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Nominee, Best Puzzles; Nominee, Best NPCs - 1997 XYZZY Awards
11th Place - 3rd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (1997)
-- Duncan Stevens
>VERBOSE -- Paul O'Brian's Interactive Fiction Page
To give it its due, the game does have a clever premise, a promising start, and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral bent, but are cleverly designed (getting the scroll, getting the key). Others in fact do have the particular ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the baby, for example. That's why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for the sake of a few points... After that point, I detached from the game, using the walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It didn't get better. Zero Sum Game's gimmick is one that works best the first time it is used -- too bad this game did such a poor job of using it.
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Genuinely Funny Send-up of an Adventure Game
Your mission: you have completed an average hack-and-slash adventure game, but when you come home, your mother sends you out to undo everything you've done. The goal is therefore to lose all 75 points you have at the start of the game, by unslaying a dragon, giving back treasures, and making good all your dirty deeds. That you frequently have to do more dirty deeds along the way is, of course, part of the humor. (Duncan Stevens)
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Puzzles range from the fairly obvious to difficult and a good sense of timing is required at two points in the game, so regular saving is required although once you find out how events run their course you won't need to worry. (John Ferris)
The whole game is liberally sprinkled with marvellous characters, who can be interacted with and talked to and questioned, and almost everything you do and say in anyone's presence elicits a funny response. (Bev Truter)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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The writing style alternates between imitating a lofty high fantasy style and being jeering and sarcastic, and there's a very cynical undercurrent running through the whole game. This is a world where so-called heroes are not necessarily very heroic and all life is expendable. The humor is dark and uneasy, downright sociopathic at times. But - if you don't mind twisted humor, adult themes and doing villainous things in an adventure game, you'll probably find the contrast between the fantastic and crude here at the very least amusing, if not hilarious.
It helps that the implementation is extremely detailed, with certain sections almost sandbox-like in their wealth of interactions. The game is packed full of funny responses to actions; there are even a few animated NPC characters who react to your odd behavior, and sometimes to each other as well.
The game is very difficult, though. There are countless of ways you can make the game unwinnable, and although the game provides a "warning" command to let the player know ahead of time when they've done something irreversibly dumb, the system doesn't seem quite fool-proof, as I found out on my first playthrough. It took three restarts total (with the use of some hints) for me to finally reach the ending.
The puzzles themselves are sometimes devious and clever, possible for a player to figure out if they play around with the mechanics enough, but there are some nearly impossible ones too. One part requiring the use of a non-standard verb while being misdirected by the game and also (Spoiler - click to show)the merciless timed section featuring Benny/Darlene come to mind.
Zero Sum Game is something of a mixed bag, personally. It made me laugh a lot, but it didn't make me feel good in the end. I guess such is the nature of dark comedy. And while the game has a good amount of content - you can easily squeeze around two hours of gameplay out of it - the daunting difficulty with the lack of an internal hint system is another thing that makes the game hard to recommend without reservations. You should probably give it a try if you're into deconstructive and satirical humor, at least.
Now there are some instances in the game where you have to be "evil" to succeed. That can turn some people off. Other than that, the game is clever, and the puzzles are decent. Often, because you're working backwards, your goals are pretty clear, and it's the way you accomplish the goal that is difficult. I like that about this game.
In some ways this is Zorkian. The biggest turn off involves a puzzle solution that requires you to do evil in order to complete the game. This might not be a big deal if your character is made out to be evil or something, but the purpose is to put everything back the way it was to appease your mother, something that is implied to be a "good" thing.
If you like puzzle style games, try this out. If you don't, this won't be for you.
While the game was fun, the premise was very similar to Janitor, which I played first, so perhaps the experience was not as novel to me as it would have been if this was the first of the two I played.
This is still an unusual conceit, and even more so in 1997. However, the puzzles are fairly traditional, without particularly relying on the "undo your actions" idea: finding keys to locked doors, killing or placating enemies who block your path.
Some reviewers have criticised the game for being violent. In my opinion, this is a bit exaggerated: it's hardly the IF equivalent of American Psycho, more like a fairly gory episode of Family Guy. That said, there is indeed (non-graphic) violence against innocents on the part of the PC and others, and some (non-graphic, comedic) sexual content. What I came away with was a sense of shallowness and slapstick. I found most of the major characters funny enough, but extremely one-note. The most developed one is probably your non-speaking animal companion, which might be significant. There is a type of fantasy parody story where everyone is stupid, sociopathic and horny, and Zero Sum Game fits into that bracket.
Most of the puzzles are logical and decently clued, and some are very clever. (I particularly enjoyed how you (Spoiler - click to show)resurrect the dragon.) However, some are unintuitive. Most blatantly, at one point you need to hide in one area when an NPC comes in and drops an item: miss it and you lose the item and your chance to complete the game. There is no massively compelling reason that the player should decide to hide in this place and rifle through the NPCs belongings, and I didn't figure it out without a walkthrough.
There is some world-building, but in general, the game's world is extremely thin, throwing together a number of settings (an orphanage, a troll bridge, a castle) because they fit with the puzzles. The writing is uneven. Most of the time it feels bland, but there are also passages of slightly overwrought beauty (such as the description of the oak in the glade), and some of the jokes are very good.
A funny parody adventure for an evening or two, if you're not bothered by violent characters and immature humour, but don't expect to still be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. A game that uses the same conceit, but with (in my opinion) better writing and more inventive puzzles, is Janitor.
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