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About the Story"A homage to Infocom's Enchanter Trilogy, at the same time showing some of the things that Inform is capable of doing." [--blurb from The Z-Files Catalogue]
-- Carl Muckenhoupt
The Game That Wasn't / The Little Demo That Could
If this game is "nothing but a demo," then it is certainly one of the most ambitious and playable demos ever written; the fact that so many people played it as a game, never noticed the demo aspect, started criticizing it as any other game, and seemed to have difficulty believing the author when he told them it was just a demo, makes a very clear point. On the other hand, some aspects of the game, which would be serious flaws had it been intended as a game, are quite natural in a demo, at least in retrospect - but we're of course all blessed with 20/20 hindsight. Be that as it may: game or demo, "Balances" is in many ways a very attractive piece of IF, with great charm.
-- Magnus Olsson
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The puzzles are not all fair by modern standards, and it's easy to lock yourself out of winning by doing things in the wrong order. (Spoiler - click to show)In particular, avoid taking any lottery tickets from the barker until you're sure you've found out everything from him that you need to know. One or two discoveries also require the player to act in somewhat counter-intuitive ways. (Spoiler - click to show)The fourth cube can only be found if the player casts a spell he has reason to think will be dangerous.
Fairness was arguably not the game's paramount concern when it was written, however. Balances was released as a source example, showing how to do tasks that were technically virtuosic at the time, such as allowing the player to name objects and subsequently refer to them by name and usefully parsing numbers from a wide range. (Modern systems make most of these very much easier, but at the time these effects were not easy to accomplish.)
For players who have fond feelings towards the Enchanter series, however, Balances offers good value as a game. Several of the puzzles are quite clever, the effects of the various spells are entertainingly applied, and there's a very satisfying twist on the spellcasting mechanic from the original games. (Spoiler - click to show)The lleps spell reverses the effect of any existing spell, so your spell book is essentially twice as effective as it seems. Moreover, the unfairness is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the game is so small and there are only so many things the player can reasonably try to do.
This game demonstrates some of Inform's best abilities: indistinguishable objects, games involving large numbers, magical spells that interact with each other, a balance that weighs different objects, etc.
The game is relatively fun, but short and without a coherent plot. It can be a good introduction to the Enchanter series for those who aren't sure about Infocom games.
Graham Nelson wrote a longer game with similar elements: The meteor, the stone, and a long glass of sherbet. Those who like this game should definitely try the longer Meteor game.
Related reviews: graham nelson, fantasy
Avoid it if: you prefer a bit more bite in your IF, or you've a hair trigger for cruelty or unfairness, for while not particularly challenging, this game has a soupçon of both.
While more of a showpiece to display some of Inform's capabilities than a true game, Balances is nevertheless an enjoyable enough experience in its own right to recommend it to the novice player.
The game, drawing upon the Enchanter trilogy's magic system, offers several good puzzles - many of which revolve around the player's ability to reverse spell effects. This creates some fun possibilities (Spoiler - click to show)(including the need to die at least once to win). There was an alternative solution to the lottery puzzle, however, which I would have loved to see implemented(Spoiler - click to show) - specifically, reversing the "caskly" spell to turn the first-prize ticket into the last-prize ticket, though that would have required re-tooling of the elephant puzzle.
There are, unfortunately, a couple of puzzles which would qualify as cruel or unfair (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the lottery puzzle). Nevertheless, I only had to resort to a walkthrough only once - and given my flair for puzzle-solving, if that isn't a sign of low difficulty, I don't what is.
Ultimately, Balances is a light and loose distraction. It's probably most suited to newcomers to interactive fiction given its small scope and relatively straightforward gameplay. The magic system and its implementation may also give aspiring IF writers some pointers on basic puzzle construction.
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