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Remedial Witchcraft, by dgtziea

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fairly directed magical puzzler, January 1, 2020
In Remedial Witchcraft you play as an inexperienced practitioner of magic arts. Not an uncommon premise: Games from Infocom’s classic Enchanter way back in 1983 to both Charming and my own Junior Arithmancer from the previous IFComp have featured a similar PC. Remedial Witchcraft reminds me particularly of Charming, as in that game and this one you’re not just inexperienced, you’re also kind of bumbling.

The gameplay is quite directed. At the very beginning the witch you’re apprenticed to gives you a couple of tasks to perform. Then, after you complete those, you’re presented with another set of tasks to perform. And frequently in the midst of completing these tasks the game will make suggestions for what you should do next. All of this means that there’s very little stumbling around wondering what you’re supposed to be doing. It certainly eases the gameplay and reduces the frustration that often occurs in puzzle-heavy games, but for me it was a little too much hand-holding. Of course, I also like banging my head against puzzle-heavy games.

The writing style is short. Choppy. Frequently not full sentences. Very casual. Distinctive. It’s an interesting choice that fits the PC’s character.

One of the magical items you get to play with is particularly delightful: the (Spoiler - click to show)teleportation rock.

Overall, I think I would have preferred more of a challenge, but I enjoyed figuring out the puzzles that I did in Remedial Witchcraft.

Girth Loinhammer and the Quest for the Unsee Elixir, by Damon L. Wakes
An amusingly fun way to spend half an hour, December 29, 2019
This choice-based game made me smile pretty much the whole way through. It's a short parody of fantasy role-playing gamebooks; it even comes with a character sheet to print and fill out. I enjoyed adding traits like (Spoiler - click to show)Orcular Trauma and (Spoiler - click to show)"Smooth Moves" (the latter in scare quotes, of course) to my character sheet.

The humor has a light touch. It's frequently sexually suggestive (the title is "Girth Loinhammer," after all), but it's on the level of Leather Goddesses of Phobos's "suggestive" mode.

All in all, an amusingly fun way to spend a half hour. (I played it twice, and after my second play I clicked the back button a few times to check out alternative endings.)

The Chieftain, by LeSUTHU

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Better resource management game than a first impression would indicate, December 26, 2019
I had more fun with this game than most other players seem to have had, judging by its current ratings and its placement in IFComp. I suspect many players were turned off by some noticeable bugs (some cosmetic, some more serious that affect gameplay), as well as the bare-bones interface. Looking past those, I found The Chieftain to be a decent resource management game.

My sense is that writing a good resource management game is all about the mechanics. What makes the various resource levels go up or down? And, more importantly, how much of this is under the player’s control, and how much is random? Too much control for the player, and the game becomes less interesting: You just do the same thing over and over again until you hit the goal. On the other hand, too much randomness starts to feel either unfair or like you’re simply tossing dice to see what happens. A good game of this kind needs to strike the right balance.

And I think The Chieftain mostly does get this right. The major random activity is scouting the surrounding area, and this can lead to many different outcomes. Some of the resource-gathering activities also produce a variable amount of goods. And then several of the activities are deterministic: The game tells you, for instance, that throwing a party consumes 5 food and increases happiness by 3. It took me quite a while to settle on a strategy that was consistently effective; I had to try a lot of the different activities over multiple days to see what they led to. Yet this process didn’t feel unfair, either; it was clear when I was taking a risk and that that risk was my choice. This seems to me to be what you want the player to experience.

There are also intermediate goals to keep the player’s attention. For instance, I saved up my coins and bought a longsword for display in the village. I also built a shrine and raised it a couple of levels so that it was generating more resources for me.

However, once I did finally settle on my strategy, it was mostly a matter of just doing the same things over and over until I hit the happiness level required to win. Some tweaks to the game’s mechanics could have improved this. It did take me a while to realize that this would be an effective strategy, though.

