game reviews

IFComp 2016 – Interactive Fiction Reviews

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The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation runs a yearly competition for interactive fiction called IFComp. Though it’s been flourishing for many years, I hadn’t heard about it before this year, and too late to be able to plan and execute a worthy submission. Still, nothing’s preventing me from browsing the 50-odd submissions and looking for something to catch my eye. As a novice to IF I’ve only had hands-on experience with a very few platforms for writing or playing it. IFComp, though, exposes a whole array of techniques and manipulations that I wasn’t previously familiar with. Needless to say, this affected my play experience significantly.

Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending – K.G. Orphanides

This was the first entry I played. Eight characters is a parser game, where commands can be entered in the text box or through navigation links. Some of the commands are helpfully explained in the in-universe manuals. Some are fairly intuitive, once you catch the trick of it – another effect of my being a novice player. I fussed for a long time over trying to open a simple chest before I learned to adjust to the game’s expectations.

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Adventures with Mermaids

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Web cover art for The Daring Mermaid Expedition.

I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.

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Quick Hits: Games and Visual Novels

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The Blind Griffin, a prohibition-era fantasy visual novel.

Masques and Murder is a dark historical revenge fantasy taking place in Renaissance Italy. The historical setting lends the game a richness of language, combining with the art and music to give the game its particular aesthetic. The plot is as grisly as requisite. You play a young woman whose family was murdered in a power-grab, where the combined goal of the game is to extract vengeance, as well as escape the prospect of marriage to one of your family’s murderers. The game’s atmosphere is meticulously put together.

The game’s central mechanic is stat-building, which allows the heroine to get closer to her prey. The stats, like everything else in the game, are determined by the setting. The range of skills is interesting in that it encompasses the expected combat skills like fencing and shooting, not to mention seduction skills, but also some unexpected ones, like theology. Browbeating a man into complete intellectual surrender by interrogating him on the nature of the afterlife is one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever gotten in a game.

The writing is very conscious of the position of the heroine in society, and consequently the game has an optional filter that abbreviates some of the longer chains of slurs into a brief description. Still, the game is as violent as one would expect from a revenge simulator. Ultimately it’s for fans of the genre, as it were. I can only play it when I am in a particular mood.

Find it on itch.io.

The Blind Griffin is a lovely visual novel set in prohibition-era San Francisco, a humorous fantasy romance lightly sprinkled with plot. In this game, it’s very difficult to tell how the choices you made lead to the outcome you receive, which is especially daunting given that some of the endings are pretty bad. The three romance options are all cute and entertaining in their own right, although the lack of any female romances makes me sad. Short and sweet, and free to download with an optional suggested price. Frothy speakeasy romance fantasy. Noted for having a Chinese protagonist and a perfectly delightful (supporting) trans lady character.

Find it on itch.io.

Wanted: Dragon is a perfectly delightful romp about an exiled princess who wants to take back the kingdom from her sister, and needs to recruit (read: seduce) a dragon to do so. Fortunately for all of us, we soon find out that this princess is the absolute worst and was exiled for very good reasons. Not gonna lie, that’s definitely the main appeal of the game. The heroine is absolutely appalling, which makes her infinitely entertaining. 10/10 would scheme and connive again.

Find it on renpy.org or on Google Play.

Magical Otoge Ciel is a routine fantasy adventure about a feisty princess running away from her over-protective father. Liberal hints to some dire secret that justifies keeping the princess locked up all her life. Two apparent love interests, both of them with a bodyguard complex, and at least one with a childhood friend complex. Plus one additional male character who may be a stealth third romance. Unless someone can tell me that the game radically changes later on, I gotta say this is a color-by-numbers RPG romance fantasy. Maybe worth the time to play the free demo, if bodyguard romances and spirited princesses are your thing.

Find it on itch.io.

Cute Demon Crashers will require its own post, I think.

“Oh, Look, It’s a Strong Female Protagonist.” – a Look at Queen at Arms

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Queen at Arms, a strategy and romance visual novel, first became known to me under the working title ‘The Silent Princess’. Thankfully this title was dropped pretty quickly since, despite being accurate in the literal sense, it gives an entirely false impression of the game’s content. The protagonist of QAA is variously characterized as shy or reserved, and the player receives a close view of his anxieties and insecurities via his inner monologue. Ditching the awkward moniker lets his characterization stand on its own merits and lets the player engage with Marcus on their own terms — without subjecting both to the implicit judgment of what strong heroines are supposed to be.

The plot of QAA is basic fantasy fare. A good king and queen are assassinated and usurped by a brutal pretender. A loyal knight takes in their only child, a baby girl, and raises her anonymously under the identity of his own dead infant son, Marcus. Years later Marcus attempts to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps, still oblivious to his royal heritage. Circumstances conspire to put him in the path of the pretender king, and place him in a position to either affirm or deny his male identity.

