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Reviews by Mike Ciul

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1-5 of 5


Spellbreaker, by Dave Lebling

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Marvelous illusion of freedom, September 18, 2009
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)
Despite the fact that this game is incredibly linear, especially at the end, it has a remarkable way of making you feel like you can do anything.

Part of this is because your main form of transportation is a sort of teleportation. You can go to any area of the game you have previously visited, at any time - although certain rooms in that area may become inaccessible.

Many of these areas have scenes that play out when you arrive. If you go back too many times, this may start to seem silly and repetitious, but the nature of the story and the puzzles tends to keep this from being an issue.

Another reason the game feels so "open" is because so much of it is outdoors. A very small number of connections between outdoor locations makes it seem like you could travel anywhere even without the teleportation ability. Probing the environment reveals this to be an illusion, but most of the time it is a perfectly acceptable one. Occasionally this gets annoying, though. (Spoiler - click to show)One pet peeve of mine is that if you leave the Bazaar by carpet, and then immediately go straight back down, you can't return to the Bazaar. I suppose the reason is that you get lost in the clouds, but I don't find that entirely convincing.

I found Spellbreaker incredibly difficult - BOTH times I played it. The first time was 15 or 20 years ago. It's curious to examine which puzzles I found difficult and which were not so much. The matters of pure logic (Spoiler - click to show)(The Plain and the "weighing" problem in the Outer Vault) were no problem, but knowing which objects and locations needed more exploration were a complete mystery to me. I turned to hints for several of these: One puzzle is pretty straightforward once you are presented with all the pieces, but it is in a location I was discouraged from revisiting, because of the tedious precautions needed to get there without getting yourself stuck. (Spoiler - click to show)(returning to Mid-Ocean after you get the snavig spell)

I had to use hints on both plays in order to get through the "maze." (Spoiler - click to show)(The octagonal rooms) It's not quite a guess-the-verb puzzle, but it's the sort of thing where you know roughly what you need to do, and you're still completely unable to figure out what action will do it. Once you find the right action, there's still the actual traversal of the maze to solve, but being of a logical nature, I didn't find that part difficult at all.

I was as stumped as Peter about that inventory object with hidden uses. In fact, there were several aspects of Spellbreaker that might have made more sense with more room to explain. I don't think I'm giving away anything to say that the jindak spell works only on takeable objects in your location. Magical scenery and magical items in your possession will not register when you cast it. It took me quite a while to figure that out. Several puzzles in Spellbreaker depend critically on timing and repetition - if you don't do them just right, you might think you're barking up the wrong tree. I think Peter might have had this in mind when he said that Spellbreaker "messes with you!" On occasion, this makes it more fun, but it's a very fine line, and I think Spellbreaker crosses it more than once. Curiously, there's one occasion when this makes a puzzle easier in a way. (Spoiler - click to show)I didn't realize that the real cube in the Outer Vault might either glow less or more than the fakes. This makes the puzzle harder to do correctly, but I just assumed I'd made a mistake and went back to my savegame in the Inner Vault until I got the solution I expected. After I read the details in the hints, I went back and devised my own solution just for fun. Another thing I missed by using a savegame until I got the solution was that the alarm is only triggered by spellcasting and taking the treasure, not by taking turns or picking up cubes. The uncertainty gave the puzzle an imagined time pressure that didn't really exist.

There's one other timing issue at an early point in the game that I still haven't figured out. (Spoiler - click to show)If you go down from Packed Earth too early, you can fall to your death without the roc picking you up. I have absolutely no idea why.

I needed hints for the final puzzle in Spellbreaker the first time I played it, but the solution was so memorable that I couldn't forget it the second time around if I tried. In hindsight, it's so elegant that you almost forgive Lebling for failing to provide the slightest clue as to its nature...

Finally, Spellbreaker has the absolute best carryall object I've seen in any IF game. Not only is it a wacky brilliant idea, but it makes gameplay smoother in a way that doesn't break mimesis.

The Lurking Horror, by Dave Lebling

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Solid, Fair, Entertaining, July 24, 2009
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)
I played The Lurking Horror right after Anchorhead, which served to highlight the limitations of Infocom's older games. The Lurking Horror, because of the style and size limitations of the time, lacks the depth and richness of Anchorhead, where virtually nothing reasonable produced a default response. On the other hand, it shows Infocom reaching its maturity, with smooth, elegant gameplay despite some necessary terseness.