Overall, I think The Chieftain does most of what you want a resource management game to do correctly; that is, its mechanics are pretty sound. But there are places where those mechanics could be made better, and some more testing and changes to the presentation could have greatly improved the player experience as well.

Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Pirate-themed light puzzle comedy, December 11, 2019
Pirateship is a lighthearted, pirate-themed puzzle comedy with the feel of a classic parser game. It's not technically a parser game because it's built with Johnson's point-and-click Versificator development system, but its room-based geography and use-the-right-object-in-the-right-place puzzles very much fit the classic parser style.

Most, if not all, of the humor in Pirateship comes from playing with pirate tropes. Sometimes the comedic effect comes from subverting these tropes, and sometimes the tropes are carried to such extremes that you can't help laughing. For me, the game tended to walk a fine line between funny and silly, but occasionally it hit absolute comedy gold.

The puzzles range in difficulty from relatively straightforward to somewhat hard, which I think is the right range for this kind of game.

I found myself wishing for more emotional depth in Pirateship, though. I know the game is going for the feel of a classic parser comedy, and those kinds of games aren't generally noted for their extra emotional layers. But I can't help thinking that Pirateship could have done more here - and that that would have made it a better game. By way of contrast, Lost Pig is a great IF comedy not just because the prose is so often funny, but because (Spoiler - click to show)Grunk is oddly philosophical for a supposedly dumb orc, because the relationship between Grunk and the gnome is touching and a nice contrast of personalities, and because Grunk's blunderings actually serve as the catalyst for the gnome to make some changes to the lonely life he's been leading. The only layer in Pirateship beyond the laughs is its playing with pirate tropes (which, again, are the source of much of that comedy).

But I did enjoy Pirateship, and I think the game successfully does what it's trying to do. So, if you're looking for a light-hearted puzzle comedy with an old-school parser feel (but without the guess-the-verb frustrations of old-school parser games), or you just like pirates, you should give Pirateship a try.

Skybreak!, by William Dooling

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Huge space exploration-and-trading game, November 28, 2019
Skybreak! is a huge space exploration-and-trading game, with RPG elements and multiple win states. You can explore star systems; mine planets, asteroids, and comets; recruit spies; unearth lore; acquire alien artifacts; and collect beetles - among other things.

Skybreak! feels like a cross between Superluminal Vagrant Twin and Sunless Seas. Skybreak!'s setting, method for moving between locations, and text-based format are reminiscent of the former, but it has some of the features (such as lore-gathering) of the latter, and its scope is closer to that of the latter.

That isn't to say that Skybreak! is as large as Sunless Seas. It doesn't take nearly as long to win Skybreak!, for instance. (A few hours, three playthroughs, and judicious use of UNDO got me a nice ending in Skybreak!.) However, much of the reason Sunless Seas takes so long is that you spend a lot of your time moving your boat around on the screen and managing your fuel. Strip Sunless Seas down to its item- and knowledge-gathering aspects and its quest trees, and the scope comparison between it and Skybreak! starts to seem more reasonable. Skybreak! really is huge; I can tell from the few hours I've spent on it that there's a lot to the game I have not seen.

Where Skybreak! surpasses both Superluminal Vagrant Twin and Sunless Seas is in its number and variety of role-playing options. At the beginning of Skybreak! you've got a choice of five species (well, four and then an "other" option), two of ten background characteristics, and three of sixteen talents. These affect your win-state goals (as in Sunless Seas), your secondary goals, and the kinds of tasks you're most likely to succeed with. They really are meaningful choices, too: On my first and third playthroughs I made very different character selections, and those two playthroughs looked quite different. By comparison, SVT has no RPG elements, and Sunless Seas allows you fewer options.

By biggest criticism of Skybreak! is the random navigation. I can see that this prevents players from doing as much grinding, which would destroy a lot of the fun of the game. But it is also frustrating to be presented with half a dozen or more interesting options for a particular solar system and yet only be able to choose one of them before having to move on, perhaps never to return on that playthrough. The UNDO command does mitigate this frustration somewhat, though, as it allows you to try out the different options and then select the one you like best.

