solutions aren't. For all of this, I have to give it five stars for the puzzles alone.
However, the flipside to the user-friendly, puzzle-enabling automation is a decrease in immersion. In 2012, Plotkin said, "The IF parser draws the player *into* the game world in a distinct and powerful manner. You can't skim the text or skimp on imagining the situation, because the situation is your only guide to what to try next." An astute observation and a great quote, but in this case, the game does let you skimp. It helps you skimp, in fact. Locations are sketched broadly, mostly in terms of their functions aboard the ship and useful objects that are present. Yes, it is important to examine things and read the descriptions for clues. No, I'm not complaining about a lack of LOOK UNDER puzzles or saying that the game isn't well-implemented, because it is. But it has significantly less granularity than many I've played, and what detail is there sometimes becomes ignored as you rush through the rituals, and indeed becomes auto-ignored upon repetition. At one point I missed a minor clue because a PERFORM [RITUAL] command was making an automatic change and I didn't notice. Along with this is the fact that the puzzle elements are often arranged in contrived ways. It's silly to have locked cabinets with nothing but two sheets of paper in them and not a useful textbook in sight. I suppose the counterargument is that puzzle solving in such games always becomes a checklist of undone tasks and untried combinations anyway, so let's cut to the chase and avoid the flurry of RESTORE commands, right? Well, it's a matter of degree, and to theorize about it in depth would require its own article. Let me say that for the type of game Hadean Lands is, I think Plotkin's choices in this regard were good ones, but I hope others don't follow them as a template without considering what they're taking away. Also, I'm sure someone has a plot theory about how any apparent contrivances are in fact the point, but whatever. Playing through the first time, it feels artificial, period.
In contrast, the alchemy itself is written with enough care and attention that it comes across as entirely believable. The rules are not fleshed out enough to ever truly understand the principles at play, but there are delightful descriptions for ritual steps and effects--both successful and failed. Plotkin writes about glowing arcs, shimmering ripples, sparkling flames, and substances melting into each other with such vividity that it really feels like you're doing something special when you pull one of these rituals off. It's a hold-your-breath feeling that adds to the excitement of trying a puzzle solution for the first time. The environments are not as lush, as I said, but there is a strong coherence that comes from everything being described in terms of the ship's operation. The ship may be in a contrived arrangement of puzzly disrepair, but otherwise all the rooms have a strong sense of purpose. And of course there are characters and plot crumbs (implemented with surprising complexity, though not in the way you might think), casually dropped in your path in order to fuel the fires of speculation. The ending is, uh, well. It's open to interpretation. I found it unsatisfying and will leave it at that.
Heavy spoilers so I can complain about a late-game puzzle:
(Spoiler - click to show)I was unable to successfully diagnose my problem with the Chancel Marriage ritual based on "Thereís no sense of resistance, though. Itís like spinning a wheel thatís not touching the ground." From the descriptions we have, I don't see why a fulcrum/leverage would be needed. What's the analogy here? My mind went to the idea of a clutch and a flywheel, but in a typical clutch assembly you apply leverage/pressure to disengage it. That's being pedantic though; what really messed me up is that I had discovered the ballast instructions and thought I was screwing that up somehow, since you don't get any feedback from the dragon when the ballast is placed correctly. I don't know. A classic case of overthinking it, maybe, but I don't believe anything else in the game was this vague. The fact that it was the last major step to be completed was extra bad timing.
Hadean Lands is a fantastic game in the parser-based format / puzzlefest genre -- so good, and so groundbreaking in its new technology and affordances, that it's easy to overlook the few flaws it does have.
But let's start with the great, because there's plenty to cover! In Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin does a whole lot of things well and some things surpassingly well. Spare, precise prose makes the granular actions of his alchemy-based magic system pop off the screen. When you attempt a new ritual, components fizz, liquids simmer, substances transmute and transform, and there's a consistent sense of meaningful participation and accomplishment in working through the ritual steps.
