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The Master of the Land, by Pseudavid

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A rich, varied, and open-ended choice-based game, February 18, 2019
The Master of the Land is a long, choice-based game set in a small, imaginary European country on the Mediterranean Coast in 1834. You play as Lady Irene, the daughter of a prominent nobleman and politician, although your penchant for spending time in forests studying plants is considered decidedly unladylike for this time and place. The events of the game unfold over the course of several hours at a party and festival at the Palace.

The presentation is top-notch, with attractive images accompanying the text for most choices, as well as a sidebar containing a list of the rooms you can access from the one you're currently in. There's also a map of the palace where the game takes place, as well as a link to "reminders" for what your goals are so far and information you've uncovered.

Gameplay entails selecting from a list of options in the room you're in or moving to an adjacent room. Each selection gives you (usually) a few paragraphs of text. There are lots of scheduled events at the party; you can choose to attend some, all, or none of those. You can pursue another goal related to your botanical interests. Alternatively, there are several additional storylines that you can uncover by being in the right place and the right time and making the right choices. And many events are on timers: For example, dinner is at ten, and if you're not in the dining room on time, the doors close, and you have to find some other way to spend the next half-hour or so.

All of this means that there is a lot going on. If you're a completist (and I have some of those tendencies), you should be warned that there is no way you can do everything in this game in one (or probably even a few) playthroughs. There are just too many intertwined events on timers. In fact, if you pause for just one enticing choice in a room as you're trying to get to another room for a particular event or catch up with a certain person you may miss that event or person entirely. This happened in both of my playthroughs, in fact.

(Spoiler - click to show)On the first one, the young poet Octavio told me to listen for the crying man in the dining room. I paused for just one moment on my way to the dining room to ask the servants about the whereabouts of some other men I was trying to find, and I reached the outside of the dining room just as the doors were being closed!

On the second playthrough, I was trying to identify the woman in the mask with all the keys. I finally figured out who she was, and I saw her entering a certain room. I paused for just one choice to pursue another goal (I forget which one), and when I followed the woman into the room, she was gone! I never did find her again.

It all combines to create a rich, varied experience.

A lot of times when I play choice-based games it's clear the author has designed the game to anticipate every possible set of choices I could make and has written text to account for that. Or, at most, the author tracks a few stats to affect gameplay. But, for the most part, playing a choice-based game has me feeling like my choices are still within a small set of outcomes the author has already planned out for the game. You just don't get the feeling of sheer open-endedness in terms of the events of the story that a good parser game can give. This is not to say that parser games aren't constrained in their own ways, or that choice-based games can't achieve other important artistic goals besides providing an open-ended experience. But The Master of the Land, with its location-based events, time-based events, and various goals to pursue, feels more open-ended than any choice-based game I can remember playing right now. And, since it's a choice-based game, it doesn't suffer from the problems open-ended parser-based games usually have: guess-the-verb issues, many of your actions resulting in default or error messages, or wandering around all over the map with nothing interesting happening.

It must have been an incredible undertaking to code this game and get all the potential plot events coordinated.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Master of the Land.

Murder at the Manor, by Obter9

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An Agatha Christie-type murder mystery with a noir feel, February 16, 2019
Murder at the Manor is a short, choice-based murder mystery set in London in 1936. Glancing at the cover and title without reading the blurb, the noticeable palm trees had led me to think the game was set in Los Angeles. After realizing that I was a continent and an ocean off, I did some searching: Sure enough, there are palm trees in London! I wouldn't have thought they would grow so well that far north.

Murder at the Manor features a typical set of characters for such a setting: the murdered lord, the business partner, the ne'er-do-well nephew who stands to inherit, the mistress, the former housekeeper. These are the kinds of suspects you would see in an Agatha Christie novel. Christie didn't write hard-boiled police inspectors as her main protagonists, though; that's closer to Dashiell Hammett. However, his protagonists were, I believe, generally private detectives; the police were usually viewed as incompetent. Murder at the Manor features a character like that as well, though: the constable. In fact, some of the most amusing lines in the game are from the dialogue between you and the constable. The game is also written in the first person, which allows for some of the inner monologuing that you get in detective fiction from that era. In general, I think the game does succeed in capturing the "noir" feel, albeit outside of its usual American setting.