The thing that impressed me most about TLH was that I never got really, really stuck, despite having to spend several days on some puzzles. Throughout the game, I was free of the nagging sensation that I'd screwed the whole thing up right at the beginning. Instead, I was always sure that the solution would come to me if I just looked at the situation in the right way. And when the solution did come, it was immensely satisfying. My favorite puzzle was one I encountered early on, but didn't solve until several weeks later. (Spoiler - click to show)(Using the elevator to break through the wall in the Steam Tunnel. As soon as I realized the two locations were connected, the pieces fell right together.) The game provided perfect encouragement when I was on the right track and led me quickly to the solution, once I had a basic grasp of what was going on. It was a really deep level of game-world interaction that could have been a nightmare of guess-the-phrasing - yet it posed absolutely no parser problems at all.

The game is full of wonderfully reusable objects, and useless things are relatively few and relatively obvious, although you're likely to do some trekking back and forth across the map at the end, for things that you had to drop because of capacity limits.

The atmosphere of "Lurking Horror" was consistent - a few horror-appropriate laughs and not too much MIT in-jokiness, and lots of creepy stuff going on. I think perhaps the game lacked focus; there was a colorful variety of monsters, but how they related to each other or to the main story was quite vague.

Amazingly, this is the first Infocom game I've ever played that did not require me to draw a map. Along with the PDF I used from the Masterpieces collection, it was very easy to make my way around. I did eventually draw a map, simply because I was stuck at one point and needed something to do, but I ended up not using it most of the time. I have one spoilery comment about the map, which may serve as a hint without giving away too much: (Spoiler - click to show)There is a maze. I mapped the maze. But it turned out that I didn't need to. As soon as I finished mapping, I discovered a shortcut. Unfortunately, the shortcut won't help if you've left behind an item that you need, because you can't use it to go back. Save your game.

Like many Infocom games, and perhaps appropriate to a horror-themed game, there are plenty of learn-by-dying situations. It pays to save often. But none of these situations seemed terribly unfair to me: there's usually a pretty obvious point right beforehand where you can save, and if you keep on restoring from there, you're likely to sort the problem out eventually.

I have only one complaint about this game's otherwise phenomenal parser. Right at the very end, there is something of a guess-the-noun problem. (Spoiler - click to show)The final monster can't be referred to as "grey," "gelatinous" or "mass," despite being described that way in the text. It also can't be referred to as a "monster" or a "horror." The only words I could discover that worked were "creature" (not in the text) and "being" (in the text, but I didn't notice it at first). This was only a minor annoyance, and didn't stop me from completing the game, but it was a surprise after the smooth interactions I'd had up to that point. I think it might be another case of the endgame not being as fully implemented or tested as the earlier portions.

So with some great puzzles, flawless interaction, and strong atmosphere, why was I slightly disappointed? Is it just the standards of modern IF, or was this a bit below Infocom's other work? Maybe the puzzles were too easy. I really appreciated being able to complete the game without hints, and the best puzzles did seem pretty hard. But at the start, I breezed through several initial steps - making it to 50 out of 100 points - without any real mental effort. In fact, a few of these very early puzzles were more tedious than challenging, requiring multiple steps and trial-and-error of some obvious combinations. (Spoiler - click to show)Heating up the Chinese food felt like hashing out an example from the I7 manual, not a real puzzle. I think also, this was a game that could have benefited from having the plot and characters fleshed out more. There probably was no room for Infocom to do so at the time, but I sorely missed that extra depth. The characters were some of the highlights of the game. The hacker's final scene is brilliant and somehow touching. The urchin was so brilliantly painted with so few strokes, I only wished he had more than half a dozen lines. But perhaps his elusiveness made him more poignant. (Spoiler - click to show)Even the rat - and perhaps especially the animated hand - were memorable personalities that lit up the console. I think a little bit more from each of them could have taken the game from merely fun to truly powerful.

One final note: I got a bit of a teaser for the sound in Lurking Horror, but unfortunately I could not find a Mac interpreter that could both play the sound and save the game, so I only heard a couple things. I look forward to playing the game through and hearing more of the sounds - the couple I did hear enhanced the spookiness quite a lot. Since they come as a total surprise, they can be very startling - perfect for a horror game.

