Spoilers ahoy. I recommend you play this game before you read this review.
My first parser game this year. Junior Arithmancer is an Inform parser game. I played for a full two hours and reached an ending. I would term it as a difficult puzzlebox with minimal story.
The basic premise is that, as the titular JA, you are placed inside an examination hall and given the task of passing the entrance exam into the Academy. The puzzles, which are sort of, but not really, math based are the whole of the game.
I found it quite tough.
The main mechanic is that you are given spells with which you can construct numbers. The game is presented well. The screen, split into two, gives the player an excellent way of seeing the main commands, what they need to do, where they are in a sequence and so on. This is a good thing that the author has done with the standard Informy interface and aids the gameplay tremendously. It would be a difficult and frustrating game to play without it.
The spells are redolent of…well…assembly language commands. You start with a single command STA – which puts the first number in the sequence, and then every time you get a new sequential number you get a new command. The later ones become prefix commands and rather esoteric. This type of thing is hard to implement. Very hard. Impressive.
It leads to a great deal of logical and lateral thinking. At first, I though I was doing quite well, and I felt reasonably clever. Then the difficulty ratchets up a notch, and I started to feel considerably less clever. The CAT command for example “Concatenate previous number to front of current number before applying operation” – yeah, I was confused too. The later commands get harder and harder with less info for the player. I’m still not entirely sure what the TAC command does. In the end, I got 8 out of the 10 numbers before 2 hours was up.
However, I felt that had I had an extra hour or so, I would have got the last couple of number sequences. The author has provided an “End” command – to end the testing early and see the endgame – or, at least see how the plot turns out.
And there is a plot! Despite this being pure puzzle, the author has provided a narrative about squabbling academics, falling academic standards and various shenanigans going on in the Academy. It’s thin, but it is also quite funny and provides a little life through the bare text – and rewards for the player for progress.
There are also a number of what seem like optional achievements if you are smart enough to be able to optimize the solutions
I didn’t encounter any bugs except for some odd behavior when CAT’ing numbers that had 0 as the first digit – it resulted in negative numbers that seemed to not follow the operation. However, I am not confident enough in my math to say whether this was expected behavior or not.
It is one of those games that if you like this sort of thing, then this is a thing you will really like. The puzzle mechanism is exceptionally well implemented, the narrative might be thin, but it does succeed in adding character to the game. To me, the puzzles felt hard but fair. 8/10.