There's a great deal to see and do in Skybreak!. If you enjoy games like this, there's enough content to keep you engaged for many, many hours.

Dungeon Detective 2: Devils and Details, by Wonaglot

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Engrossing mystery in a fantasy setting, November 28, 2019
My biggest critique of last year's Dungeon Detective was that I wanted more game to play, which is really more of a compliment than a critique. Well, I got what I wanted! Dungeon Detective 2 continues the adventures of our furry sleuth, Sniff Chewpaw. This time he's hired by a devil to look into the bombing of the devil's dungeon, and the resulting investigation is both longer and more in-depth than the one in the first DD. There are several more characters to interview, night and day periods that offer you different event options, a couple of minigames, and a currency system where you can earn and spend money. There's also an animated Chewpaw graphic, which is quite fun. You've got a lot to keep track of, but it all worked for me, and I found myself more engrossed in Dungeon Detective 2 than I did its predecessor.

A couple of critiques: The dungeon itself is on the small side, but there's enough interesting content before you reach the dungeon that that doesn't matter too much. There are also a few too many typos for my taste. But these are minor critiques, especially compared with Dungeon Detective 2's immersive play and appealing PC.

The original IFComp version had some bugs in it that stopped gameplay for me (and perhaps others). I suspect the game would have placed even higher in IFComp without those bugs, and I hope the author makes an updated version of the game publicly available.

One of my favorite games from IFComp 2019.

Language Arts, by Jared Jackson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Large, systematic puzzler with an interesting but somewhat awkward interface, November 27, 2019
Language Arts is a deep, systematic puzzle game. Gameplay has you learning a collection of increasingly-complicated rules to solve a total of twenty increasingly-challenging puzzles, all of which feature the manipulation of letters on a grid. I enjoy systematic puzzlers a great deal, and I had a lot of fun with Language Arts.

The game's interface is one of its more interesting aspects. Language Arts is made in Unity, and Jared Jackson had to create a new interface just for the game in addition to writing the content. It's an impressive bit of coding - although perhaps all in a day's work for Jackson, who is a professional game programmer. I love how the interface recreates the feel of a 1980s-era Macintosh computer. There's even an orange in the upper-left hand corner where a Mac would have had an apple! Unfortunately, using the interface can be a bit of a challenge at times. For example, I would have liked the cycle of trying a solution, seeing what goes wrong, editing the solution, and trying again to go a bit faster.

I also experienced something of a steep learning curve with the game. I had a lot of trouble with some of the first puzzles as I was absorbing how to "think" in terms of the Language Arts way of expressing things. Once I entered that mindset, though, I found solving many of the later puzzles to go faster, even though they are objectively more difficult than the earlier ones. (The game's manual can be quite helpful here; I recommend players refer to it regularly at the beginning.)

If you like large systematic puzzle games, you should definitely play Language Arts. If you can stick with the game through the early stages until you learn to think in the game's code, and you can ignore some of the slower aspects of the interface, you'll be rewarded with an excellent, intricate puzzler.

80 DAYS, by inkle, Meg Jayanth

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Does so many things right, July 1, 2019
80 DAYS is an interactive, steampunk retelling of Jules Verne's classic 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days. You play as Passepartout, valet to Englishman Phileas Fogg. Fogg has made a wager with some members of his London club that he can traverse the globe in only 80 days. It's up to you to see that he succeeds.

Much of the charm of Verne's original novel is the madcap dash around the world, using a variety of modes of transportation: steamships, trains, elephants, even a sledge. 80 DAYS outdoes Verne's novel, though: Its steampunk take allows for dozens of fantastical ways to travel, from mechanized versions of horse-drawn carriages to ice walkers to submarines to experimental hovercrafts - not to mention the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a hot-air balloon.