Gameplay consists of examining the body, visiting various locations in the manor and its grounds, interviewing the suspects, and examining the potential murder weapons. Then, at the end, you can decide which suspect to arrest. The game throws out several red herrings, but if you pay careful attention to the evidence you can deduce the identity of the murderer.

My one critique is that I would have liked to have the interactive nature of the work - the choices - align more with the deduction process. For example, when you move from one stage of the investigation to the next the PC says things like, "I know the location of the murder," but you (as the player) might not have quite figured that out yet. I haven't attempted to write an IF mystery, but this interactive/deduction alignment sounds hard to pull off. One has to select the mechanic that implements the investigation just right. Yet it can be done; to compare with another IFComp 2018 game, I think Erstwhile's mechanic of linking clues manages it.

A minor anachronism: At one point a character refers to the PC as one of "Her Majesty's agents." The U.K. had three monarchs in 1936, but they were all male. So this should be "His Majesty's agents."

The Broken Bottle, by The Affinity Forge team, Josh Irvin
Long and beautifully presented, but few choices until about midgame, February 11, 2019
The Broken Bottle is a long choice-based story about a young boy, the wolf he has befriended, and a nearby encampment of gypsies. The game is made in Unity, and the "welcome" page says that it's a prototype. However, it mostly felt like a completed story to me.

The cover art is beautiful, although it's also somewhat confusing: What is Professor Elwood's Castle of Oddities? There's no such person or thing that I could find in the game - or even a hint of anything like that. Perhaps The Broken Bottle is intended to be one story in a collection that is somehow tied together by Professor Elwood and his castle.

The game's presentation is also beautiful. Like another IFComp 2018 game, Abbess Otilia's Life and Death, the story is in book form. Also like Abbess Otilia, I found the book lovely to look at. In addition, you get this nice "page turning" sound effect every time you, well, turn a page. I think Myst and/or Riven had something like that as well. It helped draw me in.

For about the first half or so of The Broken Bottle it felt very much like I was simply reading a beautifully-presented online novella: This part of The Broken Bottle is heavy on the fiction and light on the interactive. (I only remember one choice up through midgame.) Around the middle of the game, though, you start being presented with choices (always binary choices) with a fair degree of regularity. I wasn't sure at first how much many of these actually mattered, but by the end I could see that some really did have effects that showed up - sometimes much later.

I got an ending I was mostly happy with. I did kind of want to try for another ending, but the story is so long, and the first half is nearly all straight narrative. I couldn't make myself click through all the pages again to find something different.

Overall, a long, beautifully-presented story whose interactive elements don't really kick in until about midgame.

Dream Pieces 2, by Iam Curio
Wordplay with word fragments, February 7, 2019
Dream Pieces 2 consists of a series of wordplay-based puzzles. There is a story, but it's light, and it's clearly only there to give some kind of a frame to the puzzles. (Which is fine with me - I've written a game like that myself.)

In each room in Dream Pieces 2 you are given a few objects. By breaking the objects into their component letters or word fragments you can rearrange them to make new words that will help you escape that room. For example, in the first room you are given a HORSE and a DONKEY. Breaking these two objects gives you an H, an OR, an SE, a DO, an N, a KE, and a Y to play with to make new words. The game interestingly calls these letters and word fragments "Legos," although they're not the kinds of Legos my kids play with.

It's a really neat idea (wordplay at its most basic, I suppose), and I enjoyed Dream Pieces 2. It felt kind of like playing Scrabble - the way you're constantly reordering the letters and word fragments and then seeing if the result makes sense.

I did find the puzzles somewhat frustrating at times. I think it's because there are so many ways to rearrange the letters but only a small number give you actual words. So you rarely have that experience with complicated but well-designed parser puzzles of being rewarded for making partial progress. For the most part, in Dream Pieces 2 you either figure out the solution, or you don't. I say "for the most part" because if you create something that is part of what's needed for that room, the game generally gives you a message about that object, which is helpful. Still, the sheer number of possible ways to arrange the word fragments is so large that the vast majority of the time you're not getting feedback. I don't know how to solve this problem, as it seems inherent in the kind of wordplay the game presents.

