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Reviews by MathBrush

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An Odyssey: Echoes of War, by Natalia Theodoridou

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Sing,O Muse, of a complicated game, child of Homer and Choicescript, January 12, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This game, in my opinion, faithfully captures much of the feel of the Odyssey.

In it, you play a greek hero (or from a neighboring country), child of a god (which one is your parent is selectable), trying to get home after sacking Troy.

It recreates many of the familiar scenes but leaves several surprises. So, for instance, you can visit the Lotus eaters or the cave of the cyclops, but you could just as well end up recreating the Labors of Hercules.

This is currently one of the top contenders for 'Most underrated game' on the choice of games website, and it makes sense, both that it is underrated and that people like it.

It makes sense that it is underrated because it uses loss, failure, and fate for a stronger narrative. I've seen before that Choicescript games that focus on those tend to be less popular, since they make players feel like their choices either are wrong or don't matter.

On the other hand, they do combine to make an interesting tale, and I felt like the ending choices especially did a good job of setting up competing interests.

It was a bummer that the game sets you up as married and also as having many possible love interests. It's completely faithful to the original story, but it makes all romances besides your wife cheating.

Overall, the writing on this is strong, at the expense of reduced player freedom.

Stronghold: A Hero's Fate, by Amy Griswold and Jo Graham

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A city simulator in a fantasy setting with many relationships, January 3, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This game is definitely my style of game but may not be everyone's. It's a city simulator in Choicescript (like Silverworld, Ironheart, or The Fleet), but it's set entirely in a Dungeons and Dragons-type setting, with liches, goblins, and dryads.

The game has a large scope with each element having less focus. It's like the opposite of Cryptkeepers of Hallowford, which has the entire game focused on a single dungeon over a couple of days. Instead, this is a youth-to-death game, starting with when you found a village and ending with your death.

During those decades, your main choices are romancing people, dealing with 3 sets of interpersonal conflicts that fester over time, and managing your village's economy, defenses, education, etc.

Some events are recurring, like a choice on what public buildings to work on or what part of the economy to prioritize. Other events are special, like getting a chance to find magical books in a tomb underground.

The first chapter is significantly different from the other chapters, as it has no sim features.

My ending was pretty abrupt, as I died in battle and got one page afterwards. I'm not sure if there are longer endings for the other paths, but it was generally satisfying.

This game is pretty polarizing in interesting ways. It has over a thousand reviews on the iOS omnibus app and is usually high on the bestselling list, but it has a 6/10 rating and < 4 on google play store. A lot of those ratings are from people who hate games with transgender and non-binary options, which this game has a lot of.

Also, there are reviews complaining the game is way too short and others complaining it drags on too long. I feel like it's a game with a ton of threads, each of which is passed over fairly quickly, including your personal narrative. Has a lot of replay value, though.

Light Years Apart, by Anaea Lay

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A well-told science fiction story about a space espionage mission, January 1, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
In this game, you play as a youngish spaceship pilot and former spy. You come across two strange young twins and accompany them across space on a quest involving sentient computers.

This game has a lot in common with other games like Rent-A-Vice, The Martian Job, The Road to Canterbury and a few other games, in that it sacrifices player freedom for a better overall storyline.

For instance, in this game, there are times where you have four ways to be skeptical, but no way out of it. Or you have 4 ways to agree to a reckless mission, but no other options. Most of your choices are about how to react to dramatic outside events rather than acting on your own.

This technique has some advantages, which is perhaps why all the Nebula Award nominees use it, since it makes story beats more effective. But gameplay suffers, I think.

The overall mystery surrounding the twins was fun to see play out, and the plot and worldbuilding are interesting. As for the stats, there was a lot of overlap between them (how can you tell if a specific check is for Gregarious, Smooth Talker or Social Butterfly?), bonuses were few and far between, but the story seemed to handle failures well.

Overall, it was definitely worth playing, but I believe that it could have used more meaningful player agency, especially in choosing how to roleplay.

I received a review copy of this game.

Caveat Emptor, by Chandler Groover, Failbetter Games

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A bloody Exceptional Story that uses lodgings creatively, January 1, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This game (the first Fallen London Exceptional Story of 2020) deals with an auction at an abandoned taxidermist's estate, where the mysterious Vicomte de V________ shows up (where rumours abound that his reflection cannot be seen in mirrors, that he likes his meat VERY raw, etc.)

