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Reviews by MathBrush

Infocom

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View this member's reviews by tag: 15-30 minutes 2-10 hours about 1 hour about 1 hours about 2 hours IF Comp 2015 Infocom less than 15 minutes more than 10 hours Spring Thing 2016
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The Lurking Horror, by Dave Lebling
Infocom's Lovecraftian game set on a campus: mixed puzzles, great creatures, February 3, 2016
It's hard for me to review this game (the first horror IF game by Infocom, and one of the first horror games ever) without comparing it to later Interactive Fiction based on Lovecraft's work. Specifically, Theatre, Anchorhead, and Lydia's Heart come to mind. How does this one compare?

First, size. The Lurking Horror is on the small side, due to PC capabilities at the time of publication. It is about the same size as Theatre, and much smaller than Anchorhead or Lydia's Heart.

Next, setting. The game is set in an alternate version of the MIT campus called GUE Tech during the winter. This worked well for me in the end, with the creepy Department of Alchemy, dark buildings and deep basements, and the gross muddy areas. It gave them game a more campy feel though, like Theatre, as opposed to the bigger games.

NPC's and enemies. While The Lurking Horror has a few okay PC's, it really shines in the creature department. I had played for a few hours without encountering more than one 'creature', and nothing that threatened me, so I was quite shocked when I (Spoiler - click to show)buried an axe in the chest of the maintenance man without any reaction from him. The further the game got, the more disturbing the creatures got. The enemies are more like Theatre's than the later games.

Puzzles. The Lurking Horror has some puzzles that are just dumb (especially the carton in the fridge). Later on, though, the puzzles get more fun, especially as you use the same objects in more and more ways. In the end, the puzzles are more like Lydia's Heart than the other two games, although there are much less puzzles overall.

Overall, it seems to me that the Lurking Horror was a great success that became eclipsed by later games. Theatre ('95) seems to be strongly inspired by The Lurking Horror, while Anchorhead ('98) seems to be inspired at least partially by Theatre (as it includes some similar puzzles). Lydia's Heart ('07) was more of a successful reboot of the Lovecraft idea using newer technology.

Zork I, by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling
A nice commercial clean-up of the MIT version, February 3, 2016
Until last week, I had no idea that Infocom games were still available on current platforms. After downloading an iPad app, I had the pleasure of trying my first commercial game after 5 years of free interactive fiction.

The manual and feelies were great, and the parser was very smooth, with great runtime. I missed several of Inform's features, especially when killing enemies. Overall, the game felt thoroughly tested, and a large number of the annoying features of MIT Zork were removed. Examples include a better coal maze, some of the smug writing, and better correlation between exits and etrances of nearby rooms.

I thought at first it was silly to split up the game into three, but having started Zork II, I am really enjoying the expanded versions. Very few of the free games I have played rival this kind of polished game, with Curses! and Anchorhead as my main examples of great gameplay.

Stationfall, by Steve Meretzky
Like a mix of Planetfall and Starcross; explore abandoned station, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
Stationfall was interesting; in some ways, I liked it better than Planetfall, although it might just be that there was so much hype about Planetfall that I found it disappointing.

Stationfall has you flying with Floyd to a space station to pick up some forms. When you arrive, the station is deserted... mostly.

The map is interesting. There is a main sphere with 8 or 9 levels. The top and bottom levels are one room each, while the middle level has fifteen or so. In addition, there are three sub-modules attached to the middle level, two of which are joined together in a big space village.

This all reminded me a lot of Starcross with its huge cylindrical map and space village. But Stationfall's map had more flavor, I feel. Meretzky has plenty of references to Planetfall, including leaving bedistors and other computer equipment laying about, as well as similarities in recorded equipment about. There is an alien code whose solution reminds me a bit of HitchHikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which is explicitly mentioned several times in the game through footnotes.

The story starts slowly, but picks up. I really enjoyed the ending sequence, and felt it provided a little more closure than most Infocom endings.

