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[ IF Comp 2004 Reviews ]

Here it is, the end of comp 05 and I'm just posting these reviews from last year's comp. Yes, I am terribly slack, and in fact I did not even finish all of the games. Or (at the time of this posting) finish the reviews of all the games I did play! Still, here they are!

(Sort listing by: author | comp placement | name | play order)
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Sorted by score:
  10Blue Chairs
  9Luminous Horizon
  9Sting of the Wasp
  8Mingsheng
  8Square Circle
  8All Things Devours
  7The Orion Agenda
  7Splashdown
  7Trading Punches
  7The Big Scoop
  6Typo
  6Gamlet
  6Murder at the Aero Club
  6Identity
  6Kurusu City
  5Bellclap
  5Blue Sky
  5Order
  5Chronicle Play Torn
  5Zero One
  5Who Created That Monster?
  5Getting Back To Sleep
  4A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero
  4Zero
  4The Realm
  4Goose, Egg, Badger
  4Redeye
  4Ruined Robots
  4The Great Xavio
  3Blink
  3A Light's Tale
  2Stack Overflow
  2PTBAD 3
  1Ninja v1.30
  -Magocracy
  -I Must Play


Blue Chairs
Author: Chris Klimas
Language: z-code
Score: 10

Summary:
A wild, surreal ride through reflection, regret, and redemption.

Writing:
Comparisons to Plotkin's So Far are probably inevitable. While that game has the player travelling to realms that feel quite alien, Blue Chairs manages to feel even more surreal by freely mixing the peculiar with the mundane, producing an atmosphere all the more bizarre due to its contrasts. The end result has a sort of Twin Peaks vibe to it. I for one loved the writing in Blue Chairs. And it fits the story perfectly. Thankfully, I felt motivated at nearly every step of the way, so the game never really left me floundering for what to do next.

Technical:
There were only a couple of technical issues that I encountered. First, there ended up being two blue keys in my inventory, one of them being ornate. Disambiguation was a problem, as there was no distinct way to reference the non-ornate key when the game asked me which I meant. The other issue involved the bank vault door, which can apparently be put into an unopenable state if you turn the dial to a wrong number. (I think the author said that there was a way to reset the dial, but I haven't been able to locate that newsgroup post.)

Fun:
I had great fun with this game. The action did slow down a bit in the Mini-Mart, as I found myself turning to the hints a bit more. This was related to the problem I encountered with the vault door, as described above. Still, that whole section reminded me of the narcotized sequences in Max Payne, where you run through a series of drug-warped rooms depicting events from your memories. Some complained that this section was a maze, which is just silly to me. There are a lot of rooms, but the exits are plainly visible and the rooms are all different. It's confusing, yes, just not at all difficult to map. Finally, there are multiple endings and the one I prefer I found to be immensely satisfying. The only letdown afterwards was the lack of author's notes afterwards.

Final score: 10

High point:
I would have to say the "run through the snow" ending. It still gets to me when I go back and re-read the transcript.

Low point:
Aww, no author's notes?


Sting of the Wasp
Author: Jason Devlin
Language: z-code
Score: 9

Summary:
Who's the most conniving bitch at Pine Meadows Country Club? You are, if you play your cards right. Sting of the Wasp takes IF about as far as you can get from the stereotypical underground treasure-laden dungeon environment we've all grown accustomed to.

Writing:
The one thing that I most admired about this game was how the tone of the writing and dialog so elegantly dovetailed with the subject matter. It's a game about petty and vindictive people and you're unlikely to forget that. The story is not likely to leave you feeling heroic; you're effectively just as bad as the people you struggle against. I found this a nice change of pace, and in the grand scheme of things, the PC can really only be considered diet evil at most. The puzzles were very well integrated into the story and setting. Some of the less physical restrictions (such as gaining access to the kitchen) may chafe against players, but I believe that they help reinforce the character. This is a fully realized PC that strains to maintain both her secrets and her status.

Technical:
I found only one major issue to report: despite the outside dining area being broken into two distinct sections, both rooms had the same description. This effectively made finding the Pro Shop a guessing game (the room name lets you know it's around there somewhere). I had a minor quibble with the game's replacement of "You can't go that way" as a default response to moving in inaccessible directions. Would a PC so concerned about her social standing that she would refuse to enter a kitchen without a valid reason really walk carelessly into walls in the presence of her greatest rivals? This was mainly a problem because of the room description bug I already mentioned, so the proper exits were not clear.

Fun:
I have to say, I had a lot of fun playing this game. Even though I did end up relying on the hints quite a few times in order to make it through the entire story before the judging time was up, it was a great experience with well thought out puzzles and characters.

Final score: 9

High point:
Upon entering the garden, I was greeted with, "Oh, Julia. I'm surprised to see you here. I thought you preferred to do your hoeing in the basement."

Low point:
In a rush, I skimmed the description of the Pro Shop and completely missed the exit to the north. Thus, even the hints couldn't help me as I stumbled around the map in search of a very important NPC.


Luminous Horizon
Author: Paul O'Brian
Language: Glulxe
Score: 9

Summary:
The Earth and Sky trilogy comes to an end in this final installment. In this game, you can actually assume the identity of both siblings, and switch back and forth between them.

Writing:
One nice thing about Luminous Horizons is how well the puzzles mesh into the story. You never feel like the puzzles are there just because the author had a great idea for a puzzle. Additionally, the game's hint system is delivered in-game, by discussing the situation with whichever sibling you're not currently playing. Because of these two particular aspects, and the fact that brute force allows you to bypass the majority of obstacles, the game to me almost felt "puzzleless" for the most part, though it isn't. The puzzles it does have are not presented in a typical "find another to solve while pondering this one" IF fashion. Instead, the obstacles are presented one after another with little exploration or back-tracking needed (or even allowed). The result is a very tight and streamlined comp entry that, perhaps, feels a little [i]too[/i] tight and streamlined. Still, it keeps the player focused and I can't say that's a bad thing. As for the text itself, I found it well-written and greatly appreciated the way Paul implemented distinctly different voices in the room descriptions based on whether you were playing Emily or Austin. It's the attention to details like that which separate a good game from a merely adequate game. On the other hand, I found the between-chapter "cut-scenes" somewhat jarring for their switch to past-tense from the standard IF present-tense used in the rest of the game. Clearly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice on the part of the author; just not one I can agree with.

Technical:
I can't say I recall encountering a single bug or hiccup while I played. The PC-switching system worked quite well, as did the in-game hints.

Fun:
This was a well-crafted finish to the Earth and Sky series. It tends to be very forgiving, and could even be recommended to beginners, except perhaps for the final two "puzzles", for which I found myself turning to the walkthrough.

Final score: 9

High point:
Smashing things as valid puzzle solution? I'm all over that!

Low point:
Being somewhat flabbergasted at the timing involved in the fight against fire and water.


Mingsheng
Author: Deane Saunders (Rexx Magnus)
Language: z-code
Original score: 9
Revised score: 8

Summary:
The PC in this brief eastern adventure is searching for the mystical roots of Tai Chi, so that the he might better meld the physical and the spiritual into a unifying whole. This is a good story with some solid writing and puzzles.

Writing:
The initial room suffers from a bit of adjective excess, but otherwise I felt that the prose in the game was decent. It offers some fine visuals, even if it is somewhat halting in places. The puzzles were fair and fit the setting, except that I had to resort to the walkthrough on how to open the box.

Technical:
The only quibble I have with the game is that some prominent scenery items were not implemented (namely the tracks in the start room and the characters on the shrine). Everything else functioned as expected and I didn't run into any bugs that I can remember.

Fun:
I have to admit, I was really getting into this game. After playing three other comp entries that I did not find terribly impressive, Mingsheng really helped lift my spirits. After playing, I scored it a 9, though in retrospect, I think a high 8 would be more appropriate. Though I consider it a pretty solid game, it's a little small and doesn't really break any new ground.

Final score: 9 (8 revised)

High point:
Solving the first Qilin puzzle. It was well-cued and, while not terribly difficult, was satisfying to finish.

Low point:
Having the box and vine tied, knowing they belong together, but not being sure what to do with them after that.


All Things Devours
Author: half sick of shadows
Language: z-code
Score: 8

Summary:
It's hard to say anything specific about this game without spoiling it. At its core is a brilliant game-encompassing puzzle, though I felt the writing could have done with a bit more polish.

Writing:
As far as plot and puzzles go, the game is effectively one big puzzle. It's up to the player to get all the pieces to fit. Because of the nature of the game, All Things Devours (an somewhat awkward title taken from the line of a poem) violates rule 3 of the IF "Bill of Players Rights", which says that the player should "be able to win without experience of past lives". But in this case, an exception can be made. This is not a traditional treasure search. Instead, it's a game of planning and strategy, where each failed attempt makes your reevaluate and refine your methods.