Interactivity is unusual in this story, and it seems like Groover is still playing around with new ways of getting interactivity in the Fallen London format.

(Only mild spoilers follow about the story structure, but I'll tag them in case people want to be surprised)

(Spoiler - click to show)You are provided four different new lodgings in this story, each of which you have to move into at different times. In each lodging, there is at least one repeatable story you can use to farm things, as well as an unlimited draw deck that lets you either explore the lodgings or attract the Vicomte's attention. If you attract too much attention (or do it on person), he comes.

Following that, there is a final confrontation and denouement.

The rewards are interesting, seemingly strongly focused on the bone market. I gathered more bones than I've gotten anywhere else in the game, as well as substantial amounts of Nightsoil of the Bazaar and (the biggest thing) (Spoiler - click to show)a Soothe and Copper longbox.

The different lodgings all seem like 'haunted' versions of regular lodgings, which I thought was nice.

I wasn't captivated with this story, but the mystery was a good one, and the finale definitely made me more invested. Also, having a permanent lodging as a reward is also nice.

The overall concept is a great way to take a familiar concept and make it work in the game's universe. It reminds me of Dr Who doing similar things, using sci-fi to explain stuff like witches.

This is not my favorite Groover exceptional story, but not the worst, and definitely better than most other exceptional stories

Here's my score:
+Polish: Eminently polished
+Interactivity: I'm intrigued by lodgings, and seeing them used in this way worked for me. The card deck required some stumbling around to operate, although I suppose all the details were in a handy pinned storylet.
+Descriptiveness: The lodgings were distinct and unique, and the Vicomte himself was disturbingly written in conflicting ways that left me unsettled.
+Emotional impact: Mostly unsettled and surprise at the ending.
+Would I play again? I would definitely be interested in seeing other paths.

A Midsummer Night's Choice, by Kreg Segall

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
An Elisabethean fairytale farce with Shakespearean influences, December 30, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This is a good game overall from a great author, so I have no doubt that most people will enjoy it.

I had a good time with it, but I wished for a bit more. I love the works of Kreg Segall, and I love Shakespeare, but I felt like this game missed both my favorite parts of Kreg Segall and my favorite parts of Shakespeare.

You play the child of a local nobleman who has arranged your marriage to a much older noble. Your father is in ill health and also in ill temper due to predations by forest bandits and advances by rival nobles.

You escape (in cross-dress) to the forest where shenanigans ensue.

I found the ending satisfying, but the start felt a little slow and bloodless to me. I admire Segall's game design most when it offers a variety of competing goals and interests, while I felt like the only real goals here were 'deal with your dad' and 'find someone to love'. A lot of the story felt constrained to hit certain plot points (such as having to eavesdrop on your father, having to remain in your disguise at points where it would be logical not to, etc.).

These choices would make sense if they were forced by being faithful to Shakespeare, but very little of the play is in the game. Only lovers in the woods, the existence of fairies, the play and a few side references are in it. But we miss out on the warm-hearted buffoonery of Bottom, the complex feelings that come from desperately loving someone who always spurned you but now woos you under the influence of a spell, the contrast between the ridiculous and silly poetry in the villager's play compared to the intelligence of Puck, the mystery and elegance of the fairies in general, the silly puns and slapstick humor of the villagers, and the nobility and grace of Theseus and company.

So I guess that while this game is satisfying, I feel that it just missed out on too many good opportunities from the author and the source material.

I received a free copy of this game.

The Road to Canterbury, by Kate Heartfield

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Award-winning writing with a design trading autonomy for story, December 25, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
The Road to Canterbury was nominated for a prestigious award (the Nebulas, I think) in writing, and it deserves it. I felt it was 'okay' at first but as it went on I found the plot, characters and details to be great. It has extensively-researched details on life at the time of Chaucer, making the setting a delight to explore.

This is a good game, so everything else I'm going to talk about is just personal opinion and about my own tastes.

I felt that the choices in the game often sacrificed autonomy for a predetermined path.

That's not to say there aren't a lot of choices. You can bring a squire and knight together or bring them apart. You can seek to learn more about your brother's death, pursue a romance, fight duels, buy a racehorse (which I strongly recommend), etc. And your biggest choice, to encourage war between France and England or not, has many shades of nuance to select from.

