Serious science fiction, whether soft or hard, is an area of interactive fiction that isn’t as popular or prominent as I would expect. “Returns to the Stars” is a short work of military-flavored sci-fi that provides a solid contribution to this genre.

Gameplay: The setup is a simple one: You are imprisoned on an alien planet and have to return to your own homeworld. Escaping the prison and then escaping the planet itself are matters mostly of exploration rather than more specific puzzle-solving; the puzzles that do exist are mostly ones of figuring out the details of the environment and acquiring objects from and using objects in their expected locations. It’s a grittier world than the sterilized ones of more utopian science fiction or the goofy ones of space operas, and exploring the world feels natural and motivated given the protagonist’s situation. 6/10.

Mechanics: Although there are puzzles in the game, its main emphasis is exploration. After a set-piece puzzle about breaking out of a prison cell, escaping the prison itself is simply a matter of finding the appropriate switch to deactivate the building’s locks. Locating the correct switch requires a translator, but your confiscated equipment has one. The atmosphere is not breathable, but your equipment again has the right tool for the task. This setup is ultimately a positive one, rather than a drawback; it creates the feeling of being stuck on an alien world and having to fend for yourself, rather than solving contrived physical puzzles and, say, escaping your prison cell Zork-II-style with a placemat and a letter opener. The exception is the force field in the military complex later in the game, which I would classify as a singular puzzle rather than an environmental obstacle. It’s motivated, well-clued, and reasonable to solve, though, so it doesn’t break the atmosphere of the rest of the game. 6/10.

Presentation: The text is simple and well-suited to its particular style of gritty, militaristic science-fiction. There is a mode for novice players (which I didn’t try out) and hints, which are both helpful. The game has an odd combination of a few guess-the-verb issues (e.g., dealing with the grate in the first scene) and also going to great lengths to identify certain commands (the best examples of which are the alternative commands for solving the last puzzle in the game given in the hints). I expected the game to require granular commands for actions like booting up the systems on an alien ship, but BOOT UP SHIP works perfectly well. That style fits the atmosphere of the game, which strongly evokes that more serious sci-fi genre consistently throughout the gameplay. 7/10.

You might enjoy this game if: You like serious but not dour sci-fi.

Score: 6

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