As good as the gameplay was, I found the writing to be sparse in places. Most rooms were little more than a cursory description followed by a vanilla listing of doors (as many as five in one room). Most of these doors had little to differentiate them besides direction and, in some cases, numbering (first door, second door, etc.). I think the author should have tried for a better way of making each door a bit more distinct (by style or color perhaps) and for aesthetics, incorporated them a little better into the room description, rather than listing them one after another like a roster of room contents. My poor American hands were not happy at typing "Deutsch" over and over in order to manipulate the Deutsch lab door.

Technical:
The only technical fault I could find was that the Basement Landing mentioned the north door twice. Other than that, everything seemed to function flawlessly.

Fun:
I really did have a blast while playing this game. Everything fit. In fact, my only disappointment was that the author had taken an idea for a puzzle I had, made it even better, and expanded it into a whole game. Though I did get hung up early on, and later with the second stage, once I figured out the secret, I had a great time experimenting and seeing what to do next.

Final score: 8

High point:
When I realized that this game was effectively a puzzle I had conceived for one of my own works-not-in-progress.

Low point:
Being clueless what to do next, just before I discovered what the prototype actually did. After that, it was very engaging.


Square Circle
Author: Eric Eve
Language: TADS3
Score: 8

Summary:
In a dark, dystopian future, convicted of a crime you cannot remember, you need only solve a simple riddle to gain your freedom. Or is it really quite as simple as that? Well, no, of course not!

Writing:
Certainly the beginning appears to set up Square Circle as yet another one-puzzle competition game. However, once you get passed the initial quandry, the real meat of the game presents itself. And while I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had more depth than I first surmised, something about the game left me feeling disconnected. It lacked a certain verisimilitude that would have let me become truly immersed in the game.

Technical:
The only minor problem I encountered was a few issues with the context-sensitive hint system. Occasionally there were hints that wouldn't show up and alternatively, some that didn't disappear after the puzzle was solved.

Fun:
A few of the puzzles came off a tad obscure to me, leading me to resort to the hints and walkthrough on more than one occasion. Something about the overall game felt a little hollow to me. I think it was the sense of emptiness I got traveling the map, as if this would wasn't really inhabited. The inventory limit became frustrating at the end, making me wish that the author had implemented an automatic sack object. However, it was an interesting story with a nice twist.

Final score: 8

High point:
Getting to the twist. It probably won't be too hard to figure out beforehand, but it did surprise me.

Low point:
My own particular solution to the introductory puzzle, while being visually indistinguishable from the "correct" solution, was not accepted.


The Big Scoop
Author: Johan Berntsson
Language: z-code
Score: 7

Summary:
In this whodunnit, you must try and get to the bottom of a conspiracy which has framed an innocent person for murder.

Writing:
First, I thought that the story was done well. No, it's not an original story. Still, I liked the implementation, especially the way that the setup of the story is acted out as the player, instead of a big info dump. Motivation remains strong throughout the game and I was never left wandering and wondering what I was supposed to do next. The downside? The writing itself needs a whole lot of work. The author of The Big Scoop, like the author of Chronicle Play Torn, is not a native English speaker and it shows. The very opening of the game reads:
Loud signals wake you from a deep stupor. You open your eyes and try to sit up, but a thumping headache forces you back. The signals continue...
Is using "signals" instead of "ringing" a matter of regional dialect? If so, I've never heard it used that way before. In any event, it certainly disrupted my reading of the text, if only for a moment. The rest of the game suffers more from awkward sentence structure, mistakes in grammar, and worst of all, bland summaries of actions that should have been made more alive. One example is in the intro, where a mistake can quickly end the game: "The police enter the apartment and arrest you." That's it? How about a little more oomph there? The room where I work has the plain appellation of "Newspaper Office". I shouldn't have to have left the building in order to discover that my newspaper actually has a name. Finally, the dialog really needs some work. Not only is it flat and lacking any real feeling, it has a tendency to switch between quoting and lifeless paraphrasing.
>ask linda about murder
"Who killed Brian?", you ask. Linda says she doesn't know yet.
Dialog is a real opportunity to bring the characters to life and let the players get to know them. As it is, they exist as very shallow cliches: the journalist, the innocent woman trying to clear her name, etc.

Technical:
From a technical standpoint, I found the game fairly well constructed. I did encounter a few bugs, though nothing that affected gameplay. One particularly noticeable bug occurred within the introductory sequence and I'm rather surprised that it got through even the most cursory play-testing: the phone rings twice after the game starts and answering it got me the same conversation both times. I appreciated the driving system, as it closely mirrored something I'd been considering for one of my works-in-progres. You can drive to locations only after you discover them or discover a reason for going there. As for the conversation system, it is a fairly standard ASK/TELL arrangement, plus the added benefit of a TOPICS verb. Unfortunately, the topics list includes subjects that could only be known through telepathy. They were never mentioned and there's no reason that my character should have known to ask about them. Topics should become available as I learn about them through discussion; I shouldn't know to ask about all of Linda's co-workers by name until she's referred to them herself.

Fun:
Despite the writing issues I detailed about, I did enjoy myself playing this game. As I've said, motivation is never an issue because of the guidance I received from an NPC. The few puzzles there were had (in my opinion) reasonable solutions. The game as a whole felt like an unfinished skeleton. It's a foundation and structure, but there's no detail. The characters and writing need to be refined and have some life breathed into them. Then we'd have a really solid game on our hands.

Final score: 7

High point:
There's one point in there where the PC is trapped in a cellar with an NPC. When my first idea proved fruitless, I tried telling the NPC to do something rather unorthodox and it worked! (I was a little disappointed that trying that action myself produced a nonsensical response.)

Low point:
Answering the phone multiple times and getting the same message. An obvious bug so early in the game should have been caught very quickly in development.


Splashdown
Author: Paul J. Furio
Language: z-code
Score: 7

Summary:
The second in the cryosleep games, this one is more in line with my expectations. Your ship has crashed, time is running out, and only you can save the hundreds of helpless passengers facing certain doom.

Writing:
The story should be familiar to anyone who's been around the IF block a few times. Something has gone horribly wrong and if you can't get a number of the ship's systems up and running, you will find yourself quickly bereft of life. And so it's up to you, generic nobody, to wander the ship and fix the broken and dying systems before you and your traveling companions snuff it. The appeal of a story like this is that it's a great setup for interesting mechanical interaction for puzzles. There's even an amusing in-game explanation of your current predicament. (Also included with the game is an accompanying pdf file which provides a bit of backstory and even some hints as to how to reach the game's finale.) Soon into the story you will encounter a Floyd-clone maintenance robot. And just in case you might make the mistake of not thinking that this is a deliberate reference to Planetfall, the robot even discusses Floyd by name. Rather than capture Floyd's charm and humor, however, Splashdown's robot side-kick quickly becomes tiresome as he repeats the same Floyd-ish lines again and again.

The puzzles are generally what you'd expect: mechanically oriented and focused on repairing damaged systems. The process of directly controlling the maintenance robot was a nice touch. Unfortunately, I take issue with the very strict time limit imposed by the rapidly draining ship batteries. It's bad enough that the power shutdown ends the game, it also interferes with your ability to move around (by disabling the elevator) and leaves you without any clear indication of what to do about it (the power generator is inaccessible without solving prerequisite puzzles and you don't even know where it is until you get there). A better indication of where the generator is would have helped me realize what my main priority. The other issue I ran into involved solving two puzzles out of order; both used the same object in their solution, but one of the puzzles "consumed" the object, leaving me unable to complete the other. Whoops. So while the puzzles aren't necessarily difficult individually, the game as a whole can be tricky.

Technical:
The power shortage and its timer seem to be design decisions, so I don't consider them to be technical problems, however much I disagree with their harsh limits. I did find that the computer interaction could be improved ("voice recognition error" was the response when perhaps a "command not recognized" would have been preferable). There were a couple of instances of conspicuous items mentioned in a room not actually being implemented (the "hazy red light" and the "bolts and metal scraps" that were made to seem important but didn't seem to have a purpose). Oh, and I'm hoping that future editions will make "tube" a synonym for "cryotube".

Fun:
Out of the three cryosleep games in this year's comp, this was my favorite. I did find myself relying heavily on the hints thanks to the rather severe time constraints. This meant that while I did finish the game within the 2 hour limit, I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I should have. One of the great joys of Planetfall was being able to wander around and tinker with the various components of the complex. Here, you have no such luxury because that timer is always hovering over you like an executioner's axe. My wish is for a post-comp release that loosens the time restriction.

Final score: 7

High point:
Having spider fix the wall plate in the gangway. I love it when I go out on a limb and it's the correct solution.

