Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trilby's notes

The world of adventure games is full of private detectives, paranormal investigators and loners with an axe to grind. Trilby could easily fall into all three categories, but he wasn’t always like that. He started out as a master thief, and only the encounter with an evil murdering entity has changed him to the extent where he got clumsy, got caught and was forced to work for a government team focused on out of the ordinary events.

Chronologically, Trilby’s Notes is the second of the four part series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, which started with 5 Days a Stranger. Even though released later than the adventure in space of 7 Days a Skeptic and thus potentially confusing the story’s timeline, thanks to a very good introduction the player will quickly pick up where he left out in 5 Days. New players won’t have any problems either, as Trilby’s Notes is a fully self-contained game.

The action takes place in a hotel, which seems to be shifting between two realities. Trilby, the main character, will shift even more, completing very simple tasks or merely observing during five different historical periods, all of which explain some of the background of the cursed statue that caused so much trouble in the first game, and which is now back. Showcasing his superb writing, Yahtzee once again spins a very tight and enjoyable story, which despite its subject matter doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief. The author advances the story via writings that Trilby occasionally finds, in addition to the already mentioned flashbacks. At the very end, the player is treated to a bonus backgrounder that appears after the game’s been completed and before the end titles.

Gameplay-wise, the author has resorted to good old fashioned adventuring. The timed scenes from 7 Days are thankfully gone, and there’s no action like in the 1213 series. The puzzles are all relatively easy, and the greatest challenge will be with the text parser. The author decided to use it instead of a full point-and-click interface, but he did an excellent job loading the parser with synonyms. With only a single exception (finding the proper name for a smoke sensor), I’ve never had a problem with the parser. The greatest puzzle-related challenge will be the relative linearity of the gameplay, where many items appear or are usable only after certain puzzles are solved, and only in one of the two realities. Given the dozen or so spaces that Trilby will have access to, this will mean a lot of running back and forth.

Production-wise, the game bears Yahtzee’s signature. The backgrounds are very simple and clean, drawn in 256 colors (which tends to get a little frustrating when trying to get screenshots). Character animations are very basic, and they reminded me of 1980s commercial games – in a good way. The author was obviously inspired by slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th series, as the main villain loves to maim other characters with big, pointy objects, in animations that were designed to shock. Even though the horror-themed hotel reality left me cold, the sudden killings out of nowhere did make me jump. The music, as simple as the graphics, fit in well enough, but didn’t evoke the eerie feeling that music in some other games does.

The simplicity of the production value isn’t a bad thing, though. On the contrary, it gives the game a very distinct character and has the author and the player focus on the story and the game itself. This allowed the author to leverage his strength, his superb storytelling and writing. Trilby’s Notes is an excellent game I’m happy I got to play.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chivalry is not Dead

Sometimes it’s good to be evil. Sometimes not so much… But it’s always good to have a choice, and this game offers an unprecedented array - for an independent adventure - of such choices. Chivalry is not Dead may look like a run of the mill adventure game, albeit with unique and pleasing graphics, but it’s focus on dialog and multiple endings makes it quite unique.

Deirdra Kiai is an experienced adventure maker. I’ve already enjoyed and reviewed her previous game, The Game That Takes Place on a Cruise Ship, and she’s interned at Telltale Games, the publishers of the Sam & Max series. I was eagerly awaiting her new title, and quickly got into playing once it was released. The author has also written a series of articles about developing the game for Adventure Gamers Underground, but I decided to skip those articles until I finished the game, lest my gaming experience be spoiled.

In Chivalry, you play Phlegmwad, an assassin employed by the villain. You are so ugly that you wear a paper bag over your head, and based on the reaction of people you meet, your awful reputation precedes you. You are tasked with killing the beautiful Queen of Everything. How the story goes from there is up to you...