Hadean Lands is a strongly puzzle-oriented work, and although most puzzles fall into the "how can I open this / how can I reach this" subgenre, I found them to be appropriately tough, reasonably diverse, and fair; I never needed hints, but I did hang up on a few obstacles for a while and needed to sleep on them to come up with fresh approaches.
There are four real "challenge factors" in this game, roughly corresponding to the player's progression through the game:
1. Learning the ritual magic system and gaining knowledge about the world model. This is done through gathering reagents, performing rituals and ritual variations, and exhaustive exploration including examining everything you can see with the oculus and planetary lens.
2. Standard IF puzzles, mostly consisting of finding appropriate means to access items, open doors, etc. Most of these puzzles involve proper application of a single ritual (possibly selected from among two or three viable possibilities), or directly applying the end product of a previous ritual. (Spoiler - click to show)It is interesting to note that almost all puzzles in Hadean Lands are solved via ritual either directly or indirectly at one remove. The only non-ritual-powered puzzle I can think of was figuring out how to properly light the swamp pith and blackwood.
3. A resource-management metagame where sequences of rituals must be deployed in the proper order and using proper component choices in order to pass multiple challenges and thus unlock access to more of the ship.
4. Attempting to understand what needs to be done to repair the ship once you have sufficient knowledge and power, and then completing the game.
An immediate and surprising conclusion I drew from this analysis is that one could completely remove the detailed ritual magic system and replace it with an Enchanteresque or Reliques of Tolti-Aph-like spells-with-optional-components system and still leave the game with pretty much all the actual puzzles intact, albeit without all the time spent slaving over a glowing ritual bound. You'd remove most of the first challenge category, but not all of it, and you'd significantly compress the flow of the game.
I don't think that would have been a better design, but it would certainly have been possible, and reveals the ritual magic system as a rich and absorbing but ultimately inessential minigame that is mostly present for the great deal of flavor and pacing it provides.
Several reviewers have mentioned the complexity of the interrelated resource-management puzzles in the mid-to-late game. Ironically, I found myself needing more notes in the early- and mid-game than I did toward the end. I found it much easier to keep track of critical (or, more accurately, consumable) reagent dependencies in my head than to remember all the inaccessible locations and containers to which I still needed to return. Once I had wangled access to most areas, I found myself referring to my notes much less often.
One of the best storytelling features in Hadean Lands is the smooth transition from the granular to the general, as the task of laboriously mastering individual rituals to overcome single obstacles gradually gives way to fluent performance of multiple rituals with a single command in the pursuit of much greater goals. This generates a strong, organic sense of qualitatively increasing power and competence that I have not encountered in any other IF title, and in few other games period. This alone would be a tremendous achievement in storytelling, powered by true advancements in IF technology, but there's much more going on here than just that.
The technical virtuosity of the reset mechanic and what I will call the macro replay system are extremely impressive. These systems feel fully integrated and comprehensive, as if they were part of the I7 standard library. Unfortunately, the very few seams visible in the replay system are somewhat obtrusive given its near perfection.
The issues I found related to (Spoiler - click to show)the gold rod in its phlogisticated and unphlogisticated states. For some reason, I could never get the game to automatically use the elemental fire on the gold rod to make the fire-devourer potion, even when I performed it that way manually. There were also roadblocks when trying to fashion the gold amalgam wire, even when all the components were present and accounted for.
Both of these new systems work together to greatly improve the playability of the game, and they do so in two distinct ways -- by lowering the barrier to destructive experimentation, and by minimizing the consequences of recovering from errors.
The alchemical flavor of the ritual magic system dictates that some components be consumed or transform irreversibly. As has been noted in other reviews, the reset system allows you to freely experiment without fear of losing items permanently. A given experiment may result in a viable potion or a pile of fuming gunk (unfortunately, usually a pile of fuming gunk). In both cases, the reset mechanism is valuable. In the event of success, reset enables you to lock in your character's knowledge of how to perform the ritual, while removing the consequences of reagent consumption. Multiple undos would work to reset the reagent state, but the protagonist's knowledge of the new ritual would be lost and the player would be forced to perform the steps manually the next time through. In the case of failure, reset provides a one-command means to reset state rather than bumbling through multiple levels of undo.