Marcus worries a lot about what he’s supposed to be. On more familiar terms, we learn that many of the supporting characters grapple with similar concerns. Hardly surprising given this theme seems nearly universal in nature. He nurses a secret, mutual inferiority complex with his older foster-brother, Nicholas, as they both labor under the shadow of their late father’s military reputation. He struggles to embody ideals of masculinity he learned from his environment and stays silent, in part, because of how feminine his voice sounds to his ears.

The central struggle, of course, is the one on which the whole plot of the game is predicated. Like most fantasy readers (I imagine) I’ve seen more crossdressing teenage girl heroines than I care to recount. By now the trope seems impossibly stale and unsatisfying. Again, the heroine rejects the burden of “weak” and “soft” femininity and seeks to emulate male role models. Again, she struggles to bind her breasts and hide her short stature (writers! there actually are tall women in the world, I promise). Typically whatever subversion of gender or sexuality norms is implicit in the scenario is obliterated when the narrative buries its heroine under a thick, treacly layer of compulsory heterosexuality. Haha! Nothing gay here, I promise!

I’m not going to say that QAA is the perfect antidote to this, or that it can fill the conspicuous lack of growing up with all those other ones. I’m also not ready to slap it with a grandiose label like ‘interrogating masculinity’, although heaven knows that masculinity needs some interrogation, especially in fantasy. I can tell you, however, that my first run through the game culminated in a romance where the love interest had no qualms about using Marcus’s birth name (Callista) as well as his chosen male pronouns. “Do they know you’re not a woman?” It’s rather refreshing to see such a seemingly-complicated identity just accepted as a matter of course.

I don’t know if I feel comfortable praising QAA for its depiction of gender issues. Its first and main advantage is that the character in question is the protagonist. The player is able to empathize with them from a position of exposure, to read and experience their inner narration, their authentic self. Then there is also the matter of being able to choose, and especially valuable is the fact that the choice isn’t presented in a clear-cut, obviously labeled dialogue option. Rather, it’s woven into the narrative. The game also spends some time on the intersection of gender identity and sexuality. Although the conversations surrounding this could be made more explicit and detailed, something about their implicitness rings true. It feels more like a love story between people questioning their gender or their sexuality, and less like a pamphlet for high-schoolers in disguise.

As well, I would need to experience all the different romance paths and their variations on this conversation before I felt comfortable drawing a bottom line. I played the game once through and was delighted by it. My second playthrough stalled near the end and I don’t know when or whether I will pick it up again. Frankly, the game is very playable and entertaining, but just not varied enough or beautiful enough to keep me amused through a third and fourth run.

The quality of the dialogue is a little inconsistent, and there are some eyebrow-raising writing choices. As a player with virtually no experience with strategy games, I found the gameplay responsive to common sense and satisfyingly challenging. The occasional timed decision added tension without becoming nerve-wracking. The visual novel convention of sprinkling the dialogue with voiced catchphrases is… well, I assume I’ll get used to it, but it rather caught me by surprise. There’s enough variation in the supporting cast to appeal to most players, and the game features six possible romances, four male and two female.

Ultimately I would say QAA is a compelling game, although not an excellent one. What recommends it is that it tries to bring something new to the table, and in the experience it can offer to the player. Despite multiple romance paths, achievements and hidden secrets to discover, it has limited replayability value. Recommended with reservations.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

Solstice – The Jewel of the North

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Solstice is a mystery visual novel from MoaCube, which previously brought us Cinders, one of my all-time favorite games. It’s been highly anticipated by myself and others since being announced about three years ago. As advertised it replicates the immaculately painted art style of Cinders, with the addition of small animations that enliven the sprite interactions. The writing style is similar to Cinders, but much more polished. With complex characters and a more complex plot, it’s at least as engaging and replayable as its predecessor, with the promise of good and bad ending in multiple variations each.

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The Jewel of the North – Solstice game art.

The central conceit of Solstice is its setting, a magical eco-bubble that lives in the heart of a frozen tundra, like a massive hothouse. The city, known only as the Jewel of the North, is the source of mystery and intrigue that pushes the plot along. Throughout the game, it is almost invariably referred to only as “the city”, which serves to underscore how central it is to the narrative, as well as to the lives of the characters living in it. Their suffering, whether self-inflicted or at the hands of the ruling merchant families, always seems to trace back to the city and its strange, compelling power. In this way, it is set up to serve as the game’s speechless but menacing antagonist.

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Salt and Steel (a Sunless Sea review)

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I adore the world of the Echo Bazaar, the world of the Neath, damned to a shadowy existence both literal and figurative. Horror isn’t usually my jam, but this world has undeniable character and a creepy kind of charm. I’ve played Fallen London, on and off, for a while. Though I was initially very enthusiastic about it, I found the game mechanics wearying and never progressed as far as I liked. As such, I was terribly excited when Failbetter Games announced Sunless Sea, a desktop game exploring a new, wider horizon of their addictive fictional realm.

As a Kickstarter backer, I got access to the earlier, incomplete (and sometimes buggy) versions of the game. Not surprisingly, it was an up-and-down journey. The earliest versions had a somewhat notorious problem raising enough cash to buy fuel and supplies. Sometimes, just as I was setting out, only starting to get comfortable with my explorations, a new update would throw me for a loop. At one point map-shuffling was introduced which, at a stage of development when many map tiles were blank, was a major challenge to the player.