But frequently it felt like the game forced my character into specific plot points, not by external circumstances, but by presupposing my character's motivations and desires.

This feels like it makes the overall storyline better (since there are assured plot beats) but it felt weird. For instance, near the beginning, you begin to overhear snatches of an interesting conversation. Without any choice on your part, your character decides to risk discovery by trying to eavesdrop. You get to pick how to do it, but you can't choose not to do it at all, even if it doesn't fit your character to that point.

Many such situations come up where it's just assumed your character will do something pre-determined.

I also had some issues trying to determine whether choices were based on sanguine (vs melancholic) or excess (vs temperance) or piety or generosity (vs avarice). For instance, if if you save money by drinking water instead of ale when a friend wants you to drink with them, is it melancholic (avoiding a large group), temperate (not drinking), piety (since you're only supposed to drink on feast days), or avarice since you aren't spending money? Sometimes it was clear, but sometimes it was confusing.

So for me personally, on my 5 point grading scale, I'd give it:

+Polish: The game is smooth and works great. Editing is perfect.
-Interactivity: Some of the stats didn't work well for me.
+Descriptiveness: Awesome. No wonder it won an award.
+Would I play again? I think I will.
+Emotional impact: The last few chapters were great emotion-wise. Lots of satisfying conclusions (for the specific threads I was chasing).

The Magician's Workshop, by Kate Heartfield

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Run a workshop in Venice--historical alternate universe with magic, December 19, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
Every commercial Choice of Games entry I've played is well put-together, interesting, and felt worth my while. So when I rate them, it's usually on intangible personal feelings that may not translate to others.

This game has a cool setting. You are one of three apprentices to a master in Venice near the end of the 15th century. This game features encounters with several of the Medici's as well as Machiavelli (who is very pleasant) and several references to an exiled Leonardo da Vinci. Care is taken in presenting the setting. For fans of this setting (similar to that in Jon Ingold's All Roads) or alternate histories in general, I can absolutely recommend the game for its writing and style.

Mechanically, I have some questions with it. There are many stats, the bonuses to stats are small, stats are frequently decreased, most stat checks require multiple stats at once, and there is significant overlap in stats making divining the correct choice difficult (such as Boldness being an opposed stat and confidence being a skill, or charm being an opposed stat and guile being a skill).

I think these design choices were intended to increase the difficulty and prevent player boredom, something I struggled with in my own choicescript game. But the net effect was a feeling of frustration for me. Also, it's hard to know how to raise some stats. I took every opportunity to be romantic with Dangereuse and ended up with a 53% in the relationship, too low to get their support vs the machine.

I feel like games do best when, if you know what you intend to do, it is clear on what you must do to succeed in it; I think Emily Short and other early parser theorists stated a similar principle, where if you know the solution to a puzzle it should be easy to type it in.

I think instead of throwing stat difficulties in the way, it's better to do what games like Choice of Magics or Psy High do, where perhaps the person you love turns out to be a horrible person and you have to do things you hate to be with them, or you can be as powerful as you want but will accrue a specific penalty that is known long ahead of time.

I guess that's a counterpart to delayed branching (a principle in Choicescript where your choices have effects far down the road): being able to strategize.

Anyway, that's a long aside that's more about a class of games (including this game and my own) than any individual one. For this specific game, the trouble with stats made it harder to make plans and I ended up turning to the Machine to solve all my problems. Fortunately, the ending was well-written.

Empyrean, by Kyle Marquis

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A deep dive into a tech-based future with cool vehicles, December 14, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This is a pretty long retro-future game where you play in a post-apocalyptic world where deep mechanical tech underground is spilling up and a city is split between a corrupt government, a struggling revolution and outside infiltrators.

It has some rough patches and the narrative arc didn't feel well-defined, but its intricate worldbuilding and strong characters pushed it up to a 5 star rating for me.

My introduction to Kyle Marquis was through Vampire the Masquerade: Night Road, which (in addition to many excellent features) had a surprisingly detailed flight of vehicles.

This game also follows that pattern, with multiple advanced flying vehicles described in intricate detail (including the eponymous Empyrean, an experimental airplane that most of the game revolves around) and several motorbikes as well.