Low point:
Running out of power repeatedly, but not having a clue how to start the generator or even where it was. Countdown timer + lack of direction = sad me.


The Orion Agenda
Author: Ryan Weisenberger
Language: z-code
Score: 7

Summary:
In a somewhat familiar science fiction universe, you, Captain Jon Stark, must somehow avert civil war. And save the galaxy. And also, if there's time, get the girl.

Writing:
The first thing you may notice when playing The Orion Agenda is the first-person perspective of the game. The intention may have been to make the transcript read like a historical document or a kind of debriefing report. Unfortunately, I feel that it may have acted to restrict my immersion in the game. I never really felt a connection to the character.

The second aspect of the game that you see is that it begins in medias res, and the bulk of The Orion Agenda plays through the events leading up to that beginning point. This particular literary device can be tricky to incorporate into IF; in this case, I managed to get myself killed twice during the "flashback" portion of the game and there was no attempt to resolve the discrepancy.

Third, you will probably come to realize that the "number one rule of SciCorps" sounds an awful lot like Star Trek's Federation prime directive of first contact: no contamination of undeveloped worlds. Some players may hold this against the game. I did not, since it's a concept that surely has been explored outside of Trek (and possibly before Star Trek made the idea well-known). Much of the plot and puzzles are related, at least tangentially, to this rule.

The game incorporated its puzzles into the environment fairly well. However, the driving force behind them was pretty transparent, making them partially feel like puzzles for puzzles' sake. And while the descriptions and plot were done well enough, I found a lot of the dialog to fall somewhat flat and unreal. The conversations with the old Orionion (I can't stress enough what a poor choice of species name that is) were particularly jarring, especially with the stream of insults he tossed my way. I suppose he was supposed to seem endearingly grumpy, but writing a character like that is tricky because after a while you start to wonder if the insults are coming from the character or the author.

Technical:
For the most part, the game feels pretty solid. Even the switch from 2nd to 1st person was done without any hiccups that I could see. There were a few minor issues that could be improved in later releases, however, such as breaking up some of those very long infodumps and recognizing spoken names with quotes around them. One bug in particular forced me to turn to the hint system: when the medscanner wouldn't scan the vines in the garden because they weren't "organic", I made the mistake of thinking it would only work on NPCs.

Fun:
Even though I couldn't really immerse myself into this game, I found it a pleasant diversion. It flows fairly well, with only one major roadblock, and the puzzles weren't hard (even for me).

Final score: 7

High point:
The solution to the old man's "honesty" requirement. It's one of those moment where both solution and result just feel right.

Low point:
Had to resort to hints to solve the sick girl puzzle because trying to scan the plants in the garden lead me to the conclusion that the game did not consider non-animal life scannable. Unfortunately, this wasn't true. Not a major bug, just one that can create confusion.


Trading Punches
Author: Sidney Merk
Language: Hugo
Score: 7

This review will be posted as soon as I finish it.


Murder at the Aero Club
Author: Penny Wyatt
Language: z-code
Score: 6

Summary:
My first thought, upon reading the intro, was that murder mysteries are notoriously difficult to pull off. The author has to pay very close attention to detail or else the illusion is shattered. In the case of this game, there are some nice ideas, but the overall effect does not entirely succeed.

Writing:
Though tone of the intro is slightly more informal and chummy than I prefer, the rest of the game is written in a rather standard voice. The story, on the other hand, may be one of the biggest problems. Maybe my perspective is skewed culturally, but is it really normal for a police officer in Australia to journey deep into the outback -- alone and 8 hours from the nearest town -- to investigate a homicide with absolutely no information, including who the victim is, who found the body, or who even reported the crime to begin with? Sorry, this seems rather far-fetched. And then once I arrive, I come across an NPC who "seems so busy, it'd be a shame to bother him." Are homicide detectives in Australia really that polite? None of the NPCs seem to care at all that there's a dead body lying on the lawn in front of their club. Even after you discover that none of the would mourn his death, their lack of interest still feels out of place.

Technical:
The game introduces a notebook in which clues are automatically recorded as you come across them. I actually have an almost identical object planned for one of my works-in-progress. Does it work? The truth is, I never even looked at it. The clues are so basic and linear that after collecting most of them, the inevitable conclusion was quite clear.

Fun:
IF mysteries are hard to do well. This one started out well, with a good amount of information being revealed inside the office. However, the first NPC interactions (Haagen and Cecil) felt like a slap in the face. This is a murder investigation, but I don't want to interrupt some guy doing paperwork in a lounge? Most minor room decorations weren't implemented, and yet I got stuck because I didn't examine and search one that was (the bushes).

Final score: 6

High point:
The office search revealed so much potentially useful info: the sim card, the poster that revealed that light aircraft fuel is pale blue, Brad's role as fire safety officer.

Low point:
The only evidence I had pointed to Cecil (the only failing logbook entry matched his plane and he refused to bribe). And yet I couldn't accuse or even talk to him about it. At this point I was also stuck without an idea as to what to do next. (I resorted to the walkthrough and discovered a scenery object I'd failed to search.)


Kurusu City
Author: Kevin Venzke
Language: TADS2
Score: 6

Writing:
A lot of the writing is kind of humorous. Much of it falls just short of that. A good portion of it is just bizarre. The dream scene is irritatingly minimalist for no good reason that I could see.

Technical:
No real bugs that I could see. There was a guess-the-verb issue with the window in the dream realm.

Fun:
It started off with such a great opening and very slowly became more and more frustrating. Overall motivation was decent enough, it was the small-scale steps that ran into difficulty. The dream realm had an effect that was nonsensical, and included a maze, barely described rooms, and limited interaction. The hints got me along until they asked for an object (rope) that I had no recollection of seeing in the game until I reviewed the transcript and realized that it was back at school and I probably wouldn't be able to get it.

Final score: 6

High point:
The very beginning of the game, where my mission was revealed.

Low point:
The dream realm, but especially the stairway "maze". Without reading the hints, I have no idea what's going on in there, all I know is that there's a bathroom and a stairwell that I didn't do anything with if I jump out the window. And I can't go back there without restoring from a previous savegame. If I do go back and get out of the building, there's still no real point to it.


Typo
Author: Peter Seebach & Kevin Lynn
Language: z-code
Original score: 5
Revised score: 6

Summary:
What we have here is another game containing one large puzzle made up of several related sub-puzzles. (To be fair, nearly all games could be considered to be one large puzzle made up of smaller puzzles. But life is not fair. And besides, these puzzles are all tightly related.) The situation presented is also the familiar "you are a tester" scenario, so there is no real backstory and a ready explanation for why you are trying to solve the main puzzle. Finally, there's the gimmick: the "Psychic Typo Error Correction System" which supposedly reads the player's mind in order to correct any unrecognized terms in commands.

Writing:
You're a test subject, running the PTECS through its paces as you tackle a machine of unknown purpose. That's pretty much the story right there, except for a brief extra bit at the end. In fact in my initial attempts at the game, its emphasis on the typo-correcting system seemed bizarre. The system is after all simply a plug-in library for Inform. It's not until the end that you find out the reason. While the conclusion doesn't entirely make up for the blandness of the rest of the game, it certainly does help to perk it up and add some much appreciated humor.

Technical:
There are some aspects of the game where it's hard to tell whether certain results were intentionally implemented by the authors or if they are simply bugs. The hoses are the most glaring example. When you connect them, the hose objects vanish and can no longer be referenced. You can't examine them or disconnect them because they are no longer present. Is this a bug? There's an action that can be performed that partially "resets" the machine, making the hoses accessible again. It also resets the wire, which is a little odd since no other parts of the machine are affected. I also had a problem with one of the subsystems missing from the in-game manual. The game's primary emphasis, the typo-correction system, works reasonably well, especially on the occasions when your typing is especially lazy. The only problems I had with it arose from the game's basic verb set; non-standard verbs were deciphered in some truly bizarre ways. At least it was more amusing than your generic "I don't know that word" response.

Fun:
Once you take control, the game starts a little weakly. To get the game started, you have to perform an action which doesn't seem like it would do anything important, even though I think nearly every player will eventually try it. Once that's past, it's now time to interface with the machine. Only I ran into two serious roadblocks: first, I had trouble getting the doors open; second, I didn't think to close them after I had finished with them, and so I couldn't win. For the first issue, I turned to the denizens of ifMUD for help. After I got past that, I found myself completely stuck with absolutely no idea of what to do next. I thought I had everything completed and set up according to the manual. Except that the machine did not work and I could not finish the game by the end of the two hour judging period. So I had to end up scoring the game based on my frustration and my disappointment in the hint system. There really should have been more hint topics available, such as one for each color/subsystem (if you're not going to give us a walkthrough).