Worlds Apart, by Suzanne Britton

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Great story, disappointed with game, March 27, 2009
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)
It took me a long time to really get into Worlds Apart, but the end it was rewarding. Worlds Apart was far from my first game, and maybe it didn't hold up so well for me because of that. The reviews gave me very high expectations, but I probably should have heeded the part about how it was revolutionary "for 1999." It is indeed very good, but I have a number of issues I'd like to present as warnings to future game authors.

Both the author and the reviewers give frequent advice to explore and learn background instead of merely trying to move through the story. For me, this was probably unnecessary advice - I am an obsessively thorough game player, and usually when I read something like that it makes me obsessive to the point of not having fun. My focus seems to be opposite to the player these notes are addressed to: I spend too much time learning background and then I don't have enough patience left to solve the puzzles. I had to resort to hints at several points, even though I had discovered a lot of background already. In fact, the first time I played Worlds Apart, I got bored very early on and quit for several months.

There were two kinds of situation where I used the hints: One was to find out whether a puzzle was even solvable at the current point in the game. Usually the answer was no, and it was a surprise - I thought nothing was going anywhere until I solved this particular puzzle. For the most part, the game gave a lot of helpful prompting about what needed to be done next, but maybe because that raised my expecations, I got very frustrated when it didn't.

The second situation was when I was ready to solve a puzzle, but I'd missed something important. In one particular situation, I had saved the game and quit for the day right after a new area opened up, and missed exploring something that probably should have been pretty obvious. Even so, I think this points out one of the biggest problems of Worlds Apart: pacing. I spent a lot of time revisiting the same places over and over again, because they changed so often. That was rewarding, but it also encouraged a lot of not-rewarding behavior, so when truly new places turned up, my excitement was dampened. In general I think Worlds Apart worked best when new information came at a slow drip; the occasional big flood was sometimes disruptive.

One of the hardest things about IF for me is figuring out how big a game really is. I expected something smallish for some reason, and when I ran out of leads early on, I thought there wasn't much more to see or do. I was wrong. The first part of the game is VERY large. When the full size became apparent, I got a lot more interested - it's just a pity it took so long for me to arrive at that point.

I had to keep a file of notes on the names of things and characters in the story. It's really not possible to follow the story without being able to keep track of a LOT of names. The names are colorful, but don't always provide meaning to the story - they're just details you have to remember. I probably understood the story better because of it, though, because when reading static fiction I don't take notes. Even so, I missed a couple important things I would have liked to talk to characters more about - the "quicksilver sea" that appears in the prologue, for example. Since I made one very long and thorough play-through instead of many replays, I never picked up on the significance of it until very late.

Why didn't I replay the game when there were so many recommendations that I do so? One reason is that some of the puzzles involve a lot of tedium - waiting, juggling possessions, etc. The game is filled with flashback scenes, some of which must be experienced in a particular order. It seemed laborious to work through several of these to get to one in particular that I wanted to revisit. Also, since there are very few characters in the central "present" node of the game, it involves a lot of guessing to get to a point where you can ask a particular character about a particular thing. Finally, many of the expository scenes are full of times when characters are busy and won't talk to you, so it takes some guesswork to find a place to go back to where you can really grill them.

The conversation system is truly impressive, and the depth of interaction with characters is the beating heart of Worlds Apart. I've never seen anything so vibrant in a computer game. The conversation system has a "talk mode" where you can just type >TOPIC and it will automatically ask the current conversant about TOPIC. It saves a lot of typing and encourages conversational exploration. Occasionally it was hard to guess what topic would advance the conversation, though, and at one point I got a bit stuck because I didn't realize that using TELL (which must be typed explicitly) would give a different result. There were surprisingly few points where TOPIC apparently did not mean what I thought it would. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point, I was sure asking about MOTHER would have the PC saying "Is my mother alive?" but there was no way to ask that question. I think that's intentional, because it would give away too much of the plot, but it seemed like an obvious question for a player to ask at that point, and deserved better handling in my opinion. The biggest flaw of the conversational system for me was topic disambiguation. It didn't happen too often, and I'm sure there's no way to avoid it completely, but it tended to break the immersion, especially when it provided clues as to topics I SHOULD ask about, but I didn't know why. (Spoiler - click to show)I have absolutely no idea why asking Saal about the Emperor would make me a "clever sleuth," but because of a disambiguation question about "eyes," I found out a very surprising bit of information. Maybe there was more to learn about the Emperor that I missed early on. In addition to being a total surprise, I thought this plot point seemed a little implausible - a bit like a deus-ex-machina.