This game has deep, deep worldbuilding. There are multiple layers to the government, each with their own agents (often embedded into each other). There are multiple versions of tech, between the revolutionaries, the city itself, the rival city, your father, and the deep underground. It comes with numerous references and explains itself in game.

I was a little disappointed that the stats stayed relatively low, but I think that's because I accidentally spread them out too much early on. Also, I didn't invest anything in physical stats (instead focusing on cunning and leadership), and there are numerous areas where you have to be fast, strong, or a good shot. Fortunately, the game was graceful with failures and I was able to adapt.

Apparently, from reading older reviews, the game has gone through a big revamp. Originally, there were half as many main stats and they were opposed (like cunning vs leadership). Many people felt it didn't work that well, so the game was changed and re-released. That explains the proliferation of stats and the oddities of which ones are used when. I definitely think the current system is better than the old, and I can't help but wonder if the experience with a ton of diverse stats helped the author in writing VtM: Night Road.

The narrative arc could have been stronger. Instead of a long rise and climax, it felt like it plateaued after the first couple of chapters, with events of similar direness and complexity occupying the middle parts until the very last chapter or two. The game felt long, and the final chapter for me felt like a good wrap-up.

Overall, I was pleased with the characters and enjoyed my ending. I was a little confused, thinking that Wesh was a preteen, but that went away quickly. As a fan growing up of pulp sci-fi and hard sci-fi, I enjoyed the worldbuilding the most.

Ironheart, by Lee Williams

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An expansive alternate history mech game set in the Middle East, December 11, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This game was a bit different than I thought it would be, and I wasn't sure how some parts of it would work, but it gelled well together and I had a great time with it.

Specifically, I thought this would be mostly about a giant mech war. Instead, this is mostly about a 'fish out of water' scenario where you, an accidental time traveler, end up in the 12th century Middle East (Aleppo, Jerusalem, Jericho, etc.) in an alternate world where perpetual motion exists and powers giant mechs.

The game covers a lot of ground, from finding your place in the world (I became a squire) to dealing with intrigue and romance (I romance a knight named Ygrite) to mech combat and a surprisingly complex castle management simulator.

Each part felt just a bit thin, but as an overall whole it worked well. What's best is the way the stats tied in well with roleplaying. In a lot of Choicescript games I have to constantly check the stat screen to have any chance of succeeding. In this game, I just picked a character type I wanted to be and the options were so natural I didn't have to check the stat screen until the end. I failed a few times in reasonable ways, but was able to achieve most of my goals.

So I can definitely recommend this as an overall great experience. The combat isn't the best combat, the management isn't the best management, etc. but the overall way it comes together is some of the best I've seen.

As a side note, it includes several things I don't see much in Choicescript games, including a choice of religions and how religious you want to be and a variety of options related to drinking and food.

My Kingdom for a Pig, by Chandler Groover, Failbetter Games

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Descend into the bowels of the bazaar, December 11, 2020
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours
This is the last of Groover's exceptional stories that I've played. This one is very large, taking me up to around 80 actions to complete.

In many ways, this mirrors Cricket, Anyone?. Both stories are quite large. Both have fairly silly premises (a last-minute cricket player replacement vs curing a rhyming disease with a mushroom-hunting pig). Both end up uncovering a side-conspiracy that would be a main theme in other stories but is only a sideshow here (Benthic vs Somerset in Cricket and the truth behind the auction in MKfaP), and both end in a wild descent into non-reality uncovering vast truths about the Bazaar.

This is a great story. It has a lot of customization (you have several companions with different dialogue snippets and must choose between which ones to take), interesting mechanics (like bidding at an auction and a portion told entirely through red-bordered cards), connections to past actions (Poet-Laureate gets checked here, as does knowledge of the Khanate, connections to the Gracious Widow, and much much more), and great lore (you can learn intriguing details about the fall of each of the five cities).

I prefer Cricket, Anyone? marginally, but this story is better than almost all others. Flint was my touchstone for a long time on what a good side story should be, and it's intended to be much bigger and wilder than the Exceptional Stories, but I think this story plus Cricket, Anyone? provide better storylines and lore rewards than Flint (although significantly less financial rewards). Worth buying at the full Fate price.

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