After the comp, I went back and played again, determined to finish it. Finally it occurred to me to close the doors, and I was done. The ending helps redeem the game, but only by 1 point. While it's funny and helps explain some things, the flat fiddle-with-machine portion is the bulk of the game and isn't enough to carry it.

Final score: 5 (Revised: 6)

High point:
Originally, the high point had been finding all 5 possible ways to snuff out the player character. Having finally finished it, I'd have to say the end sequence.

Low point:
Being stuck for so long without the hints giving me a clue as to why. When the doors are open, this for some reason affects two subsystems, even though they are only involved in one of them. And if closing the doors is so important, why doesn't examining the doors or compartments even mention that they are open?


Identity
Author: Dave Bernazzani
Language: z-code
Score: 6

Summary:
Your ship has crashed upon a remote planet and now it's up to you to get yourself resuced. Oh, and you also have amnesia. Yes, they're two of the most cliched plot points used in IF, but they wouldn't be so overused if they weren't so loved, right?

Writing:
The text is generally fair, with a few trouble spots. The main paragraph of the room description inside the spacecraft weighs in at 15 lines on an 80 character-width display, followed by a separate 1 line paragraph for the supply closet. This is far, far too long for almost any room, especially one with such limited interactivity as this. Compared to how much there is too see, there's surprisingly little to do in this room. It should be broken out into at least two separate rooms to avoid overwhelming the player with text. Beyond this room, my complaints on prose mainly concern inconsistent capitalization (a room named "spacecraft Engine" and the game text "The yak bucks and does not allow you to take the Splinter out"). There were also a considerable number of scenery objects outside of the ship (and even a few portable objects) that get by on Inform's default description.

Identity's puzzles range from fairly basic (the shovel, the guard) to clever (the yak, the radio). The last one, particularly, requires some close attention to details and a spirit of experimentation. Which is why I had to use the hints.

The story is certainly the weakest aspect of this game. The PC's amnesia, besides being a much overused plot device, inevitably contributes nothing at all to the experience. Identity's only goal, after all, is to escape this pleasantly backwater planet, not to regain your lost memory (in fact, even in the end the game is vague on whether or not all of your amnesia is dispelled). So why then is title drawn from this minor, unimportant facet of the plot? My advice to the author is to either drop it entirely or work on integrating it more fully into the story and the puzzles.

Technical:
Instead of a score, Identity implements a "percentage complete" status, which is a clever and interesting concept that is unfortunately somewhat wasted on such a short game. (Are there other games that use a percentage-type scoring system? I'm not immediately aware of any.) As far as technical issues go, there were a few that jumped out at me. The specimen jar description shows an empty space for its contents. While not a bug, the interface system for the "COMPUCOM" and the radio felt unnatural to me. Am I giving verbal orders to a radio and my watch?

Fun:
This is my first of the three "just awoke from cryo-sleep" games in this comp. Even after all this time I'm a sucker for a sci-fi-crash-landing-survival game in the vein of Planetfall or inevitable. But this game wasn't quite what I expected based on its intro. While there is some interaction with machines at the beginning and end, there's no encounters with advanced alien technology. Okay, so my initial impressions were wrong. Still, the game completely lacks any sense of urgency. There's no sense of danger and no feeling of deadline. In fact, this planet is fairly pleasant, if a little backwards. The yaks are friendly and the natives (apparently human?) are social and quite helpful. Overall, the puzzles are good, but the game as a whole doesn't quite hang together.

Final score: 6

High point:
Finding myself in the cryotube brought back memories of one of my really old unfinished WIPs.

Low point:
Dying because I'd left the hatch in the pod open. You'd think in the future an escape pod would have a proper failsafe mechanism. At least the game had an auto-save feature.


Gamlet
Author: Tomasz Pudlo
Language: z-code
Score: 6

Summary:
Is this a game with some real brilliance in its execution or the middle finger given to the IF community by a notorious usenet troll? A little of both, so it seems.

Writing:
I found the writing from Gamlet to be quite impressive. Some players will likely consider it overwritten. I didn't... for the most part. Its language was evocative, replete with imagery, and avoided the flavorless recitations that plague far too many games. Still, describing a crevice as a "narrow cunt-like crevice in-between two slabs of stone" is sure to send up red flags, and the same goes for the bizarre and disturbing Oksana scene. I have to wonder if this was a deliberate attempt by the author to offend the sensibilities of the players, especially the ones with which he has a rather contentious relationship.

The story for most of the game was familiar, though with a twist. Puzzles, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. Starting out, they meshed well into the overall scope of the story. Later puzzles, however, began to feel somewhat less clued, such as the feasting, the final resting place of poor Yorick, and the obfuscated cabinet, which is not mentioned in your first visit to the landing and can be easily overlooked in later passings. In the end, what sabotaged Gamlet most was its unexpected climax. I suppose the clues were there: the response to inventory at the beginning and the increasingly bizarre situations that the character encountered. Still, it wasn't just the explanation for the game's events that made the ending so disappointing. It was also the author's "last laugh" in the final text dump. "Bless you, for we have both been duped" followed immediately "The end and Bang! Who's played it is a Wang!" The clear indication is that the player is also nothing but a puppet, and I can only infer from the text that the author considers himself to be the one pulling the strings.

Technical:
I found the hint system to be somewhat lacking. It was nice when it worked, but that only covered half the times I was looking for what to do next. There was one instance where my command "put poker in prints" resulted in no response from the game at all, not even a default refusal.

Fun:
To start, I had high hopes for the game. I couldn't initially figure out if this was a R*IF inside joke, with Jacek Pudlo as the butt, or something else. The spectral scenes at the beginning had me laughing, in stark contrast the somber (and often disturbing) spirit of the remainder of the game. Then, of course, there's the infamous ending. Seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to spit in the eye of the IF community.

Final score: 6

High point:
The hilarious text "The dismembered corpse of a tree lies neatly piled by the fireplace."

Low point:
Has to be the ending.


Zero One
Author: Shed
Language: Alan
Score: 5

Summary:
For some reason, you are kidnapped and placed in a tiny prison cell. Who are you? Do you have amnesia? Who are your captors? Why have they done this? All very good questions. The pity is, none of those questions get answered. In the meantime, you play through a tolerable -- though unimpressive -- adventure.

Writing:
The prose could really use some work. In general, I found it generally poor with a few bright spots. There's no real flow or evocation of the imagination. Everything is described very briefly in a matter-of-fact manner. The story is effectively paper thin. Like I wrote in my summary, nothing gets resolved in the end and no questions get answered. You find out the names of the people who captured you, but no other details. Nor do you ever find out who made it possible for you to escape. The end notes suggest that there will be a sequel. "02" I suppose.

Technical:
Right off the bat there's an issue that any beta-tester would have reported. In the initial room, the game informs you that you can hear a conversation from the corridor on the other side of the cell door. However, if you simply LISTEN, the game tells you that "You hear nothing unusual." Clearly that's not true, but the command you have to issue is LISTEN TO CONVERSATION. The game does not proceed until you do so. Once you manage to escape the prison cell, you encounter a lot of unimplemented nouns (like the shell casings, which feature prominently in two room descriptions) and far far too many colored doors, most of which are closed for no reason. Attempting to unlock one door earned me the message "There is a padlock on the door and you don't have a key", even though I had a couple of keys (just not the right one). In one room, I was even somehow able to see a "bloody mangled corpse" behind a closed door. Maybe my secret identity is that I'm super man?

Fun:
"01" isn't all that difficult. On the other hand, it's not all that fun, either. Maybe there's a story here; it's certainly not made clear in this game. What is here is pretty odd at times. For example, the PC becomes violently ill upon seeing a headless corpse. Right afterwards, however, he has no problem wearing a helmet filled with what's left of the fellow's head. No cleaning or nuthin'. Yech. Later on, I encounter one of my captors. Even though he attacked me the moment I saw him, the game admonished my self-defense act with "I hope you feel suitably guilty." For the record, I didn't.

Final score: 5

High point:
The description of the fish was definitely worth a chuckle.

Low point:
The game suggesting I should feel guilty for killing someone who kidnapped me and then tried to bash my skull in with a pipe.


Chronicle Play Torn
Author: Penczer Attila (Algol)
Language: z-code
Score: 5

Summary:
The intro reads like a classic Lovecraft beginning: an elderly relative, reclusive and eccentric, has spent the last few years delving into Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Now that he's disappeared, it's up to find out what happened to him. And while it's not an original premise, even in IF, the important thing is how it is implemented. In this case, I wasn't impressed and I wasn't able to finish because of the two hour limit.

Writing:
The decent story and good sense of imagery are somewhat spoiled by halting flow, spelling errors, problems with punctuation, grammar issues, and some strange word choices. Some actions produced responses that felt surprisingly superficial (such as reading the herb book and then later when you find the herbs). And the title simply makes no sense to me. I chalk most of this up to the author being a non-native English speaker. So that's the reason and we understand why much of it happened, but the problem is still there. It also doesn't explain the disappointing default self-description ("As good-looking as ever"). Still, for all of its faults, I found the writing to be acceptable.