The macro replay system is complementary to the reset mechanic. Although the granular mechanics of Plotkin's ritual magic system are fun to play with, once you've performed a ritual there's no challenge and minimal motivation to perform the same multi-turn ritual steps again and again and again. In fact, even random alchemical experimentation palled fairly quickly once it became apparent how sparsely-implemented the ritual state space really was. The cost (many turns of annoying fiddling followed by a similar number of undo operations) seldom outweighed the very low chance of reward.
The macro replay system allows you to enjoy the ritual system while it provides novelty and fresh content, while freeing you from fun-killing drudgery once the scale of the game expands. It also neatly allows the player to squelch the urge to ragequit that the reset system would otherwise cause, by amplifying a half dozen or so post-reset command inputs into the hundreds of in-game actions required to get back to roughly the game state you previously had.
Interestingly, the macro replay system actually impeded my ability to solve certain late-game puzzles, by allowing me to forget some of the requirements to make rituals or inscribed items work properly. Specifically, (Spoiler - click to show)I couldn't get through the window in the alien ship with the glass permeability charm, despite having used it dozens of times previously, because I'd forgotten that it needed to be ringing before touching it to the window. Were the game not performing this for me automatically so often, Iím sure Iíd have found it easier to remember when I had to do it manually.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Hadean Lands has flaws. Itís a great game, but by no means perfect and has some deficiencies in its design, writing and implementation.
After completing the game, I have a love-hate relationship with the ritual magic system. Itís very fun to play with, certainly adds plenty of atmosphere and anchors many accessibility and container puzzles, but it is also a quite sparsely implemented mechanism. If a ritual is not performed precisely to specification it is very likely to result in abject failure.
Certain variations are supported -- others that would seem viable yield nothing but sputtering goo. It became clear early on that rituals that were variable were going to be fairly well cued in their ritual description or with an associated fact, and that if there wasnít some text that clearly indicated that a substitution would logically yield a different effect, it probably wasnít going to work.
In one of Andrew Plotkinís early Kickstarter updates, he talked about this, detailing plans for a lot more dense population of the ritual state space than we received in the final game:
ď...Think back to my HL teaser: the untarnishing ritual starts with ginger oil, but you also have peppermint oil available. Shouldn't that lead into a different ritual? What if you start with ginger but use the binding word instead? These don't go anywhere in the teaser, but they will in the full game.
In essence, the space of ingredients and magic words forms a *map* -- and this abstract map should be explorable and interesting, just like the game's *physical* map. So this is what I've started working on now. Making up a lot of Y and Z items, but arranging them in a satisfying way. (While still obeying the major puzzle ordering constraints, of course.)Ē
He never really delivered on this -- not to any great degree. Exploration of the ritual state space is in the main unproductive as the player never has much theoretical background on how to intelligently explore that space. The base versions of all useful rituals are explicitly laid out for the player. There are some simple, heavily-cued variations that are required, a very few more variations that don't do anything useful, and aside from that there's a barren, Hadean wasteland of failure modes.
The game works with the state space implemented sparsely, but wouldnít it have been great if there were all sorts of other viable rituals -- some useful, some cosmetic, some perhaps actively dangerous -- implemented as per that original plan?
One of the variants that did work(Spoiler - click to show), modification of the glass permeability ritual to make an aluminum permeability inscription, has its own problems. (Spoiler - click to show)The glass ritual uses an F-sharp chime, which is associated with aluminum (as the "obfuscated music" fact states). The ritual using that charm makes glass permeable. Substituting a B chime, which is associated with bronze, makes aluminum permeable. If this makes sense in any way, I canít figure it out. Iím also curious to know how the protagonist could possibly know that the resulting symbol is an aluminum permeability charm given that thereís no aluminum to test it on anywhere in the game.
