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Shade, by Andrew Plotkin
Spike's Rating:

80 DAYS, by inkle, Meg Jayanth

4 of 4 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.

9:05, by Adam Cadre
Spike's Rating:

First Things First, by J. Robinson Wheeler
Spike's Rating:

Taco Fiction, by Ryan Veeder
Spike's Rating:

Bullhockey 2 - The Return of the Leather Whip, by B F Lindsay
Spike's Rating:

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.)

Spider and Web, by Andrew Plotkin
Spike's Rating:

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.

Galatea, by Emily Short
Spike's Rating:


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