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About the StoryA game about a tea party, a monarchy, and the unpredictability of language.
Winner, Best Puzzles - 2009 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 5
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For instance, if you are “Standing in the room with someone’s Aunt,” you could ‘KNOCK’ the last word in that sentence and suddenly you’d be “Standing in the room with someone’s ant.” The only restriction the game places on the player (presumably, there are a few missteps in the implementation) is that the resultant sentence must be grammatically correct.
This clever manipulation of the world is pretty exciting at first, but the game very quickly falls into drudgery when you realize how carefully every sentence is worded such that KNOCKing and CASTing opportunities are, in fact, limited to a single linear path of puzzles leading you from start to finish. The incredible freedom you might imagine with the power to change one letter in any description just doesn’t measure up to the implementation here. Often your avatar is shoved from featureless room to featureless room using one-way portals instead of doors so you end up with no spatial reference.
In the end, if a room has something in it, it’s going to be KNOCKed or CASTed eventually. The stranger the placement of the word in the sentence is also a good sign that something needs to be manipulated. You might think this would be a benefit to gameplay, however, the puzzles you are presented with sometimes require two or three separate KNOCKs and subsequent CASTings to solve and the intermediary steps often don’t appear to be taking you any closer to your goal.
Furthermore, there is a definite feeling that the puzzles were developed prior to the environment they were placed in, which explains why portals whisk you from place to place and that the flow of solutions doesn’t seem to follow logical sense. I’d think the most satisfying chain of puzzles would involve making a number of changes to a single sentence that get you closer and closer to your goal until they all add up to the solution. But Earl Grey doesn’t have many situations like that. In fact the only one I can think of that comes close was (Spoiler - click to show) when you saw a statue with a crown, and then continued to knock it until you ended up with a moon in the sky so you could turn the moon's 'luster' into a 'cluster' of rocks to stand on. Only that last bit will make sense and the rest is just playing around with anything the game lets you. Instead, if there are three sentences describing an area, there will be three changes to be made one to each of the sentences and ONLY in the order the game wants you to make them.
So, while the game has a brilliant idea here, it doesn’t succeed in fully exploring it, which disappoints. It does, however, have a very funny and charming commentary by the player character that appears after the command prompt after every effective action. It appears to be the stream of consciousness of the PC you’re controlling, and, if so, he’s a pretty sarcastic person and definitely witty. One action comes to mind is when you enter a room and see a large clock standing to one side. Naturally I tried to KNOCK the clock and, as a result, a large lock ends up standing to one side. The commentary at the bottom of the screens says: “Yeah, that could have gone one of two ways.”
So, my recommendation is to give it a try at least to experience this interesting gameplay mechanic, but keep the walkthrough handy for when the game goes off on a path that doesn’t immediately make sense.
The idea, I think, is really great; regrettably, the game doesn’t quite match it. Not that it lacks ‘good-making characteristics’ even apart from the fresh puzzle mechanics: at the bottom of the screen is a nice running commentary to the events of the game in the form of the PC’s silent thoughts (often funny, sometimes helpfully giving hints); it starts with an excellent interactive in-game training sessions that accustoms the player both to its novel kind of puzzles and to the continuing need to talk to NPC:s (when you’re not transforming things, you’re talking to NPC:s. You should do a lot of talking to most anything and keep talking to it till you don’t get any new answers); also, the author manages to make all of these many and extended (linear) dialogues with NPC:s entertaining. However, I still didn’t find the game as a whole as appealing as many of its details.
Obviously, a game built around this kind of puzzles will only work in a very fantastical setting. The problem is that Earl Grey often passes the border from the fantastical into the arbitrary. And this is true in regard to puzzles as well as storyline.
All too often the solutions to puzzles are arbitrary: there simply exists no reason whatsoever to expect certain transformations to solve the problem at hand. Still you perform those transformations—merely because they are possible but without the slightest clue as to why they should be of any help at all—and POOF! you’re told that the transformed objects work some magic that happens to take care of the PC’s present problems.
The story, too, takes a lot of arbitrary turns and unmotivated twists that, as player, you can’t avoid, try as you might. Indeed, in the linear parts of the game even the PC takes actions that not only appears arbitrary and unmotivated at the time but also seem at odds with what he does, thinks, and feels at other times. (Spoiler - click to show)To begin with you’re very flattered to have been invited to a certain monk’s tea garden party and he gives you your magic powers of transformation in order for you to collect varieties of tea down in the village. Then for no reason at all the PC uses these powers to ruin the monk’s precious garden. The monk gets mad and wreaks havoc upon the poor village, then disappears. Now the PC decides to save the village, but, after quite a halfhearted attempt at that, you set off after the monk instead. Before you catch up with the monk, you happen upon an impoverished prince whom you promise to restore to his throne; and when you do find the monk, all wrongs are forgotten and the two of you are readily reconciled. Now, all you have to do is put the rightful king on his throne, then go save the villagers … perhaps.
To me at least the virtues of the game didn’t quite make up for the lack of direction in the story and the lack of foreseeability in the solution of puzzles.
I found this game extraordinarily difficult. Of the two dozen or so puzzles in the game, I figured out maybe 2-3 on my own, which is the worst I've done in any wordplay game (Ad Verbum, Counterfeit Monkey, Shuffling Around, Threediopolis).
However, someone else could definitely have more luck. The world building in the game is fun, and the dialogue and characters you meet are truly interesting. However, I had no idea what was going on in the ending.
Overall, I was left frustrated and confused. But I feel that another player may have much more fun.
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