Narrative games that I wrote about but forgot to post

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Comments: 3   (latest May 30)

Tagged: reviews, pentiment, dredge, tron identity, the last case of benedict fox

Sorry about the delay. I know everybody's playing Zelda, except those few of us grabbing through the chickenwire at Firmament. But other games exist too.


A medieval-manuscript-themed narrative RPG. You are an illuminator working in a Bavarian monastery. Not a monk; you're spending a season honing up your skills so you can go home, marry, and set up as a professional artist. Then events start to eventuate.

I enjoyed this, but I also felt somewhat oppressed by its size and detail. I wound up putting it away after Act 1. It is, let me be clear, really well done! There's scads and scads of accurate period detail. There's hordes of interesting characters. There's buckets of story threads opening up in every direction. You are constantly faced with choices at every effective narrative level: not just what to do, but what story threads to pursue, what characters to cultivate, what your own background is. (Saying that you were an amateur naturalist as a youth, or trained in law, or what have you, will open up various opportunities later.)

Also the characters speak in appropriately-calligraphed word balloons -- or scrawls for the illiterate, or typeset slugs for the guy who works in a print shop. It's a conceit but a brilliant one which keeps you constantly anchored in period.

Plus, if you play your cards right, you might make it with a horny nun. Or maybe a horny monk, for all I know -- I have no idea what plot threads I missed. Nun confirmed though.

So I really did like everything about the game, but I also didn't really feel like playing hours and hours of it. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, because I just hit like hour 29 on Control, a game with about five characters and a bare handful of dialogue and all the hallways look like the concrete block I went to school in. So ignore me and check out Pentiment anyhow.


An adorable Lovecraftian fishing game. Adorable in the "occasionally the fish you pull up has extra eyes or mouths," "pay no attention to the tentacled shadows in the deep" sense.

Maybe adorable is overstating things, but it's definitely meant to be cozy. You've got your tubby little fishing boat and everything is cheerfully candy-colored... during the day. Night is mist and weird shadows. But it's Fallen-London style horror, not tense zombies-chase-you horror.

The story is tidy, appropriately weird-fictional, and wraps up nicely. The game is somewhat longer than the story -- you have to work your way through four areas and a fair amount of fishing-and-boat-building grind -- but it isn't scraped out too far. Satisfying.

Tron: Identity

A snack-sized visual novel.

I am a complete sucker for anything Tron. The cheesy 1982 flick has been taken in a lot of different directions over the years, with a lot of takes on "Tron fights for the Users". This one is noir-tinged beneath its neon; there's been a crime and you're a mendicant detective.

The game is short -- you can finish in two hours -- but it packs in a lot of characters and a lot of background and social info. By the end, you will have determined, or at least influenced, the fates of six people. Since it was short, I played through twice, but my endings didn't land far apart. I had too strong a sense of right behavior; I didn't want to change my decisions!

The dialogue scenes are spaced out with a minigame: you are trained to defrag the identity discs of others, restoring lost data. As solitaire games go, it's well-balanced. I was generally able to win, but not by playing blindly; I had to think about it. (Undo is free, and there's a skip option if you really don't want to bother.) It didn't really fit the greater game, though. You can't have a Tron game without some kind of hacking puzzle -- it's a rule! But I prefer geometric or spatial puzzles, something that lets me feel the physicality of the electronic world. This is just a row of cards.

Solitaire aside, my only complaint is a common one for choice-based dialogue games: it's easy to misread what attitudes a set of dialogue choices represent. In the balance between the protagonist's faith and their vocation, I sometimes wound up making a choice I didn't mean to. But, as I said, this happens in a lot of games.

Overall I liked this. It's not just a replay of the usual Tron cliches. Mike Bithell clearly relished the opportunity to find his own take on Tron-world. So, by the way, did Dan le Sac, the soundtrack composer. For both their sakes, I will certainly have to check out Subsurface Circular and Quarantine Circular, which I've been meaning to for years.

(Also: a new Tron movie is apparently in development? Bring it on! Even if it sucks!)

The Last Case of Benedict Fox

A Lovecraftian investigative metroidvania. As I write that, I realize that Paradise Killer could be described exactly the same way! Except PK was a Lovecraftian 1980s beach town full of anime gods, and Benedict Fox is a very classically 1880s gloom manor full of questionable New Englanders. And a psychogeographically liminal basement made of your dead parents' memories.

You spend most of your time in the basement, which is full of monsters, jumping, and absolutely beautiful scenery. When it comes to visual style, I am usually on Team First-Person Camera -- it's hard to beat that look-around-everywhere immersion. Side-scrollers rarely blow me away. But Benedict Fox's Limbo? Wow. It's a twisted labyrinth of rotting memories and dream-images. It's got tone and palette and shadowy things scurrying just out of focus. It's baroque in every sense of the word. I could run around that place forever.

Well, except for the monsters and the jumping. The game has good assistive modes for combat -- options for "one-hit kill" and "immortality". (I am very glad these are becoming standard.) Sadly, the platforming challenges haven't been given the same love. You gotta do it all the hard way.

The hard way isn't hard, mostly. You can button-mash your way to any platform once you've got the double-jump, and if you fall, just try again. However, there are a few timed sequences (running in the dark with a dying flashlight, being chased by hungry demons, etc) which are extremely frustrating and devoid of checkpoints. Miss one jump, start the sequence over. I ragequit out on the Snowglobe scene and didn't come back to the game for a week.

On the up side, the puzzles are very satisfying. They're mostly built around a secret language -- really a numeric cipher. You'll find the symbols on keys, code-wheels, mysterious clockwork devices, a piano...

Somehow this nails the Lovecraftian trope of "acquire cursed and forbidden knowledge." It shouldn't work! The "forbidden knowledge" is a simple code that the game spells out for you in the first hour of play. You copy the symbols down on scratch paper, and you're all set. Right? But you quickly realize that the cipher isn't the puzzle; the cipher is what you use to find the puzzle. What do you do with the symbols? -- is the question. The answer keeps getting switched up.

In most games of this sort, translating a code or conlang is a gimmick which rapidly becomes a chore. Somehow in Benedict Fox it's a skill that lets you feel smart. It's not Tunic, but it's more like Tunic than anything else.

...Except for the jumping sequences. I have trouble recommending this to most of the puzzle folks who might appreciate it, because they just won't be able to get through the game. I don't think I can get through the game. I'm at the "point of no return" and there's another damn flashlight run ahead. The walkthrough says that's followed by a "crazy hard" stealth sequence and then a boss fight, and you know what? I'm just not gonna try. I'll watch a video and be done.

Golden Banana award for most divergently positive and negative remarks in a single review.