Technical:
In an accompanying text file, Chronicle Play Torn's author admits that he didn't have "the time to do proper beta-testing". And though I hate to say it, you can tell. Not only would testers have helped clean up the broken prose, they also would have found many of the obvious technical issues. For example, the terp-crashing stack overflow bug that I encountered when I entered the pool with a lit lamp. Or the fact that I was told that the lamp was getting dim even when it was in a completely different plane of existence than I was. Later in the game, there is an exit barred by a grating. Though the description mentions hinges, you cannot examine them separately from the grating itself. The game recognizes "hinge" and "hinges" as synonyms for the grating. Unfortunately, the solution to this puzzle requires the player to divine that there is an "upper" hinge and a "lower hinge"... even though these are not mentioned in the room description or the description of the grating. What's worse is that Inform's default response to hitting the upper hinge ("Violence isn't the answer to this one") is extraordinarily misleading. Violence is the answer to this one; I was just attacking the wrong hinge.

Fun:
I was enjoying the game at the start, even though it's a pretty common theme. The first chapter flowed pretty well, despite some of the technical issues. The second chapter felt barren and short, since most of the rooms you encounter have no purpose except possibly for atmosphere. Perhaps the air of emptiness was a deliberate effort of the author. It's hard to say. Even so, if there's a dog in a game, the player should be able to pet it! Chapter three was good for exploration, but I found the whole realm rather confusing and it was here that I started to bump up against the game's inventory limit. This is also the area where the player encounters buildings that cannot be entered with compass directions; they are accessible through the "in" verb. I guess this is a stylistic choice. It's just not one I agree with. One problem I found was that I was able to enter a house that "has no door" and it was not clear exactly how I gained entry. The third chapter is larger than the previous two chapters and I never was able to explore it all. After roaming the city, watching statues carried here and there by the wind, I floundered in my lack of motivation. Supposedly my uncle was there, in that alien landscape, but only because I guess there was really no where else he could have gone. I found no clues or evidence that he had actually been in any of the places I explored. When the time limit hit, I didn't really balk at closing the game. I hope to go back to this game sometime in the near future and see if I can make any more progress.

Final score: 5

High point:
Though the transparent sheet puzzle was fairly obvious, I thought it was particularly clever and original for an IF game.

Low point:
When a stack overflow error crashed the interpreter. I can understand an author not having enough time for a game to be beta-tested before the competition. However, that doesn't mean it's a good idea to go ahead and enter it anyway. Even though you might get a lot of useful bug reports, your game will still be remembered as buggy by the competition judges and anyone who reads the post-comp reviews. Like someone said in SPAG #35, "the three most important words in IF creation are Testing, Testing, Testing."


Bellclap
Author: Tommy Herbert
Language: z-code
Original score: 4
Revised score: 5

Summary:
This game had one of the more clever and interesting twists of games in this year's competition: the parser makes use of first-, second-, AND third-person voice. Because in this instance, the parser acts as an intermediary between you, some type of diety, and Bellclap, one of your followers. The role of the parser seems to be played by a type of angel or other celestial minion. As you give instructions, your angel relays them to Bellclap, who may or may not act upon them.

Writing:
I found the text of the game to be skillfully written. The 1st/2nd/3rd person voice appears to have worked flawlessly in the sessions I played. The game's major failing is its puzzles. I simply could not find any clues presented that would have suggested the course of action required to reach the game's conclusion. The diety that you play could almost be considered an accretive PC: certainly I would expect even a minor god to have more knowledge about the workings of the world than myself. The problem with Bellclap is that this knowledge is in no way ever conveyed to me, the player and interactor. So I had to rely on the walkthrough and even after reading it, I couldn't fathom how I was supposed to guess the required actions.

Technical:
As I said above, the use of all three perspectives worked without error in my plays of the game. I couldn't find any technical issues worth noting.

Fun:
I have to admit, this game held great appeal to me early on. I ran quickly into its unfathomable puzzle and when I followed the walkthrough and realized the entirety of the solution, the game lost its charm. The game is actually fairly brief, consisting of one aggregate puzzle comprised of a few smaller steps. So with that puzzle done, the game was ended. The good news is that I think that the game can be fixed. It just needs to give the player some clue as to why Bellclap needs to do the things required to win. As it is, I feel like there's a whole fleshed-out mythos here that's kept deliberately hidden from me even though I need to be familiar with it in order to finish the game.

Final score: 4 (Revised: 5)

High point:
I thought the beginning was marvelously written. The interplay between the player, the angel, and Bellclap was priceless.

Low point:
Reading the walkthrough and not thinking to myself, "Oh, that makes sense." In fact, it was the opposite.


Order
Author: John Evans
Language: z-code
Score: 5

Summary:
In a nice twist, you are the summonee, not the summoner. Unfortunately, this game is crippled by the poor implementation of an overambitious design idea and a major oversight in one room description that makes it effectively unwinnable.

Writing:
The quality of prose I found to be generally good. The text of various rooms did a fairly decent job at evoking an otherworldly atmosphere. The story is a clever variation on the typical fantasy game. You're not the wizard summoning a powerful spirit to do your bidding. Instead, you are the powerful spirit summoned to the bidding of another. The introduction had me fearing puzzles for the sake of puzzles, but I found this not to be the case once I easily escaped the starting room. After completing the intermediate steps (with unavoidable help from the hint system... see below), I arrived at the endgame with no idea what exactly was transpiring or who the involved characters were supposed to be (even though I somehow knew their names).

Technical:
It wasn't long after the start room that I began to discover the limitation of the open-ended "create" verb. The idea of the game is that the player can create objects out of thin air by using nothing more than a thought. The problem is, of course, that only objects predefined by the author can be actualized. And since this game doesn't seem to have been playtested by anyone except the author, your ideas for solutions are likely not implemented, leaving you to grasp for either synonyms or other alternatives. This, by itself, is bearable. The big hole in The Order is that one vital piece of scenery was left out of a room description. It's implemented and the hints refer to it; you just have no idea it even exists or where. This overshadows the minor problems of not being able to use "pile" as a synonym for "pile of belongings" or the default Inform self-description being completely out of place for a summoned spirit.

Fun:
There was a lot of initial appeal that was quickly dampened by the frustration of guess-the-noun problems associated with the "create" verb. The mystery steeple was what really sapped the fun from this game. John Evans also released the game Domicile in last year's comp, another game that needed to be playtested before being released. The shame of it is, I think he has some real talent and it can't be appreciated because he doesn't others to verify his games are ready before they're released.

Final score: 5

High point:
The deceptive ease with which I completed the initial "test". I was expecting a much more elaborate series of puzzles. (In fact, at first I thought that the setup might simply be an elaborate excuse for a straight puzzle game, in the spirit of The Recruit from Comp03.)

Low point:
Reading the hints for the air elemental and then trying to figure out exactly where to find the items it was describing.


Who Created That Monster?
Author: N. B. Horvath
Language: TADS2
Score: 5

Summary:
A failed work of political satire that builds up to a climax it cannot possibly provide and then completely short-circuits itself with the conclusion.

Writing:
Upon starting the game, you are immediately engulfed by a futuristic Iraqi setting that's an uneven mix of shallow right-wing ideals and the predictions of left-wing doomsayers. So while Iraq is free, almost 7,000 coalition soldiers supposedly died in the process. Areas and roads are named after Bush and officials from his administration, but they are filled with the surveillance cameras of an apparent police state. And though terrorists still roam the streets, they are no more three-dimensional than Advent's roaming dwarf and disappear in a puff of smoke when killed. And amidst this strangeness is the PC, a gun-toting journalist, trying to figure out "which Western nation helped bring Saddam Hussein to power in the 20th century." Well, it's common knowledge that the U.S. helped support Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980's, though it was only one among many nations to do so. So it was with this in mind that I played the game. Was all of this lead up just to tell me something I already knew? Would the game distort history to satisfy some personal cause? In the end, neither of these happened. Instead, a completely unrelated country was chosen (randomly selected each time you play, according to the author) as the scapegoat. So in the end, I think this piece of satire fails mainly because it lacks cohesion of message. Which is a shame because even though I likely don't entirely share the author's view on the Iraq war, he has created a game with a few pretty clever bits in it.

Technical:
On first glance, the embassy basements appear to be a bugged. As it turns out, it's not. Is this a message I just can't quite grok or simply a bizarre design decision for a particular puzzle? There was a slight slip in the response to using the ASK verb: "If you want to talk to yourself, use TALK TO (character) or just T (character)." I can talk to myself just fine on my own, thanks!

