Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for October, 2010

IFComp 2010: East Grove Hills

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 22, 2010

East Grove Hills by XYZ is an entry in the 2010 interactive fiction competition, billed as “an interactive anecdote” about some events in the life of an antisocial high school student.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

EGH is rather heavier on the ‘fiction’ than the ‘interactive’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require some care to keep the attention of the audience. I don’t think that it really succeeded, unfortunately.

First, the good: the game really feels like it could have been written by and about a high school student. If it wasn’t, that’s pretty impressive. The interactions between the characters and the flow of events was more or less believable, with some exceptions. But then, there’s the other side of the story…

High school students are usually annoying and boring. The game gets that right, too. Plenty of time is spent whining about how socially underdeveloped the PC is, and reminiscing about arguments about who had fewer friends, and so on. A very large chunk of the game (or perhaps it’d be better to say ‘story’) is spent drilling into our heads that the PC is a social outcast that no one likes, and it’s pretty obvious why. Of course, there’s no reason that the PC must be likable, but if he isn’t, then the game has to work harder to keep me interested.

Also, as I mentioned, the game isn’t terribly interactive. Most of the interaction is only in the form of the conversation choices, and even examining things doesn’t usually yield anything interesting. Also, unless you choose the right things to examine, the game will whisk you away to the next scene before you can get the crucial details about the characters. You’ll have other opportunities, but the first scene is the best time to learn these things. Besides the normal criticisms I might give such a non-interactive IF (“Why not write static fiction?” and so on), the lack of interactivity worked against EGH in one important way: by the time I got to the critical scene in the school (the third scene in the game), I was convinced that since it was a memory, I wouldn’t be able to do anything but stay on the rails the game had set me on, so I didn’t try to do anything, and I gather that I missed some important things because of this.

This failure did lead to what I felt was the game’s greatest success, however unintentional I suppose it was. When the PC is hiding out with Yue during the shooting (And wasn’t it a bombing earlier? Never mind.), he pulls her along and then you’re presented with a conversation menu with four options: three variations on “are you okay?” and the ever-present “Say nothing”. It’s reasonable that this is all the PC could think of at the time (and another point in favor of the game’s verisimilitude), but what struck me was that after exhausting the other three options, all you get presented with is the option to say nothing for twelve turns. Twelve awkward turns of the PC being frightened and unable to say anything while hiding from the horror that’s going on so nearby. This felt, to me, like a real triumph of realism–what else could the PC do? How else could he possibly have acted? I really liked it.

Now, I gather that you have the option of acting during that time, when I assumed that you were trapped in the conversation while the events took place, and what I took to be a great indication of the PC’s powerlessness may have been merely a result of a poorly used conversation system and my own misconception about the mutability of the past events. No matter, though–I still liked that moment.

Sadly, that’s pretty much all I really liked about the game. Oh, I thought that the messages about not remembering exactly how things had been were nice, rather than just seeing the standard library messages, but they were really a thin veneer on the shallow implementation. I couldn’t really sympathize with the unlikable PC, so the emotional impact was rather muted. The ending was weak, if realistic, in an “a poorly adjusted teenager might recount events like this” sort of way.

So I rate the game 3/10. I didn’t like the game generally, wasn’t impressed by anything it did, and didn’t feel like it made any important points. It gets a little bonus for the scene I mentioned above, even if I suspect my appreciation of it is somewhat misguided, and for the realism of the writing, but I can’t rate a game I didn’t enjoy very highly.

(One note unrelated to the game: I’ve added a cut before the spoilery text of this review. I usually dislike having to click through to read things, but I guess in the case of comp games it may be warranted. Cuts don’t seem to work like I thought. Still: if you have strong feelings either way, leave a comment and I’ll take it into consideration for future posts.)

Posted in 2010, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2010: The Chronicler

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 22, 2010

The Chronicler by John Evans is an interactive fiction game entered in the 2010 interactive fiction competition. You’ve been sent to investigate a research colony that’s lost contact with the rest of humanity. What has happened to them?

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

The central mechanic of the game is traveling between two time periods–changes in the past affect the future, and you can move some objects between time periods as well. I like games with time travel (for example, I think Day of the Tentacle is excellent) and the use of time travel in The Chronicler was pretty good, though simple–the idea of bringing a future object to the past so you have two copies is a little too obvious to make a good puzzle, I think.

However, The Chronicler is an incomplete game, and it shows. The implementation is very shallow–few scenery objects are implemented, and there’s a severe lack of synonyms. Too, the behavior of the device that transports you between time periods isn’t entirely consistent–it takes you to different rooms depending on where you use it, but it wasn’t apparent where the boundaries were, so I got stuck since I didn’t think to use it in the hallway, assuming it would take me to the Transfer Room. Finally, there’s no satisfying ending. I stumbled across both endings quite by accident, but they leave everything unresolved.

I like the idea behind The Chronicler, and I hope to see a finished version of this some time. If it were more deeply implemented and had a more satisfying ending (and a little better testing–I did discover a bug while playing), it would be a fun piece of short IF. The current version has potential, but that’s not quite enough. 5/10.