However, Dream Pieces 2 does provide hints for each room, as well as an explicit walkthrough for each room. These are quite helpful and ameliorate the problem I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I could have used little more guidance at the beginning about how to make the objects in the game interact with each other. For example, I was confused in the first room because (Spoiler - click to show)I had made a key and a door, but it took me a while to figure out how to get them to interact in the right way. I kept trying to select the key and use it on the door. But USE wasn't an option. PUT was the closest option, but that didn't make sense - and it didn't work. It took me a little while to realize I needed to TAKE the key and then OPEN the door - the game automatically using the key on the door if I'm carrying it.

In general, it might be nice to have more user-friendly features like Ailihphilia has, although those might be hard to implement in the Quest system.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the wordplay puzzles in Dream Pieces 2. My ten-year-old son played through some of them and enjoyed them as well.

Careless Talk, by Diana Rider

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An exploration of trust and betrayal in the context of prejudice, February 5, 2019
Careless Talk is a short, choice-based work in which you play as a member of a magical corps fighting for your country, Albion, during wartime. The dedication to Alan Turing at the beginning of Careless Talk immediately made me think the country was Britain and the war was World War II. And I continued to think of Albion as a magical version of Britain as I played through the game: The navy, the monarchy, and the character and mannerisms of the major all have a British feel - not to mention the fact that Albion is an old name for Great Britain. I didn't pick up much more of a vibe about the war itself by the end, but the exact nature of the war is not really the game's focus.

Instead, as the title indicates, Careless Talk is more interested in exploring questions of trust and betrayal. Despite the military setting and the title's reference to an old World War II slogan, though, the trust and betrayal in Careless Talk don't have to do with inadvertently spilling military secrets. Instead, as the dedication to Alan Turing hints, Albion is a society with a lot of prejudice towards gay and queer people. So much so that, like Turing himself, gay folk must hide that part of themselves from society at large - even gay people who are instrumental to the war effort.

However, Albion's society is also prejudiced towards magical folk, despite their obvious usefulness in wartime situations. In fact, I wondered early on if the game was going to use magical powers as a metaphor for homosexuality. Then it surprised me by portraying homosexual prejudice as a distinct, separate dimension of prejudice in Albion society. Then it surprised me again by explicitly associating the two (sending my thoughts back to what I was thinking originally), with these sentences: "Prejudice and hatred against magical folk and homosexuals have been linked for over a century. They both carry associations with the decadence of the aristocracy, without the protection that class affords."

I think the writing in Careless Talk is strong. I'm not sure what the message is, although here are some thoughts.

(Spoiler - click to show)The game tells you that you have to be careful who you trust - to watch out for, as the title says, "careless talk." Tom's murder is the most obvious example of that. On the other hand, the reverend explicitly chooses to trust you, the PC, with his secret. Isn't he being careless? Surely he shouldn't be so trusting of you.

Although maybe that is the message: That, in a society in which you have to hide part of who you are, you never know whom you can trust. Sometimes trust leads to betrayal, and sometimes it leads to a deep connection. There's a hint that perhaps the PC and the reverend will be lovers in the future.

Overall, I think Careless Talk is a bit too obvious about its central metaphor (for example, with the dedication to Turing and the two sentences I quoted before). Metaphor generally works better as a literary device when the reader picks it up on his or her own.

Nightmare Adventure, by Laurence Emms, Vibha Laljani
Short, old-school text adventure with just a few puzzles, February 1, 2019
Nightmare Adventure is a short, old-school style text adventure written with a homebrew parser. The plot is that everyone else in your village has fallen into a magical sleep, and it's up to you to save them.

I found Nightmare Adventure to be weaker than the two other old-school text adventures (Flowers of Mysteria and Escape from Dinosaur Island) I played in IFComp 2018. It's much shorter, for one, with only three or so puzzles (depending on how you count them). The puzzles are also quite easy - with the exception of the last one, which is a bit more clever.

