Birmingham IV

cover (14)

Potential spoilers ahead.

On reading the about section, I see this game was originally written back in the late 80’s using ‘The Quill’. OMG – that takes me back. The first adventure game I ever wrote was on the Quill – pretty much at the same time. ’87 I think. A friend was doing the graphics, me the text and the programming. We had big plans. It was a disaster. But I digress.

You wake up into a dream world – with magic and trolls. What follows is a very large difficult puzzly parser game. I played for 2 hours and don’t think I’m even close to finishing.

Why am I called ‘the Phil’ – is there a joke I’m missing? In general, this game is very nicely written. Unusually, the text in the third person – “The Phil finds himself at the end of the track, outside the watermill,” and it works quite well. There’s a certain sense of dissociation though. I’m not sure what’s happening, or who I am, or the why’s of anything. ‘the Phil’ never comments on the action.

There are some implementation problems here.

Please make exits in room descriptions obvious! Having to type in all the cardinal directions just to make sure you don’t miss anything in a big map is not fun for the player. I will say this didn’t happen everywhere, but was frequent enough that it got annoying.

Limited inventory is not fun. It’s just irritating. I mentioned in a previously ‘badly written review’ ™ that all that does is force the player to pick a vaguely central location and keep going back and forth from the object store. Or have to make notes on where they’ve left everything. And then go back and forth. This (together with unfair puzzles, mazes, unwinnable states, insta-deaths and guess the verb) was probably a good idea back in the day, when bytes were limited so games needed to feel longer than they actually were  – but that consideration has all gone away now.

In general, the game needed an experienced beta tester on it. Syonyms are missing. i.e. for ‘piece of paper’ – you can’t use ‘paper’, you must use ‘note’. Common actions aren’t addressed ‘look behind poster’, ‘move poster’  – and so on – if there’s a cat, I’m gonna want to ‘pet’ or ‘stroke’ it. The type of thing an experienced beta tester would have picked up on. The text while, in general, very well written does have a few punctuation and grammar errors to sort out.

One of the things a game really shouldn’t do is have any object that is required later in a room that the player can’t get back to. I very nearly discarded the required object at the start – it was only luck that I had it. There is no requirement to go ‘in’ before you go ‘out’. It’s a 50/50 chance that the player will just leave and never get to see what’s in, and thus be unable to complete the game. Make the player take the object before they can progress.

I needed to go to the walkthrough pretty quickly for the solutions to the early puzzles. Apparently I needed to give the rat to Bill – however, I wouldn’t have known that – he never cues me that what he’s after is a dead rat. And the link with the raven? I wouldn’t have got that in a million years. Maybe I missed a bit of text. Again, with the troll, it needs the photo (which, if you don’t have, you need to restart the game and make sure you pick it up in the intro.) Why does the troll want the photo? You’d better know the Billy Goat’s gruff story, because the text doesn’t clue you at all.

And there are insta-deaths. With the troll, the cat, Bill. At least with Bill I was warned (sort of). But in other places, it’s not at all clear. Authors, please cue your players they might die! This goes for both choice and parser games. For example, with the Troll, something like the following would be entirely fair.

> e

The Troll snarls at you and you think better of it. “Don’t try that again or I’ll bash you good.” it grunts.

> e

The troll bashes you good. You are dead.

It’s all about fairness to the player, good game design and removing frustrations.

This is a big game. I have played for 2 hours now and think I’ve uncovered most of the map. To be honest, though, I’m still not entirely sure what it is I’m supposed to be doing  – I’m wandering around solving various puzzles and revealing more of the world, but a wider narrative has yet to emerge. However, this is a big big game. I think I have a lot more left to see.

I’m going to leave it there. I don’t want the author to think I am being unfair or harsh to this game. I am enjoying it. I’m invested enough in the situation and the writing to keep on playing. If some the the implementation issues were fixed, the player cued a little more on what they’re supposed to be doing and why, if the puzzles, as presented were better clued I think it would improve it tremendously.

This world is interesting and engaging and brushing this game up and pushing out another release would be a great thing. And it’s WAY too long for the competition. 5/10.

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