Still, new content kept coming out, expanding and improving the game, and I knew that eventually one of my captains would survive long enough, and raise enough cash, to reach the later stages of the game’s many quests. The major thing that changed this perception was the Steel beta. Sunless Sea updates were rolled out in batches, coded by color. The Steel update was added to the development plan rather late, and hadn’t been part of the Kickstarter game concept. It changed the game’s combat system from a turn-based mini-game to an integrated, time-sensitive style.

I wasn’t enthused for the Steel update. I don’t do well with time-sensitive portions of games, and I had been generally pleased with the turn-based combat, except for the over-abundance of low level opponents at mid-level gameplay. Naturally, I did want to give it a chance. I was a little apprehensive because I was launching a mid-level captain into a situation where I didn’t know if I’d be able to defeat (or survive) mid-level zee monsters. Even though I was resolved to give the Steel beta a chance, the game I was playing became less relaxing and less fun.

I didn’t play for very long after the Steel update. I had no intention of abandoning Sunless Sea altogether, even though, with the number of hours I’d already sunk into it, I’d definitely gotten my money’s worth. Because the game was in beta, I decided it would be better to wait and see whether future updates would compensate for the change I was so impatient with. I had little interest in re-learning combat, to begin with not my favorite part of the game. If my screenshots folder can be taken as reliable witness, I swore off the game for a little over a year. It was only lately that I picked it up again.

A lot can happen in a year. The game I launched three weeks ago was very different from the game I’d played pre-Steel. A little disorienting, with certain features having been removed or replaced with more elaborate, dynamic variations. But overall, the game benefited from a huge addition of content. The early parts of the game were still a trial, and I did find myself consulting more than one informal player’s guide. At least, though, the game no longer felt unplayable — or playable, but not enjoyable. Combat remained fairly stressful in the early stages of the game, but then I’ve always been a gun-shy game player.

After three weeks of intense preoccupation, my third captain achieved her life’s ambition to write the zong of the zee, and I achieved the much more modest ambition of making peace with the Sunless Sea combat system.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Blue Tea Games and the Dark Parables Series

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Not sure exactly how I got on to the Dark Parables series, or hidden object games, or the Big Fish games interface. All I know is, I started playing them sometime last year, tore through the whole series, and swapped part-way through to buying the extra-features collector’s editions. I started getting really excited for new releases and then… the excitement dissipated a little.

From the top:

Blue Tea Games is a game studio that puts out primarily “hidden object” games, where the plot is moved along by a series of small puzzles, most of which involve picking out specific objects from a cluttered scene. I find this a fantastic game genre for me, since it provides a very relaxing level of challenge and generally comes in games with beautiful art and music. What’s more, HOGs pretty commonly come with several different difficulty levels, of which I usually select the middle one. Many of the really good games have thematic objects hidden throughout, and discovering all of them is a fun extra challenge.

One of Blue Tea‘s most exciting series is/was the Dark Parables games. This is a series of adventures in which a nameless protagonist called “the Fairy-Tale Detective” investigates strange, magical occurrences all over the world, only to discover the source of the mischief to be a fairy-tale character run amok. The twist that draws you in is that the fairy-tales are mashed up, crossed over and fused rather liberally, which allows certain characters to serve multiple roles in different stories. If you were personally insulted by not being able to like Once Upon a Time, you might find these games comforting.

The games have a rough chronological order and playing them out of order gives mystery spoilers. Generally, though, that’s not really the main draw. They are beautifully drawn, intricate and rich with details and motifs. The visual language of the games is distinct and recognizable and truly, to me, the very best thing about them. Unlocking the titular “parables” gives a little insight into how the original tales were forged into an amalgam.

The characters are fun but not very deep. The villains are frequently heroic characters turned dark by adverse circumstance, and last-minute redemption is pretty common. In addition to the fairy tale amalgams, the games add some original characters, of which my favorite is undoubtedly Queen Ivy, Briar Rose’s sister.

I played the games out of order beginning with Rise of the Snow Queen, before tracking back to the first game, The Curse of Briar Rose to get the full experience. Given my love for the games’ aesthetic, the entries I remember most fondly are The Exiled Prince, about the curse of frog prince, and The Ballad of Rapunzel, which adds my other favorite original character.

After the Rapunzel game, Blue Tea apparently sold the whole brand to a game studio called Eipix. Quite coincidentally, while googling around for game information, I discovered that I am not the only fan of the games who was less enamored of their two most recent additions. A trailer for a third game has been released, so I am waiting to see if I feel better about that one.

Meanwhile, I replay some of the earlier games in an attempt to catch all of the extras and bonuses, and use earned credits to upgrade the regular versions to collector’s editions. However, I am due to replay The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide, since I seem to remember very little of it. Of all the hidden object games that I’ve played through the Big Fish app, the Dark Parables games are still by far my favorites.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.