Well, not exactly. As I mentioned before, the game offers multiple endings, but despite Kiai’s goal to the contrary (as expressed in her articles), the game is very linear. The variance lies mainly in dialog choices, which shape the attitudes of people around you, and which may offer an exit from the storyline prematurely and end the game. There are a few actions, mainly involving the main character’s knife, which can be optionally selected, but how the game plays out depends primarily on how other people see you. In this, Kiai shines.

The author spent two articles explaining how the dialog and attitude adjustments worked on a technical level, but didn’t really touch on the writing of the choices themselves. I found the conversation topics to be more convenient than in any other adventure game I played. Even though they were set in a fantasy word, I felt that I could honestly pick responses that reflected my beliefs, even though at first I didn’t do so. When I first started the game, I played the role of my character, and as the evil assassin I was supposed to be, I disposed of the queen in five minutes. When I realized that I possibly missed a great deal of the game I returned to it, but instead of playing at Phlegmwad I played as myself. Suddenly, the characters around me developed their own personalities, which were ever changing based on what I told them or what I did. As the time went by, I also developed feelings for the non-player characters, which is something I very rarely do. In this case, they were mainly feelings of disgust and frustration, but fortunately the author offered me a way out in the form of a short intermission where Phlegmwad actually met the game developer and was able to stay in her word. I actually felt relieved to take this path and escape from the game, leaving all the others who kept exploiting me behind. Later, I explored other dialog options, but by that time I knew what Kiai strived to achieve, and so they didn’t have such an effect on me anymore.

It’s difficult to understate the importance and genius of the dialog tree in this game. It not only drives the story forward and gives surprisingly deep character to non-player figures, but it also provides for most of the puzzles in the game. Inventory is greatly limited to just a few items, and the cursor only allows for walking, looking and talking. Detailed actions, such as smelling items or eating them, which appeared in the author’s previous game, as missing here. This simplicity further expands into graphics, which are very clear and large. Just as was Kiai’s goal, the player will focus on the dialog.

In her last article on the game, the author mentioned that most players reported to her that choosing more evil courses of action seemed to be easier than selecting good actions. Killing or threatening a non-player character indeed seemed to get the results faster than trying to convince the character to do the player’s bidding. I felt that Kiai named the game as a plea to try a different path to victory, to be more chivalrous to the queen who’s obviously a self-centered bigot. I must admit I enjoyed abandoning or abusing the queen over and over again, but I truly appreciated having a choice in this matter. In this respect, Chivalry is one of the best adventure games out there.

Pigeons in the Park

Later, Kiai released another game, which takes the dialog idea to the extreme. Pigeons isn’t truly an adventure game – it features no puzzles, not even character movement. It only has two strangers having a conversation on a park bench. The author did an incredible job with the dialog, though. Once again, there are many forks the player can take and even more so than in Chivalry, the forks sound very real, and the player may be truly drawn into the dialog. One of the greatest innovations, in my opinion, was to also include a “no answer” option. Keeping silent is a response as well, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it in other dialog-driven games yet. I thought I’d play this game a few times, to explore the different forks in conversation and their effects. I ended playing it only once, and I won’t be going back to it. I found that I could pick every answer truthfully, based on how I really felt about the conversation. At the end, my conversation partner developed a real personality, and I didn’t want to spoil this by exploring the software behind the two characters anymore. If you have a few minutes, try it out to see what I mean.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed

I still don’t know what this title won the AGS Best Innovation Award for: the very addictive gameplay, or the very unique name. In order to save space and my index fingers, I’ll use a shorter name for the game in this review, and call it simply Linus and focus on the gameplay instead. Hopefully I’ll be forgiven…

The game itself is very reminiscent of Rubik’s Clock, where you have two puzzle planes, which you need to set to certain values, but where an action in one plane affects the action in the other puzzle. Vince Twelve, the designer of this game, came with a great way to solve the problem of a steep learning curve. Instead of having the gamers plunge into the whole puzzle and force them to figure everything out, the author first enabled only one side of the puzzle.