Posted in 2010, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2010: Under, In Erebus

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 21, 2010

Under, In Erebus by Brian Rapp is an interactive fiction game entered in the 2010 interactive fiction competition. You’ve accidentally boarded the wrong train, and when it stops, you’re in a dark and unusual place. How will you get home?

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Erebus is severely under-hinted. I solved very few of the puzzles without using the hints. Actually, I didn’t even figure out that the booths were used for spelling out objects until I read the hints. It wasn’t even entirely clear that you were trying to escape. For all I knew, you were supposed to make friends with the cyclops and learn his secret of eternal life.

Some of the puzzles felt positively obtuse. Spelling out PUB in order to get a drink? Was there some hint that I missed? Making a cup and a tub were pretty obvious, but that’s pretty much all I managed alone. And the ending puzzle is absolutely impossible to guess, as far as I can tell. “You could use some assistance in escaping from Erebus. A student who will follow your instructions would be ideal.” Why would I even consider that?

There were some other problems, too. It was necessary to repeatedly travel around collecting ingredients (or, rather, letters) to try out puzzle solutions. Every time I needed a pea I had to go get one, open the pod, then use it. Eventually I just collected a big stack of bees and peas and dropped them near the booths, but I still had to make trips for the tea, ewes, and eye. I get that, from an in-game perspective, there should only be one eye at a time (though it reappearing sort of ruins that), but there could have been a whole flock of sheep I could herd to the booths, and I could have poured a small amount of tea out of the tub, leaving it little diminished. It was also a pain to have to take things out of the pack repeatedly. I’m of the opinion that if there’s no good reason to restrict the player’s inventory size, you shouldn’t do it–I believe players will forgive at least that failure of realism in service to playability.

Erebus wasn’t all bad, though: there were some nice responses; the various ‘bonus’ words you could make were amusing–though not amusing enough to make me want to make them all, given the painfully large amount of work involved in making just one word; the changes in the response to examining yourself were nice; the fact that the backpack became a wristpack was a nice bit of attention to detail.

I guess there were some things I didn’t explore. I couldn’t work out how to explore the pit, though the ten points I got for making it would seem to indicate there’s more to it. Maybe I should have tried “TILT”? But it’s too late now, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to it.

I regret that Erebus‘s shortcomings so outweighed its successes. The environment seemed like it might be fun, and I do enjoy wordplay–Ad Verbum is one of my favorite games. But everything I did in Erebus just felt like slow work. With better hinting and an easier way to create the words, Erebus could be a pretty solid game. As it stands, though, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.

Posted in 2010, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Sonic 4 is Disappointing

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 12, 2010

I’ve been looking forward to Sonic 4 for several months now. The fact that a new, but retro-styled Sonic game would be coming to the Wii seemed like a dream come true. It was only a few months ago that I dusted off Sonic 3 & Knuckles for a play-through; it’s always a fun way to spend a few hours.

Sadly, Sonic 4 doesn’t live up to its predecessor–not by a long shot. It just does so many things wrong: the physics is bad, the game looks perpetually zoomed in, and the levels are unoriginal and rely on the homing attack thing way too much.

The physics: Sonic stops moving when you stop pressing forward. It doesn’t matter if you were running full speed and made a leap to get over a pit–when you let go of the forward button, Sonic drops like a hedgehog-shaped rock. Why? In the old games, a good part of the fun was getting up to full speed and bouncing over or past enemies so you never have to slow down. And on the topic of speed: it feels like Sonic takes far too long to speed up, and moving slowly is boring.

The ‘zoomed in’ look: Sonic is huge in the middle of the screen, and you can only see a few steps on either side of you. When you’re running at full speed (always remembering not to let go of the forward button), you have no time to react to enemies suddenly popping up in front of you. There go your rings, and, more importantly, your speed. Time to crawl back up to speed again. It seems like the game is designed to have you slowly walking up to enemies, killing them with the homing attack, and then moving on to the next segment, at least, when you aren’t being moved about by the dozens of boosters liberally scattered around. And speaking of such things…

The levels and the homing attack: the levels in many ways feel like inferior copies of classic Sonic levels. I guess that they were just making an homage to those games, which is fine, but there are way too many similarities. I’d have been happy with just the wrecking-ball type of boss fight from Sonic 1, for that. There are lots of repetitive segments, too, which is odd for a Sonic game–I’ve always felt that the diversity of the levels was one of the great things about the earlier games. In Sonic 4, it sometimes felt like the only time the level changed up was when they were about to fling you blindly into a bunch of enemies you’re supposed to mash on the homing attack button to defeat. Yeah, I get it. Sonic can attack them from mid-air and cross gaps and things. Lovely. But how many times am I going to be pulling off the same trick? I’ve got a lot of more specific criticisms of the levels, but I think those should probably wait until I’ve played a bit more.

Basically, Sonic 4 is just disappointing. I was hoping for–and, naively, expecting–a great game, but what I got was just an okay platform game with none of the charm of the older games. I really don’t think it’s worth the $15, which is a shame.

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