The hunger/thirst and sleep timers seemed a little easier than in the original Planetfall, although many have mentioned the tight time constraints in the game.

Deadline, by Marc Blank
Intricate, beautiful, a bit unfair. Infocom's first mystery and realistic game, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
I loved Deadline. I didn't get too far on my own in solving the mystery, but I spent a long time exploring and having fun.

This is a mystery game, where a man has been found dead, and you have to investigate the house and people in it. Everyone walks around, has scripted events, etc. I asked everyone about everyone else, examined the crime scene, etc.

I missed an important verb which is listed in the manual, and which you are supposed to know from the beginning; typing ANALYZE or ANALYZE [SOMETHING] FOR [SOMETHING] sends someone to analyze stuff for you.

Now so many other games make sense. For instance, Jon Ingold's Make It Good really borrows a lot from this game, and now I realize it must have been an intentional homage, meant to help and mislead the experienced gamer (which I wasn't when I played it).

Deadline was an early experiment in timed and scripted events, as well as extensive conversation.. Games like Varicella or Pytho's Mask may not have existed without this one.

It' s also very hard, in unfair ways. I recommend eventually settling on a walkthrough. Like the great novels of the 1600's-1800's, it was designed to last for a long period of time in the absence of other material.

The Witness, by Stu Galley
A weaker detective story from Infocom, still polished, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
Having just played Deadline for the first time, Witness was not as good, but still very polished. As others have noted, the solution to whodunnit isn't that hard. How they did it is harder.

Again, Sergeant Duffy is here to analyze everything for you . Again, there is a death you must investigate, and a (this time smaller) cast of characters you can interrogate.

You witness the death of a man, and you must uncover the mystery behind his death (thus the name of the game).

This was Infocom's second mystery game, and (I believe) the only one by Stu Galley.

Starcross, by Dave Lebling
Infocom's first scifi; big map, Star Trek feel. Little comedy, lots of wonder, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
Star cross was fun to try on my own without a walkthrough, at first. You are a miner in space, looking for an asteroid, when you encounter an unusual object.

This game plays out on a large cylindrical map, with dynamics similar to those described in Ender's Game. You encounter a wide variety of creatures. The map eventually overwhelmed me; it is a huge map, and hard to draw out yourself (just look at the official maps!).

I used a lot of hints, eventually (including one near the beginning).

The main gameplay mechanic is a lock-and-key type puzzle, where you find about a dozen color-coded objects and corresponding places to put them.

I actually preferred this to Planetfall; that game's 4 timers (hunger, sleep, (Spoiler - click to show)disease, flood), combined with an empty map and red herrings, left me frustrated (Enchanter's three similar timers were compensated for by a simple map and dense useful object placement). Star cross was fun, even though I mostly used a walkthrough. The deaths were all fun, too.

Suspended, by Michael Berlyn
A complicated optimization Infocom game set in the future, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
Suspended is a very unusual Infocom game. You take control of six robots, each with their strengths and issues (only one can see, but it's broken; another can feel things, but it talks in riddles; one is mainly useful if you're closer to dying, etc.)

The idea is that each one can see its environment in different ways. The first few playthroughs might just consist of exploring each room in the (provided) map, and understanding what needs to happen. Then later playthroughs would consist of trying over and over again to survive, and then trying to do it quickly.

I just played around for 15 minutes, and then used the walkthrough. I'd like to revisit this in the future. The robots have clever commentary.

It's mentioned in Planetfall that multipurpose robots like Floyd eliminated the need for these specialized robots.

Ballyhoo, by Jeff O'Neill

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wonderful, intricate, intimidating story and puzzles. Better than Sorceror., February 3, 2016
I rushed through Ballyhoo, but even so the story was marvelous and stunning. This is a mystery game set in a dreary circus. The feel is a lot like Not Just and Ordinary Ballerina. You investigate the disappearance of the owner's daughter after hours.