One player-friendly feature of Nightmare Adventure is that it tells you exactly which objects you can interact with. I appreciated not having to type a bunch of EXAMINE [scenery object] commands, wondering whether I'd missed something important.

I do wish Nightmare Adventure had been more fleshed-out. For instance, the last stage of the game was (for me) the most interesting part, with a setting just brimming with potential for creative story choices or puzzle design. But there's not actually much to do there. Also, the game felt to me like it ended a bit abruptly, even when I managed to win it.

I also think Nightmare Adventure could could have done more, puzzle-wise, to increase player engagement. Not that parser-based puzzle games can't be short and engaging at the same time; The Origin of Madame Time pulls this off, for instance. But a short parser game is under that much more impetus to make the puzzles clever in order to keep the player's attention and give them a sense of satisfaction once the game is over. (A long parser game can more easily pull this off with the sheer quantity of puzzles.)

Escape from Dinosaur Island, by Richard Pettigrew

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Solid old-school text adventure, February 1, 2019
Escape from Dinosaur Island is exactly what it says it is on its title page: a retro-style text adventure. I enjoyed it, in a nostalgic sort of way. I can't help but compare it to Flowers of Mysteria, the other 1980s-style text adventure in IFComp 2018. Both are somewhat similar in puzzle style, although the plots are quite different. In addition, while Flowers of Mysteria was written with a homebrew parser, the author of Escape from Dinosaur Island apparently wrote the game as a way to learn the Adventuron design system.

In EfDI, your hot-air balloon has crash-landed on an island, and you must figure out a way to escape. This mostly involves gathering items from the island and assembling them in different ways to MAKE new objects. In fact, the use of the MAKE command is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. I'm not used to, in a parser game, using a verb on a noun I can't actually see. But in Escape from Dinosaur Island, there are multiple things you need to MAKE, that you can't currently see, out of components that you're carrying.

Let me take an example that's not actually in the game to illustrate this. Suppose you need to make a leather vest. If you're carrying the bear skin, the awl, and the spool of thread then simply typing MAKE VEST will make the vest for you. There's no need to deal with any guess-the-verb problems as you attempt to POKE HOLES IN BEAR SKIN WITH AWL or something else complicated like that. Also, if you don't have all the right components, then the game will tell you.

Normally the game gave me enough hints at what I needed to make that I didn't have problems with MAKE-ing things. The one exception was (Spoiler - click to show)the fire. I kept trying things like BURN LOGS or LIGHT LOGS, and none of these commands worked. There's no walkthrough for the game, so I eventually went to the game's thread on intfiction.org and discovered the proper command is MAKE FIRE. But this was the only place where I needed a hint.

The help menu says that every item in the game can be examined. I found a few exceptions to this, but only a few. Overall, I found the game's implementation to be solid.

The difficulty level felt just about right for me. I was never seriously stuck (with the one exception that I mentioned), yet the puzzles were more interesting than the fetch-quests that tend to comprise much of the puzzle design in weaker old-school text adventures. I think my favorite was (Spoiler - click to show)getting the objects into the cave, making the soup, and then drinking it so that you're strong enough to push the altar aside. This one hit the sweet spot for me of feeling complex enough to be interesting but well-clued enough to avoid frustration.

If you like 1980s-era text adventures, you'll probably enjoy Escape from Dinosaur Island.

Ürs, by Christopher Hayes, Daniel Talsky

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great art, unique protagonists, and some interesting special effects, January 29, 2019
In Ürs you play as a rabbit whose warren is threatened by ominous THUDs, and you have to figure out how to save it. After a while you realize that the setting isn't quite what it appears to be at first. It turns out that (Spoiler - click to show)the THUDs are meteorites hitting the shell protecting the large space rock (small moon?) that the warren is located in. You have to uncover some secrets of the ancient rabbits, increase the strength of the shell, and move the large space rock so that it is orbiting a different celestial body in order to save the warren. (I think that's right. Somehow the ancient rabbits must have built an engine of some sort into the rock itself.)

The art in this game is great - like the cover, with its strong hint of rabbity-ness.

The plot feels right within the mainstream of science fiction plots - uncover secret knowledge that no one else has dared to find and save your world, but the rabbit protagonist and the art give it some freshness.

