Spring puzzle games

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 13 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, skaramazuzu, boxes: lost fragments, boxes, botany manor, between horizons

More time to play games, right?

It so happens that this month's games are all easy ones. Three of them are short, as well -- one-sitting treats. I'm fine with bite-sized games, of course. I might not have chosen to play three of them in a row, but that's what fell out of Steam.

  • Skaramazuzu
  • Boxes: Lost Fragments
  • Botany Manor
  • Between Horizons


A small point-and-click adventure in a spare pen-and-ink greyscape full of creepy little goblins. More clearline than Goreyesque, but in that range. You are a creepy little goblin named Skaramazuzu.

The puzzles are mild once you realize you have to take notes. You will carry a lot of keys. The story is, well, you know all those monochrome puzzle platformers where you're dead? This is that minus the platforming. Souls in an ambiguous purgatory, probably.

The most distinctive element is the narration. You are a primitive animist naif; you talk to everything. Goblins, worms, keys. Hello, key! Would you like to come with me? There's a lot of this. It could get on your nerves. Imagine The Longing done by Alexandre Dumas. Except The Longing was restrained about it, and also made you want to hug its sad little shade. Skaramazuzu is relentlessly helpful and friendly and also says everything twice. It kind of got on my nerves, I guess is what I am saying.

It doesn't help that the fast-roll text setting isn't fast enough and the skip button doesn't work very well. It's a densely narrated world, with neat little asides everywhere -- the dialogue is not limited to the fetch-quest chain. Despite my griping, it's worth chatting with NPCs at random. I enjoyed all their weird little goblin personalities. But someone needs to fix the skip button.

On the up side, you're never confused about what you should do (because Skaramazuzu says it twice!) and the puzzles are pleasant. The art is really very well done; clear and memorable, with delicate animations. You can finish the thing in an evening, and that's about how much of it I wanted.

Boxes: Lost Fragments

Snapbreak Games has a long run of mobile games that I'd categorize as "The Room-lite". No context, no story worth mentioning, just collections of locked doors or shiny puzzleboxes on pedestals.

(Now that I look, I think I'm mixing up the Doors and Boxes games (Bigloop Studios) with Birdcage (Mobiplay OU). Sorry. If one group is The-Room-lite, the other is House-of-Da-Vinci-lite. This one is Bigloop.)

Anyhow, I'm happy to say that Bigloop has scaled up their ambitions. Boxes: Lost Fragments is a credible Room-like, not just -lite. It's still got a lot of puzzleboxes on tables. But as you solve them, you collect widgets -- I mean "fragments". When you've got a chapter's worth of fragments, you can explore the hub area and figure out where each widget goes. That's the transition from puzzle collection to puzzle environment that I've been jonesing for all this time.

Also, the studio's earlier efforts had a lot of hunt-the-symbol puzzles. There are still a few of those, but this game tilts more towards mechanical manipulation. Again, closer to The Room's immersive style. Lots of sliders to drag, catches to unhook, and so on. (What's the fun of USE KEY if you don't get to turn it with your own fingers?)

It's not a particularly difficult bunch of puzzles. I never got stuck for more than a minute -- usually because I hadn't looked hard enough for sliders or catches. And the story is, yeah, not worth mentioning. (There's a magical power source. It's sparkly.) But it's a satisfying evening fiddling with puzzle boxes.

Also, someone has finally asked "What if those awful slider puzzles let you slide the rectangles in any direction?" Turns out it's still a puzzle! But much less annoying!

Botany Manor

A small cute logic game about growing plants. I put it firmly in (what I insist on calling) the static deduction genre. There's locked doors and gates, a few of which have escapey-style puzzle locks. But the main thing you do is figure out how to germinate various awesome plants (and fungi). Each plant requires a chain of deductions. Some clues come from reading journals, newpaper clippings, letters and so on. Others must be observed in the world around you, Obra-Dinn style.

Your journal helpfully marks down all the clues you find. You have to group all the clues for a plant to get an acknowledgement. That's usually five or six clues, rather than the genre-traditional "three at a time"; but they're straightforward enough that you won't ever have to guess. Anyhow, clue acknowledgements are strictly optional (c.f. Sennaar). The goal is just getting the plant to pop.

A quibble about the journal: it notes the name of each clue (document) and where you found it, but not what the clue is. If your memory is weak, you're going to have to run back and forth between rooms quite a bit, opening books and looking at posters. This seems like a weird oversight. Surely they considered letting you browse the clues directly in the journal. They're just images. I guess they wanted to pace things out? And make you run around the attractively-rendered house? It is pretty, in a flat-texture fluff-foliage Witness sort of way.

Nothing about this is very difficult, but it's all pleasant garden fussing. The story, such as it is, is a reflection on academic sexism. (It's the 1890s and you're a girl.) Mutton-chopped professors tell you to leave the botany to the real scientists; your aunt hints at your impending spinsterhood. I'm talking background letters here, not cut scenes. On the flip side, women band together to do science and educate girls regardless. Spoiler: you do not let the bastards grind you down. It's heartwarming in a pro-forma way.

You can get through it in an evening, but you'll have a nice time of it.

(I really ought to compare this to Strange Horticulture, the other static-deduction plant-growing game. But it's been a couple of years since I played that. I'd have to refresh my memory. Maybe I will! It's out on iOS now, after all.)

Between Horizons

A sci-fi pixel-art point-and-click mystery. Police procedural? I know, it's a lot of labels. I see I used the same labels for Lacuna, the studio's last outing. This time you're a junior security officer on a generation ship -- the ultimate small-town murder setting. Good thing a murder is about to come along. Plus a bunch of other dangerous chicanery.

As with Lacuna, the investigation is mostly a matter of gathering evidence and then letting the conclusions fall out. You interrogate people but you mostly don't have to pressure them to talk. (The exception is a notable scene, but only once.) And you're mostly not picking holes in their stories. It's all bright-line physical evidence: timestamps on a door, grams of paper in a recycling bin. The answer is always a tidy fit. I only failed one challenge, and I suspect that's because I missed a clue somewhere.

The world is lovely -- a gleaming hybrid of parallax and pixel set dressing. I can't say as much for the world-building. It's not terrible but it's not terribly deep either. The generation-ship trappings are mostly background rather than ideas to be interrogated. (Ordaining everybody's job at birth is... bad? Yeah, bad, I guess.) And the crew is kind of... a spreadsheet. Everybody has a job, and a personality, and as much involvement with the story events as they need to move the story forward. The game doesn't encourage side conversations, anyhow; you can only ask about crime-scene topics.

(Contrast Skaramazuzu, where the NPCs really have a lot to say through the story's brief course. In BH, there's lots of people, but they all quickly run out of dialogue and then stand around for chapters on end.)

As for the story, there's a bunch of it. A chase scene escalates to secrets, politics, chaos, and Big Events. I gather that the ending has a lot of variability, although the bulk of the game is pretty well fixed in sequence. I only played through once, though.

I wouldn't go so far as to call this "static deduction". It's a (tiny) world of people, and you talk to them, and the situation changes. And you are mostly collecting evidence through dialogue (with helpfully highlighted phrases) rather than observing the environment. But it's definitely on the procedural side.

(One day someone will combine "police procedural" and "procedural generation". Has to be a good fit, right? You can tell from the words.)

On the whole: it's a good ride, packed with exciting set-piece scenes and procedural policing. Not a standout, but satisfactory.

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