Hard Puzzle 4: The Ballad of Bob and Cheryl, by Ade

“Hard Puzzle 4” was actually near the top of my randomly-generated review queue. It’s a clever, well-crafted game, and my reluctance to spoil it with hints or walkthroughs has caused me to push it further down the stack several times.

Gameplay: As the title implies, the game is a difficult puzzlefest with a complicated overarching puzzle. The game strikes a balance between difficulty and approachability; although its main puzzle is very involved, it’s something that the player can approach and experiment with (as in, for example, the babel fish puzzle from Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game), instead of something that requires a single flash of insight 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles (or components of the main puzzle) are legitimately difficult, and solving them is satisfying accordingly. The game provides debugging verbs to the player, and my expectation on starting the game was that they would be the single mechanic behind the game’s solution; it’s actually much more complicated than that. 8/10.

Presentation: The game is a puzzlefest with strong puzzles, and it’s worth the time it takes to solve. Using the debugging verbs is a clunkier than it needs to be (e.g., handling the exit command), but gameplay is largely smooth. The one significant problem I found was a crash caused by commanding a character to take a certain action with the stool in the game. (Although it’s related to the ostensible debugging verbs of the game, I don’t think it was deliberate.) 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve played the other games in the Hard Puzzle series.

Score: 7

Island in the Storm, by JSMaika

Making an IF parser is a large and difficult programming task. “Island in the Storm” uses a custom system, IntFicPy, that’s far more promising than most I’ve encountered, and I look forward to the author’s continuing development on it.

Gameplay: The game is a conventional, puzzle-heavy adventure. Gameplay is solid, but the main focus of the game is showing off its engine. Unlike most custom parsers, the author’s system is up to the task. The game is reasonably complex, and the system has the necessary features to handle the game’s complications successfully. “Island in the Storm” is not as ambitious or polished as, say, “Curses” as a proof of concept for the system, but it’s an enjoyable game with a solid implementation. 6/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are generally straightforward adventure-game ones, but the distinguishing feature of the game is its engine. Unlike most custom systems, the one in this game is solid. The UI is attractive and functional, and the parser is easy to interact with. Furthermore, it’s based on Python, which obviates the need for many users to learn a new, specialized language.

The author’s system is so appealing because there’s still no completely satisfactory IF programming language designed for users who are already familiar with general programming. Inform 6 is a solid, well-designed language, but it’s constrained by its association with the Z-Machine format, which is no longer relevant to modern IF and imposes unnecessary restrictions on the code. Furthermore, the lowest-level routines inside it are spaghetti code that’s difficult to overhaul. (In fairness, that’s in part because of the restrictions of the language, e.g., a restriction on the number of local variables in a function.) Inform 7 has a wonderful IDE and a clever rule-based system, but those features are marred by an arbitrary, poorly-designed syntax and inadequate documentation. (There’s quite a lot of documentation, but it’s largely a series of examples; it’s hard to find an explanation of how exactly the system works. If your problem doesn’t match an example, you’re out of luck. Compare that to the masterfully-written Inform Designer’s Manual.) A well-designed, easily extendable, polished language or engine suited to IF would be an incredibly useful for developers. Python is a particularly good base for the system, since it’s a familiar, well-designed language that’s often used in machine learning. 9/10.

Presentation: There are some typos and grammatical errors in the game (e.g., “A board has been lain across the chasm.”), and some of the descriptions are extremely terse (e.g., the description of one key is is simply, “There is a key here.”). While the parser is promising, there are some useful features conspicuously missing from it. There is no UNDO command, for example (or, at least, I didn’t find the term or abbreviation used for it), and pronouns can’t be used. The parser also doesn’t recognize groups of objects, whether with commas or the word AND. Thus, for example, neither TAKE NOTEBOOK, KEY nor TAKE NOTEBOOK AND KEY are recognized; the player must take the objects individually. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’d like to see a proof of concept for the author’s system.

Score: 7

Citizen of Nowhere, by Luke A. Jones

“Citizen of Nowhere” is a lightly comedic, parser-based game reminiscent of old-school puzzle games from the 1980s.

Gameplay: The style of the game is one familiar from games in the 1980s like Zork I or The Pawn: an emphasis in the game on puzzles, with the plot being desultory; a sprawling, crazy quilt world containing many otherwise unremarkable hallways of junctions; a juxtaposition of lazy-medieval fantasy elements (e.g., giants and ogres) with modern machinery; text that’s lightly comedic and contains several puns; and so on. It’s an interesting style game of that isn’t common anymore, and it’s refreshing to see such a different kind of game. 5/10.

Mechanics: Most of the puzzles involve gathering inventory items and using them in other places. There are some variations, though, such as the word puzzles posed by one NPC carrying a useful object. As is common in its genre, the NPCs in the game are either obstacles to be defeated or the equivalent of vending machines. 5/10.

