Chuk and the Arena, by Agnieszka Trzaska

Despite being a light, choice-based game, “Chuk and the Arena” is a complex game with intricate, well-designed puzzles.

Gameplay: The main character is an alien who enters a gladiatorial tournament in order to recover a moon stolen from his home planet. Defeating his opponents involves figuring out their weaknesses and solving puzzles around the alien ship to exploit them. It’s a lightly comedic science-fiction game, but the characters are solid, and the puzzles are complicated and satisfying to solve. 9/10.

Mechanics: The game is strongly puzzle-based, and the puzzles are reasonable and clever. They all have multiple moving parts, and solving them is a more involved process than just collecting inventory items and using them at the appropriate place. Even though the game is choice-based, it has an efficient inventory management system that allows items to be used in conjunction with other objects, characters, or setting details. 9/10.

Presentation: The text establishes a light, comedic tone that compliments its involved puzzles. The comedic scenes are well-written, and the characters have clear, distinct personalities. Those personalities are often rather two-dimensional and directly related to certain puzzles, but that’s fine for a game in this genre. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like choice-based puzzle games.

Score: 9

Gone Out for Gruyere, by B F Lindsay

“Gone Out for Gruyere” is a light, puzzle-based game with comedic elements and an absurd but enjoyable premise.

Gameplay: Gameplay is smooth throughout. Some of the puzzles are difficult, but they’re all reasonable with a bit of experimenting. It’s clear from at least midway through the game what the central puzzle of the game— obtaining the cheese— involves, and that fact motivates the smaller puzzles in the game despite its absudist elements. 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles make sense despite the surrealism of the setting, and they’re more interesting than just use inventory objects on other inventory objects. Even though the game is clearly not intended to be taken seriously, its puzzles are consistent and rewarding. 7/10.

Presentation: The introduction is completely absurd, and it sets a strong tone for the remainder of the game. There’s a minor issue with the syntax for answering a riddle near the beginning of the game (SAY “[ANSWER]” and variants aren’t recognized, but GNOME, [ANSWER] is fine), but gameplay is otherwise smooth. Despite the game’s focus on the mechanics of the puzzles, the introductory and concluding scenes of the game are well-written and satisfying. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a short, puzzle-based game that has a surreal setting but reasonable puzzles.

Score: 7

Clusterflux, by Marshal Tenner Winter

“Clusterflux” is a puzzle-based game with some surreal elements in a sprawling environment.

Gameplay: The game begins with the character and his talking pet mongoose finding a mysterious woman on his couch. For most of the game, that premise is simply a device to encourage the player to explore the game’s setting, which is large and well-implemented. As the setup implies, there are surreal elements to it, but most of it is simply standard adventuring through an environment filled with random NPCs. Playing the game feels like wandering around a college dormitory filled with unusual characters. It’s enjoyable, although I think it would have been more frustrating if I hadn’t used a walkthrough liberally. 7/10.

Mechanics: Despite the surrealism of the game, its puzzles are mostly standard adventure-game-style ones, with the player collecting various items around the house and applying them to puzzles that hint at their use. The wasp puzzle, for example, requires multiple items from multiple locations, and it’s satisfying to bring all of them together and solve it. 7/10.

Presentation: Aside from a few typos (a sweater, for example, seems to be named as “your hooded sweater.”, including the extraneous period), the text is consistent throughout the game. The two NPCs that follow the player throughout the game don’t have a lot of depth to their implementations. They’re interesting characters, though, and they’re not the focus of the game. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games about exploration that have complicated puzzles.

Score: 7

The Untold Story, by Michael Pavano

“The Untold Story” is an parser-based, puzzle-centric game in which the protagonist attempts to find missing parts of a meaningful chess set after his older brother’s death.

Gameplay: The puzzles are the main focus of the game, and they’re generally inventory and set-piece puzzles. The setting is an odd mix of lazy-medieval-fantasy settings (magic, dwarves, etc.) and real-world elements (a Bible, a reference to a “Chinese symbol”), which makes some of the more unmotivated puzzles difficult to tinker with. Gameplay is awkward at points because of the sparse description of some objects and guess-the-verb problems. There are explicit indications— not even hints— for certain puzzles (e.g., “If you plant something in the golden dirt spot, maybe something will happen”), but they aren’t reasonable substitutes for a more solid implementation. 4/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles take advantage of the fantasy elements of the setting. The guess-the-verb and other implementation issues make them more difficult than they should be, and solving some of them opens up the world map in unpredictable and unmotivated ways. The mechanic of giving explicit, italicized hints to the player is unnecessary, and it would be more satisfying for the player to solve those puzzles without assistance. 4/10.