One interesting feature of Ürs that I've seen in the Geronimo Stilton series of books that my kids read is that the fonts of certain words are changed - in the middle of a sentence - to augment their meaning or effect. For example, the THUDs actually go "THUD!". I think this effect works well most of the time. The one place I'm not sure about is the dialog that's rotating or moving while changing colors. That's unfortunately a bit hard to read.

Ürs has a rather impressive set of influences. The authors list Watership Down, City of Ember, Skyrim, Caves of Qud, Super Mario Brothers, and Apocalypse Now. I confess that I don't see how most of these fit the game (Watership Down is obvious - the rest less so). Maybe it's not an influence, but the game also reminded me at times of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Adventures with Fido, by Lucas C. Wheeler
An exploratory RPG-lite game starring a corgi, January 26, 2019
In Adventures with Fido you play as a cute little corgi. It starts out quite simple, with you in your backyard. However, as you begin to explore the area, you discover that there's a whole lot more to this game than appears at first. There are hidden areas to unlock, achievements, multiple major quests, side quests, a race, various knowledge quizzes, and I'm sure a bunch of other things that I didn't uncover.

Your score is primarily measured in the number of bones you find.

So Adventures with Fido ends up being a kind of an exploratory RPG in text form. You're not killing monsters and earning experience points to unlock more powers, but things like achievements and quests certainly fall within the general RPG framework. The author has provided an excellent walkthrough (24 pages!) that serves as a guide to all of the game's secrets.

The game is cute, and the writing is amusing in places. I can see Adventures with Fido being a good RPG-lite game for kids who are old enough to read long passages of text but not quite old enough for, say, The Witcher 3. I'm afraid it only kept my attention for about half an hour, though, as some of the RPG aspects were a little too repetitive for my taste. (Well, one could argue that there's a lot about RPGs that is repetitive. Crafting comes to mind.)

The game does feature some unusual color choices that were hard on my eyes, such as white or green text on a light blue background.

DEVOTIONALIA, by G. Grimoire
Haunting, atmospheric game that allows for multiple interpretations, January 23, 2019
In this choice-based game you play as the last priest of a dying cult. You have never heard your god's voice, and you wonder if the god is still there. Your primary choice in the game is to decide which particular act of devotion you will perform, in the hope that your god will speak to you or give you some kind of a sign.

The music is excellent, particularly the piece that sounds like Gregorian chant. It completely changes the feel of the game. The background graphics are also lovely.

Also, the opening line is up there with Erstwhile's as one of the best opening lines in IFComp 2018: "You have devoted your life to a god whose voice you have never heard." Immediately gripping.

More substantively, DEVOTIONALIA manages to pull off a feat that is difficult for any artwork in any form: It's emotionally powerful and yet ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations.

For example, I kept coming back to how DEVOTIONALIA dramatizes a question that many of us probably ask ourselves at least once in our lives, perhaps when we're alone with our thoughts and no distractions: "Has my entire life been based on something that does not matter?" The priest wants a sign that the deity is there, that the god he has spent his entire life serving still cares, that what he's done with his time on this earth has served a real purpose.

There's plenty of religious literature that wrestles with situations like the priest's: of people going forward, day after day and year after year, living out their acts of devotion (in all kinds of ways) - without direct confirmation of the value of what they're doing. I think of some of the Christian mystical works like John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul; or the title of Dorothy Day's autobiography The Long Loneliness; or Mother Teresa's diaries, in which it was revealed that she spent decades working with the poor of Calcutta because of a directive from God, all the while questioning God's very existence; or even of C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, in which he wrestles with his faith and his wife's death from cancer.

But you don't have to be a religious believer to wonder whether this thing that you've devoted your life to is worth it. Have I made the correct career choices? Is this political movement I'm involved in really for the best? To reference another game in this Comp, have my reproductive choices been the right ones? Many of us, like the priest, just want a sign from God, or some confirmation from the universe.

In DEVOTIONALIA the priest gets his sign. Something is there. But the sign doesn't really answer his fundamental question: "Does what I've done with my life matter?"

Which is probably the right ending. This question may ultimately be one we must answer for ourselves.

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