Fun:
Looming over me throughout the game was the shadow of how it would end. And the "Iraq History" bubbles that popped regularly during the beginning of the game contributed little to the game itself. Still, I found the conspiracy and investigation aspect of it to be fairly well done, if a bit odd (the dancing ambassador). It's a shame the rest of the game didn't work so well.

Final score: 5

High point:
There wasn't really one.

Low point:
The ending was just so cheesy and I don't think it had the desired effect.


Blue Sky
Author: Hans Fugal
Language: z-code
Score: 5

Summary:
Wander around Santa Fe, New Mexico and take in the sights. That's really all you'll do, however.

Writing:
6 Blue Sky titles itself as "An Interactive Tourist Trap". It's hard to argue with that description either, as the game doesn't go far beyond the PC visiting various locations in a subset of Santa Fe. The "plot" involves trying to catch up with your tour group as it moves from landmark to landmark. And so you face a series of roadblocks; after each, you think you will finally be able to reintegrate with your group, and yet somehow they elude you. The downside is that in many cases, it's not clear where you are supposed to go or what you are supposed to do if you get there. I found the writing style to be fair, giving at least some of the atmosphere of the location, with only a couple of typos. The self-desc was Inform default, which was disappointing.

Technical:
5 The technical aspect of Blue Sky was somewhat weaker. Most frustrating was the city map. It was filled with non-reciprocating exits without any clue as to why this would be the case. The result is a layout that's surprisingly difficult to navigate and map despite its low room count. There were a couple of exits mentioned in one room that weren't implemented at all, not even with simple refusals. Finally, I found myself seemingly stuck according to the hints I consulted, because I had solved two puzzles out of order (one of these puzzles, in addition, I consider rather unfair). It turns out there was another solution, but the hints didn't mention it and no walkthrough was included with the game.

Fun:
5 The small scope of the game did not quite make up for the confusing layout of the rooms. I found myself depending on a map which should not really have been necessary for such a low room count. But worse was that I travelled the map not in search of solutions to puzzles, but looking for puzzles to solve.

Final score: 5

High point:
Getting into the church, even though the start of this puzzle chain seems wholly unrelated to the task.

Low point:
Discovering the game was apparently unwinnable because I'd solved a puzzle out of order (llama before sipa). I only found out later that this was not true.


Getting Back To Sleep
Author: Patrick Evans (IceDragon)
Language: Windows
Score: 5

Summary:
Rounding out the "wake up from cryo-sleep" trio, Getting Back To Sleep is a Windows-only game that implements a new IF game engine and runs entirely in real-time. Not surprisingly, it doesn't have a lot of features that IF veterans have come to expect from their games.

Writing:
Since this game had the unfortunate distinction of being the last of the cryo-sleep trio in my randomly generated list of comp entrants, the story had gotten a little stale by this point. I found the writing adequate enough for a game of this type, but the rest of the game rather unremarkable. I didn't care for the hydroponics forest "maze", which really wasn't so much of a maze as a looping series of near identical rooms that seemed somewhat out of place.

Technical:
You can tell a lot of work went into this game. Having written my own crude IF parsers in the past, I know what an endeavor something this polished was. And in real-time. Which makes it all the more disappointing that many of the staples of modern IF are missing. There's no transcript (I'm reviewing entirely from memory and some notes), no pausing of the real-time clock, no 'it' pronoun, no save and restore, no undo, and no scrollback. And unfortunately the reason for the custom parser, the real-time aspect, didn't really contribute anything to the game. I didn't encounter any part that was enhanced by having events occur in real-time. Instead here's a game that you can't take a break from because there's no pause and no way to save, so you can either finish in one sitting or risk running down the built-in 10 minute clock.

Fun:
It was not too bad at the beginning. The real-time thing felt more like a gimmick than a real feature, since I didn't see anything yet take advantage of it. However, after a while the lack of save and no undo lead to my death, and I didn't have any interest in starting over from the beginning.

Final score: 5

High point:
This game didn't really have one that I can recall. And I have no trascript to review.

Low point:
Dying and not having an undo or restore command to reverse it.


The Great Xavio
Author: Reese Warner
Language: z-code
Score: 4

Writing:
The dialog is strange and quirky, which is not so bad. The game itself has a ludicrous premise, made worse by the twist in the middle. It's not until you try to leave that Todd decides he must confront Xavio, which means yet another trip into his suite. How, exactly, am I to know to ask the concierge for a paperclip in order to unlock the bathroom door? Why does (presumably) Mercouri the Magnificent call me on my cell phone? The second half of the game really falls down when it comes to figuring out what to do next and how to do it.

Technical:
There are several issues with missing spaces between sentences. There are big problems when Todd gets into the cart and still managing to be everywhere you go. In the start room, his comment appears to be built into the room description (and thus it repeats any time you do a LOOK). All problems seem to be cosmetic though.

Fun:
The game started off questionable, peaked soon afterwards with the search of the hotel, but dropped off as more and more read-mind puzzles were encountered. Though Todds is obviously meant to be a quirky, eccentric character, his behavior and dialog quickly become stale.

Final score: 4

High point
Getting Todd to hide inside the cart. Sure, it's a movie cliche. Still nice that it worked.

Low point
Probably the need to ask Max for a paperclip in order to get into the bathroom. It's not unreasonable to think that a player would decide a paperclip (or something similar, like a very small screwdriver, which is what I used to use). However, knowing that I should ask Max for it seems a bit of a stretch.


Ruined Robots
Author: nanag_d
Language: TADS2
Score: 4

Summary:
While visiting your grandparents lakeside cottage, you can't help resist exploring the surrounding area. That's assuming that you don't die from lack of food.

Writing:
The quality of prose ranges from tolerable to poor. Grammar, capitalization, and punctuation are thoroughly trampled underfoot, while surprisingly, spelling errors seemed to be restrained only to "batterys" and "human brian". At least from the portions of the game I saw. The tone of the game fluctuated in an almost schizophrenic fashion, sometimes being helpful by giving hints and then other times return text like the following:
>x stuff
Uninteresting stuff in the sink. That fact that it was superficially described as 'uninteresting' was supposed to have been a hint to you that it was not useful to examine it further. I hope this explanation is not going to further fuel your pig-headed insistence on ignoring the little hints we try to give you?
What puzzles I saw felt haphazardly thrown together. Worst of all was the glue stick, and item that if taken would cover your hands with glue and prevent you from getting anything else. At least, until you stick your hands in the fire to burn it off. Hey, if my hands were covered with glue, wouldn't that make it easier to take things? As for story, there may have been one that I didn't see before I quit playing.

Technical:
This game would benefit greatly from some dedicated playtesters. It simply has a lot of bugs. Like the beaver, whose background antics multiply as the game goes on, leading to:
The robot beaver grabs a stick and sharpens it in an mouth like an electric pencil sharpener.

The beaver discusses the weather with itself.

The beaver lies on its back.

The beaver examines a small tree.

All of that was from a single turn.

There are far too many unimplemented objects mentioned in room descriptions. The initial room goes out of its way to describe a hole where the wall meets the floor, yet it's not implemented. Worst of all was Liffie's cottage. You can't examine the cottage because it's not implemented. You can't enter it for the same reason. If you try to go "in", the game's response is, "The door is locked." The door, of course, is also not implemented.

Some exits, especially around the lakeside, are non-reciprocal. If there was a reason, it was never stated.

The game also includes a hunger puzzle for no obvious reason. This is bad enough in a comp entry, but then for some reason, your level of hunger is displayed as a series of Japanese Yen symbols after the room description. As you play, the bar of Yen decreases to indicate your need for food. I can only assume it was attached to the room name in order to get it to show up in the status bar. The problem, of course, is that it also appears in the main session window whenever entering or examining a room. The reason for the stream of Yen isn't even explained anywhere. It wasn't until a post-comp discussion that someone revealed its purpose.

Fun:
Despite the game's weak implementation, it's clear that someone put a lot of thought and work into this game, so I did not just dismiss it out of hand. I explored what areas of the world I could find and, as comp fatigue was settling in, I decided that what I had seen so far was probably representative of the game as a whole.

Final score: 4

High point:
None that I can recall.

Low point:
Inventory management leading to me getting glue all over my hands once again. Which meant I had to go back to my cottage and burn it off in the fire.


Redeye
Author: John Pitchers
Language: TADS2
Score: 4

Summary:
Like "01", you wake up with no memory of exactly how you got to your current location. However, this game does have a plot and a story. Your amnesia is only short-term and alcohol-induced. In no time, you are off, in search of your missing companion and entangling yourself in all kinds of unpleasantness.