Presentation: The game is filled with odd phrases (“Inisde from the forest is the Bear’s Den”) and typos (“pails in comparison”). Missing line breaks in descriptions are common. Descriptions are occasionally sparse to the point of uselessness, as in one room presented as simply a “peaceful and beautiful place.” Some setting details are inconsistent, as in a glint in a pile of dirt that still occurs in its description even after the coin causing it has been removed. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a fantasy game with a protagonist who isn’t a mercernary adventurer.

Score: 4

Black Sheep, by Nic Barkdull and Matt Borgard

“Black Sheep” is a choice-based cyberpunk noir about a woman’s attempts to find her missing sister.

Gameplay: Gameplay is smooth throughout, with the choice-based system not feeling limiting. The world is a fairly large one, and the player has freedom to roam around in it and interact with other characters. While some of the puzzle elements are a bit contrived, the mystery itself is solid and well-clued. The revelation at the end of the game, while satisfying, wasn’t a surprise to me at all. 7/10.

Mechanics: The game has quite a bit of state: the protagonist has a burgeoning inventory; the choices available to her at each point depend on previous encounters; and there’s a global timer in the game. Like most ostensible mystery games in IF, the focus of “Black Sheep” is more on evidence collection and standard adventure-game-style actions (e.g., getting into locked areas) rather than deduction itself. There is a mechanic for combining pieces of evidence and thereby drawing conclusions from them, but the game uses it sparingly and only toward the end of the story. 8/10.

Presentation: The setting and writing of the game strongly support its cyberpunk setting. The cyberpunk elements aren’t as overwhelming or pervasive as they are in most games of that genre, but they’re noticeable, creepy, and evocative. (One particular detail I found memorable was a character noted as literally wearing “her uterus on her hip.”) 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a more restrained cyberpunk noir with a satisfying mystery.

Score: 7

Zozzled, by Steph Cherrywell

“Zozzled” is an entertaining parser-based puzzle game set in the Prohibition era.

Gameplay: The premise of the game is that the protagonist has the ability to see the ghosts haunting a hotel, and her goal is to exorcise them by drinking them like the other kind of spirits. It’s a light game, and the puzzles never become too difficult or obtuse to get in the way of the story and humor. The setting is compact; the characters are distinct and entertaining; and the puzzles are reasonable. 9/10.

Mechanics: Despite the supernatural premise of the game, the puzzles are fairly straightforward and motivated throughout, and they’re more clever than just routine inventory and set-piece puzzles. (The one exception to their straightforwardness might be the artist puzzle, but I think its solution is clever enough to justify its complexity relative to the other puzzles.) The game switches to a choice-based system in certain sections, though it’s usually to set up particular jokes (most notably, the routine when entering the elevator for the first time) rather than a real change in format. 8/10.

Presentation: The game has a strong voice throughout. The 1920s slang it uses is overdone, but the game doesn’t take itself seriously, and the effect is more charming than annoying. The protagonist has a clearly defined personality that comes through when talking with other characters (most notably the artist, the elevator attendant, and the moll). There are a few minor typos (e.g., a missing quotation mark in the medium scene and a missing line break when leaving the pool), but they don’t detract from the enjoyment of the game. 9/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like the 1920s setting.

Score: 9

Night Guard / Morning Star, by Astrid Dalmady

“Night Guard / Morning Star” is a magical-realist horror game about a woman’s learning the true nature of her mother’s paintings.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with most of the decisions being simply navigation around the gallery and paintings. The main focus of the game is investigating the paintings and thereby understanding the nature of the protagonist’s mother’s artwork, and those interactions are interesting and well-paced scenes from a horror story. 6/10.

Mechanics: The game has some state, with its gallery being a persistent setting in which the player is free to wander. There are multiple endings available, though the branching point seems more like a deliberate choice of the player at certain place in the story rather than something that arises from the protagonist’s previous choices. Although the game is certainly not puzzle-based, I was mildly annoyed at one section in which the protagonist is given a riddle with an obvious solution that I recognized as a player, but that the protagonist apparently did not; the only option was to have it spelled out in-game. 6/10.

Presentation: The writing is strong throughout, and the magical realism is handled skillfully. The protagonist and the characters she encounters are multidimensional and enjoyable (if creepy) to interact with. The ending of the game is a satisfying conclusion to an interesting story. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like magical realism.

Score: 6