In this game, you start out as playing an alien servicing a fast food restaurant. The orders got mixed up, and you’ll need to assign them to the right customers. There are two basic challenges you’ll be facing. First, you’ll need to use the menu to translate the orders into basic food ingredients and find the proper containers with their right combination. Then, you’ll have to distribute the meals onto predefined positions. Here, moving one container also moves up to three others, and thus shifting them to their proper places requires the greatest deal of thinking.

The puzzle is not as dry as it may sound, though, as the author spiced it out with lots of humor. Your in-game father is a moron who makes Homer Simpson look smart, and your customers range from fellow aliens through known characters like Chewbacca and the Borg, to Charlton Heston. (By the way, did you know that MS Word recognizes the word “Chewbacca” as valid and grammatically correct, but doesn’t recognize “Heston”?) The customers feature very appropriate and highly amusing dialogs, such as HAL 3000 who replies to your request to repeat his order with “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

All through the game, you’ll see a different action taking place on the upper portion of the screen. There, someone who looks like a Japanese samurai mimics your actions from the bottom of the screen, but unless you can learn and understand Japanese, you won’t know what’s going on. You’ll learn soon enough, though. When you successfully complete the initial puzzle, the upper part will be unlocked by switching to English. You’ll learn that you’ll have to re-sort some items on the top, too, to release your goddess from her prison. Unlike the bottom game, the top part does not feature any humor; instead, it is very serene. You’ll have to figure out the chronological progression of an ancient legend, and find out which spot you’ll need to place each item at. Just like with the bottom part, you’ll switch multiple items at the same time, but using a slightly different method than that on the bottom. Why? Because at the same time you’ll be solving the bottom part again, and as both characters are mimicking each other’s moves having different item movements allowed the cruel designer to mix up the items in different ways.

It may take several attempts to solve the game, but given how addictive the gameplay is, it won’t be a burden for most players. Given the game mechanics, however, I can’t really describe Linus as an adventure game. Even though the author incorporated two stories, in the end these stories are of very little consequence, and the game is pure puzzle. That doesn’t detract from its value, though, and one can just stand in awe, realizing how much has Twelve accomplished with AGS, a game creation studio designed for adventure games.

Production-wise, the author did also a great job. In line with the subject matter of the two puzzles, he created a cartoonish and artistic part of the game. The bottom, cartoonish part, is very colorful and quite loosely drawn. The customers who appear in TV monitors are very eclectic, yet fitting for the theme. The top part is very appropriate for the sober topic matter: all colors are dulled, brownish, the graphics are very precise, and the animations are as innovative as the puzzle and game title. The movement animations of the samurai are enough to warrant replaying the game if you already tried it, and a download if you didn’t.

Overall, Linus is deservedly the most innovative AGS game of last year. The basic mechanics of the puzzle may be well known, but the author managed to dress it up in two very engaging stories, and structure the game in a way that would allow relative newcomers to puzzle games to easily learn the concept and thus have a much better chance to finish the game without getting frustrated. I’ve had a lot of fun with this title, and I hope you will, too.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ben Jordan Case 6: Scourge of the Sea People

Ben Jordan has decided to take a vacation. Little did he know what the rest of us already did – that if it’s a Ben Jordan game, he’ll be chasing after monsters no matter what his original intentions were. This time, the story takes place in an idyllic Greek village, and the monsters appear to be the descendants of the Greek mythological god Phorcys. This god, along with his wife, seems to have spawned quite the offspring, which included Medusa and the other gorgons, the Sirens, and more.

The author of the game has done his homework in this game, and has dutifully described Phorcys and his wife, and relayed parts of the legends about him. Ben Jordan finds himself entangled in a plot where the Sea People, descendants of the god, awakened after a thousand years and once again began dragging people into the sea. With his two friends, and joined by the author of the guide for paranormal investigators, Ben must find a way to stop the attacks.