You can, if you want, try to recreate Fogg's actual route from Verne's novel. In fact, that's what I had planned to do at first, since I thought it would be the most efficient method to navigate the globe. However, I picked up an object in Paris that the game told me could be sold in Berlin for a tidy sum. So I took a detour to Berlin and then Athens before heading to Suez to get back on track. But then I bought another item that I could sell in Dubai for a nice profit, and so I spent an inordinate amount of time getting to Dubai before finally arriving in Bombay for the trek across India. After having my passport stolen, surviving a mutiny and an aircraft crash in the Indian Ocean, being blown off course over the Pacific, being held up at gunpoint by Jesse James, and earning the American lightweight boxing title, I did eventually make it back to London. But not within 80 days. And then, of course, I had to try again. Because there were so many choices and routes I did not take - choices and routes that I just had to explore.

And therein lies much of what makes 80 DAYS work so well. A major way to make a game fun is to give the player a combinatorial explosion of choices. However, as an author you do not want to (and in many cases simply cannot) create a different scenario for each of those exponentially-growing number of choices. So the trick is to find a way to combine a small number of choices on the author's end into an exponential number of scenarios on the player's end. I wouldn't call the number of choices Inkle and Meg Jayanth had to create a "small number," but the fact that these choices are generally city-to-city decisions means that they can be combined in a way via the map to achieve the desired combinatorial explosion. Yet the combinatorial explosion never feels overwhelming: At any city there's never more than about half a dozen choices for where to go next, and often there are fewer. Plus you have a clearly-defined goal to help guide your choices: You've got to keep going east around the globe, as quickly as you can. A combinatorial explosion of choices on the player's end that never feels overwhelming, without a combinatorial explosion of work required on the authors' end, is great design - and leads to a lot of fun for the player.

80 DAYS handles another couple of issues deftly as well. One is the cultural difference between Western Europe in the 1870s and us today. Mainstream views on topics like gender, race, and colonialism are obviously quite different now than they were then. If you're writing a game based on an 1873 French novel (especially one in which the globe-encompassing aspect of the British empire is a plot point), how do you address that worldview gap? 80 DAYS's steampunk twist on Verne's novel provides a solid platform to handle this. For example, people groups in regions that were heavily colonized by European powers in 1873 frequently have their own takes on the advanced steampunk technology in 80 DAYS. Their technologies and their cultures don't come across in-game as inferior - just different. Something similar holds true with respect to the game's portrayal of women; in 80 DAYS women are engineers, pilots, and steamboat captains with as much frequency as men are. While this would be anachronistic for a game set in the historical 1870s, it fits right in with 80 DAYS's steampunk version of that era. This isn't to say that 80 DAYS falls into the mistake of presentism, either; here and there the game gives choices that allow you to explore some of why folks from that era might have thought differently than we do today.

As a final example, even though I doubt the authors view 80 DAYS as an educational game, it actually is - and it's even a good educational game. 80 DAYS requires the player to gain a decent overview of world geography, but it does this in a very natural way - one that is completely integrated into the gameplay rather than artificially tacked-on. It even sent me to the Internet several times, looking up central Asian cities, or wondering why Yokohama rather than, say, Tokyo, was the major Japanese port of that era. A desire to learn more is the kind of player response you want for an educational game.

Overall, 80 DAYS is an interactive tour de force that does many things well. Highly recommended.

Wolfsmoon, by Marco Innocenti

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Retro puzzle game with great pixel art, May 22, 2019
Wolfsmoon advertises itself as an "old-style experience, with all the comforts of 2019." I think that's accurate, as well as the right mindset to have going into the game.

Wolfsmoon features terse descriptions and responses to actions, instead letting its well-done pixel art do the work of setting the game's atmosphere. Commands are generally limited to verb-noun, although the game parses certain phrases like ATTACK [thing] WITH [other thing] well enough to tell you that ATTACK [thing] is sufficient if you're carrying the correct other thing. (It's written in Inform 7, after all.) There are few characters, and those who are present don't feature a wide range of responses, but this is in keeping with the older style of game Wolfsmoon is imitating.

