goldkin: i has book (Default)

Originally published at AesTerra. You can comment here or there.

It’s been some time since my last blog posting. And with good reason: I’ve been traveling these past several months.

And what fortune should I have, than to be away when Brian Uri! released the second version of his classic game, Augmented Fourth. It seems fitting, then, that I finally review it.

Augmented Fourth is something of a simple game, easily playable in a day or two with minimal spoilers. Starting quite literally in midair, the game takes on something of a Terry Pratchett-like sense of humor and literary style, and doesn’t let go until long after the end. For his first and only complete work of interactive fiction, Uri! doesn’t disappoint.

It’s quite clear that Mr. Uri! did his homework, as puns, feelies, and inside jokes abound. Most of the adventure mainstays are implemented here, from a very humorous use of “xyzzy” to more than a few jokes at Zork’s expense. In fact, the game feels and plays so much like Zork, it’s arguably one of its most defining characteristics.

To that end, there’s a rather good balance between the game’s quirky world and item-driven puzzles. Descriptions work well; the text goes out of its way to amuse and delight. The game’s puzzles are relatively simple and forgiving, but are still tricky enough to elicit genuine satisfaction when solved. I especially like the way the trumpet is used as a wildcard for major puzzles, without feeling stiff or repetitive.

However, there are a few rough edges to the game. I would have preferred multi-turn undo, and a few more hints for some of the puzzles.

Still, these are minor quarrels. To the author’s credit, a very nasty red herring puzzle was scrapped in this release — one I spent an hour trying to figure out, previously. There’s also a literal red herring, but that’s a different puzzle.

All in all, Augmented Fourth is one of my favorite works of interactive fiction. Seeing as it reintroduced me to the genre, and is still entertaining nine years after its original publication, I’d say Uri! did something right.

If you haven’t had the chance, play through as soon as you can, either by download or online. It’s time well-spent.

goldkin: i has book (Default)

Originally published at AesTerra. You can comment here or there.

For the past month and a half, I’ve been working through Andy Phillips’ latest thriller, Inside Woman. Having recently finished it, I find myself loving and hating it for its potential, and thinking it would have done better as a novel and a game than interactive fiction. Read on for my thoughts.

Set in a dystopian future of megacorps and high technology, the primary agenda is infiltration of the Utopian Arcology, the now-dominant power in the world. Much of the game is spent within this world-within-a-world, and within elaborate hacking sequences in the game’s interpretation of cyberspace.

The Good

Andy spins a terrific yarn. This is a game that is clearly designed to suck players in and not let go, and the excellent writing delivers. The number of plots, subplots, and entwined backstories remind me of Chris Carter (of X-Files fame). In other words, harmless NPCs early in the game gradually develop stories integral to the late plot.

As Inky wrote over on his blog, Andy again makes use of the “Group of Related Sub-bosses” in a series of battle sequences. Some of these are reminiscent of evil quick time events, but given the forgiving nature of the interpreter, these aren’t a problem. On the contrary: the good ones feel clever and even visceral.

I also found myself fond of Nanci, the game’s obligatory ex machina and early hint system. While the command is removed later in the game, Nanci’s quips always break the mood without being over the top.

The Bad

The game needs more testing and polish before I could recommend it to anyone outside the IF community. Minor grammatical errors aside, the game suffers from several crippling bugs and is practically unwinnable without a guide or diving into the disassembly.

It’s also very strange that the game does not make use of more implied behavior. Several mechanical actions are left entirely to the player, and in many cases require specific verbs to work correctly. While nothing new to the IF or Adventure genres, it’s jarring to have to manually perform upwards of ten steps when a single line or “go to X” would suffice. This holds especially true for the game’s mechanic of taking items from one area to another.

Several of the game’s puzzles are also wildly unfair. Em Short puts it well in her own mini-review, where she states the player/protagonist is just plain difficult to reconcile. (Eagle-eyed readers may notice this review is styled similar to hers. – Ed)

In my own playthrough, I also managed to cripple myself so hard, I had use hexedit to extricate myself (on a bug related to a high score board). These sorts of design flaws simply shouldn’t express in a game of this calibre.

It’s the Little Things

Between the excellent narrative, innovative puzzles, and terse gameplay, I’m left conflicted. On the one hand, there is an excellent story here, and some truly fantastic puzzles to play with. On the other, anyone looking to just play is going to be turned off by the steep difficulty, unfair puzzles, and broken nature of gameplay.

Overall, the feeling I get is thus: the narrative would make a very good book, the puzzles an excellent game, and that the two are simply at odds with one another here. Andy has shown terrific form at writing and an aptitude for puzzle design, but this latest title has too many rough edges to currently recommend.

All the same, I’m looking forward to Andy’s future works. Between this and his latest book, Jade Dragon, there’s a lot of potential — potential that’ll be realized with time and testing.

Edit: Since this review went live, Andy posted a new release fixing the aforementioned crippling bug, and some other items. Announcement here. Updated game file can be found at the IFDB link, below.


October 2015

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