Francisco Gonzales, a.k.a. Grundislav, the maker of the Ben Jordan series, has grown tremendously since the first title. Over the past few parts he developed a slowly changing personality for his main character, and as the time goes by, he adds new characters who tag along, but who also have their own personalities. Even though sometimes I feel the character development seem to be a little too fast, such as in the third game of the series where Ben managed to fall in love, get betrayed by and have his love interest die in a span of ten minutes, Grundislav has improved in this respect as well, and instead of having the characters experience everything on the screen he allowed them to have their own little adventures in the background. Their character development, relayed through the characters’ retelling of their stories, seems thus more believable.

The author also keeps improving the structure of his games. Instead of making them more difficult and appealing to an ever tighter group of fans of the series, he actually made them more accessible to others by focusing on the story and character development, and keeping the puzzles relatively easy. The fact that the number of locations is strictly limited helped in this regard even further. This will not only attract new players to the series, but also prompt them to play older games, as Grundislav threw in a bunch of flashbacks from earlier games to bait the new players. In addition to these flashbacks, he hinted at future events and an unknown entity behind all the paranormal occurrences.

Not all is perfect, though. Even though the game demands great suspension of disbelief as Ben encounters various mythical beasts, I was a little taken back by the anticlimactic ending. Given the amount of damage and fear the monsters have caused, seeing the culprit was worse than watching the ending of a Scooby Doo episode.

Production-wise, the game is still a mixed bag. Grundislav did his best with the graphics. Despite the very low resolution of 320x200, the backgrounds look like watercolor paintings, and all of them are very atmospheric. Character animations and graphics, especially in close-up scenes, look still amateurish, though. The highlight, however, was the excellent and very fitting soundtrack, which seems to include a specific theme for each of the locations. It worked very well towards the overall immersive atmosphere for the game. The only tiny gripe I have here is that in the sound of doors being opened sounded more like someone getting punched in the stomach. Unfortunately, there are very many doors that need to be opened…

All in all, though, Ben Jordan Case 6: Scourge of the Sea People, is a very fine game, easily accessible to adventure players of all levels and very immersive. It shouldn’t take more than three hours to play through, but it offers a peak at other titles in the series, which those new to the series may want to explore and thus extend their playing experience. Ben Jordan is slowly but surely rising up the pantheon of adventure game heroes, and it would be a shame if you missed out on him.

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It's alive...

It’s alive… It’s alive! The monster is alive! After a long hiatus I’ve come back. I think I owe an explanation to the 2.43 readers who may still check this blog from time to time, though: I’ve been, and I still am incredibly busy at work, but that’s my own fault – I simply like what I’m doing too much. However, even with my limited time I’ll be able to re-launch the blog in a different format, so the “too busy” excuse loses much of its validity. The simple reason why I disappeared for a time was that I burned out. What was originally a lot of fun, turned gradually into a chore. Checking for new games and indie games news became a secondary work for me, and even though I’ve had fun playing very many of the games, there were many more that offered the entertainment value of vacuuming my apartment. I got increasingly bitter in my reviews of such games, which put additional pressure on my conscience – after all, even the creator of the worst game achieved more than I did: created a game. Who was I to judge them?

I didn’t stop playing adventure games, though; I just limited myself to the better ones. And this will now be part of the new blog format. Even though I’m aware that many readers appreciated that I reviewed all games, I don’t want to burn out again. Instead, I will focus only on games I have something nice to say about, games I can recommend to others. Obviously, not everything is perfect, and I won’t shy of criticism, but I will no longer feature a game only to tear it apart. This narrow focus will allow for a second change in the format: instead of mile wide and inch deep articles where each game, no matter how good and bad, gets one paragraph, I’ll be writing more in-depth reviews. There won’t be any rating, considering that only games I like will be reviewed, and I’ll try to stay below 1000 words. The reviews will begin with older games, which I played last year but never reviewed on this blog, and I’ll be slowly working my way to the present. I’ll stick to independent adventures, since that’s when the action and true innovation lies. I hope you won’t mind the new format too much…

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