Writing:
Just a recommendation: don't start your intro with "***BBBBRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAWWWRRrrrrr***". Or with giant ascii letters. Or a giant ascii eye. (The font size and colors I'll cover in the Technical section.) The intro is written in a very informal, conversational style. In fact, some of it is supposed to be the player's own thoughts, but isn't set apart from the rest of the text by quotes or italics or any other convention, leading to some initial confusion. (I played on a Unix TADS terp that doesn't do italics, but I went back and verified on a Windows HTML TADS terp.) The rest of the game is in a fairly standard tone with mostly dry descriptions simply listing room features and exits each in a separate sentence. The story itself isn't bad. You find yourself framed for a crime you didn't commit and must find a way to clear your name. The problem is implementation. At the beginning, you have to commit a pretty bone-headed action in order to proceed. Otherwise you're forced to wander around the small map until you starve (yes, the game has a hunger timer). Later in the game, as you start discovering clues, the ending becomes glaringly obviously fairly quickly. Even so, the PC seems shocked when it's all made clear.

Technical:
Like I said above, I initally played in a plain text interpreter. When I ran Redeye in a HTML TADS terp, I was able to appreciate the horror of giant fonts and bright green text. Really, there's nothing wrong with the defaults. As for technical issues with the game itself, I found plenty. There are a lot of prominent room features that weren't implemented. For one that was... well, if you're going to have the line "I wouldn't touch them if I were you" in the object's description, at least have a special response to TOUCH OBJECT. There were especially irritating disambiguation problems in both of the bathrooms in the beginning area (and neither seemed to serve a purpose). At one point near the end, a police officer addresses me by my companion's name. By far, the worst bug was inside the taxi. You can't LEAVE. You can't go OUT or O. Directions don't work. You can't OPEN THE DOOR. You can't EXIT. The only recognized syntax is "GET OUT (OF TAXI)" and I literally died of starvation (in game, of course) before I was able leave the cab. This is one of those problems that would have been caught right away by a beta-tester, but manages to sneak into release because developers have natural blind spots when it comes to trying alternatives to what we know works.

Fun:
What really affected my score for this game was that I just wasn't having fun playing it. I ran into too many issues that sapped my enjoyment: the missing scenery, obvious disambiguation, railroading for the sake of the story, important NPC conversation topics not implemented, and of course the problem with the taxi. I just wasn't getting into the game, I didn't care about the character, and the ending was not the surprise that it should have been.

Final score: 4

High point:
Finding that shotgun in Arthur's pants. Sounds almost dirty.

Low point:
Starving to death in a taxi. Best of both worlds: hunger timer and guess-the-verb.


Goose, Egg, Badger
Author: Brian Rapp
Language: z-code
Original score: 3
Revised score: 4

Summary:
This is a difficult game to summarize. Its gameplay is built around a central, hidden premise and if you don't manage to realize it on your own (or consult the SECRETS command), chances are that this game will fail to impress you. Much as it failed to impress me when I first played it. It wasn't until I read some of the post-comp discussion that I discovered its little secret. In my opinion, it's clever enough, but badly clued, and it doesn't make up for the game's shortcomings.

Writing:
Constrained as the game is by its obfuscated premise, the writing is decidedly uneven. Even though none of the room descriptions are very long -- at most, 3 or 4 lines -- there are a couple of rooms with text consisting or 4 or 5 words. Even knowing the in-joke here, I find this completely unacceptable. On my first run-through this strongly contributed to my sense that this game was a hurriedly rendered surrealist fantasy which didn't have an internal consistency, that it was just weird for the sake of being weird. Well, even now, I can't imagine why my character turned from a girl into a robot when I waited twice.

Technical:
Another game with an inventory limit which seems to exist only to frustrate the player. Later, as I progressed in the game, I found that the game's habit of listing every item in a room on a separate line started to get out of control. In the sewing room, the room description was only 2 lines of text, followed by six different objects, each on its own line. This seems to be the result of avoiding the standard "You see ... here" format, but the end effect is visually jarring. There's also an NPC that follows you without providing a message to that effect. When you enter a room, that NPC is not present. On your next action, however, you may see an action performed by that NPC and be surprised to look and find it listed in the room contents.

Fun:
At first I found the game a cautiously enjoyable experience. I say "cautiously" because early on there were some aspects which seemed to portend trouble. As I progressed, I encountered the two minimally described rooms ("All is strangely quiet") and a tedious set of puzzles involving an electrical wire. Stuck at one point, I consulted the hints, which did get me through some situations, but never helped me uncover the game's secret foundation. I still consider it poorly clued. Some may spot it right away. My guess is that most will not, unless they review the full walkthrough or consult the SECRETS command. Following several hints, I appeared to end up in a situation where I did some events out of order. The hint was telling me to use an object I no longer had access to. Frustrated and annoyed, I quit. Having gone back and played, knowing the game's secret, I can admit that the premise is clever. It's just too bad that it doesn't improve the gameplay any. All I can seem to get from it is extra points.

Final score: 3 (Revised: 4)

High point:
Threatening the badger with the vacuum cleaner.

Low point:
Reading the room descriptions of the animal pens.


The Realm
Author: Michael Sheldon
Language: TADS2
Score: 4

Summary:
A squire can't become a knight without first completing a "randomly" assigned task. Unfortunately, I found the actions needed to complete the task to be the random ones.

Writing:
Terse room descriptions can work, if done well. Here, too many of them are short and generally flavorless. The majority of the rooms are described as, "Here are the objects, here are the exits." They could really use some variety and a little bit of color, even if they're not the foundation of major puzzles. The start room and monastery have a bit of flavor and it's a shame that more of the rooms weren't like them. The story is nothing original, but I don't hold this against the game. Its puzzles, on the other hand, are its major weakness. One is imaginative, with two possible solutions. The others are boil down to stale give-item-to-person puzzles, with one of them standing out as both disgusting and completely unclued. Without reading the walkthrough or the author's mind, only the most stubborn of flailing will allow you to finish this game.

Technical:
The comings and goings of NPCs used basic library functions when they really ought to have been spruced up a bit for effect. The same applies to some of the denial messages. For instance, when I tried to pick up the cat, the response was, "You can't have Picklebird." Well, why not? I also found some of the major scenery items mentioned in room descriptions to be unimplemented. Never underestimate the value of minor implementation details.

Fun:
The armourer puzzle set a level of expectation that the rest of the game failed to live up to. Then I encountered the unclued puzzle mentioned above and became even more disappointed. Additionally, the game lacks polish and attention to detail. Too many things are stock responses, though I appreciated the more fleshed-out implementation of Brother Lee, with his randomized response to generic topics.

Final score: 4

High point:
Solving the armourer situation with the appropriate object. A decent puzzle that fits in the framework of the game. The bugle, its location, and its alternate use are all appropriate. Also finding out that there is a clever, alternative solution to the armourer puzzle.

Low point:
Reading the walkthrough and discovering what I had to do to "reveal" the secret of the Chi'monk. Really, his "secret" was obvious. The solution was anything but.


Zero
Author: William A. Tilli
Language: TADS2
Score: 4

Summary:
A middling adventure game that focuses on the other side of the typical treasure hunt. Instead of a dashing aventurer, you're a goblin whose home has just been ransacked.

Writing:
Like other Santoonie games, Zero suffers terribly from dismal spelling and grammar. In some cases, it's as if a spell-checker was employed without the benefit of a dictionary, resulting in the wrong choice of homonyms. For instance, the goblin home is attacked by humans described as "fowl men" (chicken people, perhaps?), one character "excepts" a gift from another, and a makeshift anvil is covered with "a black suit ... possibly from hot fire". The game is apparently divided into two parts. In the first half, you must try to straighten up the goblin lair after the terrible human attack. The second part supposedly involves retrieving stolen items from the chicken people, but I wouldn't know because I never finished the initial set of tasks. The problem was that each puzzle in the first half is a single link in a chain; once you restore one object to its rightful location, there's a change made to one of the rooms and now you must hunt through all of the rooms to figure out which one. Repeat repeat repeat. In fact, here's the exact text from the HELP command: "During the gather stage, within the goblin lair, you must find specific items and place them in specific spots, then examine them after placement to activate additional items. It is required to visit same locations over and over again." At some point down the chain, I couldn't find the next change and gave up.

Technical:
I encountered various problems while playing Zero. At one point you encounter a companion (and a rather annoying one at that) who follows you around. However, the game doesn't indicate anywhere that he's following you, so you may not realize this until either you look again at the room or he interjects with one of his loud and obnoxious comments (such as "I'm hungry as a bitch"). Some of the NPCs (the king and Armod for example), when replying to a question about a particular topic, will reveal some wisdom on the subject... and then immediately follow that with their default "I don't know anything about that" text. And then there's obligatory Santoonie sleep and hunger timers.

