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by David Given

Science Fiction

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Great sandbox, but the puzzles need better hinting, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Changes is a science fiction eco-adventure, taking place on a beautifully realized foreign planet. It is well implemented and well coded but is also incredibly hard and needs much better hinting to be playable without the walkthrough.

(Spoiler - click to show)Changes begins with what is probably my favourite introduction so far:

You wake and see blood.

Thereís blood everywhere. So much blood, that at first you donít realise thereís a figure behind the blood. Itís alive, just; thereís a face, twisted with pain, and more blood that bubbles from its mouth as it breathes, and a hand that spasms as it tries to paw at the thing projecting from where a chest should be. The eyes gaze into yours. There is still life and desperation there, but it it knows that it is quickly running out.

You want to help. You reach out ó and that is when you realise that you are looking into the inside of the reflective cockpit canopy, and that the face you can see is yours.

Hell, yeah! This is how you do a proper ďin medias resĒ start to a game. After reading it, I was eager to find out just what the hell was going on here.

After the intro, the game abruptly changes to the inside of some kind of gooey cocoon, from which you emerge into a beautiful alien forest. The descriptions are very atmospheric, pointing out the way the light falls through the canopy, the sense of space inside the clearing, and the peacefulness permeating the air. I was looking forward to exploring this strange new world.

I think Iíve pointed out in earlier reviews that I like to go through a series of Inform standard actions, just to see if the author bothered to implement them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did everything have a non-standard response, but the responses actually gave me clues to my new identity. When I tried jumping I was told that I got much higher than I was expecting. At first I thought that this planet might have a low gravity, but other responses strongly hinted that I was no longer human. I looked at my reflection in the lake and it seems I had been turned into some kind of alien rabbit. Not only am I on a strange new world, I am also a Space Rabbit! This is the greatest introduction to a game ever!

I keep exploring the landscape, enjoying all the sights and sounds on the planet. Not only is everything beautifully described, but there are ton of animals moving around dynamically with what appears some very complex AI behaviour. Deer like animals run through the forest, eating the plants; beavers build dams; rabbits play in their burrows. Also, you seem to have some kind of telepathic ability allowing you to sense the emotions of the other animals from afar, and even read their minds on occasion. All this contributes to making the environment feel alive, and I thoroughly enjoyed just exploring and looking at all the animals.

Unfortunately, the world is just to bit too large for a Comp game, I think. There must be 20-25 locations and I never really properly got the lay of the land. Oh, and did I mention the fox? There is a ravenous fox like creature roaming the lands. Every time you encounter it, it will give chase, and you need to find a safe spot to hide from it. Whenever I was finally starting to figure out how the locations were connected, the fox would appear and I would get hopelessly lost, desperately typing random compass directions until I found one of the safe spots. This made exploring a lot less fun than it might otherwise have been, but I still enjoyed the sense of being part of a living ecosystem.

After exploring for a while, I suddenly realized that I had played the game for more than an hour, and made no progress whatsoever. I typed HELP and learned that the game implements no less than five helpful commands: ABOUT, HINTS, CREDITS, LICENSE and WALKTHROUGH. Iíve later learned that finding the HELP command was a stroke of good luck since itís apparently the only way to learn about the walkthrough. For future releases, I recommend mentioning all the special commands in the ABOUT text.

The HINT system turned out to be so frustratingly vague as to be completely useless. The hints kept telling me to find the shuttle, but I had no idea where I was supposed to to go to accomplish this. Sometimes, I would the see the shuttle glinting in the distance, but there never seemed to be a way to get there. I only managed to find the way much later in the game, and it turns out that finding the shuttle isnít necessary until the end-game, so why insist that the player do it right away?

When I finally turned to the walkthrough I learned that not only had I made no progress towards solving the first puzzle, I hadnít even figured out what it was. The intro of the game did imply that I was supposed to drag dead animals to the Mother Tree, but since I am a harmless rabbit, I had no idea how to procure one. It turns out that I am supposed to lure a poor otter into a rabbit warren, and then collapse it, killing the otter, who had never done me any harm. I have absolutely no idea how I was supposed to figure this out on my own. Not only would it never have occurred to me to kill the otter in this way, but I hadnít even realized I was supposed to try. The game gives you no hint that turning into an otter might be useful at this point. Itís simply the only animal you are capable of killing.

When you kill an an animal, you can then use the Mother Tree to take over its body, which opens up new options. For example, the otter can swim, giving you access to new paths through the landscape. The game progresses in a linear manner: There is always exactly one animal you are capable of killing and taking over, until you finally reach one that is capable of entering your shuttle. The game would have benefited from better hinting as to what animal you are supposed to be focusing on next. As it is, you just have to figure it out by trial and error.

Every time you change bodies, you get a big text dump, explaining more of the back story. These are well-written, but are also very long, and I would have preferred it if the story had been doled out in smaller bits while progressing through the game. The story itself is a pretty interesting science fiction story concerning a mutiny on your spaceship, which ends up with you having to escape to the planet where the game takes place. I love spaceships, so I kinda wish there had been some kind of interactive flash-back taking place there, but the game is a bit too long as it is.

Once I figured out that I was never going to solve any of these puzzles on my own, I played through the rest of the game with the walkthrough. Normally, this would trivialize the puzzles, but this game is so hard that making progress is a challenge even when you know exactly what you need to do, due to the dynamic nature of the environment. I may know that I need to get the otter to the burrows, but I still need to successfully lead it there, while avoiding the hungry fox along the way. Furthermore, the walkthrough will say things like ďherd the deer to the damĒ, with no explanation of how ďherdingĒ works.

Nonetheless, I managed to successfully complete the game using the walkthrough, and found this to be far more enjoyable than trying to solve the puzzles on my own. I just wish I had figured this out sooner. By this time, I was quickly approaching the two-hour Comp deadline, and had to rush through the rest the game, to reach the ending in time. The environment changes as you make progress, so I would have loved to have more time to explore in between solving the puzzles. Iíll probably go back to the game after the comp, just to see all the things I missed.

In conclusion, I found Changes to be a very well-made and engaging sandbox exploration game, but the actual puzzle solving gameplay needs way better in-game hinting to be enjoyable. With some polish, this could be a real gem.