The second part of Worlds Apart goes much quicker than the first, although there's a lot to learn there. The third part goes even quicker. Although it was exciting to be getting along with the story, there was a little bit of anticlimax to the end - after so much struggling and so much character interaction, it seemed too easy.

I hope I haven't given the impression that I didn't like this game - I really did, after the initial false start (which is common for me; I gave up on Curses because I couldn't figure out how to work the projector, and eventually did the whole rest of the game with a walkthrough). But I wanted to bring up a number of issues for people who'd like to write similar games (which would be great!) and want to avoid some of the pitfalls of this one. Worlds Apart is a deeply immersive game with a great story and wonderful characters. Just remember to save at the BEGINNING of each scene so you can get back to it easily and explore it some more. I always forget that. And make sure you have script on at all times!

Lydia's Heart, by Jim Aikin

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Large and deep, June 4, 2008
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)
After hearing many complaints of the lack of long-form games, I was shocked at the size and quality of this game. There is no need to complain!

Lydia's Heart is indeed a serious game, and it never breaks into wisecracks or in-jokes. But there is plenty that made me smile. The characters are vivid. Some are intensely likeable, some are thrillingly evil, and many, though pathetic and shallow at first glance, turn out to be complex and tragic in moving ways. Even their non-responses in conversation are interesting and revealing much of the time, though over the course of the extensive gameplay you will see a lot of repetition. Curiously, the main antagonist of the story is the least engaging, and I found his limited repertoire of remarks out of place with his much livelier associates.

At some point the game shifted from an "unfolding horror" to a puzzlefest. There are a couple mazes (not too big or nasty, but probably tedious for hardcore maze-haters), and lots of intricate puzzles. As the possiblilities spread out, the urgency of the plot faded. The satisfaction of solving a tough puzzle, or the curiosity to explore an environment, conflicted with the PC's feelings of terror and revulsion. Towards the end of the game, however, I felt more in line with the PC and her ally, and the excitement of the main goal returned.

The game takes place over the course of an afternoon. Time doesn't advance until you solve the necessary puzzles, but unlike in Ballyhoo, this trick works well because you hardly ever need to backtrack. You're told up-front that it's very hard to get permanently stuck, and there's lots of warning when you do (and all that's required in that case is an undo). Toward the end of the game I did find myself backtracking to make sure I didn't miss anything, but it almost always turned out to be unneccessary.

This is the first game I've played in a while where I deliberately avoided hints. It made the experience rich and satisfying, though the couple puzzles where I had to look up a hint (or contact the author) felt all the more unfair because of it. Even so, those puzzles made sense in retrospect.

This is a revised version of Aikin's game "Last Resort," and some of the added material is not as well fleshed-out as the rest of the game. Toward the end of the game, there were too many default responses to my attempts to solve the puzzles, even solutions I could not imagine would fail in the game-world presented. But I get the impression that there are more revisions to come, and I look forward to that.

Although I liked the flow of story overall, there were occasions when Lydia's Heart got wordy. The "death" sequence can come rather unexpectedly, and it's always the same, and covers two or three pages. It's usually possible to recover with an undo, though. The victory sequence was similarly long. I'm told that the final text-dump replaced a maze and some awkward game-states, but I would have liked to be more involved in the final scene, given a chance to savor the end of a very long journey.

I highly recommend this game. It will give you a good month of satisfying play, and you'll be glad to get to know the deceptively strong characters. I haven't played some of the "greats" of modern IF, but this is near the top of my all-time favorite list.

Ballyhoo, by Jeff O'Neill

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Flawed, but very entertaining, June 4, 2008
by Mike Ciul (Philadelphia)
I played Ballyhoo with a friend of mine, and it was a great way to experience it. I'm sort of a fan of the circus, and I think this game did the atmosphere very well, despite the typical Infocom in-jokes. The game takes great pains to time events so you never miss anything, which has some mimesis-crushing side effects. The puzzles were not ridiculously hard, though I think we used hints once or twice. There a brilliant dream sequence marred by maddeningly tedious puzzles. We had a lot of fun with it, even while we cursed the puzzles that just don't make sense.


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