Fun:
Not much. Between the spelling problems, the constant hunt for which room changed, and the antics of my "companion", my willingness to play got sapped pretty quickly. There were no actual hints for what to do next, and no walkthrough.

Final score: 4

High point:
The game was pretty consistent in its level of quality, so no particular part of the game jumps out at me.

Low point:
Same.


A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero
Author: David Whyld
Language: Adrift
Score: 4

Summary:
A not-so-super superhero faces a series of challenges from his numerous enemies. Unfortunately, the game is marred by an abundance of bugs and other problems.

Writing:
The story could certainly work. A costumed superhero who seems to have no real power besides his determination has to stop a number of devious and talented villains. And it does indeed lend itself to a humorous dissection of the entire superhero genre. Unfortunately, the writing in this game didn't come across to me as quite as amusing and witty as intended. The plot itself felt vague and confusing and at times it was hard to tell if the bizarre happenings were part of the actual story or simply bugs that had disrupted the game flow.

Technical:
I don't know if I was just unlucky, but I ran into an inordinate number of bugs as I played through the game. In one conversation (done through menus... but on occasion, also done through ask/tell) I selected a choice from the menu which turned out to be not quite available to me. My attempt to read newspaper elicited the response "You can't read the newspaper!" The problems with scope and disambiguation were the worst though. For example, when I tried to talk to my pet parrot, the game responded with: "A fusty smell pervades your apartment. It's probably a mixture of you never getting around to cleaning it and that time the Slug Monster was here to kill you." Okay, that's great, but I was trying to talk to my parrot, not smell my living quarters. Likewise, my attempts to talk to Bumble resulted in the game thinking I was addressing the guards, who were not interested in conversation. When I asked an NPC about the Crossing Lady, the game replied with "You can't see the ladies of the night." I still don't know if this kind of disambiguation problem is inherent to Adrift or if the author just didn't realize these problems existed. Either way, this game needed a lot more testing.

Fun:
The bugs, being so constant and so pervasive, quickly sapped my will to play. Between them and the game bouncing me around locations without rhyme or reason, I gave up before really getting anywhere.

Final score: 4

High point:
I couldn't think of any.

Low point:
Same.


Blink
Author: Ian Waddell
Language: z-code
Score: 3

Summary:
A rather unsubtle anti-war piece with rigidly linear gameplay.

Writing:
This is a heavy-handed game written to convince you why war is bad. If I didn't know the author was 15 year-old, I would probably be much more harsh in this review. See, I think all right-minded people recognize that war is evil. But they also recognize that it is sometimes a necessary evil. So when someone fabricates an event during World War II as a way to sermonize the wrongness of war, that's when I start questioning the source. Because if you don't recgonize WWII as one of history's most important struggles against tyranny and oppression, then there's probably not much we can see eye-to-eye on. And then I get to the part of the game where my PC, a WWII infantry soldier, is carrying around a "M1A1 Abrams, currently loaded with 8 bullets", and I realize that the author probably just doesn't know any better.

Technical:
I didn't encounter any serious technical issues. I did wonder why, in the conversation trees, some options would vanish after chosen, while others would remain, letting me ask them again with the same response.

Fun:
It's hard to get more transparently linear than Blink, a quality that makes any game hard to enjoy. The dialog menus give you choices with no appreciable difference most of the time. Even when they are significantly distinct, your selection has no impact on the story anyway. After a bit of railroading and a single puzzle, the game ends with what I suppose was intended to be a contemplative air. I guess some people will agree with the message of this game in light of the ongoing war in Iraq. I, on the other hand, found it simplistic and naïve.

Final score: 3

High point:
Examining my rifle during the World War II flashback.

Low point:
The same.


A Light's Tale
Author: Zach Flynn (vbnz)
Language: TADS2
Score: 3

Summary:
I wish I knew what to put here.

Writing:
I get the feeling that the author was trying to convey something with this game that just did not make it. The intro was confusing and awkwardly written, mentioning an "unordinary" man. There are spelling problems throughout the parts that I played ("unordinary", "flys") and the tone is aggressive and antagonistic towards the player ("I won't let you go that way"). The writing itself is coarse colloquial, which can work if done well with a well-defined personality to represent the narrator. Here, there doesn't seem to be one. If there's a story or plot, I didn't find it before I gave up.

Technical:
Besides lacking quotes around speech, the game seems to be rife with invisible NPCs. First, Fernando's gang caught and killed me, even though there was no mention of them entering or being in the same room as me. One second I'm trying to take a mirror, then next I'm dead. The same thing happened when I ran from Bob. He did not follow me around, but he somehow managed to kill me anyway. I couldn't even interact with him, since there was no actual NPC object in the same room as me.

Fun:
Not fun.

Final score: 3

High point:
The description of The Beginning felt like it could have lead to a good surreal exploration, as in So Far or Blue Chairs.

Low point:
Getting killed by an NPC who wasn't actually in the room. Twice.


PTBAD 3
Author: Jonathan Berman (Xorax)
Language: TADS2
Original score: 3
Revised score: 2

Summary:
If I knew what this game was about, I'd tell you.

Writing:
The first thing a player sees is the intro. I've said this about introductions before: they have to grab the player and make him/her WANT to play this game. So an author should really pay attention to that intro and focus some energy on making sure it's right. Needless to say, PTBAD3 has a bad one. Actually, it's the starting room, as there's no seperate introduction when you begin the game. Doesn't change my point though. The room desc has two obvious spelling errors and, besides that, makes little sense. Oh, and there's a "tophat" on the ground. A glowing tophat. I was in the process of looking up "tophat" in the dictionary when I realized that the author meant it was a top hat. Once I recovered from the initial dismay, I started to roam around the gamespace. This involved drawing a somewhat convoluted map with several one-way exits as I stumbled through the labyrinth of PTBAD3. Here's an example of one of the rooms I encountered:
lift
~What is the difference between a duck?~ You are in the lift. You can go down.
After doing little more than wander around, I gave up and quit. There were no hints, no walkthrough, no readme file.

Technical:
I can't tell what's a bug and what's on purpose. Few scenery items were implemented and one that was (a table) I was able to pick up and walk around with.

Fun:
Not. Everything in this game screams "weird not because it follows an underlying connection but just for the sake of being weird."

Final score: 3 (Revised to 2)

High point:
As much as I hate to say it, I didn't find a high point with this game.

Low point:
Right off the bat, there was no author listed, no credits, no intro, just a start room with bad spelling. No hints, no walkthrough. No way.


Stack Overflow
Author: Timofei Shatrov
Language: z-code
Score: 2

Summary:
If I had gotten very far in this game, I'd be able to provide a summary. But since I quit very early on, the most I can say is that you are kidnapped from your home and find yourself a prisoner. As in most games that begin in a jail cell, your goal is to escape. And that's where the problems begin.

Writing:
The language in Stack Overflow presents as substandard right away. The intro contains the phrase "you're really getting late to the work", which suggests that English is not author's native language. This is reinforced by some later changes in verb tense during a cut-scene and other game response ("There is no point to attack the round table at the moment"). As for story, I can't really say, because the puzzles quickly drove me from the game. The first was not a complete deal-breaker, even though I found it poorly clued (and the help system responded with the infuriating response: "You don't need any hints... yet!"). The second puzzle, however, sent me running from this game. At this point, I was following the walkthrough, since the hint system had proved such a disappointment. The walkthrough skips the intermediate step of finding the clue to help solve the second puzzle. It simply has the player use a verb from Spellbreaker without ever explaining how the player would know to do that without having played the Infocom game first. (I only discovered later that there is an in-game clue to use this unique verb and the hint system helps you find it.) I was considerably irked at this point by a puzzle I considered grossly unfair, so I quit and rated the game based on what I'd seen so far.

Technical:
As I stated above, the hint system needs to be fixed. In the middle of a puzzle, the player should never be told that he or she does not "need" any help. Using the verb "out" in a jail cell should give a more appropriate response than, "But you aren't in anything at the moment."

Fun:
I had negative fun with this game. It was like a perfect storm of tiny things that ended with me annoyed and frustrated with this game. The shallow and meaningless story combined with poor writing blended with the broken hint system mixed with the incomplete walkthrough integrated with the poorly thought-out first two puzzles all served to make this probably the worst experience I had of the whole competition. Even Ninja didn't actively irritate me this much, though I consider it to be a worse game.

Final score: 2

High point:
Finding the hammer.

Low point:
Pretty much everything else.


Ninja v1.30
Author: Paul Panks (Dunric)
Language: Windows
Score: 1

No review yet.


Magocracy
Author: Anton Joseph Rheaume (Scarybug)
Language: TADS2
Score: Not Rated

I haven't played the game enough yet to do a real review.


I Must Play
Author: Geoff Fortytwo
Language: TADS3
Score: Not Rated

I haven't played the game enough yet to do a real review.

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