I felt quite detached and apathetic towards the characters in the game, other than the Sergeant, who was only ever physically seen as a dead hand ďprotruding obscenelyĒ from some wreckage. Direct exposition of snippets of the charactersí mental states and a limited set of facial expressions didnít generate a great deal of sympathy. (Spoiler - click to show)Extracting information from the shadows and frozen characters was an interesting game mechanic, but there just wasnít enough there to make me care about what they were doing or why, particularly as who did what seemed to change as the dragon subsumption chain progressed. I saw their relationships as a generic, mutable tangle of vice -- vaguely interesting in the abstract but lacking specific emotional resonance, particularly as the protagonist seemed pretty uninvested in it.
My biggest problem with Hadean Lands, though, isnít a technical or implementation issue or even a character issue. Itís the obscurity of the worldbuilding and the unsatisfying ending. The game reminded me of the works of Neil Stephenson. He writes great fiction, but tends to cut off right after the climax without any sense of resolution. Andrew Plotkin writes great interactive fiction, but tends to write coy endings that shy away from actual closure.
But the ending wouldnít have bothered me as much if I had a better feel for what was actually going on. Plotkin may have reams of detail on how his alchemical universe works and precisely what the situation on the Retort was, but if so heís the only one truly in the know. There simply isnít enough information in the game to even broadly reconstruct what actually happened to the Retort. Others have praised the writing and worldbuilding as allusive, but in my opinion this goes beyond allusive and settles firmly in the hinterlands of the cryptic.
Players on the forums have extracted almost every word of backstory provided in the game, and there are tons of imaginative theories kicking around as to what the heck is/was/will be going on. Some might be exactly right. But thereís no way to be sure -- thereís clearly not enough data to actually confirm any speculation. (Spoiler - click to show)The nature of the aliens and their technology is left utterly mysterious. Are we fixing their ship along with our own? Consuming it to save our own? Being consumed by them to save their own? All of the above? Is the homunculus part-alien due to the incorporation of the black marks? Weíre obviously not ever meant to know, and hence I find it hard to care to speculate too much as I will almost certainly be wrong.
If I believed Plotkin was working with an authentic, overarching alchemical theme for this work, I would guess it was framed such that the repeated iterations were a recapitulation of the alchemical Great Work, a quest for spiritual perfection through an iterative process of purification, eventually leading to the salvific gnosis that raises the protagonist out of the flawed shadow world into the perfection of the true reality. (Spoiler - click to show)The aliens merge with the humans of the marcher in an analogue of alchemical conjunction (recall where the marks were placed in the Nave), both dying and putrefying together to eventually distill and purify their essences through the repetition of the protagonistís work with the glyphs and dragons before finally coagulating in the ultimate process, producing the pure spirit of resurrection for both.
...All this translated, of course, into whatever modern alchemico-scientific phraseology His Majestyís Navy would have used.
If you squint a bit, this take on the work might look plausible. But I donít really think thatís where Plotkin was going. There are too many situations that don't line up and the emphasis on (Spoiler - click to show)recursive soul-echoes seems to have more in common with quantum mechanics or nested virtual realities than it does with medieval Gnostic spirituality. Although the surface resemblance is there, the spiritual essence of classical alchemy seems absent from the syncretic ritual magic system and the cryptomilitary setting.
It's possible, I suppose, that there are deeper references here that are too subtle or obscure for me, but I just don't see very much to indicate that the traditional narrative of classical alchemy was really a guiding theme for the worldbuilding or gameplay of Hadean Lands. It seems a bit of a shame to me, and certainly a missed opportunity.
A missed opportunity is all it is, though, and Hadean Lands seizes so many other opportunities with both hands that I canít fault it too much for not being something its creator may never have intended. This is an important work, an enjoyable puzzlefest, a technological showpiece, and, most importantly, a great game. Donít miss it.
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