This game could have been played without hints for a month. The puzzle solutions are intricate and the world is detailed.

I relied on hints out of fear that there was way too much I could do wrong. In fact, almost everything is reversible, once you reach an area, you get unlimited chances to return. If not, you don't need to return. The game was shockingly forgiving.

Unfortunately, the walkthrough may have been necessary simply because of guess-the-verb problems, especially with conversations.

The much-feared dream sequence is very easy to map and overcome (the lines situation was harder for me).

This is a fantastic game, the name and blurb really turned me off, but this game was more fun than the Lurking Horror or Sorceror.

**Edit:** I've been asked to clarify what I mean by better than Sorceror (or Lurking Horror). As I considered why I used that comparison, I realized that there are many parallels between Ballyhoo and Sorceror: both contain a dark carnival, both are centered on searching for a missing person, both have a pair of gatekeeper puzzles, many wild animals etc. In both, you slowly develop into an expert in the skills that surround you (magic or circus abilities), and the humor and writing are similar.

Why do I prefer Ballyhoo? It condenses the map of Sorceror, and has far more NPCs and interesting, scripted events, as well as far less red herrings. It has more feeling, too. In Ballyhoo, when you are in (Spoiler - click to show)Eddie's trailer and he realises you aren't a clown, I felt real anxiety for my character, and when (Spoiler - click to show)you break through Tina's shell and she solemnly shakes your hand, I felt a tug on my heartstrings. Contrast this to Sorceror's over the top 'scary moments' like (Spoiler - click to show)burning in flame forever or its few moments of pathos (Spoiler - click to show)which I can't even think of; perhaps giving up your spellbook?.

As for lurking horror, I'm just still mad about the Chinese food puzzle. It's actually a great game.

Sorcerer, by Steve Meretzky
Enchanter's nightmarish older brother, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: Infocom
Sorcerer is the "middle child" of the Enchanter trilogy, and like many middle installments, it tries to go beyond the old game into new territory while developing some aspects.

This game is still focused on scrolls, but it adds potions and many more Zorkian pick-up-and-carry-around items. Many items are items from MIT Zork which have been repurposed.

The writing is, in fact, nightmarish. There is a nightmare early in the game, and don't try sleeping in the first area! You later visit some particularly horrible places, where there are countless ways to die. The game is filled with subtly creepy locations, like (Spoiler - click to show)an underground carnival. And losing is particularly unpleasant.

This game has many red herrings, and one notorious unwinnable state (you must obtain a certain item in the first 25 turns of the game. The game doesn't tell you that).

The game is famous for (Spoiler - click to show)its glass maze, and for its time-travel puzzle. Unfortunately, I had heard about both before, and so I wasn't as impressed by them.

I got up to 205 points before using a walkthrough. I played this game on iOS's Lost Treasures of Infocom.

Plundered Hearts, by Amy Briggs

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wonderful, exciting Infocom pirate game with sporadic romance elements., February 3, 2016
This Infocom game nails the pacing. The game always felt exciting. You play a young woman searching for her father who is abducted by pirates. You carry out increasingly bold tasks throughout the game, and, as a player, I felt excited at my ability to be part of the action instead of being helpless on the side.

The game has two main areas: a ship, and a house. Events are tightly scripted and well-thought-out to keep the action flowing. The tight pacing may require frequent saving.

I found the game slightly easier than usual for Infocom; however, I was stumped twice in the middle (around points 16-19). It took about a week or a bit less of playing on and off to finish it (total time around 4-5 hours).

Be warned that this game uses Infocom's piracy protection, so you need access to the 'feelies' to solve key puzzles in the game. I used the Lost Treasures of Infocom app, which has the feelies included as images.

The romance novel aspects were infrequent, mostly resorting to ardent glasses, although right around the 16-19 point range where I got stuck, things got a bit heated as I was losing, but the game avoids anything explicit.

Overall, one of my favorite Infocom games, probably due to the great writing and simpler (but rewarding) puzzles.


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