As far as the story, you're investigating a series of murders around a small town. There are lots of ominous signals from the beginning that this might be due to werewolves, but the one police officer you meet is much more interested in her reading material than discussing the case with you. You'll have to marshal evidence and uncover the secret behind the murders on your own.

I found the puzzles to be mostly straightforward. The one exception is that I was stuck for a long time near the beginning of the game; I didn't realize that I could simply (Spoiler - click to show)take the boar cub. However, once I stumbled across that, playing through the remainder of the game went fairly smoothly. The game does subvert your expectations with respect to objects you find: Some are tools that end up being used in non-standard ways, and that added freshness to the puzzles.

There were a few moments that reminded me of other games: Zork 1, Anchorhead, The Chinese Room.

If you enjoy this older style of puzzle game, Wolfsmoon is well worth your time.

(I'd give the game three-and-a-half stars, but I'll round it up to four for IFDB purposes based on the enjoyable retro pixel art and the fact that it's reasonable to judge the game in the context of the older style it's aiming for.)

Birmingham IV, by Peter Emery

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Huge old-school IF featuring old-English magick, May 14, 2019
As other reviews have mentioned, Birmingham IV was originally written using the text adventure design system Quill in the late 1980s but then ported to Inform 7 in 2014-16. The current version still retains the feel of a non-Infocom text adventure circa 1989. By way of comparison with some other old-school games in IFComp 2018, Birmingham IV feels more modern than Flowers of Mysteria or Escape from Dinosaur Island but less modern than Bullhockey!.

The setting appears to be the area around Birmingham (England) in the early to mid-1600s: Queen Elizabeth’s face appears on some money you find, and there’s a reference to the Virginia colonies. It’s not clear what the plot is, though. You play as the Phil, a scholar and scientist. Or, as they would say back then, “natural philosopher.” In fact, as you eventually come to realize, “the Phil” is actually a title - “the Philosopher” - not the name of the PC. You can explore your cottage and the surrounding area, and there’s a note from the parson that gives you a couple of long-term goals, but for the most part at the beginning of the game you just wander around solving puzzles. As you keep playing, though, the end-goal eventually becomes clear. Or "end-goals," I should say, since Birmingham IV gives you a choice at the end.

There's also magic in this world. But it's a subtle magic - magic of an old English kind, where elves are tiny and fearful of humans and where ancient skulls and standing stones are infused with power that you can use but never really understand. In terms of how magic is portrayed, there's a pretty clear line running from English folk tales to The Lord of the Rings to early Dungeons & Dragons to the current canonical takes on fantasy races in role-playing games (both computer and paper), as well as many modern works' systematic and almost scientific approach to magic. Even Infocom's Enchanter series takes this systematic approach, and the Harry Potter series does as well. In the latter, magic is something almost mundane: It has been apportioned into school subjects to be learned as a matter of course by children! Birmingham IV, however, is solidly pre-Tolkien: Magic is mysterious, ethereal, and perilous. For me, that was refreshing, and Birmingham IV's consistent take on this constituted much of the game's charm.

Unfortunately, Birmingham IV has some weaknesses, playability-wise, that affected my enjoyment of the game and that will frustrate many modern players. (1) The game does not always tell you which directions you can travel in. It doesn’t take much additional effort on top of drawing a map (if you’re doing that) to figure out which directions are allowed, but it will be a hurdle for modern players. (2) There are a few too many one-way directions near the beginning of the game. (3) You have an inventory limit of five. (4) It is easy to get yourself into an unwinnable state without realizing it. (5) Many of the puzzles are underclued. The puzzles I'm thinking of for which this is the case aren't bad puzzles, but some of their solutions are the kinds of things that you wouldn't come across unless you had the patience to try a bunch of random things that might work. (Fortunately, David Welbourn has published an excellent walkthrough!)

In other words, Birmingham IV is a huge, old-school piece of late 80s IF. If you enjoy that sort of game, then you'll probably enjoy Birmingham IV.


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