Presentation: The light tone of the game fits is genre, and puns are rampant in the text. The text also contains many instances of missing puncutation (e.g. a missing period and line break in the response to READ LETTER) and capitalization in the text. There are some implementation issues, including the parser’s not recognizing FLAGS (as opposed to the singular FLAG) in a puzzle involving manipulating several of them, and the response to READ MAP is simply, “Fill in map description here.” There are many NPCs in the game, but none of them is particularly memorable or well-characterized. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like puns.

Score: 5

The Four Eccentrics, by Mild Cat Bean

“The Four Eccentrics” is a completely surreal parser-based game that requires dream-logic to solve its puzzles.

Gameplay: Due to the game’s theme and setting, it’s difficult to describe its gameplay. There are puzzles throughout the game, but both the obstacles and solutions are totally surreal. One of the early puzzles, for examples, involves extracting a weevil from the brain of a dream-weaver and then filling in her outline with ink. The game fully embraces its dream-logic, and it’s entertaining to try to make sense of the alien mechanics. 5/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are odd, but they do have an internal logic that’s noticeable once the player starts to make sense of the surrealism of the game. Exploring the world is a more satisfying experience that it would be in a more straightforward game because of its unexpected features and the creative mechanics required to do so. 5/10.

Presentation: The game stays in its dreamlike setting throughout, and the text successfully conveys its bizarre nature. Even if it’s often difficult to understand exactly what’s going on in the game, its characters and setting are vividly described, and interacting with them is enjoyable. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games involving dream-logic.

Score: 5

Summer Night City, by ghoti

“Summer Night City” is a choice-based game about a blind bartender in a dystopian future.

Gameplay: In the first half of the game, the protagonist is imprisoned and interrogated by the oppressive government; in the second half, he works as a bartender and has more agency in directing the plot. The puzzle of figuring out how to communicate with the resistance is a satisfying one that’s more involved than just a standard inventory or set-piece one. 6/10.

Mechanics: For the first half of the game, the decisions seem (from my single playthrough) to be largely immaterial, mostly determining reactions to the linear plot rather than causing it to branch. In the second half, though, the player’s actions directly steer the plot. As a blind bartender, the main character can send and receive messages via drink orders. It’s a clever setup, and solving the corresponding puzzle is rewarding. 7/10.

Presentation: The game successfully conveys its oppressive yet somewhat mysterious dystopian setting. It’s not always clear to either the narrator or player how the plot is unfolding, and the corresponding sense of anxiety matches the tone of the game. The text is a bit overdone in places (e.g,. “give vent to an inhuman bellow”), but it’s largely solid. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like dystopian stories.

Score: 6

Remedial Witchcraft, by dgtziea

“Remedial Witchcraft” is an uncomplicated but rewarding game with clever puzzles.

Gameplay: The game is a straightforward, puzzle-based one in which the player gathers some required items with the aid of magic. The puzzles themselves are interesting but not particularly difficult. Although the genre of lightly-comedic fantasy is a very familiar one in IF, the game’s solid puzzles and clever ending make it stand out. 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles in the game are reasonable and well-clued, and they invoke the theme of the game without relying so much on the magic system to make them illogical or obtuse. The magic encountered in the game (e.g., the rock) is also more varied than, say, the familiar spellcasting system of the old Infocom games. 7/10.

Presentation: There are a few typos (e.g., a missing line break following READ RUNE), but nothing substantial. During my playthrough, the magic word required to solve the rune puzzle was somehow unavailable well past the point when the puzzle should have already been solved. (It was eventually available, but I don’t know what triggered the change.) The text is solid and reflects the light tone of the game. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like light puzzle games.

Score: 7

The House on Sycamore Lane, by Paul Michael Winters

“The House on Sycamore Lane” is a classic parser-based horror game focusing on exploration and puzzles.

Gameplay: The game begins with the narrator about to leave school. There initially aren’t any clear goals for the character; after solving a few simple puzzles to try to outmaneuver some bullies, though, he winds up hiding inside a haunted mansion. The rest of the game involves solving more puzzles to pacify or exorcise the spirits in the mansion by solving a series of adventure-game-style puzzles. There’s not much connection between the two parts of the story, even thematically, and the introduction is probably unnecessary. 5/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles fit the theme of the game, and I found them to be mostly solid, if not particularly memorable. The ones in the first part of the game are strongly clued; those in the second are more complicated but still reasonable overall. 6/10.

Presentation: In addition to the numerous spacing issues and missing punctuation, there are other typos throughout the text: “A spectacles,” “You open bike lock,” “growing at your viciously,” “vision flashes before you’re eyes,” etc. Genuine horror (as opposed to parody or light comedy) is a difficult genre for in interactive fiction, and the game never finds the tone it’s trying to achieve. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like classic horror games.

Score: 5